What makes a person great?
Is it luck? Destiny? Circumstance? Malcolm Gladwell has shown us that great hockey players are predominantly born in January, February, and March (these kids being the oldest in the hockey age group). The oldest kids are the biggest kids are, at least in the beginning, the best hockey players, edging out their slightly younger slighter smaller competitors - then that initial gap widens as those older players are selected for all star teams, more coaching, more time playing, ect. He then extends his thesis to programmers, business men, and artists. These great people are less great, more lucky. They are chosen, in a sense, by the universe, by their circumstance - chosen to be great. Let's call this the Calvinist Model of greatness.
Or is it a matter of hard work? Is every scrap of success earned, independent of circumstance? Have our great men and women earned their station purley by their own merit? Greatness, by this story, is a cocktail of nights long nights in the library, sunny days spent glued to the computer, birthday parties skipped in favor of a few an extra hours at the gym. If Ayn Rand had children, she would tell them this story at bedtime. Let's call this the Capitalist Model of greatness.
Both of these stories cause problems for me.
I went to Yale, which is widely considered a measure of personal "greatness" (for simplicity, and to stay on topic, let's just skip over all the grimy issues here about what sorts of skills are valued in our school system). Every year Yale receives roughly 30,000 applications and admits roughly 2000 students. In 2007, I happened to be in that pool of 2000 students. How, then, am I supposed to relate to those other 28,000 students?
The Calvinist Model would make me mystically ordained, chosen by the universe, by my circumstance - leaving the other 28,000, what? Snubbed by the universe? Made by fate intrinsically less worthy of this experience? I don't like that story. I live in a democracy and I want to believe that everyone has an equal shot. I also want to believe that my hard work mattered, that I somehow earned this. Ick, I don't like this story.
The Capitalist Model would make me just plain better than them. I worked hard, I earned it. That means the others are less worthy, less great, some combination of lazier and stupider. I'm assuming the grossness of this statement needs no further explanation.
So now I'm 0 for 2.
I suppose I could just lean on good old fashioned luck? That seems kind of weak, though. Three million students graduated from high school the year that I did - certainly I get some credit for being one of the 30,000 that even submitted an application?
As always, I think the wisdom probably lies somewhere in the middle, in the balance, in the both/and. I worked hard yes, and I was also born with a tremendous amount of privilege, and certainly a good sprinkling of luck.
And to be honest, I'm pretty settled about the whole Yale thing. I was born an academically inclined child, born in a safe environment, born to parents who loved and supported me. That's a hell of a dice roll. Then, I worked really hard and became a 17 year old with a taste for adventure and sent out a couple Hail Mary applications. Then - then came the luck. The mother of all wishbone pulls.
Really, I'm less concerned about my resume, and more concerned about our conversations around greatness in America. I think we're quick to celebrate hard work, hesitant to acknowledge privilege. We hate the idea of luck. We're a fight to the top, all boats rise kinda culture.
We've also got a nasty Calvinist streak in us - despite our democracy, I think we believe that some people are just plan better than others - naturally and intrinsically so. I hear a lot of speech about "those people", those "other people", those people who aren't like me, who are wholly less, wholly more lazy, wholly less worthy.
This question may have a cleanly scientific, cleanly rational answer. I don't think that matters much, though, I don't think that data will ever be able to shift our culture, shift our country. We don't need data, we need stories.
What kind of stories are we going to tell our children about greatness?
Ultimately, the choice is ours. We choose what stories to tell, and by that we choose what reality our children live into.
I want to live in a world where our culture pulls greatness out of its people, where no circumstance shuts down their expression.
Because I believe.
Because I believe we all have greatness within us, waiting to be unleashed by a little bit of luck and a whole lot of hard work.
I believe that greatness is colorful and diverse and poorly measured by the SAT.
I believe that every human being has value to contribute, something beautiful to bring into the world.