This Sunday, right after the Seattle Seahawks defeated the San Francisco 49ers to reach the NFL Super Bowl, star cornerback Richard Sherman gave a rather unique interview. In words that millions will dissect for the next few weeks, Sherman, after making a phenomenal play to seal the win, asserted that he is “the best corner in the game”, and called the receiver he defended, Michael Crabtree, “sorry” and “mediocre.”
In the days that have followed, Sherman, as an individual, has come to symbolize vastly different things. Unfortunately, some met his outburst with racial overtones, calling him a “thug”, with even fellow black athletes proclaiming, “we just got set back 500 years.” On the other side of the spectrum, many came to see Sherman as speaking truth to power, as someone deeply in touch with his emotions, and a figure upon which to fight back against the racism inherent in sports, and in all of society. Confirming this sentiment, in a very unscientific study, the number of non-sports fans on my Facebook feed that have asserted they are rooting for the Seahawks in the Super Bowl because of Sherman is quite high.
I don’t really have much to add specifically on Sherman’s actions- everything has already been said. I will say, however, that our focus on one individual’s actions is completely telling (and actually not really his fault)- our society is slightly obsessed with mythologizing the individual, often at a cost to the greater collective. In this case, Sherman’s individualistically focused interview (which he has apologized for) has objectively taken attention away from Seattle’s top-ranked defense, made up of 11 individuals working together towards a common goal. But this focus on the individual happens in every sector of society.
Being a “social entrepreneur”, and having to spend a majority of my time fundraising, I’m acutely aware of our society’s focus on the individual. I started Generation Citizen (along with a co-founder) because I believed deeply in the concept of democracy, which works best when individuals come to work together to make a collective difference. Before long, however, I realized that the success of Generation Citizen was inextricably tied to me. I was the main salesperson and people invested in my vision. I received fellowships and awards directly tied to my leadership, rather than the ideas behind Generation Citizen.
Candidly, when I first started out, I was slightly shocked that people would give the organization money without having been in a classroom to see our students in action- how did they know we were doing good work? But I soon realized that my ability to meet with people, speak candidly about challenges, and give a decent speech could actually prove more important.
To offer a dichotomy (which I hate), this dynamic has led to two disparate narratives. The first is that many do mythologize social entrepreneurs, idealize the work, and sometimes, place us as martyrs (some entrepreneurs contribute to this narrative). The second is from people that think that it’s completely absurd and detrimental that social entrepreneurs receive so much individual attention.
The truth is, however, that this idealization of the individual is not unique to the social entrepreneur field. We often elect politicians based on who they are, or who we think they are, over their policies, which leads to unrealistic expectations (many created a projection of Barack Obama that was based in perception, and thus, have been severely disappointed). We often watch movies because of whom they star, rather than their plots (for example, American Hustle had ridiculously good actors, but I’ve yet to meet someone who can summarize what it’s about). The media thrives by focusing on individuals, and often the insurmountable odds they overcome, rather than the story of the collective (confirm this right now by visiting any mainstream sports or politics news site).
This is not all bad. Political leaders, talented actors, and good athletes are needed to make the aggregate whole better. But this focus is becoming a little too pervasive. It seems that everyone now needs to have an individual brand to stand out from the masses. Individuals think about their brand, and society focuses on the individual. Thus, we don’t think about the collective whole.
Those that know me know that one of my favorite movie franchises is the “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” trilogy, which chronicles a love-story over 21 years. In Before Sunset, Julie Delpy’s character reflects on social justice work by saying, “
“I was working for this organization that helped villages in Mexico. And their concern was how to get the pencils sent to kids in these little country schools. It was not about big revolutionary ideas, it was about pencils. I see the people that do the real work and what’s really sad, in a way, is that…the people that are the most giving, hard working and capable of making this world better, usually don’t have the ego and ambition to be a leader. They don’t see any interest in superficial rewards, they don’t care if…if their name ever appear in the press.”
In my work (and many times in my organization), I often see people who are completely focused on getting the pencils to kids: they are about the process, without egos. Sometimes, you do need people with ambition to scale this work and bring it to prominence. But all too often, in our society, we forget why the process actually matters. The individual becomes paramount.
I struggle with this every day. Partially because of society’s expectations, I am conscious about the act of promoting myself for the sake of GC (this blog is a hypocritical example). And I’m uncomfortable with it. I’m a deeply fallible person, learning more about myself every day, largely through mistakes, and I’d rather GC’s work be judged by the product, rather than the players. I’m not quite sure how to make that happen.
And so to bring it full circle, I do wish that Richard Sherman, at the end of the most important game of his career, had been more concerned with the process of getting the pencils to the kids, in this case, the cumulative effort of his team, rather than focusing on himself. But maybe that’s too much to ask. Society today rewards individuals. And we wonder why the collective is in trouble.
– Scott Warren, Executive Director
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.