“…if it is true that some degree of talent is necessary to be successful in life, almost never the most talented people reach the highest peaks of success, being overtaken by mediocre but sensibly luckier individuals.”
~ Alessandro Pluchino et al. (from Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure)
I was recently talking to a very wealthy friend and he was complaining about needing to wait for hours and hours at a hospital to see a doctor.
This was by no means news to me. We both live in Canada, which has a public healthcare system, and wait times at hospitals for non-life-threatening conditions can be brutal. Rarely do I hear of anyone spending less than four hours in a waiting room, and it’s often much more.
What he said next was more interesting.
He told me that it didn’t make sense for him to wait because his time is too valuable. He has a business to run and people counting on him. Why should he wait behind other people who have less of an impact on society?
My antennae immediately perked. I didn’t like the sound of this at all.
Wouldn’t it make more sense if I could simply jump the queue and see a doctor immediately?
I must admit, this line of thinking caught me a bit off guard. If we accept his premise — that he contributes disproportionately to society — why shouldn’t he be able to see a doctor right away?
In retrospect, I think this question sheds some light on two competing perspectives we have about society.
On the one hand, we expect businesses (and society generally) to be efficient, competently run, and a little bit cut-throat. We want things to run smoothly because we intuitively understand that waste — money, time, resources, etc. — is bad. We want to ensure our supermarkets will be stocked with food and our buses and trains will run on time. We also tend to have the intuition that kindness and compassion don’t belong in business, and that they are weaknesses in this arena of life.
On the other hand, we expect society to be fair and just. We each want ourselves, our loved ones, and everyone else (at least to some extent!) to be treated with respect and dignity. In the public domain, we admire people with high levels of kindness and compassion — we see it as a strength. And we want people to get what they deserve, good or bad.
We’re taught that our economic system represents the best of both these worlds, but I think this is mistaken.
And I think our confusion is caused by one key message.
The message that clouds our thinking
My friend was viewing society through a business lens, which he has worked hard to cultivate. By focusing on this aspect of the world he has found great success, but he’s not seeing the whole picture.
Unfortunately, our economic system doesn’t adequately reward fairness, justice, generosity, or compassion, so there isn’t much of an incentive for anyone to spend time thinking about them.
So, we end up with 8 people owning as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion of us (see here).
This leads to the uncomfortable juxtaposition of people starving to death while others drink champagne on private yachts.
Yet, we are comforted by a simple message that has been ingrained in us all our lives: that our success or failure is determined by how hard we work, how smart we are, and by the innovative ideas we bring to the table.
We are told that we are in control of the outcomes of our lives. If we find success it’s because we deserve it; and if we don’t, well, we deserve that, too, because of some flaw in our character.
So, no matter what anyone receives in life, we comfort ourselves with the message, they deserve it.
And we rarely ask, what if we’re wrong?
What are we responsible for?
Is it clear to you that this message is intended to placate our moral intuitions?
If the person starving on the street deserves her predicament, it becomes socially acceptable to have less compassion and sympathy toward her. After all, she could have been successful if only she’d done better with what she was given.
But, what does it mean to deserve anything?
I think most of us believe that to be deserving of something we need to be responsible for it — to have earned it through actions (good or bad) that are ostensibly our own.
Intuitively, this sounds about right.
But is it?
Here’s an uncomfortable fact:
We didn’t choose the genes we were born with.
Here’s another one:
We didn’t choose our parents, our country of birth, or the socio-economic environment in which we grew up.
More? Sure thing:
We didn’t choose how we were raised or where we went to school.
We didn’t choose our teachers, our peers, or our extended family.
We didn’t choose the most formative experiences of our lives, good or bad.
Before we even hit puberty, we were exposed to values, beliefs, ideas, and experiences that will forever shape our lives. And we had no control over any of it.
And if we had no control over the things that shape who we are today, how can we then go ahead and claim responsibility for what happens next?
Our work ethic, our intelligence, our creativity, our risk tolerance, and virtually everything else that plays a role in success, were influenced to a massive degree by factors and events that happened before we were legally allowed to drive.
So, I ask you, why should anyone deserve to reap the massive rewards of success?
If we can’t say people are responsible for their success, what could possibly justify anyone having enormous wealth, receiving a massive salary, or skipping ahead of other people in line at the hospital, especially when so many others lack even basic necessities?
It seems to me that our intuition regarding what people deserve is broken. We have been sold a story of how people reap what they sow that is simply propaganda for maintaining the status quo.
With so many of the factors that lead to success being outside of our control, we are running out of space in which to justify the rich getting more and better.
What we contribute to society matters
It’s clear that my friend positively contributes to society. He, presumably, provides his employees with an income that allows them to live comfortably and his customers with a service worthy of their money.
Should he be given more and better, not because of what he deserves, per se, but because of what he contributes to society?
Because society at large benefits from his work, it seems fitting that he should be rewarded somehow.
But it’s not clear to me how much he should be rewarded.
As the article by Pluchino suggests (see here), it’s not the most talented people that find great success in our society, but the most lucky.
That means that successful people aren’t as special or uniquely talented as we imagine them to be.
And if that’s true, it means that there is always someone with the same level of talent or more talent waiting to take their place.
Plus, if we’re compensated for our contribution to society, what does it mean for a CEO to make 100+ times the salary of one of her low-level executives?
Does it mean she works 100 times harder or works 100 times longer?
Does it mean she is 100 times more intelligent or 100 times more creative?
Undoubtedly, any CEO has critical and specific skills, but it’s unclear that such a salary is warranted given the relative skills of other people.
So, should my friend get to jump the queue at the hospital and be seen by a doctor faster than other people just because his time is “more valuable”?
I think what I’ve convinced myself of, at least, is that it’s really not clear what he deserves or what he should be given as compensation for his contribution to society.
He thinks he should jump the queue, but perhaps he believes he is more special than he really is. Perhaps more people could replace him than he realizes.
One thing is for sure: with luck playing such a profound role in the distribution of society’s resources, it makes neither economic nor moral sense that wealth should be concentrated so extremely in the hands of a few.
So, what are we going to do about it?