Browse By

Uppity People vs. Cowed People

At work the other day, I came across a bulletin board on which someone had posted the following “Successful People vs. Unsuccessful People” poster:

Successful People Vs. Unsuccessful People Graphic

Looking for its source, I eventually found the author, MaryEllen Tribby. It’s notable that MaryEllen Tribby is a business consultant.  Within American business cultures, success is often equated with usefulness to the employer, with activity that generates a reward from corporate executives.  But we are not born employees.  We are born as people, and some traits and needs of human beings as people are not the same as the traits and needs of employees.

I’m reminded of my child’s homework, for which a teacher posed the question “what qualities does a business look out for in an employee?”  My child received points off for writing “is able to subsist on a diet of thin paste”… not because the answer was wrong, but because the answer wasn’t “positive” or “helpful.”  Positive toward what end?  Helpful to whom?

How might we rethink this motivational graphic away from the imperatives of a corporation and toward the experience of people?  Here’s my take, in which the first choice is to move away from focusing on outcomes for “successful” and “unsuccessful” employees and to focus instead on two different orientations for people: “uppity” and “cowed”.  Unlike “success” and “unsuccess” as outcomes that are wholly in the hands of people themselves if they just lift their chins and get with the program, I’m thinking about “uppity” and “cowed” orientations that are, at least in part, the result of empowerment or oppression in systems of justice or injustice:

Motivational Graphic, rethought as Uppity People vs. Cowed People. Uppity people read every day, plot, cultivate skill, produce knowledge, seek root causes of social problems, question authority, afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted, think critically, remember, strive for progress, and work with allies. Cowed people watch TV every day, react, stagnate, consume truth, blame individuals for social problems, obey authority, admire the comfortable, admonish the afflicted, react habitually, forget, make do, and go it alone.

Props to Finley Peter Dunne, the original author of the fifth admonishment from the bottom for the uppity.

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Uppity People vs. Cowed People”

  1. J Clifford says:

    One concern: I think many people stagnate not because they’re cowed, but because they’re overwhelmed, exhausted, suffer unfortunate circumstances, or are discriminated against. Sure, some people are stagnated because they’re intimidated, but that’s not the whole story. The binary distinction between success and failure, or between the uppity and the cowed also fails to consider that personality traits are not permanent and enduring, but shift significantly according to circumstances.

    1. J Clifford says:

      This image from the Motivation Project teaches me that “Success is a state of mind. If you want success, start thinking of yourself as a success.” So, the problem with slaves in the South was that they weren’t thinking of themselves as successes, apparently.

      Also, this image, along with many photographs of George Clooney, teaches me that if you want success, whenever you wear a suit, you should slightly tug at your shirt cuffs.

      Success is a state of mind?

      Also, flying is a state of mind. So, if you want to fly, start thinking of yourself as someone who can fly.

      1. Dave says:

        J., positive thinking is certainly no guarantee of success, but can you think of many people who succeed at something without it?

        1. Jim Cook says:

          Some big examples: Emma Goldman, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Ralph Nader.

          All four took outcomes that most identified as individually-based and identified structural problems that led to poor outcomes instead. All four succeeded by being critical. Those are just a few examples.

          This doesn’t mean that positivity can’t work, just that it isn’t necessary. I’d say sometimes individualistic positivity can be detrimental.

    2. Jim Cook says:

      I’d agree with that.

  2. Korky Day says:

    Thanks, Jim Cook and J Clifford!

  3. Dave says:

    Jim, perhaps people are an amalgam of the two. Things depend on what they are reading, when they question authority, how they strive for progress, etc. None of these qualities it seems to me stand alone without being qualified by goals, results, consequences and so forth. Sometimes we read, sometimes we watch TV. What are we reading, what are we watching, and what is the result? Sometimes there are root causes of trouble that is beyond our individual control, sometimes we need to stop blaming others and get off our butt. And so on.

    1. Jim Cook says:

      Fair enough.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Psst... what kind of person doesn't support pacifism?

Fight the Republican beast!