A Useful Myth

A Useful Myth

Autonomy, free will, and self-control combine to create a useful myth. The myth is that we control our own destinies, that we are autonomous actors with rights, freedoms, and the opportunity to improve our lives through our own effort. The reality is that the world is incredibly complex, that we don’t get to chose our genes, our parents, or the situations in life that we are born and raised within. A huge number of factors based on random chance and luck contribute to whether we are successful or not, but nevertheless, the belief that we are autonomous actors with control over our own free will is still a useful myth.

 

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer writes, “people who report more internal control tend to fare better in life than those who don’t. They play a more active role in their communities, take better care of their health, and get better jobs. We may have no control about whether people find our clothes or skills or appearance attractive. But we do have control over internal goals such as acquiring languages, mastering a musical instrument, or taking responsibility for small children or our grandparents.”

 

This quote shows why the idea of internal control and agency is such a useful myth. If we believe we have the power to shape our lives for the better, then we seem to be more likely to work hard, persevere, and stretch for challenging goals. A feeling of helplessness, as though we don’t have control, likely leads to cynicism and defeatism. Why bother trying if you and your actions won’t determine the success or failure you experience in life?

 

This myth is at the heart of American meritocracy, but it is important to note that it does appear to be just a myth. EKGs can detect electrical activity in the brain and predict an action before a person becomes aware of a conscious desire to perform an action. Split brain experiments and the research of Kahneman and Tversky show that our brains are composed of multiple competing systems that almost amount to separate people and personalities all within our singular consciousness. And as I wrote earlier, luck is a huge determining factor in whether we have the skills and competencies for success, and whether we have a supportive environment and sufficient opportunities to master those skills.

 

Recently, on an episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia Galef interviewed Michael Sandel about our meritocracy. One fear that Sandel has about our system of meritocracy is that people who succeed by luck and chance believe that they succeeded because of special qualities or traits that they possess. Meanwhile, those who fail are viewed as having some sort of defect, a mindset that people who fail or live in poverty may come to believe is true and embrace, thus creating another avenue for defeatism to thrive.

 

If internal control is a useful myth, it is because it encourages action and flourishing for individuals. My solution therefore is to blend the two views, the view of internal agency and the view of external forces shaping the future we have. These are contradictory views on the surface, but I believe they can be combined and live in harmony (especially given the human ability to peacefully and ignorantly live with contradictory beliefs). We need to believe we have agency, but also believe that success is essentially a matter of luck and that we are dependent on society and others to reach great heights. This should encourage us to apply ourselves fully, but to be humble, and take steps to help ensure others can also apply themselves fully to reach greater levels of success. When people fail, we shouldn’t look at them as morally inept, as lacking skills and abilities, but as people who happened to end up in a difficult place. We should then take steps to help improve their situations and to give them more opportunities to find the space that fits their skills and abilities for growth and success. Internal control can still be a useful myth if we tie it to the right structures and systems to ensure everyone can use their agency appropriately and avoid the overwhelming crush of defeatism when things don’t go well.

Value as Human Being

Ezra Klein has had a few interesting conversations on his podcast recently that hit at the work we do and where we find value in our society today. On my way into work this morning, I was listening to an interview that Klein recorded with David Brooks. At one point Klein and Brooks discussed the shortcomings of our nation’s meritocracy, our system where the people who achieve the most, who become the most capable, and who have the right credentials and education are able to rise to the top. We align ourselves with people who are successful and claim that we are deserving of our success because we have put in the time to get an education and build the right experience to lead to where we are at now. Meritocracy is well aligned with our system of capitalism and ideally works to reveal who is worthy and deserving of praise and who is not.

 

What meritocracy misses, David Brooks argued in his interview, is any sense of moral or spiritual fulfillment. Meritocracy puts us in a position where we only find value in ourselves and others based on our achievements and outcomes. It narrows the scope of what is possible for us and our family. Any decision that does not clearly lead to a better economic position, a better career, and higher status is abandoned. Any friendships that can’t help us climb the social ladder or give us some future benefit are left behind. Praise and love are only given based on whether someone is working, what type of car they purchase, and what bumper sticker is on the back of the car. This works well with capitalism, but it doesn’t seem to work well in a cooperative society that depends on trust and love.

 

The biggest downfall of the system of meritocracy is that at any given time, our level of merit or success is not a permanent fixed quality. Success and status change. Basing our life and value on either will always lead to competition, frustration, and fear. “With wisdom, we understand that these positions are transitory, not statements about your value as a human being,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. We cannot put all of our faith in our accomplishments because we will find that we cannot be fulfilled with just our work and with just what we accomplish. If we look at ourselves and others as only being valuable and worthy based on the ideas in our meritocracy, we will look for things to critique all around us and we will fail to build meaningful connections in our lives.

 

Brooks argues that relationships are what give life meaning and make us feel fulfilled. If we can find a way to base our value as a human being on the fact that we are a human being who is capable of connecting with others in a social bond, then we can build more permanence into who we are and what we do. We can be more accepting of our failures and more honest about our success. Rather than defining us directly, our success can be something we share with those around us and something we use to help improve the lives of those around us. Our failures will no longer destroy our value as a person, and we can better accept and learn from our shortcomings, giving us a chance to be vulnerable and accept the support of those around us.