This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…
It’s human nature for us to think we’re a bit special. Pretty much everyone considers themselves an “above average” driver, even though that’s a statistical impossibility.
We also tend to find comfort in believing we’re all more or less in charge of our own destiny. It’s an idea that’s reinforced by so many lessons in our individualised, capitalist culture: Work hard, get a degree, a good job, and you will succeed.
Ask anyone who we might consider “successful” and most will put it down to hard work. But I doubt many would believe their success was down to blind luck, or simple good fortune.
Few are so humble.
We have all sorts of ideas about the universe that might feel right, but our human tendency to trust our feelings leads us astray.
Cognitive psychologists – who study how we think – call these “heuristics” or rules, based on thinking shortcuts that we use to navigate our world. In the world of politics these ideas have also been dubbed by American satirist Stephen Colbert as being high in “truthiness.”
So if we assume success, money, career, owning a house and having a comfortable life, is based on hard work, then the opposite must also be true, right?
Poverty, being unemployed, being on a state benefit, must be due to the absence of hard work, right?
If effort equals success, then failure must be caused by the absence of effort.
Except everything we know about how society works, how inequality works, and what causes poverty and even individual hardship also tells us it’s wrong.
But our egos make it hard to embrace the truth. Most of the factors that allow for success rely on blind luck, starting with our ethnicity, gender and the education levels of our parents.
We also need to have had the good fortune of being loved, supported and have access to resources to follow our dreams and passions.
And we needed to be lucky enough not to suffer too many traumas such as family breakdowns, parental redundancy, accidents, abuse, disability, or any host of disruptions as we grew up.
Empathy, of course, comes from being able to place ourselves in another’s shoes. But to truly do that – if we are fortunate enough to be successful – then we have to be able to set aside our ego, set aside our own ideas about how our talents and hard work got us to where we are.
Celebrating our own individual success and judging others’ failure is just two sides of the same coin. While it can be scary to accept we have much less control than we would like to think over our own lives, true compassion comes from realising that we can rig the dice in favour of those less fortunate.
Doing so takes nothing away from our own success.
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