The Self-Made Myth: How Our Biased Thinking about Luck Reduces Empathy and Compassion

“It takes more than skill to be a champion. It takes equal parts of talent, luck, work, and nerve.” -“Fats” Brown (The Twilight Zone)

When I was in college, full of myself and certain of my understanding of the world, my mentor gave me a book which shifted and, more importantly, widened my perspective. It was written by Brain Miller and Mike Lapham, and called The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed. It took me a while to get to it, because I believed it would be a waste of time, but, in reality, because I was afraid of examining my ideology. I was a libertarian back then, mainly focused on creating the most successful version of myself. And my mentor, who possessed a much greater vision for my life, knew that my thinking lacked nuance.

Although it’s been some time since I read it, the book’s impression remains striking. And I’ll never forget the clarity with which the authors argued; I became convinced that success entailed much more than talent and effort. You may be asking yourself why this matters, since talent and effort are indispensable. It’s because myopic thinking, such as mine, leads to self-absorption and limited compassion; it’s harder to care about others if you consider yourself the sole creator of your success.

How do I know this? In the documentary Capital in the Twenty-First Century, based on the Thomas Picketty book of the same name, the viewer is presented with an experiment wherein multiple groups of two are asked to play monopoly against one another. To make it interesting, one of the two is randomly selected and given an extra die and extra money, so he begins with two advantages (the advantage of the extra die is that the individual is able to make longer leaps on the board, therefore collecting money “At Go” more often). Since both parties are informed that one of them would randomly get lucky, you would expect the lucky one to present with a high level of humility. But, the opposite occurs!

In every, or almost every, instance, the lucky one becomes enamored with his own success and, as significantly, his intellect and drive. Essentially, each lucky player becomes an asshole. As the game progresses, bragging and criticizing increase as empathy decreases. Yet, throughout gameplay, each player is aware of how lucky or unlucky he is. This means that success has a way of clouding judgment, even for the most intellectually gifted. The experiment can easily make you feel hopeless, but it doesn’t have to. My optimism stems from Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist responsible for outlining System 1 and System 2 Thinking, who noted that he struggles with biased thinking, too. If we accept that none of us are immune from it and, in the case of personal success, immune from mental filtering (only focusing on one side of the information coin), it’ll be easier for us to allow ourselves to examine our beliefs. Unfortunately, Kahneman doesn’t share my standpoint.

In a hyper-competitive environment, like ours, luck is often disqualifying, as when we say, “Well, he just got lucky.” But, again, it’s biased thinking. No one simply gets lucky because luck is just one factor. Our aversion to accepting luck is based on the expectation of others’ criticisms, which, for personal reasons, are often just as flawed as our own versions of self-praise. We can’t accept luck because we believe it disqualifies our achievement, and they reduce it to luck to alleviate the sting of envy. However, if we’re being honest, to paraphrase the martial artist Ryan Hall, we’re all lucky: lucky that we didn’t get killed in a car crash, lucky that we didn’t suffer brain damage, lucky that certain people decided to take chances on us, and, if we’re athletes, lucky that we’re still playing. Luck isn’t only about help; it’s also about the lack of loss.

Success, no matter how much you believe you’ve earned it, is always, to a large extent, unpredictable, and you can’t logically take full credit for something you can’t predict. Where you’re born, how you’re raised, your genetic gifts and predispositions, or lack thereof, are all founded on luck. All in all, I’m not saying you shouldn’t criticize, but the next time you do, also try to have a little empathy.

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