America’s unspoken fault line
There’s a fundamental fault line in the United States that we hardly ever talk about: the degree to which luck alters the trajectory of our lives. How much do we acknowledge the impact of fortune on individual success? How much do we attribute blame to individual failure? Whether we recognize or reject the role of randomness and happenstance on personal success is literally a “fault” line in American society.
Consider a telling incident during the 2012 presidential campaign. At a July rally in Roanoke, Virginia, President Barack Obama told a crowd of supporters, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges.” He continued: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Perhaps realizing he’d just unwrapped a Christmas-in-July gift for his opponent, Obama clarified his thoughts a few sentences later. “The point is,” he concluded, “is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” That clarification didn’t matter, of course. The Romney campaign and its supporters took full advantage of the “you didn’t build that” comment, replaying it in campaign ads and condemning it repeatedly in stump speeches. (I remember driving in northern Colorado later that summer for a congressional campaign and passing a farm with a huge wooden sign reading, “MY FARM. I BUILT IT.”)
Lost in the back-and-forth following Obama’s comments was his core point: None of us gets where we are on our own. No one builds a profitable business or graduates from college or publishes a bestselling book or develops a new medical treatment without an ecosystem that makes that success possible, from global networks of technology and infrastructure to supportive teachers, an educated workforce, and a stable political environment. Hard work and hustle don’t guarantee success on their own.
But Obama could have taken this point even further. Success, no matter how we define it, requires more than individual and collective effort. Whether we achieve success often hinges on pure luck. To a degree greater than most of us like to admit, the trajectories of our lives are impacted every day in nearly every way by fortune. By happenstance. By events and encounters beyond anyone’s control. By being in the right place at the right time (and being there with the right people and the right resources), or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. By having the stability and security to take risks, or having to spend all our energy just trying to survive. By being forgiven for mistakes, or facing life-altering consequences for them. By meeting someone who opens doors for us, or meeting someone whose presence in our lives hurts us. By getting sick at the wrong time, or by being lucky enough not to end up in the emergency room when we don’t have the time or money to spare.
Even before we’re born, every human being plays the same nature and nurture lotteries. Whether we end up with a debilitating mental illness or grow up in an unstable household or get hit by a metaphorical (or literal) bus, whether we’re born into a society that celebrates or penalizes us for our race or religion or gender, whether we meet the right mentor at the right time or get caught up in the criminal justice system at the wrong time, whether we enter the workforce at the peak an economic boom or in the depths of a recession, whether we’re given space to learn from our mistakes or condemned for them… In the lottery of life, we don’t choose our numbers. Nor do we control whether they’ll be winners.
Take any person who conventional metrics (money, health, status, family, career) deem successful. Say it’s Jeff Bezos. One way to write Bezos’s story is that he had an idea and worked tirelessly to turn that idea into one of the biggest companies in the world. But another way to write it is to say that Jeff Bezos was born into a family that could afford to send him to Princeton and invest nearly $250,000 in Amazon; he entered the professional world at a time when the (government-funded) internet was sufficiently developed to support e-commerce but not so developed that the cost of entry was too great or the market already saturated; and he just happened not to face a debilitating illness or a personal tragedy that knocked him off course during the crucial years he was growing his company (such as the helicopter crash he survived in 2003).
Both narratives are true. Jeff Bezos did work diligently to build Amazon into the behemoth it is today. He did seize opportunities that others might not have seen. He did take risks that others might not have taken. But he also got extraordinarily lucky with extraordinary frequency along the way, just as any successful person does. Of the things in his control, he did many of them well. The things outside his control just happened to go mind-bogglingly well for him, too.
The role of fortune in personal success is one that politicians should know well, even if they don’t recognize it or choose to acknowledge it. Political success requires an almost unfathomable amount of luck. It’s easy to look back at the career of a successful elected official and create a reverse narrative of someone who “always knew they’d be a senator” and who mapped, and then followed precisely, a path to power. (The traditional timeline begins by running for student body president in grade school.) Campaigns and reporters tell these stories all the time.
While these narratives may not be entirely false, they’re rarely entirely true because they almost always overlook the role of luck and happenstance in determining that trajectory. For every aspiring politician who succeeds, there are countless people with nearly identical ambitions, plans, and backstories who don’t. A candidate ends up in elected office through a balance of hard work and a lot of luck — a balance that often tips heavily toward the fortune end of the spectrum. Only in hindsight can one look back on a successful political career and argue that it was planned or arranged intentionally. Even Lyndon B. Johnson, who was as great a schemer and plotter as anyone in American history, wouldn’t have ended up in the Oval Office without an unexpected turn of events entirely out of his control.
In politics, as in life, what separates those we deem victorious from those we consider failures is often as simple as a few votes or a lucky break here and there. In politics, as in life, success is often about being in the right place at the right time, and having the resources to seize an opportunity when it presents itself. In politics, as in life, failure often owes more to a random and unpredictable stroke of bad luck at an inopportune time than a moral failing or malicious undertaking.
Yet as the response to Obama’s 2012 comments showed, the American narrative says exactly the opposite. Our collective bias towards intentionality tells us that all successes (especially our own) are individual successes, and all failures (especially others’) are individual failures. We put individual effort on a pedestal while disregarding entirely the elements of luck or coincidence. We celebrate successful outcomes and criticize unsuccessful ones while using the clarity of hindsight to cherry-pick the moments that fit our narrative. We have a seemingly unbeatable addiction to the illusion of meritocracy.
