What causes an individual to be successful? Are there a multitude of factors including the talents of the individual or is it entirely individual talent? Does society contribute to an individuals success?
George Lakoff wrote the following in The Political Mind:
One of the most profound differences between strict and nurturant modes of thought is the area of causation. In the strict father model, there is individual responsibility and direct action operating: the father gives a directive, the child is expected to carry it out, and if not, the father punishes. Causation is direct and individual.
In the nurturant parent model, causation is sometimes direct and individual, but just as often it is systemic. Nurturance involves developing attachment, empathizing with and forming connections to others. The more absolutes are Help, Don’t Harm, Do Unto Others. … You have to function as part of a social and interpersonal system less governed by specific rules and more “felt out” in terms of how you relate to others and sense their needs and requirements [empathize].
In Thinking Points, Mr. Lakoff states, “Pure conservative philosophy is the application of the strict father model – and only that model – to politics.” He also observes the “appearance of the authoritarian conservative, who applies the strict father model not just to all issues but to governing itself.” John Dean refers to these individuals as Conservatives Without Conscience (CWC).
In other words, CWCs are driven by “individual responsibility and direct action.” Mr. Lakoff restates this as their “Individual Responsibility Principle” in Thinking Points:
All of us are individually responsible for our own destiny. If you succeed, it’s because you deserve it; if you fail it’s your own fault. You’re on your own, and you should be. No coddling.
In surveying conservative and progressive arguments, we have noticed another important regularity. Conservatives seem to argue on the basis of direct, individual causation, while progressives tend to argue on the basis of systemic, complex causation.
The two worldviews described by Dr. Lakoff see causation differently. What evidence exists to give credence to either the strict father or the nurturant causation statements made by Professor Lakoff?
The answer is found in the many examples of success documented in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In part 1 of Outliers, Gladwell reviews the different individual and systemic causes of success for several groups and individuals.
Discussed below are summaries of successful individuals and the individual and systemic factors that contributed to their success.
The Matthew Effect shows how setting cutoff dates gives individuals born closest to that date an advantage over others born later.
Championship Canadian Hockey Teams – from age 10 to professional hockey player – were determined by the following external factors:
- They had to be born in Canada
- They had to be born shortly after some arbitrary cutoff date – the closer the better. In this case, January first.
- Their innate talent and early start got them on the “rep squad” which lead to more practice sessions and games to enhance their talents
- They had a physical advantage over others when the differences between 10 year olds over a 12 month period can be significant.
Analysis of successful Canadian hockey teams shows that their members were composed of players with birthdays in the following groups:
- Jan-Mar – 40%
- Apr-Jun – 30%
- Jul-Sep – 20%
- Oct-Dec – 10%
When the researchers looked at individual months, they found more successful team members were born in January than any other month. Second in number of successful players was February and then March.
In the United States, there is a cutoff date of July 31 for baseball. Well, guess what? More major league players are born in August than any other month. Similar statistics exist for European soccer teams.
There were similar results for math testing of fourth graders. The older fourth graders scored 4 to 12% higher.
Research has also showed that not all those born in January become successful team players. Innate talent is also required. But this innate talent is given a significant boost if you are born in January in Canada and you want to play hockey. “Achievement is talent plus preparation” and those with the most preparation become champions.
One researcher said, “It’s outlandish that our arbitrary choice of cutoff dates is causing these long-lasting effects and no one seems to care about them.”
So, successful sports players had innate talent, but that talent was boosted because of when and where the player was born. This luck of the draw then lead to more chances to practice and play more games and thus boost their success and natural talent, if they had any.
Mr. Gladwell then goes on to point out that preparation for successful individuals takes about 10,000 hours. People at the top had to “work much, much harder.” Talent is there but experience is a major factor.
This experience requirement was part of the success of The Beatles, Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems, Bill Gates and many others. After reviewing details on innate talents, who they knew that provided a distinct advantage, what family they were born into and who the parents knew, and how they gained their relevant 10,000 hours of experience in a short time, Mr. Gladwell then looked at when they were born. Again a common factor about birth was part of the systemic causes for success. But again, birth is just one factor that contributed to success. “Lucky breaks” for these successful billionaires or The Beatles or star athletes “seem like the rule.”
Mr. Gladwell then listed the 75 richest people in human history based on current US dollars. Whatever the other factors, talents, or lucky breaks were for these 75 people, this list included 14 Americans that were all born within 9 years of each other. Twenty percent of this group comes from one century and one country – lucky breaks.
They were all born between 1831 and 1840. During this era railroads were starting; Wall Street was born; and industrial manufacturing started in a major way. All the economic rules were broken and remade. It really matters if you are born in a time of major transformations and get those lucky breaks.
This same kind of transformation, the personal computer age, was starting just in time for Bill Joy and BIll Gates. If you were born before 1952 and working in computers, your future was in main frames and time sharing, and you wore a black tie and white shirt. If you were born after 1958, you didn’t have time to get your 10,000 hours of computer programming experience.
Opportunity and the right experience are major systemic factors for successful people. Major opportunities occur during the right time for lucky individuals with sufficient experience plus innate talent. But it must all come together just so and at the right time for significant success to occur.
But what about innate talent? Does it have limits?
The Effect of High IQ on Success:
Mr. Gladwell reviewed the value of IQ scores, a measure of innate talent, and it’s effect on success. The research shows that those with an IQ of 120 are just as likely to be successful as anyone with an IQ higher than 120.
Just after World War I, Lewis Terman, a Stanford professor, identified 1,528 individuals with an IQ of at least 140. They became known as the “Termites.” Their ages ranged from 3 to 28. A Stanford article on the termites concludes with the following:
As for what IQ scores can predict about a person’s future, Hastorf offers a middle-of-the road position: the tests are pretty good at identifying “school-bright” children, those likely to perform well in ordinary school settings, but “on the issue of what makes you school-bright, it’s obviously a combination of variables — your genetic constitution, your biological health, the motivation that your parents put into you, chance.”
