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Archive for Saturday, January 10, 2009

‘Luck’ prospers on level playing field

January 10, 2009

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— There was a time when any woman who attributed her success to luck risked getting ticketed by the feminist police. To say that your crowning achievement was a matter of good fortune rather than your own smarts, ambition and hard work was as politically incorrect as a blush.

Women had, after all, been forced to follow a cultural script that said femininity and ambition were contradictions. They learned to demur. Most men, on the other hand, followed the cultural script that attributed greatness to their own brains and effort. They were self-made.

Well, despite a serving of tickets, I never discounted luck. Looking at my own life and those around me, I saw a combination of factors that smacked of chance. Not the kind of luck where you plunk down a dollar at the lottery, but the kind you tip your hat to.

If anything, the standard male narrative about flying solo to the top, bootstraps in hand, energized only by your own talents, always seemed a bit cockeyed to me. The female narrative was not so much self-effacing as it was realistic.

Thoughts about success have come creeping back into the conversation since Malcolm Gladwell got a hold on the top of the best-seller list with his book “Outliers,” more aptly subtitled “The Story of Success.” Gladwell is the anti-Horatio Alger. “It is not the brightest who succeed. ... Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf,” he writes. “It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

On his chart of “opportunities” there are, for example, the Canadian junior hockey stars born disproportionately in the early months of the year, when the age cutoff date gives them a better shot at getting coaching. There is the computer bought for Bill Gates’ high school long before other schools had such equipment. There is also the cultural luck of the draw: the language that gives Chinese students a leg up on math and the “rice paddy” economy that imbues them with a certain work ethic.

Even the “10,000-hour rule,” the number of hours it takes to achieve mastery, is not just a matter of willpower but of opportunity. So the Beatles got their training in long hours at Hamburg nightclubs. And conversely, children in our poorest schools are disadvantaged less by the schools than by summer vacations.

This is the perfect moment for Gladwell’s success story. In good times, we look up to heroic CEOs and masters of the financial universe as if their surfboards were making the waves they rode. Suddenly there’s an undertow and we’re more likely to see the shared currents such as family, culture and timing.

Still, there are missing elements among the provocative ideas that Gladwell draws together. In homage to the feminist police, I couldn’t help noticing that there are virtually no women among his “Outliers.” And those who do appear are almost exclusively moms. It’s as if women were a separate culture.

In the same sense, this exploration of success casually neglects the great social changes that altered opportunities. Anti-Semitism, for example, crops up oddly as an advantage to the Jewish lawyers banned from white-shoe firms who (therefore?) became experts at corporate takeover law. There’s no mention that the “rice paddy” culture that produces successful mathematicians today produced “coolie labor” for railroad builders of the 19th century.

And what of the heirs and heiresses of the civil rights and women’s rights movements who were “lucky” to be born in that culture of empowerment? Those movements are oddly absent from a populist call for replacing the “patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages” with “a society that provides opportunities for all.”

There has always been this paradox at the heart of our national idea. Americans do believe that individuals are agents of their own destiny. Sometimes to a fault. But we also believe in creating a level playing field to enable that destiny. This duality is as much a part of the American environment as the rice paddy economy is of the Chinese.

At the heart of our culture is something else very much back in the air during this rocky, troubling, optimistic, transitional time. It’s a bedrock belief in the possibility of change. This is the fundamental creed that defines our country’s own success story: America the Outlier.

— Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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