Overcoming Cultural Constraints on Your Success

Late in 2018, actor Alexander Skarsgard appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to promote the release of the miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, in which he plays an Israeli intelligence officer.

Colbert reminds Skarsgard that since his last appearance on the show, the actor has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his Perry Wright role on the HBO series Big Little Lies.

Colbert suggests that even though Alexander comes from a storied acting family, maybe he could lord his most recent awards over the rest of the Skarsgard clan.

Skarsgard explains that since he is Swedish, Jantelagen (the Law of Jante) prevents him from flaunting his achievements. He further relates that – not wanting to openly display his awards – he stored them at a friend’s place for a couple of months, then in a closet for a few more months after bringing them home.

The host seems incredulous, but Skarsgard assures Colbert that Jantelagen is a real thing.

The Law of Jante is known by various terms throughout the Nordic countries: Jantelagen in Sweden, Janteloven in Denmark and Norway, Janten laki in Finland, and Jantelogin in Iceland.

Regardless of the specific regional term used, the Law of Jante is a social attitude or informal code of conduct that leans toward disapproval of overt expressions of personal ambition, individuality, or success.

Even though the specific concept of Jante Law originated in a satirical novel by Danish-Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose (describing the fictional Danish town of Jante), it does reflect Nordic social norms that have real sociological effects.

Some have argued that one of the nefarious effects of Jante Law is that it stifles creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

In Norway, Janteloven has been cited as “a barrier to people promoting their success,” “an obstacle to economic growth and prosperity,” “a moral code that hinders entrepreneurship and real competition,” and “a form of approved mediocrity.”[1]

One business prize juror postulated that Janteloven might be preventing young leaders from nominating themselves for the award. And one survey indicated that 40 percent of Norwegians felt that Janteloven was bad for innovation.[2]

In spite of the general misgivings regarding Jante Law, however, innovation and entrepreneurship thrives in Nordic countries.

In fact, in the entrepreneurship subcategory of U.S. News & World Report’s “2020 Best Countries” rankings, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland all rank in the top 20.

So, how have the Nordic people kept Jante Law from keeping them down?

In a ComputerWeekly.com article, Norwegian startup Motitech’s chief business officer, Stian Lavik, explains that, “We don’t have ‘The American Dream’ in Norway. We don’t wake up each morning and think ‘how can we be successful?’ Rather than opting to stand out and shout about our achievements or ideas, the culture here is more about being sociable, looking after each other, and building relationships.”

Janteloven, then, probably doesn’t have a chilling effect on creativity or innovation, per se, but it likely does rein in the kind of shameless self-promotion and boisterous boosterism common in cultures like the United States.

Still, public and private interests in the Nordic countries – recognizing that Janteloven might be restricting entrepreneurial development – took steps to encourage entrepreneurship. In Denmark, this included measures such as offering an annual Janteknuser (“Jante crusher”) prize to young entrepreneurs whose enterprises made innovative contributions to their communities.[3]

The Law of Jante has its benefits, too. It facilitates team building, encourages a flat management structure, and empowers employees in their pursuit of a common goal – such as turning a startup into a stable, long-term success.[4]

What is culture?

Culture refers to the set of common beliefs and values that help shape an individual’s behavior in a given social environment. Culture includes patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting that are learned and shared by people within the same social context. Our culture influences our cognition, motives, intention, and action.[5]

We may identify with more than one culture. In addition to our broader national culture, we may identify with other groups, subgroups, or subcultures based on ethnicity, religion, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, educational attainment, political affiliation, personal interests, or any number of other factors.

All of these cultural influences can affect how we view success, and which goals we see as desirable and attainable.

Research suggests, for example, that culture, values, beliefs, and norms affect entrepreneurial orientation. Further, where values relevant to economic innovation and personal success conflict with the traditional values of the culture, entrepreneurship may meet with disapproval.[6]

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, “the decision to start a new business is the product of an individual’s attitudes, perceptions, and intentions, set within a social, cultural, and political context that could support or constrain that decision.”[7]

Although much of the research in this area relates specifically to entrepreneurship, culture influences how we approach any type of bold undertaking that might be creative, innovative, enriching, or empowering.

Cultural factors that influence success

All cultures have idiosyncratic factors that could serve to constrain personal success.

