The Myth of Rugged Individualism

In December 2003, I discussed with my acting teacher the need to take time off from class to work and earn money. He pushed back on that idea, suggesting I ask my parents for financial help. At thirty-seven, the thought of a handout from my parents so that I could continue acting classes was repugnant. “I want to do this on my own,” I protested.

“No one accomplishes anything alone,” he replied. “Do you think Edward Norton (who had studied with him) got where he is without the help of teachers, agents, casting directors, etc?” Point taken, but I wasn’t referring to my hoped-for trajectory to success, but rather the ability to support myself without turning to my family.

He was right though, about seeking assistance from others. The more I see who gets ahead in this world, the more I’m convinced they must have incredible support systems, were born in the right place and time, and are well prepared for when that big opportunity comes along, even if that opportunity manifests from some form of government assistance.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) gave a speech last fall, as a candidate for office, about the budget deficit and fair taxation. It quickly went viral.

Warren was not discounting the importance of individual initiative and hard work nor was she suggesting they should not be rewarded and recognized. However, she was adamant that the social contract is a part of succeeding in this country, paying it forward to help the next person climb up the ladder.

Still, there are many talented, hard-working people who will never be the next Steve Jobs no matter how hard they try. Malcolm Gladwell asserts in Outliers: The Story of Success that chance plays a significant role in success. He provides case studies that reveal how and why certain people succeed where others do not. He analyzes the lives and circumstances that produce elite ice hockey players, people like Bill Gates and Bill Joy, why American pilots are better than Korean pilots at avoiding plane crashes, and the Beatles’ rise to worldwide fame, to name a few.

Outliers

  Gladwell writes:

“People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up.”

“It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

The modest successes I’ve enjoyed and opportunities I’ve had are in large part a result of the time and place I entered this world and who were my parents. I was born in the United States in the 1960s, during the women’s movement’s second wave. My parents, who lacked college educations, wanting a better life for their daughters were damn well going to make sure we received them. Pell grants helped finance that education.

The Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972, ensured that girls were not discriminated against in school. This law extended to athletics, in which I participated from junior high until graduating high school. The opportunity to compete athletically gave me confidence and a willingness to also compete in the world.

I began acting much later in life than many of my peers, at twenty-three. Had I been born in New York City instead of Tell City, Indiana, I may have taken acting, dance, and music classes as a child and been a dancer during my adolescence instead of an athlete. Had my parents been wealthy instead of working class, I may have attended an elite private school followed by years at Harvard or Yale instead of a public school and a state college.

Intelligence, hard work, and talent are important, yet are often not enough. Success does not happen in a vacuum. Many A-list actors—not all—but many are children of already-established actors, producers, directors, people connected to the industry. Nepotism provides a definite advantage.

Granted there are those who work for years then are offered starring or co-starring roles in a movie or TV show, or a pilot is picked up and becomes a hit, and voilá, superstars are born, but they were given the chance. The vast majority of actors, many who excel at their craft, will never earn a living solely by performing because that life-changing opportunity won’t present itself.

Luck is where preparation meets opportunity, it has been said. Those fortunate outliers—and even those of modest achievements—mustn’t forget their roots, the advantages afforded them due to their life circumstances, and the support received. Some assistance is easily recognizable, yet others are invisible or taken of granted—perhaps even a government service, subsidy, or tax break—but they’re there. To me, luck is where preparation, “patronage and parentage” meet opportunity, but that shouldn’t stop one from striving to reach goals because who knows what will happen next.

Updated June 25, 2013—Malcolm Gladwell analyzed Canadian ice hockey players, not soccer players.

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2 thoughts on “The Myth of Rugged Individualism

  1. Yes, yes and yes again! We are products of our environment. Which is not to say hard work is not a factor – it is (Gladwell points out the 10,000 hour rule) – but now matter how hard you work, how talented you are, how much education you seek … if you the opportunity never crosses your path success will elude you. Recognizing opportunity is a skill unto itself, and one that is learnable, but some of us simply get more opportunity than others. The sooner we recognize that the better off we’ll all be.

  2. Pingback: The Months Just Fly By | Everblog

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