Democratizing Success: Stating the Obvious in Service to Equality

Counterng the myth of the bootstrap-powered, self-made self, and what that would mean for social equality.

The Myth of the Self-Made Self

The American Dream is founded on the credo that just about everyone has the opportunity to be successful, if they muster the drive and the will. If for some reason you don’t get ahead, the blame lies with you. You didn’t want it badly enough or you didn’t sufficiently apply yourself. You’re not allowed to cite external conditions as an explanation; that’s just making excuses. Those who achieve success are living proof that you could have done it too. Americans of all classes and backgrounds buy into this myth: that we are self-made selves, capable of carving out success on our own, whatever our circumstances.

But that myth is being called into question, most recently and notably by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, which tells the story of highly successful individuals such as Bill Gates. It turns out that their success is due to a lucky confluence of factors, one of which is, of course, the innate drive and resilience of the individual in question. That too, we can see, is a matter of luck, since no one gets to choose the genetic and environmental factors that combined to produce their own drive and resilience. Individuals are bequeathed their motivational endowment, as well as the circumstances in which they apply themselves.

I’ll quote Gladwell on the implications of his thesis, from an interview in Deutche Welle, my emphasis:

I believe that I have been the beneficiary of an extraordinary series of advantages, many of which were not earned at all. They were just gifts, given to me by all kinds of institutions or good fortune. And that is a crucial part of understanding who I am.

One of the big lessons of the book is that this kind of understanding of success makes us more forgiving of those who are failures, but also requires that those that have success will be more humble about their achievements. And I think that applies very much to myself. So, this book is on one level a way of saying: Don't lionize me anymore than you should lionize anyone. Success is a much more mysterious, complicated and non-linear thing.

Seeing clearly the causes of success, and failure, strikes at the heart of the myth of the self-made man: we can’t take ultimate credit and blame for what we make of ourselves. Another implication of Gladwell’s thesis is that since success results from specific, identifiable combinations of factors, we can be more intentional about designing environments which produce it, so that it’s more widely achievable. Here’s an excerpt from an article by Shelly Gare in The Australian:

Gladwell urges that if special conditions helped Gates and company, then how much richer would society be if we tried to create such situations for everyone. His recurrent theme is that no one makes it alone. Outliers, he writes, are given opportunities and then have the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

He retells the story of Marita, a 12-year-old Bronx girl who got a chance to go to an experimental public school that takes a random sample of children from extremely poor neighbourhoods. It's six days a week, long hours, more homework. Previously, she seemed directionless; now extraordinarily motivated. In fact, he says, “She's just a human being responding in a rational way to the requirements and incentives of her surroundings. This thing we call initiative and hard work and persistence is a social construction. It can be produced.”

This suggests that success can be democratized, made far more likely for many more individuals by replicating, or at least approximating, the conditions that educated and energized the likes of Bill Gates.

On the other side of the ledger, Charles Blow, a regular contributor to the New York Times op-ed page, writes of the factors that make it hard for inner city black youth to succeed:

• According to Child Trends, a Washington research group, 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers. Also, black children are the most likely to live in unsafe neighborhoods. And, black teenagers, both male and female, were more likely to report having been raped.

• According to reports last year from the National Center for Children in Poverty, 60 percent of black children live in low-income families and a third live in poor families, a higher percentage than any other race.

• A 2006 report from National Center for Juvenile Justice said that black children are twice as likely as white and Hispanic children to be the victims of “maltreatment.” The report defines maltreatment as anything ranging from neglect to physical and sexual abuse.

Most children raised in such conditions will, Blow says, “rise above their circumstances,” which is to say they will luckily have enough drive and opportunity to escape the ghetto  – see Marita’s story above. I’m not sure, unfortunately, that most will escape (an empirical question of course), but we know that many will not, and Blow asks “Can we really blame them?” Those who imagine, contra Gladwell, that kids who don’t make it have some power they could have exercised, but chose not to – bootstrap power, let’s call it – will indeed blame them. But there’s no evidence to suggest that individuals have access to a power, and the will to use it, that doesn’t ultimately derive from their physical and social circumstances: pre-natal care, diet, parents, peers, neighborhoods, schools, job training, etc., etc. Hence the importance of optimizing those circumstances if we want to democratize success. But not everyone wants to.