For example, here are some factors that might constrain personal or entrepreneurial success in many Latin American countries:[8]

  • Risk aversion
  • Fear of failure
  • Machismo and male dominance in economic matters
  • A belief that entrepreneurs are in business to make money only for themselves and are thus “abandoning” their communities
  • Strong pressures to conform to social class expectations
  • Norms that encourage social conformity while stifling individualism

Factors such as risk aversion and fear of failure are, of course, not unique to Latin American cultures.

The impact of fear of failure, and self-perceptions of the significance of failure, can vary widely from culture to culture.

In Chile, Croatia, Egypt, India, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan and Portugal, more than half of people who say they see good opportunities to start a business say they would not do so due to fear of failure.[9]

In the United States, fear of failure is seen as a deterrent to 35 percent of would-be entrepreneurs, while in the Republic of Korea, only seven percent say fear of failure would hold them back.[10]

(In my free 20-page guide, I discuss some strategies for redefining failure that can help mitigate this fear.)

While fear of failure may seem at first to be a personal – rather than cultural – factor, the negative impact of our attitude toward failure is moderated by cultural practices such as institutional collectivism or uncertainty avoidance.[11]

Likewise, self-efficacy (our belief in our capacity to execute our motivations) has a positive effect on entrepreneurial entry, and is moderated by institutional collectivism and performance orientation.[12]

Performance orientation refers to “the extent to which a particular culture encourages and rewards innovation, high standards, and performance improvement,” and may enhance the effect of both self-efficacy (potentially facilitating entrepreneurial entry) and fear of failure (potentially inhibiting entrepreneurial entry).[13]

Cultural values influence individual motivation and goals. Different types of cultural value orientations exist, and can influence our behavior to the extent that they are compatible with, or conflict with, our goals.

These can be grouped into bipolar dimensions, as follows:[14, 15]

Autonomy vs. EmbeddednessAffects the often turbulent relationship between individual and group.The autonomous person is seen as someone entitled to pursue their own interests and goals.

Intellectual autonomy emphasizes creativity, curiosity, and open-mindedness.

Affective autonomy emphasizes enjoyment, novelty, stimulation, and variety.
The interests of the embedded person are not seen as distinct from those of the group.

Emphasis on conformity, security, status quo, and tradition.
Egalitarianism vs. HierarchyAffects social cooperation, coordination, and responsibility.Egalitarian view is that people are equal and share a commitment to cooperate with others in pursuit of the common good.

Emphasizes freedom, honesty, justice, and responsibility.
Hierarchical view is that the unequal distribution of power, roles, and resources is legitimate.

Emphasizes authority, humility, power, and wealth.
Harmony vs. MasteryAffects the relationships between people, and between people and nature.Harmony emphasizes protecting the environment, unity with nature, social justice, and peace.Mastery emphasizes personal gain through domination, exploitation, and self-assertion.

Interplay between cultural and personal variables

Entrepreneurship and personal success are influenced by both personal and cultural values and variables (as well as a range of other factors and motives).

It isn’t necessarily that someone might be afraid to start a new business because of the possibility it might fail. It might be that they are more concerned with how that failure might be viewed by others.

The decision to start a business can be influenced by a number of different factors, and the level of influence cultural factors have on individual decisions can vary from one group – or one individual – to the next.

One study of entrepreneurs from six different immigrant communities in London found that East Africans, for example, cited family tradition in business as a motive for business entry much more often than the other represented groups did.[16]

The same study revealed several other motives for business entry among the participants, though, including: the desire for independence, the desire for more control over their lives, improved social status, more money, labor market discrimination, unemployment, market knowledge, and previous experience.[17]

There is a complex interaction between societal, group, and individual factors that can affect entrepreneurship, innovation, and success.

It might not be too difficult, if we take a hard look at our motivations, to see areas of conflict between our cultural values and our personal ambitions and goals.

Even if we are committed to our vision and purpose, and even if our goals are not in conflict with our personal values, there may be cultural factors that are preventing us from acting.

If so, how do we overcome these barriers?

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Self-transcendence and success

Abraham Maslow recognized that culture can significantly inhibit personal growth and success.

Self-actualizing people, Maslow found, are not always particularly well-adjusted to their culture. They get along with the culture, but they are able to resist enculturation where necessary and maintain a healthy inner detachment.

They don’t allow convention to prevent them from doing what they think is important, and they are able to separate the “good” from the “bad” in their culture and make independent decisions.[18]

According to Maslow, self-actualizing people are “members-at-large of the human species” who are “ruled by the laws of their own character rather than by the laws of society.”

In his transcendental essay “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is not the part of a true culture to tame tigers, any more than it is to make sheep ferocious.”

