Many parents in Nigeria try to inculcate a sense of the importance of hard work in their children by employing the simple narrative of effort and reward: if you work hard in life, you will end up being successful in whatever way society defines the term. A natural extension of this line of thinking is that your success is completely a result of your own efforts.
Once you grow up, however, you come to realize that the structural barriers determined by the accident of birth are the more important determinants of success in life. Factors such as the income of your family, the type of education you received, the environment in your household, and the fields that society at large values are not in your control.
While the above is true, a much more fundamental philosophical question is whether, in the absence of these social networks, which may or may not be structural barriers, would you really “deserve” your success? It is only once we have thought about the pure link between effort and ability and success that we will be in a position to truly see whether the linear narrative of success taught to our children makes sense.
In today’s world, the link between effort and ability and success is so common that we often do not take a step back to question this.
For this purpose, let us conduct a thought experiment. Assume a hypothetical world where there are absolutely no structural barriers to success. In this utopian world, every individual will end up being successful based on a combination of hard work and naturally endowed ability. From a philosophical perspective, can we say that the individuals who end up earning more in this society completely “deserve” their success or earnings?
While you might be tempted to say “yes,” consider the following line of reasoning. To assert that the individuals completely deserve the fruits of their labour, we would need to say that their ability and effort were completely their own.
Starting with the simpler case of naturally endowed abilities, we know for a fact that we have no control over these abilities given to us at birth. If these abilities were not completely our own, how could we claim that we deserve the success that comes from them?
One might say that effort is completely in the control of the individual. However, philosophers have argued that even the effort you exert throughout your life is determined to a large extent by factors that are outside your control: the values that were inculcated in you, how supportive your family was, and so on.
A larger concern is that even in this hypothetical world, society will place value on certain careers/fields, which is completely out of our control. If you happen to be born in a society that values playing professional cricket, and you luckily have a natural ability to play the sport well, you are clearly very fortunate. How about being born with the same abilities in a society that does not value sports?
Naturally, if ability and effort are determined mostly by accident of birth, can we really claim that our success is of our own making? Philosophers argue that we cannot.
If even in a world without structural barriers, we cannot completely say that we deserve our earnings, where does that leave us? In today’s world where the common linear narrative of success is a far cry from what philosophers have argued, what does all of this imply? The real world is also one with widespread structural barriers to success where the accident of birth largely determines your outcomes in life.
To my mind, there are two important lessons for us in our daily lives from this exercise. The first is that if we truly believed our success was largely out of our control, we would be much humbler in our attitude towards others while still working very hard for the little that we did control. It is quite unfortunate to see that individuals who end up more fortunate can also end up being more arrogant precisely because they incorrectly believe that they deserve their success.
Second, we should be much more open to recognizing that our success to some extent also belongs to the people around us. In practice, this can take various forms, such as a greater willingness to accept income and wealth redistribution.
We can raise our next generations by imbuing in them the value of hard work. At the same time, we can make sure that they also understand their success isn’t theirs alone. If we also inculcate in them the value of humility and recognize what we owe to our society, we will not only ensure that hard work is valued but in a morally cognizant manner.
Finally, always remember that different people are in different social networks. we were all born into a different social network, and the networks we may subsequently join are sort of path-dependent. If we start from one social network that enables us to access a few others. Because we all start from different social networks, throughout our lifetime, we access very different social networks. That means we all pick up very different narratives, very different norms which we take to be normal in our very different social networks, and by complying with those norms, that is how you receive or get peer esteems. This to a large extent determine our success or otherwise in our respective lives.