Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Crucial Question

     It seems that how you answer the following question determines a lot about your political point of view, as well as your emotional make-up. The question is:

Is success simply . . .
      Is success basically due to luck?

      Or is success achieved primarily through personal effort?

      In the first view, the fat cat either inherited a fortune, or else benefited from some kind of rigged game where family ties or personal connections eased the person's way up in the world, until he reaps rewards all out of proportion to what he's worth.

 . . . a matter of luck?
     In the second view, the successful person achieved his or her position through hard work, personal sacrifice and self-discipline. They spent their youth hitting the books instead of hitting the party circuit, and much of their adult lives staying late at the office or working hard in the business, instead of taking off early to go shopping or attend a baseball game.

     According to the first view, the poor person happened to be born in the wrong neighborhood, perhaps with the wrong skin color, with down-on-their-luck parents, going to a bad school or no school at all. The person was probably abandoned as a child, and the only family he had was the local street gang, or the only father figure she could find was a violent pimp.

     According to the second view, the poor are guilty of their own poverty. They are out of work because they dropped out of school, never focused on a career, and think the world owes them a living despite the fact that even when they do have a job they rarely do much work. They drink too much, party too much, gamble too much, spend too much time having irresponsible sex and out-of-wedlock babies.

     People who believe success is achieved through luck are more likely to support redistributing income from the lucky rich to the unlucky poor. They are more likely to support increased government regulation, higher taxes, and more government involvement in the economy and in people's lives. They are also more likely to support abortion (because you get pregnant through bad luck), gay marriage (a throw of the gene dice) and national health care (because if you get sick you're just unlucky).

     But what makes you believe in the luck theory, or the effort theory? There are personal experiences, of course, and your own upbringing -- what your parents believed and taught you. But according to business journalist Eduardo Porter in his thought-provoking book The Price of Everything, Americans who experienced a deep economic recession between the ages of 18 and 25 (people entering the work force in the 1970s or the late 2000s) are more likely to believe that success is achieved through luck rather than effort. Paradoxically, they also have less trust in public institutions, so even as they demand more of government, they doubt government's ability to deliver services.

     Europeans in general come down on the luck side of the equation, and are skeptical of the idea that the wealthy deserve what they have, according to a World Values Survey of 2005-08. They believe the world is essentially unfair; they attribute success largely to "external social conditions"; and they therefore prefer high taxes and aggressive income redistribution. This European belief, according to Porter, is likely rooted in the feudal past, when prosperity had nothing to do with effort and very much to do with having the right parents. The belief in luck is even stronger in Eastern Europe, where decades of government control over the economy instilled a view that personal effort made little difference, and that government should provide for people's financial security.

     Despite the recent/current economic crisis, the vast majority of Americans still believe that honest hard work is the key to success. Surveys say up to 90 percent of Americans say hard work will lead to a better life, compared to the minority who believe success is merely a matter of luck. Most Americans believe our capitalist system is fundamentally fair and that the American dream is available to those who seek it.

     The belief that the world is essentially just is a positive force with concrete benefits. It motivates people to work, to take risks and invest in the future. It also prompts them to be honest themselves, to treat others fairly, and educate their children to scale the economic ladder. It helps if you believe. It helps even more if the belief is true.

     So what do you believe? Why do you believe it? And have your beliefs changed because of the recent insanity on Wall Street, the irresponsibility of the banks and the bankruptcy of the auto companies and the mortgage companies?

     It makes a difference.


Mac n' Janet said...

I believe we make our own luck, that hard work is generally rewarded. I expect little from my government except that they don't take too much of my money to waste. This economic mess we're in is the worst I remember and i've been around for awhile. I also believe people get the type of government they deserve and that's scary!

Anonymous said...

It has to do with intelligence. Not luck. Not hard work. Just your IQ. How else can you explain the rise of that guy from 'The Pursuit of Happyness'? Or Steve Jobs in his parents garage conjuring up the Mac?

Your background, upbringing mean absolutely nothing. If you have a brain, here in America, you can be anything you want to be, regardless of sex, age, creed or color.

Would you say the kids who invented Facebook worked hard? Nope.

Dick Klade said...

There is no simple answer, I think, to the simple question posed. First, you'd have to define "success," no simple task in itself. I think people are successful when they meet achievable goals they set for themselves.

A homemaker is successful if she guides a couple of kids to becoming people of integrity who are useful to society. An aggressive businessman is successful if he amasses enough wealth to acquire every material thing he desires. A soldier is successful if he or she meets the enemy and prevails.

And on and on . . .

It is not exclusively a matter of luck or hard work.

Douglas said...

Mr. Klade may have said it best. There is an adage attributed to a number of professional golfers:

"The more I practice, the luckier I get."

I was not successful in life. I failed to live up to my potential, as any of my former teachers could tell you. Instead, I coasted. Though high school, through the Navy, through my years in the Bell System (which, in reality, no longer exists but really does... just under new ownership). I was lucky that turned from a low paying but secure job into a good paying but still pretty secure job that left me with a pretty safe pension and enough savings to live comfortably (though not at the level of luxury I would like).

