The Quentin Tarantino fans amongst you will know that I am referring to a scene from the movie Reservoir Dogs, which comically plays out the difficulties of asking a gang of criminals to each choose a colour as an alias and of course, everybody wants to be Mr. Black!

Tarantino’s Mr. Black was alluding to a particular archetype, probably a hardened and feared gang leader. For some reason, the scene really suck with me and got me thinking about how we too in our everyday lives aspire to certain archetypes, sometimes without conscious awareness of our own behaviour.

The archetype of success

The specific archetype I want to talk about today is that of the “successful person”. While each of us will have our own views on what success means, it is undeniable that our culture today predominantly associates success with money, power, fame and status.

There is no shortage of carefully crafted advertisements making us feel that we are ‘not good enough’ or telling us how we can be cooler or better. This kind of messaging is quite sinister as it not only conditions insecurity within us, but also a mentality of competing against each other in a sort of zero sum game. The stress and anxiety generated by such conditioning is at least partly, if not largely, responsible for the mental health crisis facing our society today. Indeed, one if four people in the UK is expected to suffer from mental health problems in a given year. 

Are we doomed to live this way? 

Psychologists have long recognised the power of conditioning and more recently the human bias to not account for information that is not immediately accessible or available. This means that the more we are exposed to a certain idea, what it means to be successful in this case, the more we begin to accept and desire it.

“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact” — Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate

While this may be a bias of the human mind that opens us to exploitation, we are certainly not doomed to live this way. By expanding awareness of ourselves and our environments, we can begin to notice the various influences that shape our behaviours and our decisions. We can begin to notice how the pressure to strive for the popular notion of success appears everywhere: on TV, in newspapers, in our education system, at the work place, even amongst family and friends.

What alternative do we have?

If more possessions and status will not give us contentment, what will? I often wonder how things would be if success was defined by how much we loved and cooperated with each other and by how passionately we pursued our dreams, not for any accolades or fame, but for the mere interest in it. I often wonder how much mental freedom such a way of being would bring us.

Indeed, the Harvard Study of Adult Development conducted over a period of 75 years and quite possibly the longest empirical study of happiness ever conducted, found that the single biggest factor underpinning happiness and health is the quality of your close relationships. Not surprising really, yet we continue to be led astray by the pursuit of success.

In our defence, the forces that lead us astray are indeed everywhere and present from the very moment we enter this world. The conditioning is so strong that it requires real vigilance on our part. Only by developing a deeper awareness of ourselves, our environments and our influences then, can we hope to free ourselves from the web of archetypal success.

We have to remember that we do not need to be Mr. Black!