3 min read

From American Exceptionalism to American Wimps

When did we become a nation of risk-averse underachievers?
Man standing before chalkboard with drawing of large biceps
We used to be strong | Image by Elias from Pixabay

Greetings fellow travelers!

Coming back to America after 25 years in Europe, I was mightily surprised to see that big chunks of American life have become neutered. I can think of three possible reasons, which I describe below.

In the 1990s Americans still thought of themselves as rugged individualists. Pursuing your dream meant taking risks. People failed and flamed out, sometimes spectacularly. We celebrated people who aimed high and made something of themselves.

When Did Americans Become Weenies?

In the meantime, so much has changed:

  • Bureaucrats tell us what we can eat and drink — “You can’t buy a soda that big, it’s bad for you!”
  • Cars hector us with incessant beeping and bonging if we don’t strap our seatbelts or if we stray from our lanes for a moment.
  • Public pools close at the slightest hint of thunder. Indoor pools.
  • Airports forbid ground crews from the tarmac if lightning strikes within a ten-mile radius.
  • Pilots themselves won’t fly if there’s a bit of rain or wind.
  • Training for even elite athletes can’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. We celebrate athletes who buckle under stress as being somehow role models for speaking up about their anxiety.
  • Investment banks and law firms come under fire for expecting their absurdly well-paid interns and associates to work long hours.
  • State universities and elite private institutions have eliminated the requirements for applicants to submit grades or take standardized tests.

I could go on, but I trust you get the idea. Across every aspect of American life, we’ve gone from risk-takers to spineless wimps.

Risk-Takers Remain, But They’re Also Idiots

Some pockets of risk-taking remain, but they’re nothing for us to be proud of:

  • We’re experiencing a raging drug overdose epidemic that is killing almost 100,000 Americans a year. The ultimate thrill, I suppose: Will this pill be the one that kills me?
  • We’ve come to think of our cars as so safe that we don’t bother paying attention to driving. It seems every second person is texting while driving, and the ones that aren’t texting are high, speeding, or persistently bad drivers.
  • Smoking cigarettes has been supplanted by vaping, with nary a thought given to the implications. More fantastic, half the States have leaped into legalizing marijuana (and a small number have legalized many more drugs).
  • Americans are both exceptional and risk-takers when it comes to stuffing our faces with crappy food. We’re fatter than ever and unhealthier than ever. Three-quarters of people over the age of 50 are on prescription medications, with an average of 13 prescriptions filled annually. While many are certainly welcome and necessary, other medications compensate for lifestyle choices.

Three Theories On Potential Causes of America’s Decline

Here are three factors that I suspect are contributing to America’s ongoing descent into lameness.

  1. Increasing Numbers of Lawyers. We have more lawyers per capita than almost every other country. Those lawyers want to earn a living. A large percentage do so by suing anything that moves, or, more accurately, anyone with money. Fear of lawsuits makes us risk-averse.
  2. Decreasing Amounts of Testosterone. Testosterone is associated with aggression and risk-taking. It seems Americans’ testosterone levels have been steadily decreasing for decades. Partly this is related to our ever-expanding waistlines.
  3. Promoting Equity of Outcomes. Strange as it sounds, there is a concerted war against using merit to assess performance. Even if the supposed rationale were true (compensating for systemic oppression), it comes at an immense cost to society. When exceptional performance not only goes unrewarded but is characterized as the fruit of oppression, expect performance to decline.

If you’ve been in the U.S. these last 25 years, have you observed other causes? What the heck is going on?

What Can We Do to Slow the Decline?

Risk-takers of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but the arbitrary limits underachievers wish to impose on us.

If someone says you can’t do something, politely advise them to get the heck out of your way while you go do it.

If someone says you’re taking unnecessary risks when you: ride your motorcycle, go skiing, or take your plane up into a cloudy sky, tell them to go back to their basement. You’d rather live a full life than cower in fear.

And if someone says Americans are no longer exceptional, tell them to hold your drink while you go out and prove them wrong.

Be well.

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I published a version of this article on Medium originally.