Friday, 31 May 2013

Success Rate, Implied Hate, and Disembodied Fate

-The people who work the hardest deserve the greatest reward.
-If you set your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.
-You can't change everything, but if you change yourself, everything changes.

Sounds about right, right?  Heck, if you're like me, you might've been standing up by the last sentence, looking around for a flag to wave!  Anyone? No? Me neither, I was just checking.

I learned something the other day from Alain de Botton that stood me up in my tracks.Watch it if you'd like. We first world western civilization types live in a world with a unique philosophy.  Never before in history have humans, individuals, had so much power.  If you want, go be the next Steve Jobs.  What's stopping you?  If you find that sweet spot where your passion and your skill work in harmony, and you can harness your full potential, it could happen to you.  Or me. Anyone. When in history has that ever been the case? No lords and dukes. No privileged birth, no caste system.  Yes, if mom and dad are loaded, you might have a headstart, but that could be a curse as easily as a blessing in our new philosophy, if it means you don't learn the value of hard work, or the threat of running out of money.

If you are willing to work for it, you can accomplish anything you want. In the words of Jim Rohn, there's lot's of room at the top of the ladder - it's the bottom that's crowded!

I've spent the last 5 or so years internalizing that lesson - trying to increase my knowledge and capacity, trying to improve myself and become the sort of person who is ready to attack when opportunity strikes.

Then 2 days ago I realized this: If you believe that you can earn your way to the top, and that personal effort is the cost of admission, does that not also imply that you think those at the bottom have 'earned' their way to the bottom, and deserve to be there?  In the past, they called the poor Unfortunate.  These days, you might be more likely to hear them called bums.

I've lived enough days on this planet to know that there are indeed people on the top of the ladder who have not earned their way there.  And I've learned that the momentum of a downward spiral can be crushing.  And if my philosophy lends itself to telling people who are mired in addiction and poverty to stop being poor and start being awesome instead, then my philosophy sucks.

See, when it's your own effort and personality that is the cause of your success or your demise, wins and losses can become an intensely painful and personal thing. Your wins or losses are not circumstantial.  They're a reflection of your character.  You brought it on yourself.

It's called meritocracy - a civilization where your effort determines your status.  And if all factors were equal, then sure, maybe, over a long enough timeline, life could arrange itself this way, right from the hardest worker to the laziest bum.  But what happens when a young family loses their father in a tragic accident?  Or when someone gets abused during a very impressionable time - leaving emotional baggage that is extremely difficult to take in stride? The fact is, there is an element of randomness to the world.  Just when things start getting predictable - BAM. Tornado. Start over.

Back when societies identified with religions, it was a lot easier to categorize.  Blame God, or the gods, or the sprites, or the demons, or the forces, or the... whatever.  Fate.  But today, society doesn't believe that there is a higher being or power involved. In this world, MAN is the highest power.  And we don't really have much of an explanation for the randomness, other than just to say, well, it's random.

I'm pretty sure this is why, though we have the best beds in the world, Western societies also have such high incidences of insomnia.  It's our job.  It's all our job.  It's up to us, and we believe that we have the power to change the fates.  And when the fates aren't friendly, we double down and push harder, because our personal effort is the only tool we have.

There are many parts in the world where people don't have the luxury we have of feeling like they're in control.  There's never enough food, they're always under threat - whether it's war, sickness, or a wild animal jumping out of the trees and dragging away a weak member of the community, and they can't do anything to stop it. So they lean on eachother and lean on God.  They have a healthy relationship with fate, because they know they're subject to it.

Your effort still does have value. It gets going you in the right direction.  Like, if you practice rolling dice often enough, maybe you'll get good enough to beat the odds and roll more high numbers. But even then, you still might land on a snake or a ladder.

So, how do we reconcile fate and effort? How do you believe you have the power to change outcomes, and yet remain flexible to the randomness of life?  How much stress could we deflate from our lives if we made a healthy respect for fate part of our story again?  How do we let ourselves off the hook a little, without 'giving up'?  Maybe it was easier to accept when random had a name, and was part of our story of how we got here.  We could say, "maybe there's a higher reason for this random thing having happened, because the gods got involved.  I don't know why, but lets keep our eyes open for the silver lining." We could outsource the blame.

And if you don't believe that chance plays a strong role, play 5 games of snakes and ladders with a 5 year old, and see how much good your strategy does.