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Collectivism vs. Individualism: The true path to character?

Collectivism vs. Individualism: The true path to character?

This post is a bit of a thought experiment, mostly intended to provoke your thoughts a little bit and perhaps challenge your ideas about what success, morality, and character are made of. I have recently finished reading “The road to character” by author David Brooks; in it he profiles 10 different people throughout history who generally reflect a high morality and character throughout life; the stories are great, but perhaps the most striking characteristic of these people is the tendency to shy away from accomplishment and acclaim, to steer away from short cuts and easy ways out, and to instead give up the idea of “self” and head into suffering and trials in the name of the group.

America tends to be an individualistic world; everywhere you look people tell you to be yourself, follow your passion, or follow your heart; yet despite all of the power of the individual, so many people in our society find themselves isolated, downtrodden, and depressed. Perhaps the relentless pursuit of individuality and our own selfish passions aren’t what creates happiness and character after all.

In a world where the person is encouraged to follow their passions and try to live their dreams, perhaps people without direction will tend to seek out momentary and superficial pleasures and experiences that will leave them feeling empty after their attainment.


A personal example of individualism

I wanted to be a Jiu-Jitsu world champion for several years, and then one day I asked myself why? When I really thought about it, I wanted to be a champion so I could be a good coach and help kids learn discipline and find a positive role model and environment for their lives. At the bottom of everything there was no reason for me to be a champion other than to try and validate my worth as a teacher and person. The only reason I wanted to be a champion was for my own glory.

I wanted to be a champion, I wanted to stand out, be the best, change the Jiu-Jitsu world forever, but at the bottom of everything I wanted to do it all for me. I selfishly spent my entire life training- devoid of much meaningful human interaction, I dove into training at the expense of my health and I neglected many aspects of my own life and personal growth. I wanted so badly to stand out by my accomplishments that I forgot about who I was, my search to become an individual had taken me away from the type of man that I wanted to be.



When we pursue things for ourselves we tend to leave out a lot of other important things in life.

Collectivism– is the practice or principle of giving a group priority over each individual within it. Now that CAN mean communism or socialism, but that isn’t what I am talking about. What I am referring to is the fact that collectivists are people who sacrifice themselves in pursuit of a better life for the group.

Men like Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, or Gandhi were collectivists: they sacrificed their own happiness, wants, and desires for the good of the “group”. These men were not dedicated solely to the expression of self or to the pursuit of their own happiness, but rather their sense of purpose was attached to something beyond themselves.

For the individualist self expression and pursuit of the passions of the self are the way to happiness and meaning, but for the collectivist purpose comes from serving the group- even if it is in direct opposition with what the individual wants.


The fine line between collectivism and individualism and the poles at each end

At the poles: radical collectivism can wreak havoc as it takes away individual choice and freedom, and can even force people to do something against their own will (see communism); while radical individualism can cause people to act selfishly, hurt others, and become callous towards others who might need aid.

The fine lines between collectivism and individualism can at times also merge into one, for instance: Steve Jobs created apple computers because of the passion he had for computers, because of the potential that he saw from this magic little box called a P.C., but his vision (to change the world with computers) ultimately contributed to the advancement of technology and society as a whole. What started out as Steve following his passion became something else entirely.

Penguins huddle together for warmth in times of severe cold. Only by relying on others are the penguins able to survive the harshest of cold weather.

Penguins huddle together for warmth in times of severe cold. Only by relying on others are the penguins able to survive the harshest of cold weather.


So what creates character? Commitment to a cause or commitment to the self?

The answer to this question is a complicated one because both can cause character corruption or they can cause a high amount of character to become formed.

Relentless collectivism (belief in the good of the group) can cause great atrocities in history, read for instance about the forced euthanization of the weak, sick, and elderly in Nazi Germany, it may have been best for the country in some respects but it sacrificed humanity and morality to reduce wasted resources and “drains” on the economy.

Likewise, reckless individualism (especially when seeking momentary pleasures) can lead to all sorts of moral decay. The individualist can harm, kill, manipulate, or enslave other people if it falls into the desires of the individual; along the same lines, if a person seeks only their own fulfilment they will often fall into the trap of seeking instant gratification: this can create problems like obesity, addiction, alienation of others, or even their own death.

For the collectivist to attain character they must be sure that the group is moral, that they seek the betterment of society, and that the group ultimately seeks to make the world better in some way through creating equality or helping others; but, the group should be careful not to take away the freedoms and liberties of the individual within the group, otherwise collectivism crosses a line.

For the individualist to attain character, they must have deep integrity and an ability to pursue their own desires only when they do not harm himself or others. Character is attained by the individual by looking inward, becoming empathetic of others, becoming aware of how to improve as an individual, and by having strong beliefs and standards that cannot be compromised.


Ultimately both the individual and the group can be corrupted by things like greed or anger. The true path to character is most likely one that lies in between these two belief systems- hidden somewhere within the obscurity of right and wrong, good and bad, and helpful and harmful.

I am an only child, and I have tended to be a strict individualist, but my eyes are now open to another possibility. I have grown older, become more wise (and also more confused), I have fallen in a deep and true love, and I have been welcomed into the amazing (and huge) family of my girlfriend.

As I look at why I created make your best self, it was a mixture of collectivism and individualism. I wanted to document my journey to my best self, but I also wanted to share my lessons with others so that they could improve too; I wanted to start a coaching business online so that I could create the freedom to follow my passions without a 9-5, but I also wanted to help people one on one to create their own dream lives; I wanted to create a business where I could work hard, achieve things, and release my passion, but I also wanted a career with the freedom to spend time with my friends and family, and give back to others.

Perhaps this post won’t be that eye opening to you, but for me, understanding collectivism and how it differs from individualism has been revolutionary. Both have pros and cons, but I wonder, when so many people in this day lack character and moral compass, and when they lack a purpose, and when they seek out instant gratification as a means to attain happiness… I wonder if in a world full of individuals, if we could benefit from having a larger group to serve.

Do the people of the world need something to fill the role that religion used to play as the dictator of character and morality in society? Have we achieved advancement at the cost of our health and well being, and have we have achieved freedom at the cost of losing our meaning?

What do you think the answer is? I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment below and start or join the discussion, I hope it will be a good one!


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