ad astra per alia porci


the myth of the self-made man
December 12, 2008, 3:47 pm
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: , , , , , ,

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The path of success has not been trodden by many and is explained by even fewer. Success fascinates and has been analysed time and again, especially by the plethora of self-help gurus peddling recipes for success, and this age-old pursuit of mankind which does not fit itself to summary conclusions.

Joining the list of attempts at unraveling the mystery of success, Malcolm Gladwell has this to conclude about success in his latest book Outliers: success is the result of a combination of hard work, cultural factors and opportunity, not “innate” genius or natural ability.

This conclusion is unconventional; most self-help gurus will tell their audiences that success is the product of individual action, and indeed the entire American ethos is based on the understanding that race, religion, culture and other “background” factors have naught to do with the success of an individual who works his way up solely through his own actions and innate ability. If these factors helped at all, they provided the motivation for the individual to work his way out of a miserable existence; the person succeeds in spite of circumstance.

The difference between Gladwell’s view and conventional thinking is probably explainable. If success is not primarily or solely the result of individual work, the self-help legion loses its clientele. They have to preach this approach for fear of losing their ricebowl. Gladwell, being a purveyor of pop-general knowledge, adopts the more neutral stance of an interested researcher and observer on the subject of success.

Gladwell traced the personal histories of extremely successful people and found that it took a serendipitous coalescence of culture, opportunity and sheer hard work to precipitate success. He cited the example of Bill Gates, who was the only kid at his age and time to be given the opportunity to have unlimited access to computers, and hence the opportunity to hone his programming skills. Asians do better at math because of their roots in the strong work ethic and culture necessitated by rice cultivation, and the manner in which Asian languages deal with numbers (e.g. instead of saying “eleven”, the Chinese use the English equivalent of “ten-one”). Practise of 10,000 hours is the rough minimum required to achieve expertise in any skill or subject.

From a practical and common-sensical point of view, this seem to make sense. Gladwell’s reasoning seem to pass the simple rules of causation; if Bill Gates didn’t end up with the opportunity to use computers for so long, he probably would not be where he is today. No computer usage, no success.

However this method of reasoning can be expanded and applied ad infinitum, leading to ridiculous conclusions. For example, what would happen if a different sperm met the egg in Bill Gates’ mum’s womb? We can say that without this event, Bill Gates would not have existed. Do we then say that the sperm and egg lottery is crucial for success in life? Certainly it makes sense. We can extend this method of reasoning to almost every event in Bill Gates’ life. Do we then conclude that every event, from the most minute to the seemingly crucial, is important? If every event is important, it leads to the paradoxical inference that none of the events are important since relatively speaking all events count. Therein lies the Achilles’ heel of Gladwell’s book.

Yes, it is easy to poke holes in Gladwell’s research and thinking on success. If we adopt the stance of a statistician or even a scientist, we will tell him to plot graphs and find correlations between IQ and success in life. Give us cold, dependable statistics, rather than causal connections seen by a single (albeit well-read) individual. That said, the accuracy of statistical methods is doubtable: correlation can be found between almost anything if we look hard enough. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, philosopher of risk and uncertainty and writer of Fooled by Randomness fame (a book that I heartily recommend for anyone who believes wholeheartedly in a deterministic universe and the accuracy of conventional statistical methods), would tell you that.

However an unsophisticated approach to causation and causal analysis is inevitable for a pop-journalist like Gladwell, and I mean it without a hint of disrespect or disdain. We lead our lives working in such a manner too, and any extensive and sophisticated approach to analysing our lives will make decision-making practically impossible. Life just can’t happen without reductionist thinking.

Despite the apparent flaws, I do still agree with Gladwell’s observations. A disclaimer: I have not arrived at my personal conclusions on the basis of painstaking statistical or scientific analysis, but rather on the strength of my personal experiences and beliefs, which I believe any common man would use as their own basis for their own personal conclusions.

As one matures, youthful brashness is slowly replaced by a recognition of human vulnerability and the interdependent nature of our existence. As I grew older I gradually realised the contours of my abilities and learn to cope with my shortcomings as they surface and try to capitalise on what I am good at. As I grew older and had a longer history to ponder and analyse, I begin to note that any success I have in life is the combination of a myriad of factors, many of which are not entirely controllable by my own hands.

Looking back on what I have done and the opportunities I was given, I have gradually moved from an attitude where I took things from granted to appreciating the miracle of existence, a shift which occurred probably due to the process of maturing as a person.

Being in the gifted education system engendered an early belief in self-determinacy; whatever I have got was as of right or due solely to my own hard work and abilities. Of course this led to an inflated sense of self-worth and ability. The government preached meritocracy and the whole economic system was and still is premised on individual work; I naturally became a firm believer in the Gradgrindian idea of the “self-made man”. Success is the result of me, me and me. Nothing else. Encountering the supposed virtues of lassez-faire economics fanned the flames.

The first chink in the armour came when I studied Charles Dickens’ Hard Times for my junior college literature paper. The Victorian society depicted by Dickens is eerily similar to the modern Singaporean one where capitalism ran rampant and individualism grew, and the character of Thomas Gradgrind embodied the mistaken belief that the self-made man existed. Dickens set out to show that no man can achieve what he has in life through himself solely, and to expose the myth of the self-made man, and he did so by unveiling the hypocrisy of Thomas Gradgrind, who brags about how he climbed up the social ladder from the “gutters” through his own hard work without the help of others, through revealing the fact that Gradgrind had a caring family who took good care of him.

That book got me thinking. Then came various events in my life that gave me the clearest of signal that however hard I may have tried, the tides of fate may turn against me at any one moment. Amongst other events I failed to obtain the scholarship of my dreams, despite getting near perfect scores for my ‘A’ Levels. Currently I am yet to achieve the grades I know I am capable of in law school, even though I work really hard. These events validated the hint of doubt and changed my perspective. Success is a mixture of chance and work, and today whenever I see someone who is successful, I always factor in this element of chance and avoid hero-worship of any kind.

The best conclusion, I think, is that success is complicated, just as life itself is, and anyone who says that he or she is self-made is making a fallacious and untenable claim. Success can be largely due to innate ability, but we can never conclude unhesitatingly that ability is the sole cause of success. Indeed, Gladwell does not outrightly deny the role that natural aptitude and genetics have to play in the race to success. Culture and opportunity are but two other factors out of a multitude that synergises with aptitude to create success. We will have a more holistic, realistic and healthy view of the world if we recognise that no one is an island. There are no true Gradgrinds, only happy results of the machinations of fate and endeavour.

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