Monday, November 18, 2013

Are we entitled to success

A dear friend who has been abroad in Africa said something in a blog post a few months back that I've been mulling over cyclically -- every once in a while, something happens that takes me back to what she wrote.  She went from having a 3 year plan to a 1 year plan to not knowing anything past a few weeks in the future.  And wasn't wringing her hands over it, more was marveling at how much things can change in the span of less than a year.  How unexpected life can be, and moreover that you never really know if you can do something, until you're doing it. 

I think there's a problem in the narrative of success that I absorbed growing up: that while you need to work really hard to succeed, the people who succeed have a clear conviction guiding them, a sense not that they necessarily know it all or can take on everything, but that they will make it through, make it to the other end.  Whereas now I'm realizing that it doesn't matter if I think I can/can't do a PhD -- I keep reading papers and solving problems and hitting the barriers of what my brain can do and absorb and little by little hopefully expanding the range of what I know and how I can problem solve and what my brain can handle, and keep solving more problems and reading more papers.  And the question 'can I do a PhD' isn't even one worth answering -- you can't answer questions like that, you don't know if you can handle something until you do it.

On the flip side, I recently read Hill's 'Think and Grow Rich' (which was unintentionally extremely hilarious at times).  One of the central notions is that when you decide to make money, you can parlay that idea/conviction into great riches.  In a lot of ways, that sounds totally ridiculous.  In other ways, it does make sense.  If you want to find a job in a new city, I bet you find it faster by moving there and getting an apartment (with just a couple of months' living expenses in the bank), than by searching from your laptop at your parents' house.  There's certainly something about self-imposed (or imposed-by-life) restrictions and tight situations that can bring out our thoughtful, determined, and pro-active side.

And yet, a certain amount of comfort/entitlement helps us to achieve things, whether minor and personal or grand and marvelous and with far-reaching effects.  I'd liken it to a belief that you have a fair shot in the world, the deck isn't stacked against you, and that makes it worth sticking out your limb to reach for an opportunity.  Lots of things have gone poorly for me, and I will suck at plenty more things in the future, yet I never question whether I will be able to make enough money to support myself, I never think that I can accomplish zilch.  Partly that's because I know some things about how the world works, know enough to exist and survive within the system.

One of the absolutely true notions in 'Think and Grow Rich' is the importance of a 'master mind', a group of individuals who you can turn to and converse and discuss your ideas with.  When you put yourself in a situation with all these other minds, yours becomes stronger, and you benefit from their knowledge.  More than that, the mark of intelligence isn't knowing everything personally, or having many years of formal education, but rather the ability to access information, to find whatever information you're looking for.  It's a privilege to understand that concept -- and to be in a position of knowing how to find information and use it.

I've been trying to write a post about taxes (I know you can't wait), and also about us Millennials and whether we're entitled.  There have been a bunch of pithy/incendiary articles about just that, some of which I enjoyed partly or immensely.  And yet, I have been feeling lately that many of those articles missed the mark.  Do we as a society have a really hard time defining the difference between entitlement and basic rights of citizens?  I think so -- it doesn't personally seem right to me that people (especially children) don't have food, yet people on food stamps or other programs are routinely called entitled or lazy.  And while the idea that going to college is a good idea for everybody at any cost makes my blood boil because it is so stupid, isn't it a larger problem when so many of our fellow citizens are in untenable financial positions because they followed this dogma?  Its not about each individual making a bad choice, it's about the collective environment (which we are all part of) that created such a situation.

What do you think makes someone successful?  Do you think being intelligent depends largely on knowing how to find and use information?  How do you feel about the rash of 'Millennials Are Entitled' articles?

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