Scott Sandage, an associate professor in history at Carnegie Mellon University, has recently penned a book entitled – Born Losers – A History of Failure in America. An interesting fact that Sandage points out is that the concept of being a failure as a human being did not exist until the late nineteenth century. Prior to that, failure was only used to imply bankruptcy, a circumstance that did not necessarily imply any personal deficiency. Unlike today where a lack of ambition and vision is synonymous with being a loser, it was perfectly fine to be satisfied with one’s lot. Social climbers, like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, were considered crass.
Sandage finds that the Civil War may have been a turning point. Prior to the war, America divided itself into citizens and slaves. However, after the war, the division changed to winners and losers. It was also a time where the robber baron class arose. These were usually self-made men such as Carnegie, Mellon and Rockefeller who rose to prominence in a burgeoning industries such as steel, banking and oil. They also defined success in American as earned (plundered?) wealth. This attitude is probably even more apparent today. It is only in America (until recently perhaps) that being called aggressive was a compliment. I’m not suggesting that we all return to a society without ambition but perhaps defining ourselves exclusively in terms of our achievements and finances may not be the most satisfying way to live.