Why Equality of Opportunity is a Myth - Ezra Klein - Star Wars - Yuval Noah Harari - Thrawn - Ahsoka - Sapiens

Why Equality of Opportunity is a Myth

I used to listen to the Ezra Klein show on a regular basis, and Klein was frequently critical of the idea of equality of opportunity. In our country, the idea of equality of outcomes is looked down upon, but the idea of equality of opportunity is praised. However, Klein argued that equality of opportunity was actually a much more difficult and radical idea to achieve  than equality of outcome. When you really consider all the advantages the children of millionaires or billionaires have over middle class children, and the subsequent advantages those children have over children raised in poverty, you can see that equality of opportunity is little more than a myth.
This idea is reflected in Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari writes, “most abilities have to be nurtured and developed. Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not fostered, honed and exercised. Not all people get the same chance to cultivate and refine their abilities.”
Our country believes that everyone can pull themselves up by their boot-straps, but the reality is that we almost all need someone outside of ourselves to help encourage us, coach us, and aid us in developing our skills, even if we are born with a natural talent. As I write this, I am reminded of two Star Wars books I recently listened to through Audible. In Star Wars: Ahsoka, the titular character explains to the parent of a force-sensitive child that if the child is not brought up by a Jedi and her force abilities are not nurtured, then they will eventually fade away. The force, and the ability to tap into the force, in Star Wars is a god-like power, but even those born with a special proclivity toward the force will lose that power if not properly trained. The child in the book, born on a planet on the outskirts of the major center of the galaxy, was not likely to have a chance to harness and maximize her force powers. She did not have the same opportunity to develop her natural talent as the Jedi Ahsoka did.
In another Star Wars title, Thrawn by Timothy Zahn, the titular character Thrawn meets a young cadet named Eli Vanto who is exceptionally skilled with data and strategic analysis, but who is also from a planet on the outskirts of the galaxy. Despite his exceptional skill, his rural and low status upbringing slotted him into a relatively minor career path within the Galactic Empire. Thrawn recognizes his talent by chance and continually encourages and challenges Eli to maximize his abilities (often against Eli’s own desires). In the end, Eli raises to a military rank he never expected, and while his own talent played a huge role, it was largely thanks to Thrawn that Eli had the opportunities to maximize his abilities.
The two Star Wars novels may be fiction, but they reflect a reality in our society that we are all aware of, but prefer not to think about. Instead of acknowledging that our talent needs to be cultivated, and that cultivation and the opening of doors often has to come from beyond ourselves, we imagine that we can get where we want through hard work and determination alone. Those are certainly important character traits, and can be seen clearly in the story of Eli Vanto, but alone they don’t mean that we are really going to maximize our potential.
In Sapiens, Harari continues, “even if people belonging to different classes develop exactly the same abilities, they are unlikely to enjoy equal success because they will have to play the game by different rules.” We like to believe that talent, hard work, and grit are all one needs to succeed to the greatest extent possible, but where we are born, who we know, and the opportunities that our birth, appearance, and upbringing provide can overwhelm the advantages that talent, hard work, and grit give us. Equality of opportunity is a myth, because we are playing different  games by different rules, and because we all rely on assistance from outside of ourselves to  get to where we want to be. For some, that assistance comes more easily than for others, and for some there are exceptional hurdles that make it difficult to get onto a path toward great success.

Make an Investment in Yourself

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday encourages us to push back against the idea of fake it ’til you make it, something that is said from time to time by those trying to become successful and trying to prove their value and skill. Fake it ’till you make it, Holiday argues, is something that is driven by our ego and our desire to be recognized as important. Fake it ’til you make it is not, however, a practical way to develop the skills and abilities that one needs to truly become the person we want to be and the person we present to the world.

In his book, Holiday writes about the marshmallow test, a famous psychology test where children were given the option to eat one marshmallow now, or wait in a room with the marshmallow for a few minutes and get a second one if they can delay gratification. For many of us in our own lives, delaying gratification is as hard as it might be for a child alone with a sweet treat. We know we can wait to make a purchase and have money to pay it off in full, but our fake it ’til you make it culture tells us to buy thing on credit, which leads to payments we sometimes can’t afford and we end up paying more overall than we would have if we had waited. The alternative to this mindset according to Holiday is a work ethic that is driven by delaying gratification.

Holiday writes, “Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego.”