Self-actualizers recognize that societies and cultures are not perfect, and that they impose various inhibitions and restraints on people. Yet, self-actualizers are able to function at a high level by striking a complex balance between inner autonomy and outer acceptance.[19]

In his later work, Maslow would explore the concept of self-transcendence to the extent that some have suggested self-transcendence should be considered the sixth level of his famous motivational hierarchy, above self-actualization.

It’s important to note that transcendent people are not alienated from their culture, they are just not exclusively defined by it.[20]

Healthy, transcendent people can reject the stupidities of their culture, they have a self-governing character, their guiding values come from within, and they are not bound by other people’s opinions.[21]

By examining Maslow’s characterization of self-transcendent people, we can learn to be more transcendent ourselves.

We can reject stupidity

Stupidity is alive and well in almost every culture.

The United States, in particular, seems to have achieved maximum moron density. Public policy continues to be shaped by people who distrust – and are even outwardly hostile to – reason, science, and truth.

Stupid people stubbornly cling to outdated or false beliefs even in the face of irrefutable and overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

But we don’t have to let other people’s stupidity rub off on us.

If we want to transcend the stupidity that pervades our culture, we must be willing to challenge, revise, or even abandon our beliefs in light of new information. Our beliefs must be guided by reason and evidence, not authority, or tradition, or the comfort of the status quo.

As long as we remain rational, the irrationalities of our culture will not drag us down.

We can adopt a cosmopolitan view

Once, when asked from where he came, Diogenes the Cynic replied, “I am a citizen of the world.”

Although this sentiment had been previously expressed by Socrates, Diogenes is frequently credited as the originator of cosmopolitanism, which is the idea that we are all citizens of a single human community.

As we adopt a more cosmopolitan view, national, cultural, and societal boundaries become less relevant, and their constraints less binding.

When we see ourselves first as members of the entire human community, we start to realize that we can have a greater impact, and cultural inhibitions are simply no longer as important to us.

We can be driven by purpose and vision

When we are pursuing some greater purpose or vision, we feel like we are doing something important and meaningful. Maybe we even feel like we are doing what we were “meant” to do.

When we are highly motivated to engage in purposeful action and achieve relevant goals, most of our aspirations, hopes, plans, and effort relate to this purpose.

Focus on a guiding purpose makes it much easier to see how irrelevant and unimportant many cultural influences are on our lives, and makes it much easier to cast the negative influences aside.

We can be independent and integral

Self-transcendent people feel a high degree of autonomy and independence. They are also integral, in the sense that they live according to their true values and are guided by their character and inner voice.

Many of us have personal values that may sometimes conflict with the values of the culture or group(s) in which we typically operate. If we stay true to ourselves and our values, these conflicts are easier to resolve, because we will always choose the path that reflects who we are, rather than the path of least resistance.

Maslow was sometimes disturbed by tendencies to define mentally healthy people in environment-centered terms, by how well-adjusted to the environment someone is, by how effective or competent they are within their environment, how well they relate, how successful they are on the culture’s terms.

Rather, Maslow saw the transcendent person as independent of the culture, able to stand against it, fight it, neglect it, turn their back on it, refuse it, or adapt to it as they see fit.[22]

Rarely will any environment, culture, or group in which we find ourselves reflect our personal values completely. Resisting cultural pressure and staying true to ourselves is fundamental to self-transcendence.

We can stop seeking the approval of others

Maslow also bristled at attempts to define the Self in terms of what other people think. To Maslow, this represented an extreme cultural relativity in which a healthy individuality gets lost. The healthy, fully-grown person, Maslow said, is characterized by their “transcendence of other people’s opinions.”[23]

When we talk about culture, we’re really talking about other people. So when we speak of transcending the culture, it means we have to rise above the opinions of others.

It’s easy to say we don’t give a damn what other people think, but we all do.

Our brain circuitry makes it difficult not to seek the approval of others. Research shows that one of the critical components of our reward system (the ventral striatum) is activated when other people agree with us.[24]

So, when other people agree with our opinions or approve of our behavior, we feel rewarded.

But we must guard against seeking this temporary dopamine rush of approval, because if we care too much about what other people might think or say about us, we will miss a lot of opportunities in life.

Besides, most people don’t care nearly as much about what we’re up to as we might think they do anyway.

What’s the worst that can happen if other people disapprove? Usually not much. It’s your life, not theirs. Detach yourself from the naysayers and be true to yourself and your purpose.

