Featuring incredibly beautiful and uplifting illustrations by the author
A friend recently shared with me one of those inspiring Facebook posts in which some incredibly well-known celebrity, whose name escapes me at the moment, exults that she or he is no mere overnight success story, that her or his fabulous success is purely a product of his or her incredibly positive attitude and hard work (plus, of course, a touch of genius and free-range kombucha), and that there’s no such thing as good or bad luck.
To which, allow me just to say: Oh, puke. Because of the brain’s susceptibility to such cognitive malfunctions as the just-world fallacy and survivorship bias, it’s almost impossible to turn loose of this notion that Life is What You Make it, along with its enjoyably judgmental corollary that life’s losers Got What Was Coming To Them.
But turn loose we must (if we don’t want to be exploitable nitwits.) To make it easier, I’m going to place the following tale in the unthreateningly vague realm of dreams…
…In this dream, you find yourself in an old-fashioned high-school gymnasium, standing all alone up near the top of the creaky wooden bleachers. At first the place seems empty – but then, gazing down at the basketball floor far below, you’re surprised to see almost everyone you know in your life’s field of endeavor, along with a lot of other people, standing around singly and in small clumps with no discernible pattern.
In the dimness at the very top of the bleachers, right under the sign on the dusty scoreboard that reads VISITORS, you notice a pair of figures robed in shining white. This being a dream, you realize instinctively that these are Recording Angels – omniscient beings gifted with the inerrant knowledge of everything that everyone has ever done, much like Google only nicer. They look impressive but not threatening, so you decide to clamber up to the top of the bleachers to ask them what the heck is going on.
“Why, hello, my child,” says the nearer angel kindly as you approach. “I omnisciently sense that you want me to tell you what the heck is going on. It’s quite simple, really: We are arranging people according to their work and their worldly success… No, not there,” – turning to the other angel and showing him or her (it’s a little hard to tell with angels) a golden clipboard. “Up a bit more, and a little more to the left.” The second angel gestures benignly toward a person down on the basketball floor, who shifts position accordingly, and the first angel turns back to you.
“You see, we place each person across the floor, from near to far, according to how hard he or she has worked,” the first angel continues. “Those standing closer to us, along the bottom, have barely worked at all, while those standing along the top have worked very hard indeed.
“Then, we place each person from side to side along the floor, according to how much worldly success he or she has achieved. Those standing toward our left have achieved very little success, while those standing toward our right have achieved quite a lot.
“In other words,” interjects the second angel, “it’s a two-axis scatter plot. The X axis indicates achievement level, and the Y axis indicates the intensity of work.”
“Pedantic, aren’t we?” mutters the first angel, then continues. “Yes, each person’s position on the floor indicates both how hard he or she has worked, and how much he or she has achieved. For example…” – pointing toward an aimless little group standing, sitting, or lying in the lower-left corner of the floor – “those down here have worked very little, and have achieved very little. Those far away over there…” – pointing to an energetic-looking group in the upper-right corner – “…have worked very hard, and have achieved much.”
“But wait, what about the rest?” you blurt. “We all know that success is determined by nothing except hard work, right? So, everybody should be standing along one simple, straight diagonal line, running from those lazy losers down in the lower left, up to those hard-working high achievers at the upper right.
“But instead, you’ve got people scattered all over the floor, with no discernible pattern. You’ve got to be doing this wrong!”
“You need to spend less time on Facebook, my child,” says the angel with a chuckle. “It’s true that work and attitude influence worldly success – which is why you do see a slight clustering effect along the diagonal line you mentioned.” You look again, and you can see it: There is a faint concentration along the line from lower left to upper right. But it’s a very slight pattern in the midst of a very haphazard arrangement.
“That’s because…” says the angel – who, being omniscient, is annoyingly accurate at reading your thoughts – “… worldly success also depends very much on other things as well: circumstances of birth; one’s range of acquaintances; and, of course, the random outcomes of life’s vicissitudes…”
“…In other words, luck,” quips the second angel. (The first angel responds with a perfectly arched eyebrow, marking the first time in life it ever occurred to you that angels even had eyebrows.)
The second angel gestures toward a haggard-looking figure slumped morosely far off in the upper-left corner of the floor. “That’s Achmed – smart, a good businessman, and a very hard worker. Unfortunately for him, he lives in a problematic part of the world, and a while back, a stray bomb hit his home, killed his entire family, destroyed his business, deprived him of one limb and the sight of one eye, and left him a destitute refugee. Can’t really blame that on his work ethic, can you?
“On the other hand, that fellow down there…” – the angel points toward the lower right corner, where a rather smug-looking figure is surrounded by an admiring group – “…is one of the heirs of a deceased big-business magnate. He has enjoyed a privileged and prosperous life without ever having to do a thing for it, other than get lucky in the egg-and-sperm lottery. Of course he thinks he’s earned it all on pure personal merit; I understand he’s planning to run for public office on a platform of forcing the lower orders to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”
“But those are extreme cases,” says the first angel with an expansive gesture. “Most people wind up somewhere toward the middle of the floor. That means that no matter where you yourself stand, you’ll always be able to look down and away toward the lower-right corner, and see an array of people who have achieved more success than you – but who haven’t worked as hard as you have to achieve it.”
“And,” the angel continues, “if you look back over your shoulder toward the upper left corner, you’ll see an array of people who have worked harder than you, but haven’t achieved as much success. Don’t be surprised if they look at you in a somewhat peeved manner.”
“We call it the Axis of Resentment,” says the second angel.
You feel dazed. “You mean those inspirational Facebook posts are all wrong?” you stammer. “You can’t really determine your own course in life just by hard work, and a positive attitude, and free-range kombucha?” Secretly, you’re hoping the angel will tell you that you can skip the kombucha.
“Yes, you can give the kombucha a miss,” says the angel with a wink, having accurately read your thoughts again. “And of course you don’t want to give up on hard work and positive attitude; certainly you want to make the most of the circumstances you can control. But you mustn’t under-rate the influence of the circumstances you can NOT control – nor look down on people whom those circumstances have treated more harshly.
“It happens all the time,” the angel continues. “At any given instant, a hundred people might be starting a business, or releasing a music video, or launching an inspirational website. They might all have equally good ideas and do equally hard work. But purely through the statistical luck of the draw, one person’s idea will be incredibly successful… one will be a complete failure… and all the others will fall somewhere in between. Even we Recording Angels can’t tell in advance which will be which.”
(”If we could,” you think you hear the second angel mutter, “I wouldn’t be working this gig.”)