Fake it ’til you make it pumps up our image of who we are without adding any substance to ourselves and our abilities. It is impulsive and tells us that we need certain things to be part of the right group, to play the part we want, and to feel successful. Hard work on the other hand is often quiet, out of the way, and not immediately satisfying. Purchasing a new sports car to look the part of a successful person feels good, whereas driving a worn out car and arriving early to get some extra focus work done is just exhausting and sometimes frustrating. In the end however, the sports car doesn’t make you any better at what you do (not that the beat up car does), but the hard work you put in when you decide not to fake it does make you better. It prepares you for new opportunities, opens new doors, and allows you to step up to the plate without anxiety and fear because you know you have prepared for the moment. And if you don’t get the promotion, if you stumble with the presentation, or if the company goes under, you can move forward with less stress because you didn’t purchase a car you can’t afford to show (to people you don’t really care for) how successful you have become.

Delaying gratification never feels good, and it doesn’t necessarily make your future indulgence feel any better, but it does create a more even path as you move forward. Instant gratification can lead to greater volatility which you may traverse just fine, but taking things slower and making more investments in yourself than in your ego and your things will create a more smooth path with bigger guard rails that you can lean on when the seas become choppy. Remembering that hard work will take you where you want to go, and that each small investment will build to your future can help you keep the right attitude to put real effort forward and combat the desire to fake it.

The Seed of Greatness

How do we do something great? What do we need to do in order to achieve a high level success that everyone agrees to be truly outstanding? I don’t necessarily ask myself these direct questions, but every day of my life I feel as though I am asking and trying to answer these questions. When it comes to being great, Ryan Holiday has an idea of where greatness gets it start in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes, “Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room-until you change that with results.”

 

As I write this, the NCAA Championship is getting right down to the wire. The final four games were just played, and tomorrow is the national championship game. One of the coaches is in only his third season as the head coach of one of the teams, and he seems to have appeared out of nowhere to become incredibly successful. These flashes of greatness and sudden success are what I feel we are all looking for. We want to have success drop into our laps and we want to jump into something and be instantly great and successful. But the sudden success of the Texas Tech coach, Chris Beard, isn’t really sudden success. Coach Beard has been working for years to become a better coach and to be able to lead a team to a potential national championship. His success to the outside world seems to be very sudden, but the reality is that years of work and anonymity went into his build to greatness and his sudden success in college basketball.

 

The lesson from Holiday is that sudden successes are rarely sudden successes. We look around and see someone achieve something great and often feel envious of how easily they accomplished something, but our view from the outside misses the grunt work that went into their success. The seed of greatness is planted in the habits and effort we put into every day. The work we do that forces us to focus on the tedious, the effort we spend to think about how we could constantly improve, and the small actions we take that help us learn something each day are what eventually build to greatness. To achieve sudden success, we must prepare ourselves over years of hard work so that we can perform at our best and be ready for the opportunity to fully apply ourselves.

The Struggle of Great Work

Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy helped me really understand the benefits of getting away from habits, thoughts, and behaviors that serve to boost the ego. His writing has helped me better think through my desires and the actions I take to reach those desires. Focusing on my ego and understanding the destructive nature of egotistical goals has helped me to be more content and to think about what I pursue in a more sound manner.

 

One quote in Holiday’s book that stood out to me is about how challenging it is to do great work. In the past I have written about my childhood spending too much time watching TV and how that gave me a false sense of what success looked and felt like. I had an idea of what it looked like and felt like to be successful and pursue success that was based on made-up stories that took place over a 30 minute or one hour show. Holiday’s book helped me develop a better perspective. He writes, “Doing great work is a struggle. It’s draining, it’s demoralizing, its frightening–not always, but it can feel that way when we’re deep in the middle of it.”

 

My biggest criticism of TV shows and movies is that the hard part for the main character, the part that transforms them, the part where their grit pushes them to the great opportunity, the big battle, and the defining moment of the movie, is glossed over with some motivational sound track. In the Pursuit of Happiness we see Will Smith working his ass off in short 30 second spurts — he answers the phone like a boss, shows up early, and does all the right things and it looks easy and rewarding. In countless movies our hero works out, writes that article, somehow climbs up their metaphorical mountain, but that is never what the movie is about or what the focus is on. In our own lives however, that daily grid, the hard work, the transformation before the big moment is everything. It is never cut up into short clips to the tune of Eye of the Tiger.

 

Hearing from Holiday that meaningful work doesn’t always feel meaningful is helpful for me. It is reassuring to hear from people that I look up to that the bad days for them are as bad as they are for me. It is helpful to hear that others have been frightened as they try something they know might not really work out. Our ego hates these situations because we feel that if we fail publicly it will reflect something about us. Overcoming this piece of our ego is critical and accepting that the hard work will be frustrating and challenging can help us be more prepared for the journey ahead and to have more realistic expectations about the work we want to achieve. Looking at the ways our ego pushes us to pursue things we don’t really want or need also helps us better align our goals to make the hard work more meaningful and worthwhile. Getting away from an ego drive to have more things to impress more people allows us to be more content in the moments of hard work and grit.