Volume > Issue > On Generativity

On Generativity

WHEN ALTRUISM & EMPATHY ARE MORE MOTIVATING THAN SELF-INTEREST & ACHIEVEMENT

By Richard B. Corradi | December 2020
Richard B. Corradi, M.D., is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University. His writing has appeared in professional publications and in journals of general interest such as First Things, The Federalist, and Public Discourse.

The fortunate among us might later in life feel secure enough in themselves and their accomplishments that they are no longer motivated by personal ambition but by concern for younger generations. Psychoanalyst Eric Erikson, who wrote brilliantly about the human lifecycle, called this midlife developmental stage generativity.

A generative person feels altruistic concern for and the desire to nurture and guide younger people. Those who reach this stage often have been successful parents who then broaden their concern beyond their own families. They are interested in passing on technical or professional skills as well as their culture and its values.

Many people are regarded as highly successful by external measures, but they remain driven — to what end, they cannot define even for themselves. Some research scientists I have known would have been satisfied by nothing less than the Nobel Prize, and even that might not have been sufficient. To them, what is important is winning the race, defeating the competition; but what constitutes a sufficient reward for winning is often illusory. This is perhaps the meaning behind a quip often attributed to Henry Kissinger: “The reason academic politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so low.”

Of course, those driven by personal ambition can make important contributions to society — think of politicians such as FDR or entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie. In fact, successful entrepreneurship is one of the fruits of enlightened self-interest: the businessman creates jobs that produce needed services and products. However, just as the vast majority of entrepreneurs fail in their business ventures, so do many people fail who never feel fulfilled enough in their personal lives to offer themselves in service to others. When their personal races inevitably end because of age or infirmity, they might look back on their lives with regret and disappointment, rather than a sense of fulfillment.

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