This addiction shapes public policy in hugely destructive ways. No child chooses to grow up in a particular neighborhood, but public policy says your zip code controls the quality of your education. No one chooses the color of their skin, but public policy says your race will determine how the criminal justice system treats you if you end up in it (and often whether you end up in it at all). No one chooses to have a relative in the hospital fighting an incurable illness, but if you do, public policy says that whether your family has health insurance and a healthy savings account will dictate whether you spend your nights studying for college entrance exams or working a second job.
The American dream is incredibly empowering. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the idea that diligence equals success has bettered the lives of millions of people by giving them purpose, hope, and a genuine sense of agency. One could argue that our basic political narrative — the idea that anyone in the United States, immigrant or native-born, can achieve prosperity by working hard and following the rules — built a foundation upon which America the global superpower emerged. This narrative has never been true for everyone, of course, but it was true for enough people for long enough that it became gospel.
Today, that gospel is under attack, bringing into stark relief a societal divide that has always existed but is rarely acknowledged. On one side of this fault line is a worldview that worships the all-powerful (and thus all-responsible) individual. In this version of reality, individual success is due purely to merit, and individual failure can be traced directly to personal mistakes and moral failings. If you get sick, that’s on you. If you can’t find a job, you need to work harder. If you have to choose between paying for child care or paying rent, well, maybe you shouldn’t have gotten yourself into that situation in the first place. At some point, this worldview assumes, history was reset, a color- and gender-blind society was born, and structural inequities and biases were resolved. We freed markets, healed racism, eliminated sexism, and generally atoned for our past sins. We’re all starting from the same line now, so if you don’t take the opportunity to better yourself, that’s on you.
But there’s another way to see the world. Contrary to the both sides-ism of the political media, this other way is not just the mirror image of that individual-first mentality. It’s not the left to that one’s right. It’s simply the “both-and” to that one’s “either-or.” This worldview, commanded almost entirely by the American left today, does believe in agency and liberty. It does encourage individual tenacity and hard work. It does emphasize personal responsibility. It holds all of these beliefs, while also acknowledging that there’s more to the story.
This worldview recognizes the role of luck and fortune in our successes and our failures. It considers both hard work and happenstance in its judgments. Whether a minor inconvenience or a life-altering tragedy, this worldview accepts that factors outside any one person’s control determine far more of our trajectory than we assume. Whether stemming from systemic injustice or just plain bad luck, this worldview recognizes that we’re not all born at the same starting line. Nor are we running the same race along the same course with the same obstacles and shortcuts. Acknowledging the role of randomness doesn’t undermine personal responsibility or negate the value of hard work. It doesn’t make us prisoners of fate or encourage selfishness and apathy. It simply places success and failure in their proper context. Success requires a lot of things to go right, and failure doesn’t require much to go wrong.
To mix some time-worn political metaphors, the first worldview says pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and then pull up the ladder behind you when you get to a secure place so someone else doesn’t take it from you. The second perspective says try your best with the bootstraps, but if the straps are faulty or the laces break or the soles get knocked off, we’ll have a safety net waiting for you at the bottom. You won’t be able to stay there forever, but we’ll give you some time and stability to fix your boots or try a different pair.
Politicians who subscribe to the first worldview have built a society in which public health benefits are contingent on getting a job, even as many people are forced to stop working precisely because they’ve gotten sick. A society in which men have restricted access to abortion services and contraception when they themselves have zero chance of getting pregnant unexpectedly. A society in which housing assistance and drug treatment are nearly impossible to access, yet homelessness and addiction are treated as moral failings punishable as crimes rather than tragedies treatable by a stronger social safety net. A society in which people who need a helping hand are micromanaged and intentionally humiliated. A society in which poverty traps are nearly inescapable and wealth gaps nearly insurmountable without a strong dose of luck.
The second worldview, on the other hand, calls for public policy built on humility and driven by empathy. Public policy that celebrates cleverness and rewards hard work, but doesn’t demand an uninterrupted string of good luck as a prerequisite for success. Public policy that reflects an understanding that we’re all better off when more of us are better off, and we’re all more free to pursue an American dream when more of us are free from the impediments to it. Public policy that sees someone asking for help not as a threat to our status or an attempt to “game” the system, but as our own story if our lives had gone just a little differently. Public policy that sees a single mom depending on public assistance to raise her kids, or someone sleeping on the streets, or a refugee family desperately seeking asylum, and recognizes that, to paraphrase the famous line, there but for the grace of God go any one of us.
The defining divide in American society today is the degree to which we’re willing to reckon with and appreciate the role of luck. Building a public policy infrastructure that recognizes the unpredictability of life doesn’t undermine hard work or discourage individual effort. It doesn’t absolve anyone of personal responsibility. It simply forces us to see each other with compassion instead of contempt, and to seek justice instead of judgment.
Perhaps we’re not serious about creating a society in which anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can actually succeed. Perhaps that idea is just a comforting thought for those of us who’ve already made it. Perhaps it’s just a useful rhetorical tool for an entrenched elite that clings to power by selling an image of a society free from institutional bias. But if the American dream is to mean what we say it means — if we’re to create a society in which anyone truly can become president or build the biggest company in the world — luck can’t be a prerequisite for success.