A question I am always asking myself is how much personal responsibility we should assign to individuals when it comes to success in terms of finances, relationships, careers, and life in general. The society that we live within is complicated swirling atmosphere that lifts some to the highest levels and buffers across the ground. Recently I have been writing about the challenges that minorities face in the United States, and the relative advantages experienced by our country’s white majority. At the same time, I have been listening to Tyler Cowen and thinking about his most recent book which I have not read, The Complacent Class. Several of the authors that I have read who focus on race in the United States, Ta-Nehisi Coats, Michelle Alexander, and Michael Tesler, have emphasized the ways in which factors beyond an individual’s control, such as race, shape the opportunities and futures that we have. Other authors that I have read or listened to extensively in podcasts, Cowen, Ryan Holiday, and Richard Wiseman, seem to suggest that mindset matters a great deal, and that we can adopt better thought patterns to achieve great success. These two views are not mutually exclusive, but are tied together in a complex set of interactions by personal responsibility.
About personal responsibility and society in The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “Urging the urban poor—or anyone—to live up to their highest ideals and values is a good thing, as it demonstrates confidence in the ability of all people to stretch, grow, and evolve. Even in the most dire circumstances, we all have power and agency, the ability to choose what we think and how we respond to the circumstances of our lives.” Alexander’s quote puts the idea of mindset to action in this quote, highlighting the importance of believing that anyone at anytime can find success. She emphasizes the importance of self-efficacy, believing that one has the ability to reach beyond their current situation and to make the most of who they are and where they find themselves. Alexander continues, “The intuition underlying moral-uplift strategies is fundamentally sound: out communities will never thrive if we fail to respect ourselves and one another.”
I believe that Alexander is correct that we have to respect ourselves and believe that we can make changes and advance in our own lives if we are to be successful and if we are to contribute to society. At the same time, I think it is important that we recognize that our personal responsibility also extends to how we interact with society and with those who are also facing obstacles of their own. The challenges that middle and upper class white people face are real, but so is the ability for them to recover, receive coaching and mentoring, and to get a second chance. For our low income populations and our minority populations, the personal responsibility piece holds true, but the ability to recover and find a second chance is not related to personal responsibility and is not always available.
Alexander looks deeper at personal responsibility and our reactions to ideas of personal responsibility writing, “As a liberation strategy, however, the politics of responsibility is doomed to fail—not because there is something especially wrong with those locked in ghettos or prisons today, but because there is nothing special about them. They are merely human.”
Malcom Gladwell in episode 4, Carlos Doesn’t Remember, from his podcast Revisionist History, explains the ways in which even our top performing youth from low income families can be derailed from a path of success. The consequence, he explains, of failing to overcome a single obstacle for a child born to the lowest SES families are overwhelmingly large, and the second chances or ability to recover from a stumble that is afforded to middle and upper class children is non-existent.
Somewhere tied between all of these factors lies personal responsibility. We are responsible for how we choose to react to the world around us. Our mind is the only thing we control and can be a tool for overcoming obstacles and not just a camera that reacts to what it sees around itself. At the same time, we cannot control the windfalls of success or adversity that we will face. And all the while we must remember that it is our personal responsibility to be there for others and guide and mentor those who are also facing challenging times. Where we draw the line of personal responsibility matters. It determines how we analyze the future potential of ourselves and others, and it determines how much assistance we receive and give to those around us. The problem is that it is invisible, connected to social responsibility, and entangled with all the things that drag our nation down that we want to forget.