There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to modern notions of success and failure. On the one side there is the belief that success and failure are the function of individual choice, skill, and merit. This comes from the belief that we live in a meritocracy. On the other side we have the belief that success and failure are the function of society or an accident of birth. The first view sees individuals as controlling their own destiny. The second sees individuals as either victims or beneficiaries of forces outside of their control.
I’m presently reading the book Outliers which, at least at the outset, presents an alternative to the “meritocracy” approach to evaluating success and failure. And, as I listened to Malcom Gladwell (it’s an audiobook) I realized that my own view on this is pretty inconsistent. I take one path or the other based on two axes. The first axis is the question “Am I thinking about myself or others? The second axis is the question “Am I thinking about success or failure?”
As I said above, by view is inconsistent, but I don’t really care, and I hope to explain why. First, here’s a brief summary.
First, let me say that what I am describing below is my ideal train of thought, not what I actually do in a given situation. I doubt I’m even the best person to judge my own heart in this. Still, this is the line of thinking I at least aim for.
When I experience success: My initial reaction should be gratitude and humility. By “gratitude” I mean that I should be quick to acknowledge all of the forces outside of myself which led to my experience of success. This means that I have a genuine gratitude towards others and towards God. In this regard my thinking is not meritocratic. It wasn’t my skill or wisdom or merit. Even if I did, through my will, make choices that contributed to my success even the ability to make those choices came from God. By “humble” I don’t just mean a show of humility, but a genuine recognition that every good gift comes from above. If I were on my own in this my condition would be much worse.
When I experience failure: My initial reaction should be a responsible and proactive attitude. A responsible person looks at failure, acknowledges that life is complex and that therefore there are almost always parts of the failure which they are responsible for and those which were outside of their control. Then they focus on the part that was within their control because, well, they can control them. Stephen Covey calls this being proactive. In this case my thinking is meritocratic because I acknowledge that I have made mistakes for which I cannot blame others. Even if it is the case that the entire failure was outside of my control (which is rarely the case) I can still be proactive in asking “How can I prevent this same failure in the future?”
When I see others experience success: My initial reaction should be a congratulatory attitude. I should acknowledge the ways that this person’s own skill and wisdom led to their success. Notice that this is the opposite way of how I view my own success? My own success comes from the generosity of others. Someone else’s success comes from their own skill and wisdom. Yes, this is inconsistent. But I think this is also a much more productive and kind way of thinking about the world. Also, it’s often true. Other people really do put in hard work. They make sacrifices. They act intelligently. So why not acknowledge it? Once again I pick up my meritocratic thinking.
When I see others experience failure: My initial reaction should be empathy and compassion. And, once again I abandon my illusions of meritocracy. Life is complex and my neighbor experiencing failure may be experiencing that hardship through no fault of their own. Sure, it’s possible that their poor choices played some role in their situation but that is for them, as responsible individuals, to decide and make right. My initial posture ought to be to ask, “is there some way for me to help?” or at a broader level, “is there something that can be done to produce a more just society?”
Notice that in each of these I have indicated what my initial response should be. It’s not wrong to recognize your own part in your success, the forces outside of your control in your failure, the forces that led to the success of others, and the ways in which people are responsible for their own failures. Sometimes it is healthy and necessary to do those things. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children how their choices will impact the rest of their lives. Pastors have a responsibility to help those who experience success express a level of gratitude toward God who gives good gifts for our enjoyment. The victim of a crime will not be helped by trying to figure out what they did wrong to become a victim. Each situation calls for its own response. I am simply asking, in everyday life, what is a heathy response to success and failure?
So as you can see I’m inconsistent, but am I wrong? I hope that this no more than an attempt to live out Scriptural virtues (humility, compassion, gratitude, responsibility, etc.) in a complex world.