Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The chosen ones

with one comment

In his recent New Yorker profile of Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Osnos quotes one of the Facebook founder’s close friends: “I think Mark has always seen himself as a man of history, someone who is destined to be great, and I mean that in the broadest sense of the term.” Zuckerberg feels “a teleological frame of feeling almost chosen,” and in his case, it happened to be correct. Yet this tells us almost nothing abut Zuckerberg himself, because I can safely say that most other undergraduates at Harvard feel the same way. A writer for The Simpsons once claimed that the show had so many presidential jokes—like the one about Grover Cleveland spanking Grandpa “on two non-consecutive occasions”—because most of the writers secretly once thought that they would be president themselves, and he had a point. It’s very hard to do anything interesting in life without the certainty that you’re somehow one of the chosen ones, even if your estimation of yourself turns out to be wildly off the mark. (When I was in my twenties, my favorite point of comparison was Napoleon, while Zuckerberg seems to be more fond of Augustus: “You have all these good and bad and complex figures. I think Augustus is one of the most fascinating. Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace.”) This kind of conviction is necessary for success, although hardly sufficient. The first human beings to walk on Mars may have already been born. Deep down, they know it, and this knowledge will determine their decisions for the rest of their lives. Of course, thousands of others “know” it, too. And just a few of them will turn out to be right.

One of my persistent themes on this blog is how we tend to confuse talent with luck, or, more generally, to underestimate the role that chance plays in success or failure. I never tire of quoting the economist Daniel Kahneman, who in Thinking Fast and Slow shares what he calls his favorite equation:

Success = Talent + Luck
Great Success = A little more talent + A lot of luck

The truth of this statement seems incontestable. Yet we’re all reluctant to acknowledge its power in our own lives, and this tendency only increases as the roles played by luck and privilege assume a greater importance. This week has been bracketed by news stories about two men who embody this attitude at its most extreme. On the one hand, you have Brett Kavanaugh, a Yale legacy student who seems unable to recognize that his drinking and his professional success weren’t mutually exclusive, but closer to the opposite. He occupied a cultural and social stratum that gave him the chance to screw up repeatedly without lasting consequences, and we’re about to learn how far that privilege truly extends. On the other hand, you have yesterday’s New York Times exposé of Donald Trump, who took hundreds of millions of dollars from his father’s real estate empire—often in the form of bailouts for his own failed investments—while constantly describing himself as a self-made billionaire. This is hardly surprising, but it’s still striking to see the extent to which Fred Trump played along with his son’s story. He understood the value of that myth.

This gets at an important point about privilege, no matter which form it takes. We have a way of visualizing these matters in spatial terms—”upper class,” “lower class,” “class pyramid,” “rising,” “falling,” or “stratum” in the sense that I used it above. But true privilege isn’t spatial, but temporal. It unfolds over time, by giving its beneficiaries more opportunities to fail and recover, when those living at the edge might not be able to come back from the slightest misstep. We like to say that a privileged person is someone who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple, but it’s more like being granted unlimited turns at bat. Kavanaugh provides a vivid reminder, in case we needed one, that a man who fits a certain profile has the freedom to make all kinds of mistakes, the smallest of which would be fatal for someone who didn’t look like he did. And this doesn’t just apply to drunken misbehavior, criminal or otherwise, but even to the legitimate failures that are necessary for the vast majority of us to achieve real success. When you come from the right background, it’s easier to survive for long enough to benefit from the effects of luck, which influences the way that we talk about failure itself. Silicon Valley speaks of “failing faster,” which only makes sense when the price of failure is humiliation or the loss of investment capital, not falling permanently out of the middle class. And as I’ve noted before, Pixar’s creative philosophy, which Andrew Stanton described as a process in which “the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them,” is only practicable for filmmakers who look and sound like their counterparts at the top, which grants them the necessary creative freedom to fail repeatedly—a luxury that women are rarely granted.

This may all come across as unbelievably depressing, but there’s a silver lining, and it took me years to figure it out. The odds of succeeding in any creative field—which includes nearly everything in which the standard career path isn’t clearly marked—are minuscule. Few who try will ever make it, even if they have “a teleological frame of feeling almost chosen.” This isn’t due to a lack of drive or talent, but of time and second chances. When you combine the absence of any straightforward instructions with the crucial role played by luck, you get a process in which repeated failure over a long period is almost inevitable. Those who drop out don’t suffer from weak nerves, but from the fact that they’ve used up all of their extra lives. Privilege allows you to stay in the game for long enough for the odds to turn in your favor, and if you’ve got it, you may as well use it. (An Ivy League education doesn’t guarantee success, but it drastically increases your ability to stick around in the middle class in the meantime.) In its absence, you can find strategies of minimizing risk in small ways while increasing it on the highest levels, which just another word for becoming a bohemian. And the big takeaway here is that since the probability of success is already so low, you may as well do exactly what you want. It can be tempting to tailor your work to the market, reasoning that it will increase your chances ever so slightly, but in reality, the difference is infinitesimal. An objective observer would conclude that you’re not going to make it either way, and even if you do, it will take about the same amount of time to succeed by selling out as it would by staying true to yourself. You should still do everything that you can to make the odds more favorable, but if you’re probably going to fail anyway, you might as well do it on your own terms. And that’s the only choice that matters.

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2018 at 8:59 am

One Response

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  1. In-group bias strikes again. You look like someone who should succeed, so we’re going to back you until you do…


    October 4, 2018 at 4:37 am

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