Professor Terman tracked his Termites for years. When most had become adults, he reviewed the success of 730 males. He split them into three groups. The highly successful A group – top 20 percent. Ninety-eight percent of them had advanced degrees. The B group – the middle 60 percent – succeeded satisfactorily. The C group – the bottom 20 percent – were not very successful even though their IQs were 140 or more. Only a quarter of them graduated from high school and only eight earned graduate degrees. Further analysis showed the A’s were from middle and upper class families. The C’s were from the “other side of the tracks.” They all had innate talent, but the Cs lacked the other systemic factors that would foster success.
Mr. Gladwell discussed one such systemic factor that contributed to success for those with high IQs: the “motivation that your parents put into you.” “Concerted cultivation” is more relevant to success than an IQ above 120. If you can’t work with others, it doesn’t matter if your IQ is 195 – you’re not likely to be successful. Christopher Langan, discussed extensively in Outliers, is an example of someone with a high IQ but who had little success in life.
It is unfortunate, but concerted cultivation is typically missing from poor broken families, but it has nothing to do with genetics. It is cultural. The wealthy feel “entitled” to what they have. The poor learn “constraint.” The high IQ poor are less likely to be successful because they lack a “community around them that [could have] prepared them properly for the world.”
Mr. Gladwell provides ample evidence that there are systemic factors that contribute to the success of a talented individual. But there are still more …
In addition to the Matthew Effect, the requirement for 10,000 hours of experience, the luck of when and where you were born, social connections, and having sufficient but not necessarily excessive talent – there are still the systemic factors provided by society through its government.
Here is an insightful quote from Warren Buffet (net worth around $46,000,000,000) on societal causation:
I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned. If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil… I work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well – disproportionately well. Mike Tyson, too. If you can knock a guy out in 10 seconds and earn $10 million for it, this world will pay a lot for that. If you can bat .360, this world will pay a lot for that. If you’re a marvelous teacher, this world won’t pay a lot for it. If you are a terrific nurse, this world will not pay a lot for it. Now, am I going to try to come up with some comparable worth system that somehow (re)distributes that. No, I don’t think you can do that. But I do think that when you’re treated enormously well by this market system, where in effect the market system showers the ability to buy goods and services on you because of some peculiar talent – maybe your adenoids are a certain way, so you can sing and everybody will pay you enormous sums to be on television or whatever – I think society has a big claim on that.
Here is how George Lakoff describes how our society, through its government, helps cause citizen success.
America’s government has at least two fundamental functions, protection and empowerment. Protection includes the police, firefighters, emergency services, public health, the military, and so on. Empowerment includes the infrastructure needed for business and everyday life: roads, communications systems, water supplies, public education, the banking system for loans and economic stability, the SEC for the stock market, the courts for enforcing contracts, air traffic control, support for basic science, our national parks and public buildings, and more. We are usually aware of protection. But the empowerment infrastructure, provided by taxes, is usually taken for granted, hidden, or ignored. Yet it is absolutely crucial, a fundamental truth about America and why America provides opportunity [for success].
Taxes are part of our common wealth, what we all share. Protection and empowerment serve the common good. Because of our common wealth, we are all protected and America’s empowering infrastructure is available to all. That is a fundamental America value: the common wealth should serve the common good. It benefits everyone.
Citizens are financially responsible to maintain this common wealth [by paying taxes in proportion to their gains from society]. If we shirked this responsibility, we could not maintain our roads, fund our schools, protect ourselves from military threats, enforce our laws, and so on. Equally important, we could not create prosperity [success] for ourselves, because we would have no protection of our intellectual property, no oversight of our markets, no means to enforce our contracts, no way to educate most of our children.
Gladwell details many of the specific factors that helped cause the wealth of Bill Gates and Bill Joy. Professor Lakoff explains some of the societal factors that contributed to the success of these talented and lucky citizens:
He [Bill Gates] started Microsoft as a college dropout and has become the world’s richest person. Though he has undoubtedly benefited from his unusual intelligence and business acumen, he could not have created or sustained his personal wealth without the common wealth. The legal system protected Microsoft’s intellectual property and contracts. The tax-supported financial infrastructure enabled him to access capital markets and trade his stock in a market in which investors have confidence. He built his company with many employees educated in public schools and universities. Tax-funded research helped develop computer science and the internet. Trade laws negotiated and enforced by the government protect his ability to sell his products abroad. These are but a few of the ways in which Mr. Gates’ accumulation of wealth was empowered by the common wealth and by taxation.
The research of Lakoff and Gladwell supports the progressive worldview on the causes of success – it’s much more than individual talent. Gladwell emphasizes the technical more determinant causes of success while Lakoff highlights that “the empowerment infrastructure [of our society through its government], provided by taxes, is usually taken for granted, hidden, or ignored.”
Paying taxes supports America’s infrastructure and improves the chances of success for all its citizens. This contradicts the claim of CWCs that cutting taxes, like Nixon, Reagan and Bush did, will solve our problems. Cutting taxes, especially for the rich, only increases the chances of success for the rich – like bonuses and/or continued employment for the CEOs of banks too big to fail – while it reduces the chances of success for the rest of America’s citizenry – now losing their jobs and homes.
The video below illustrates one of the elements that distinguishes right-wing authoritarians (RWA) from others – the understanding of “systemic causation.” Their belief and basic framing for their conservative worldview is “rugged individualism.” This RWA framing does not allow them to believe the “network visualisation” this video discusses.
See if you can spot the RWAs in the diagram that is developed during this video.