It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man, that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps – Martin Luther King.

I have a problem with the notion that effort, or hard work, will always pay off. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the romanticism of the American Dream, and have absolutely worked hard myself, at least in some respects. But I really don’t think it’s necessarily true, or necessarily fair, to suggest that effort is the determining factor in a person’s success. It might be, but not always and possibly not often.

What we, as successful people, often fail to notice is the role luck has played in our journeys. We like to over-emphasise our own hard-work because, well, we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. If we’re told that luck was a significant factor in our success, maybe what we actually hear is “You don’t deserve your success.” This is an example of a kind of situational amnesia, a blindness to the forces – whatever they might have been – which helped us to reach a certain destination. This doesn’t mean that we haven’t worked hard, but that effort might not be the key factor in our journey.

In 2009, the British Fox News host, Stuart Varney, interviewed Professor Robert Frank about a recent article Frank had written for the New York Times, in which he had argued that “Contrary to what many parents tell their children, talent and hard work are neither necessary nor sufficient for economic success.” The interview went like this:

Varney: Am I lucky or not, being who I am and where I am .. I’m lucky?

Frank: Yes. You are.

Varney: Okay. Lucky?

Frank: And so am I.

Varney: That’s outrageous. That is outrageous. What about the risk I took? Do you know what risk is involved in coming to America with absolutely nothing? Do you know what risk is involved in trying to work for a major American network with a British accent, a total foreigner? Do you know what risk is implied for this level of success?

Frank: I do.

Varney: Is it luck that you hold a tenured position?

Frank: Yes.

Varney: That’s nonsense. I am insulted by what you said.

Frank: Well ..

Varney: You are going against the American Dream.

Frank: I’m not.

Varney: Look, if you come to America with nothing, and you play by the rules, you work hard, you get discipline inside yourself, you marry and have children in that order; okay? You do all of those things, you play by the rules, you will make it in America, and luck has nothing to do with it.

Frank: That’s not true, sir.

Frank later said this of the interview:

He said he’d come to the USA with nothing: he had a degree from the London School of Economics. That’s coming to the US with nothing? He had somehow overcome the handicap of working in America with a British accent. Americans love British accents! He said he took risks. What’s a risk? I looked it up. Merrriam-Webster: “Risk is the possibility that something bad or unpleasant, such as an injury or loss, may happen.” He took risks and he succeeded. Well, that means by definition that he was lucky. Full stop. 

Frank pointed out that when we feel gratitude, when we’re reminded of luck’s importance, we’re more likely to plough some of own good fortune back into the common good. However, we can recall our own struggles far better than we can the obscure role of chance and luck, and thus we underplay its significance. Furthermore, the idea that we are the recipients of luck might corrode our faith in free will. We are often too deeply invested in our own autobiographies to recognise the role which external factors might play.

And so, it’s all very well telling children they need to work hard, but they also need to join the conversation, and that really is hard. It requires knowledge of social conventions, often very alien to one’s own, in order to even be in the same room as those we need to impress. One of the things which I took from my visit to Michaela last year was the focus on knowing how to be successful. The message, during the lunchtime discussion, was that getting the top grades is not enough: A*s, or 9s, or whatevers, will be against A* and 9s from other schools full of children whose families are already part of the conversation, and that therefore we must learn the conventions of that conversation in order to stand a chance against those who might wear the right coloured shoes. Laura McInerney’s excellent recent article in Schools Week suggests a couple of solutions, neither to do with effort.

It’s very easy, then, for the middle-class, which I suppose I am now joining, to speak of hard-work paying off. But we must recognise the role of luck, too. I did not work hard as a teenager, really, at anything bar music. Despite growing up in a caravan, with my parents split-up and a sometimes severe lack of money, I had a loving family who supported me, pushing me to read Bryson at 11, Adams at 12 and Orwell at 13. I was lucky. I worked very hard to teach myself music theory, yes, but I grew up around guitars and amplifiers: I received an Elvis tape for my fifth birthday, and was brought up on a diet of soul, rhythm n’ blues and funk. I was lucky, and find it slightly embarrassing when family-members tell me how hard I’ve worked, because I didn’t have to, at least not academically. I worked hard to support myself financially, yes, but this was mostly through playing music, so what does that tell you?

And it’s no good saying we should all learn from our mistakes, and that failure is somehow always a great thing. It sort of depends on how badly you fail, and what the safety net is when you do, if it even exists: if the son of a millionaire fails in his bid to set up a moustache-waxing salon, then it matters not if he’s lost £200,000. There are varying degrees of failure, and those sit on a sliding scale of social position.

I don’t have a problem with making pupils work hard, but we have to give them tools to make that effort count. Even that won’t necessarily lead to success, but it’s what we can do. We don’t need lots more interview practice, but we do need to insist on high standards, and model those ourselves: the language we use, the clothes we wear, the expectations we have. Maybe we have to give children the bootstraps as well as the boots.

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