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.
Skill Versus Effort

Skill Versus Effort

In the world of sports, I have always enjoyed the saying that someone is so good at something they make it look easy. While I usually hear the saying in relation to physical activity, it also extends to other generally challenging activities – Kobe made the fadeaway jumper look easy, Tyler Cowen makes blogging look easy, and Roman Mars has made podcasting look (sound?) easy. But what is really happening when an expert makes something look easy? Daniel Kahneman argues that increased skill makes things look easy because skill decreases the effort needed to do the thing.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman writes, “As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved. Talent has similar effects. Highly intelligent individuals need less effort to solve the same problems, as indicated by both pupil size and brain activity. A general law of least effort applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion.”

 

while I was at a UCLA summer basketball camp years ago, Sean Farnham told me a story about Kobe – he used to work out at the UC Irvine Gym every morning. He drew such a big crowd to the gym that UC Irvine asked him to either stop coming to the gym, or to arrive at a different time. Kobe didn’t stop, he just changed his hours, working out at 4 or 5 a.m., before the gym would be packed. Farnham told me that Kobe had a training entourage with him, so that when he would pass out on the court from physical exhaustion of working so hard, his staff could pull him to the side, get him some fluids, and help him get back out on the court until he would pass out again.

 

Tyler Cowen writes every day. On his podcast and in other interviews, he has explained how writing every single day, even on Christmas and your birthday, is one of the most important things you can do if you want to be a good writer and clear thinker. Much of his writing never gets out into the public, but every day he puts in the effort and practice to build his skill.

 

Roman Mars loves radio, and his hit podcast 99% Invisible is onto episode 410.  In a 2012 interview with Debbie Millman Mars talked about learning to love radio early on and how he developed a passion for audio programming, even if no one was listening.

 

Kobe, Cowen, and Mars all practice a lot, and have developed a lot of skill from their practice. As Kahneman explains, their daily practice doesn’t just allow them to make things look easy. For those who practice as much as these three, things really are easier for them. Kobe’s muscle memory meant that he was more efficient in shooting a fadeaway jump shot, literally needing less energy and less mental focus to pull off a perfect swish. Cowen writes every day and the act of starting a piece of writing for him probably requires less brain power to begin putting thoughts together. Similarly, Mars probably slips into his radio voice effortlessly, without consciously having to think about everything he is about to say, making the words, the voice, and the intonation flow more simply and naturally.

 

Kahneman and the three examples I shared show how important practice is for the things we want to do well. Consistent practice builds skill, and literally alters the brain, the chemical nerve pathways (via myelination), and the physical strength needed to perform a task. With practice, tasks really do become easier and automatic.

Seeing Yourself With A Little Distance

In his book The Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday writes  the following, “You must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work. Any and every narcissist can do that. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.”

 

In this quote, Holiday is encouraging us to focus on our work and goals in a way that is not flashy and that does not seek praise. He is encouraging us to practice the skill of doing good and meaningful work, even if we are not immediately recognized for what we do. Often, the important work that must be done isn’t sexy and isn’t visible to the people we want to impress. We won’t always be immediately rewarded with a trophy or a bonus for the work that needs to be done, but if we are the one to put in the extra effort and effectively and efficiently do a good job, we can find our way to success.

 

The flip side, and what Holiday is urging us to avoid, is doing work only when people are watching. He encourages us to recognize and work against the expectation that we will be noticed and recognized for our work, because the public recognition is not the most important piece of what we do. If we only put forward hard work and extra effort when we know our effort will be visible and publicly rewarded, then our effort in is not actually about the work, but instead about the praise and status that comes looking impressive. We may like the praise and incentives do matter for human beings, but if we are trying to approach the world rationally and make a difference, then we should recognize that this approach to life and work likely won’t guide us toward making the biggest impact possible.

 

When I was a child, one of the chores I always hated was vacuuming. When I would actually do what my parents had told me and vacuum, I intentionally leave the vacuum out because I knew that my mother would then have to acknowledge that I had vacuumed. I would be sure to get a “thank you for vacuuming, now can you please put the vacuum away?” but if I did my work completely and put the machine back in the closet when I finished, I risked getting no notice from my mother for having completed my chore. This is the childish mindset that Holiday is encouraging us to get away from when it comes to doing important work in our life. We should strive to be successful in life because it will mean that we are making a difference in the world or can obtain further resources to allow us to do more through charity and meaningful good deeds. What we should avoid is working hard to try to improve our status and to have more ego inflating fun trips and toys to try to set us apart from others. Focusing on the first goal will ultimately take us further and lead to better quality work and engagement with the world than the second ego inflating goal. Only performing and doing our best work when we can be praised for it will lead us to situations where we fail to cultivate habits of hard work and focus, and will drive us to positions where we are not working for ourselves and for the good of humanity, but for our ego and to make showy purchases to impress other people that we likely don’t even care much about.