Thanks to NBC’s unimpressive approach to global sports journalism, Saturday’s news has revolved around the Rio Olympics swimming and track results.
Part of NBC’s narrative programming is marketing the belief that hard, individual work plus supportive nuclear social networks equals success. The formula appears in US advertising, such as Proctor and Gamble’s “Thank You, Mom” campaign and Minute Maid’s “doingood” video. It also appears in media analysis of much smaller competing nations, like Jamaica.
Today, the NYT posted a column from Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson about factors that have contributed to the dominance of Jamaican sprinters over the last 50 years. The island produces far more winners and records than its population size and economic development might predict. Why?
Patterson cites government-led public health initiatives, which enhanced basic resources like food access, clean water, and anti-mosquito technologies, and therefore mitigated disease and improved life expectancy rates. He also outlines other factors like private investment in training programs, mentoring from previous generations’ athletics stars, coaching opportunities at well-resourced US universities, and Jamaican affirmation of hard work meeting raw talent.
Just as whole villages beyond nuclear families raise children, interacting influences beyond grit and determination shape our environments. All of these factors can enable us to become our best in each new context. All of them work together, and we progress in very different ways when those environmental factors change.
Every time you take a new job, you test this theory. If you thrived in your last position, and then move away, what are the odds that you’ll immediately thrive in your new location? Will you change how you interact with your colleagues, frame your contributions for others, describe your experience in applications, or choose training opportunities? Every change is an affirmation that environments vary and aren’t equivalent.
A major part of adjusting to each new environment is acclimating to new environmental elements that either enhance our development or undermine it. It’s not all solo-pluck: our environments can support us in becoming, and they can also sabotage our unfolding.
Sociologists talk about the social determinants of health as they invite us to realize that none of us lives in isolation from the world beyond our fingertips. Our environments shape our chance of surviving the journey from conception to birth and they also have substantial impacts on every aspect of our lives after we’re born.
Despite this, the narratives of solo-achievement persist, and only a few ever receive medals for standing at the right end of environmental interactions! Whether our growth is ever externally acknowledged, we grow in environments that enable us, and we can support others’ growth by building networks of policy and relationship that enable them as well.