13 December, 2009

“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” (William Blake)

I don't want to get all hard-nosed and cynical about it but why do people insist that you can achieve your dreams if you just believe in yourself and work hard? I know there are some cases where this has happened, but surely there are a thousand cases for every one of those where it hasn't.

I suppose ideas like this can persist because there is no evidence. How do you run a study where one group believes in themselves and works hard and another group doesn't - keeping all other variables matched between the groups? What's more, 'true believers' in the doctrine can always say of a failed case, "Well, she obviously didn't believe in herself enough, or she didn't work hard enough." So it's one of those irrefutable doctrines. And it simply doesn't square with my experience.

Certainly self-belief and hard work can be a big help when it comes to success, but so can blind luck, physical beauty, great talent, and good connections. Beauty? Oh yes. Trust me, I'm a psychologist. I've seen the studies that show that physically attractive people have more friends, more self-confidence, and are more successful. For men, it is also a big advantage to be tall. Tall men rise higher in life. If I hadn't been so tall and handsome, I might have had even less worldly success!

It isn't even a confusion between necessary and sufficient causes. As I say, working hard might help, but it is neither necessary, nor sufficient, for success. Some of the most downtrodden people in the world also have to work the hardest. That's why they're called the 'working classes'.

Yet some people believe it to be true, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Or do they? Maybe the people who insist that, if you follow your dream, you will, one day, succeed, are deliberately ignoring the evidence because they have emotional needs that won't allow them to accept it. Maybe they say these things because they are too naive or too dumb to be aware of the many cases where they are patently false. A lot of people seem to say it (especially in self-help books and autobiographies) because they succeeded and would like to persuade themselves, and us, that it was their mighty moral fibre, the stuff that kept them believing in themselves and working hard despite all the setbacks, that led to their triumphs.

Here's a little quiz:

1. If you are born in America, work hard, and believe in yourself, are you:
a) more likely to become rich and famous than someone similar born in an African village?
b) more likely to become rich and famous if your parents are already rich and famous?
c) more likely to become rich and famous if you are young, beautiful and talented?

I think people who say that self-belief and hard work are all you need to succeed actually mean well. They're probably thinking of a case they've heard about where someone who was immensely talented and, by hard work and belief in themselves (and with some luck, and, probably a bit of help from some well-off and well-connected friends or family members) managed to achieve their dream. And then they've seriously overgeneralised it to apply to the rest of the world. They don't actually want to buoy people up on waves of false hopes just so that those people can come crashing to earth in late middle age and spend their declining years in a state of bitter regret and depression. At least, I hope not.


Anonymous said...

nice photo

Mark Loper said...

Maybe the line should be, "Belief in yourself and hard work will maximize success.

If you're short and ugly, you're going to have a tougher go of it than if you're tall and handsome but, you can maximize what you do have.

To your point, I think society (big business, big government etc.) has a vested interest in people working hard and propagates the sentiment to keep the paradigm intact. But, hard work -- in the right effort -- produces results.

graywave said...

Mark, your belief in hard work is touching. Next time I'm in a clothing sweatshop in India, I'll be sure to mention it to the staff ;-)

Yes, it may actually be true that in a given situation hard work will always bring greater rewards than slacking (although I don't believe it for a minute) but, even so, that's not the same as success.

I remember my first factory job, when I was 17, there was an old immigrant guy who had a powerful work ethic. The union bosses used to hate him because he worked so much harder than everyone else.

I used to feel sorry for him because he was ostracised by almost everyone. Yet he didn't get paid any more and when redundancies came, he was one of the first to be sacked.

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