I think it is intelligence that makes the difference. Intelligence helps you know when to take advantage of that bit of luck that comes by now and then. And also helps put you in a position to take that advantage.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I disagree with Morrison, there are a lot of wealthy people who certainly don't display much form of intelligence.

Whenever I read stories about supposed "self-made" people, it is not accomplished in a vacuum. Note how often they minimize that the successful person got a "loan" from a relative or investor or some other head start usually not available to someone else.

Show business is replete with successful actors or directors... who just happen to be related to previously established actors. Rare is the unknown who becomes famous out of left field.

I think it is a bit of both; luck, seizing an opportunity when it comes by, a nudge from a benefactor with resources. With some rare exceptions, most wealthy people today came from already wealthy families.

Douglas said...

Bill Gates? Steve Jobs? Barack Obama? Well, Barack is not yet truly wealthy though he is worth $millions and will never want for anything the rest of his life. You ought to look into Warren Buffett's biography. Or are these the exceptions? And will anyone I bring up be an "exception"?

I once engaged in a discussion about wealthy people with a person who thought they ought to be taxed heavily. His position? Quite similar to yours... "they inherited their wealth", you add they may have gotten a boost just because of who they are.

I agree with you that a number of Hollywood stars got a start through their names. The Sheens come to mind, so do a number of others. Yet, where is Jack Lemmon's son? Do you remember Nancy Sinatra? How about Frank Jr? You can't simply have the name, you need the talent to go with it. You can get a lift up but you have to work to stay there and to become a success.

On the other hand, wealth gave us FDR, John Kennedy, and a number of other U.S. Presidents, including George Washington. Yet, we have had presidents who didn't come from wealth. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind, as does Richard Nixon.

It isn't that cut and dried, Robert.

Nance said...

I fall into the luck category. From birth, I watched adults work hard just to stand still. Depression stories weren't tales in my childhood; they were the truth about the lives of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents. Since I'd never known people who worked harder or whom I admired more, I couldn't have thought any other way.

And my hero was my maternal grandmother, who suffered a stroke at age 21 as a result of a rare clotting disorder. He was entirely paralyzed from the neck down for a year and only gradually and partially recovered. But he ran a community grocery store on his father's land and went on to provide food for less fortunate neighbors at no cost during the Depression.

Sh*t happens, people. The grandchildren of those who suffered WWI and the Great Influenza and then tried to raise their families in the Depression...we came of age and entered the workforce in the Vietnam era and the early seventies. We either got it or we lived in the la-la land of The American Dream. If you didn't get it, you weren't really paying attention.

Nance said...

Poop. "Maternal grandmother", above, should be "maternal grandfather." My passion on this subject overcame my writing. I think I feel a blog post coming on.

Sightings said...

Wow, a lot of good points! Of course there are different definitions of success, but I think we all have an idea of what it is, esp. for ourselves. What if there are five or six factors contributing to success? Family background, intelligence, social skills, special talent, hard work, persistence, maybe dumb luck. Perhaps any one of these is not enough to make you successful. But if you can put together two or three of these factors, you're likely to achieve your goals.

In any case, I certainly agree with Robt. the Skeptic -- success is not achieved in a vacuum, no one succeeds without help from others.

Hattie said...

This sets up a false dichotomy. Successful people don't get where they are going without a lot of help, whether from family or from government program.

Laura Lee Carter aka the Midlife Crisis Queen said...

I think we all think we succeed through hard work until some misfortune happens that we have no control over, like some unexplained illness or(in my case) we meet some boss who wants to do us in. Then we begin to have more compassion for others who are less fortune than ourselves.

Therefore, I think it is actually good for us to experience unfair misfortunes which we do not have any control over so that we can stay in better touch with our compassion for others and their misfortunes.

Anonymous said...

I have asked several wealthy friends , "What is the real difference between you and I ", pertaining to their financial status compared to my struggles. A couple at first tried to say it was all about the hard work, etc...but by the end of the conversation , they had ALL admitted that they were just very fortunate in being in the right place at the right time , when the right opportunity was there.

Retired Syd said...

What an interesting conversation! First, I would consider myself successful: I was able to achieve my goal of a comfortable retirement at the age of 44, I enjoy great relationships with my friends and family, and I am very healthy--I want for nothing. It's true, success means different things to different people.

Having said that, I think I am of pretty average intelligence (I was a very average college student--a fact which made it very hard for me to land a job upon graduation.) I worked for 22 years, I wouldn't really say "hard" in the sense that many people work much harder than I did for many more years than I did, with less to show for it, so I don't really see the hard work/success connection in and of itself.

I was very fortunate to have parents that could pay for a significant portion of my college education, I landed an initial job interview (finally) with the help of a friend of a friend, and in those early years of barely making ends meet, I had a dad who fronted my rent money on more than one occasion, and a boyfriend (now husband) that loaned me the money to pay off my hefty credit card balance at a lower interest rate.

I think the two groups you describe can be categorized as 1) those who achieved success, so feel everyone else should be able to be successful just by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps or 2) those who are grateful for all the help they got along the way and want others to get the help they got. I am very grateful.