East and West have opposite views of personal success, according to psychologists

What does success mean to you?

You’ve probably been asked this many times. At an interview. For a business plan. In a school application. But have you ever considered that where you’re from changes how you answer the question?

Whether you would rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond seems highly personal, based on our individual preferences, career choices and personality.

Yet it turns out this isn’t the case.

In a study from the University of Michigan, psychologists compared how people from East Asian cultures and European American cultures viewed success.

They found that North Americans lean towards being a big fish in a small pond. They tend to value perceived achievement and accolades within their small circles, comparing themselves only to the environments that they associate with. They’re very individually focused with messages of competing only with oneself, be better than you were yesterday, strive for individuality, and to celebrate who you are.

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They generally feel more competent and tend to achieve more than those who want to be a smaller fish in a bigger, more pressured environment.

In East Asia, they tend to look at the larger picture. In general, they prefer to be a smaller fish in a bigger pond, meaning they’d rather be part of something that’s more impressive even if it means they’re starting as a tadpole. In Chinese culture, in particular, it was found that how your success appears from the outside looking in determines choices in careers and education, with decisions leaning towards schools with high academic rankings and companies with international recognition.

In a research study using adults from both groups it was found that over half the Chinese participants chose attending a top University with average results over a lesser known institution with higher results. Only one third of Americans chose the same route. They were asked the same question only using employment at an international global firm where they achieved less or a smaller company with a role of higher achievement. In this case, well over half from both groups chose to do better at a smaller company.

What does this boil down to?

East Asian cultures tend to put prestige at the top of their priorities and North Americans tend to use their own judgement as to whether or not they are succeeding.

There are many factors that contribute how we measure success, perhaps you grew up in one cultural environment and later moved to another. How easy do you think it would be to adjust to a new cultural outlook when it comes to your own thoughts on success? We may have been nurtured one way but we can always be swayed by the nature of our environment.

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