Your opinion of yourself is more important than anyone else’s opinion of you.

We have to take our own risks, learn our own lessons, experience our own failures and successes, and pursue our own vision regardless of what others might say. Of course, we can (and should) still seek the counsel of – and encourage feedback from – trusted mentors and peers. That sort of information can prove invaluable.

We just need to forge our own way ahead without letting the “nattering nabobs of negativism” in our lives throw us off track.

Culture, transcendence, and serendipity

Cultures that inhibit personal growth and success likely inhibit gainful serendipity as well. Serendipity requires openness, exploration, variety, novelty, and the ability to make and maintain valuable connections. To the extent a given culture constrains these things, it also constrains serendipity.

Most of us exist in more than one culture. We may exist within a national culture, a corporate culture, and any number of cultural subgroups related to demographic factors or shared interests.

We have a couple of options when we encounter cultural constraints. We can fight to change the culture and create improved conditions for serendipity and success. This is noble and absolutely worth doing, but may take considerable time and effort.

We can also stay true to our values and vision, and simply not allow negative environmental influences to distract or deter us.

We don’t need to completely withdraw from the culture or become a pariah. We just have to maintain a healthy detachment that allows us to see the bigger picture and stay true to ourselves.

The ability to recognize – and the willingness to transcend – cultural inhibitions is vital to our personal growth, serendipity, and continued success.

Notes

1. Daniel R. Palamara, “Social Status in Norway and the Law of ‘Jante’: An Analysis of ISSP Social Inequality Data,” European Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 8, no. 1 (2016): 2.

2. Ibid, 2-3.

3. Kevin Gatter, “Overcoming Cultural Barriers to Entrepreneurship: What Can Latin America Learn from Nordic Countries?” Center for International Private Enterprise, February 4, 2015, https://www.cipe.org/blog/2015/02/04/overcoming-cultural-barriers-to-entrepreneurship-what-can-latin-america-learn-from-nordic-countries/

4. Barclay Ballard, “Why Scandinavian Entrepreneurs are Flourishing in High-Tax Environments,” European CEO, December 3, 2018, https://www.europeanceo.com/finance/why-scandinavian-entrepreneurs-are-flourishing-in-high-tax-environments/

5. Francisco Linan, Juan A. Moriano, and Immaculada Jaen, “Individualism and Entrepreneurship: Does the Pattern Depend on the Social Context?” International Small Business Journal 34, no. 6 (2016): 2. https://doi.org/10.1177/0266242615584646

6. Ibid, 4.

7. Niels Bosma et al., “2019/2020 Global Report,” Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (2020): 28.

8. Gatter, “Overcoming Cultural Barriers.”

9. Bosma et al., “Global Report,” 31.

10. Ibid.

11. Karl Wennberg, Saurav Pathak, and Erkko Autio, “How Culture Moulds the Effects of Self-Efficacy and Fear of Failure on Entrepreneurship,” Entrepreneurship and Regional Development 25, no. 9 (2013): 756. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08985626.2013.862975

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid, 761-762.

14. Francisco Linan, Jose Fernandez-Serrano, and Isidoro Romero, “Necessity and Opportunity Entrepreneurship: The Mediating Effect of Culture,” Revista de Economia Mundial 33, (2013): 27-28.

15. Shalom H. Schwartz, “Beyond Individualism-Collectivism: New Cultural Dimensions of Values,” in Individualism and Collectivism. Theory, Method, and Applications, ed. Uichol Kim et al., 85-119. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994.

16. Anuradha Basu and Eser Altinay, “The Interaction between Culture and Entrepreneurship in London’s Immigrant Businesses,” International Small Business Journal 20, no. 4 (2002): 381. https://doi.org/10.1177/0266242602204001

17. Ibid, 379-380.

18. A. H. Maslow, “Resistance to Acculturation,” Journal of Social Issues 7, no. 4 (1951): 26-28.

19. Ibid, 29.

20. Henry J. Venter, “Self-Transcendence: Maslow’s Answer to Cultural Closeness,” Journal of Innovation Management 4, no. 4 (2016): 4. https://doi.org/10.24840/2183-0606_004.004_0002

21. A. H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (New York: Wiley, 1999), 200-201.

22. Ibid, 200.

23. Ibid.

24. Daniel K. Campbell-Meiklejohn et al., “How the Opinion of Others Affects Our Valuation of Objects,” Current Biology 20, no. 13 (2010): 1165. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2010.04.055

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