Denying the myth of the bootstrap-powered, self-made self is not what conservatives generally want to hear, since that myth conveniently justifies social and economic inequality, which they don’t particularly mind.[1] On the bootstrap theory, we can simply blame the failure to get ahead on the individual, not structural factors or social policy. And we can take full credit for our successes, playing down the contributions of government investment, public infrastructure and financial systems, and other social capital that makes successful entrepreneurial endeavors possible.[2] Thus it’s no surprise that even David Brooks, a thoughtful conservative if there ever was one, couldn’t quite buy Gladwell’s thesis. In a New York Times op-ed, he writes:

I can’t help but feel that Gladwell and others who share his emphasis are getting swept away by the coolness of the new discoveries. They’ve lost sight of the point at which the influence of social forces ends and the influence of the self-initiating individual begins.

Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon achievements of individual will.

Brook’s counter-thesis to Gladwell is that individual will and self-control ultimately can’t be traced to influences outside the individual. Social circumstances and genetic endowment might be important determinants, but ultimately the individual is the source of her own success. 

From a naturalistic standpoint this doesn’t withstand scrutiny. To imagine that an individual’s capacity for self-control, perseverance, and creativity are ultimately self-created in any respect is magical thinking. It’s to deny the obvious: that individuals and their capacities, including such things as self-control and initiative, are entirely the products of the interaction of genetics and environment. Having self-directed capacities isn’t evidence that the self alone creates them, and to suppose so simply raises the question: how did the self do that?  If Brooks were pressed on this, he’d have to confess ignorance, or be driven to admitting that yes, even the talent for self-control ultimately comes from factors individuals didn’t choose.

That Brooks can’t see (or wants to hide) the causal and explanatory incoherence of ultimate self-creation is testimony to the power of conservative ideology. As he tellingly observes about Gladwell’s thesis: “It’s also pleasantly egalitarian. The less successful are not less worthy, they’re just less lucky.” It’s this implication that Brooks must block, for were it accepted, then a primary conservative rationale for inequality – that some people are less worthy than others, by virtue of  blameworthy lapses in self-creation, not physical and social circumstances – collapses.

All this is not to deny the importance of personal initiative, nor is it to deny that individuals often have powers to achieve goals, circumstances permitting. It’s only to say that these powers ultimately derive from the conditions, biological and social, which formed the individual, they don’t magically arise ex nihilo. This basic, obvious causal truth is exactly what the myth of the self-made self denies, at least as wielded by those such as Brooks. Were the naturalistic idea that there’s a complete causal explanation behind success and failure to catch on, it would rapidly deflate the myth, leaving in its place the Gladwellian acknowledgment that we can’t take ultimate credit or blame for where we end up on the economic ladder. Moreover, we would understand that success, defined minimally as escaping poverty, could be made much more likely for many more individuals if we took active, intentional steps to create the circumstances that allow for it. So long as the myth of self-creation persists, it’s less likely we will do so, so it’s little wonder that small-government, laissez-faire conservatives have a stake in perpetuating it. On the other hand, liberal ambitions for greater economic and social equality have a powerful ally in the naturalistic view of ourselves as fully caused. If we can finally admit that bootstraps are strictly metaphorical, not metaphysical, there’s reason to hope that eventually at least a modicum of success will be within nearly everyone’s grasp.

TWC,  March 2009


[1] Conservatives are generally more accepting and approving of social inequality and status hierarchies than liberals, see here.

[2] About the contribution of public assets and infrastructure to private enterprise, and why successful individuals don’t make it on their own, see Lew Daly’s book Unjust Deserts (discussed here) and United for a Fair Economy.