Success, though, is obviously a function of both virtue and luck. Virtue alone isn't sufficient for material success (e.g., hard-working people laid off in the recession), and people with little virtue can succeed wildly (Charlie Sheen, anyone?). Luck matters -- luck of the parents you were born to, luck of talent you inherited, luck of the people you happen to know, and often, just plain vanilla luck. Virtue's link to success is partial and probabilistic, never an absolute guarantee.
Still, even if life outcomes were only 1% up to you and as much as 99% up to luck, it helps to believe that it's all you for three reasons: First, you're the part of the world that you have the most control over. Second, it's discouraging to think that it's mostly luck. And third, even 1% every day accumulates like compound interest. That's why Benjamin Franklin propagated the idea that "God helps those that help themselves." That's why we love rags-to-respectability Horatio Alger stories. That's why we blithely tell our children, "You can achieve anything, if you just work hard enough!"
But though the white lie of the self-made person is great motivation, accepting it as fact leads to both blaming the victims in the unemployment line and encouraging oversized self-esteem on Wall Street. This gap between what motivates us and what explains us is the crux. Hobgoblins lurk in the attempt to reconcile.
Conservatives accept the self-made person, blame victims, lionize the superrich, and want to shrink government. This view is consistent. It's also oversimplified, but conservatives have committed to it and gone far.
Liberals deny the self-made person (at least in public) and invoke social context. This view is also consistent and oversimplified, but liberals waver on it because it violates their own intuitions. Liberals, for instance, are no different from conservatives in wanting to instill individual virtues in their children.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Luck and Hard Work
Kentaro Toyama takes a balanced look at the pathway to success: