Success, Chance and (In)equality

Life as a physical scientist means that I rarely get to think about the human condition. While the focus is on solving problems that could alleviate the human condition through tools that improve energy generation, increase food production and/or water availability (three of the biggest issues plaguing global population); the focus is rarely on the people experiencing these issues. So when I read articles that discuss inequality, it takes me to a place that I don’t get to visit often, but should. I encourage you to check out the CNN article at your convenience.

This paragraph stood out to me (emphasis is mine):

Find a modicum of success and it becomes all too natural to judge those who haven’t. There must be something wrong with them, right? I made it, so why can’t they?

There is the notion that if you work hard enough and long enough and believe in what you are doing, eventually things will go the way you want. It was the essence of Paulo Coehlo’s “The Alchemist”.

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it – Melchizedek in The Alchemist

Nowhere is this idea more prominent than in the United States – the idea and romance of the hard-working immigrant. I grew up in a community where emphasis was placed on focusing on God to take care of things and while it was implied that you had to do something the big picture was always the focus on God. Note: This isn’t a reflection of every Nigerian’s experience. Reading “7 habits of highly effective people” after graduation (circa 2004) cultivated the idea in me that you still have a responsibility to be proactive in creating the things you want. This is partially reflected in the following Bible Verse:

Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead – James 2:17

This saying my little sister has in her twitter bio (which I love) has a similar theme

Pray like it all depends on God, but work like it all depends on you.

In essence, It’s just as important to put in effort just as it is to have faith and belief.

The reason I bring this up is that although the idea of picking up yourself by the bootstraps is (and should be) the foundation of almost all success principles, it often minimizes the impact of your environment. Back home in Nigeria, a lot of successful people gain entry through people they know and not necessarily what you know. Some people believe that this is not the case in America (as I inferred above) and that isn’t the whole truth. This idea has become crystallized during my recent job search. While it’s very important to have the credentials and study the right field, you don’t get your feet in the door unless there is some fortuity involved: the right school, the right connection and a little luck. This comment by See-Arr-Oh in an eye-opening blog post alludes to this. Think about this for a moment: “If you are thinking about getting dinner are you more likely to go to a place rated by online reviews or a suggestion from a trusted friend?” Most (not all) would go with the second option. This sounds simplistic, but it’s part of the reason why networking is essential in your job search. It’s also the reason why professors rarely put up postings for post-docs and they go off recommendations instead. In essence when you combine the two i.e. hard work and chance, the likelihood of success is higher.

The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all – Ecclesiastes 9:11

This brings me to where the CNN article took me. I strongly believe that our focus should always be within “our sphere of influence” i.e. the things we can control and improve, but just because that thought brings some of us closer to things we desire does not justify the idea/thought that something is wrong with those who can’t. It’s important to take responsibility for your actions and equally important to recognize that some chance plays a role in getting to where you are.

Perhaps if we keep that in mind, we might be less prone to errors of judgment when it comes to people who are more and less fortunate than we are. Perhaps this is why the social sciences exist and are equally as important to the human condition as the physical sciences.

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