Credit for Being Who You Are

It is easy to look at other people and compare ourselves to them and feel either vastly superior or completely inadequate. But whether we feel better than someone else or worse than another person, we should recognize that these comparisons are generally meaningless. There are some people who do incredible things in the world, and others who we think could do more, but it is often the case that the individuals themselves have less control over how amazing and impressive they are than we (and they) believe.


For someone who is successful, it is easy and tempting for them to take all the credit. Surely they had to make smart choices and work hard to get to the place they are, and surely their success feels as if it has been earned. Simultaneously, we can apply this filter to someone who has not become our picture of success. They were lazy and didn’t make smart choices, and also deserve the place where they have landed.


For both successful and unsuccessful people, this perspective can be turned around. The successful person was the beneficiary of good luck, of a supportive and loving family, and maybe even inherited some wealth to help them along the way. The person who didn’t succeed maybe just didn’t get the lucky break, didn’t have someone in their life to help encourage and inspire them, and maybe had other challenges we don’t know about. For the successful person, maybe they would still be successful even if they were lazy and made poor choices. Perhaps the person we think of as a failure would have still failed even if they had worked hard and made smart choices.


I like to think through these exercises to remind myself that what I think of as success and failure, and what I see in my own life outcomes and the outcomes of other people are not always the results of individual actions, choices, and will power. Comparing ourselves to those who are successful and those who have failed doesn’t really give us a good picture of who is a valuable person. We all have different advantages and all face different forms of adversity. There are a lot of factors we can’t control, and we can’t take full credit for being either successful or for failing to reach the highest rung on the ladder.


Dale Carnegie writes about this in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, bringing a bit of a Stoic perspective to his readers:


“The only reason, for example, that you are not a rattlesnake is that your mother and father weren’t rattlesnakes. You deserve very little credit for being what you are—and remember, the people who come to you irritated, bigoted, unreasoning, deserve very little discredit for being what they are.”


We didn’t pick our genes, we didn’t pick our families, and we can’t always control our thoughts and personalities. We can certainly do the best we can with what we have, but we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly (or praise ourselves unduly) because we are not like someone else. To be where we are today was in many ways a lucky result, and we will never know exactly what extra pushes we received that others did not, or what extra advantages others had that we missed out on. All we can do is try to engage with the world in a meaningful way, and try to help those who didn’t get the advantages that we had.

Advantages From Birth

When I was at the University of Nevada for my undergrad, I spent a semester studying Education. From a class titled Teaching Multicultural Diversity I learned just how important family support and social economic status can be for an individuals health, development, and academic success.  The statistics were hard to accept and fully believe, especially as an insecure college student who wanted to believe that all of the good things I did came as a result of my own hard work and not the fortune of others.  I was reminded of everything I learned in that class when  I came across the following quote from George Saunders in a letter he wrote to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, “A fortunate birth, in other words, is a shock absorber”.
Saunders in his letter asks the reader to participate in a thought experiment.  He writes about two babies born at exactly the same time, but to very different families; one born to a wealthy and supportive family and the other born to a broken family of drug addicts. He asks us to imagine this scenario acted out a million times, and then asks us to imagine the future for all of the babies born to the “in-tact families” relative to the future of the babies born into broken homes.  What he explains is that both sets of babies will face many of the same challenges, but that the babies born to the supportive families will always have a level of support and comfort to help them bounce back, learn quicker, and receive better care than the other babies.  His ultimate point is that a fortunate birth can set up a life filled with advantages, and that no baby ever does anything to deserve a fortunate or unfortunate birth.
What I learned in my education class supported Saunders’ thought experiment. The biggest shock for me was this, the vocabulary for children entering first grade can vary from 10,000 words to 1,000 words.  What creates this 9,000 word gap has nothing to do with a child’s intelligence or aptitude, but more often than not the single deciding factor between a high and low vocabulary is a home filled with books.  Children with parents who read to them and send them to kindergarten will be closer to the 10,000 word vocabulary, while children whose parents do not buy them books and instead leave  them with  the television enter school with a vocabulary closer to 1,000 words.  If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he introduces the idea that birth plays an important factor in future athletic, academic, and even musical success.  A child who enters school with a 10,000 word vocabulary will receive more praise for their good reading skills, and as a result will continue to challenge themselves with reading and learning. Meanwhile, the child who entered school with 1,000 words will struggle and not receive additional attention for their strong academic skills, which in the end will leave them discouraged. This is the idea behind early childhood development for Gladwell. A lucky birth (good timing allowing a young athlete to be more developed at age 5, or being born into a home filled with books) can allow a child to receive not just more support from their family, but from society.
When we look at others who maybe are not as successful as us, I think it is worth remembering this idea.  We did not all have the same supportive parents and backgrounds. Sometimes the help we receive from family and our social economic surroundings allows us to overcome obstacles that others cannot. While it is difficult to accept and truly understand this, it will help us connect with more people and make a positive impact on the planet.