David Brooks has delivered his take on the “you didn’t build that” conversation with this as his thesis: As a practical matter, it is useful for young people on their way up to think that their future success is up to them. But as we reach old age, we understand how little we have accomplished independently of all the forces acting on our lives.
But I have the advantage actually being old, whereas David is, through no fault of his own, still a whippersnapper. So I am in a position to correct him. As you get to be a codger, David, you will actually be able to see more and more clearly what has been a matter of luck and what you can legitimately take credit for, and the latter will give you a great deal of satisfaction.
At least that’s the way it has worked out for me. I understand completely that talent is pure luck of the draw. For example, I will never, ever, be able to come up with a sentence as acute and witty as this: “Ambition, like promiscuity, is most pleasant when experienced vicariously.” It’s one of half a dozen such bon mots in this column alone, and they are possible only because of the bundle of skills that David Brooks is lucky enough to possess and he did nothing to deserve.
But what makes those sentences possible for him to write does not make them come into existence. And that is the basis for the credit that people can legitimately take in their own achievements. Speaking for myself, I know that some of the things I have written were easy for me, because of the bundle of skills I was given, and they are no big deal to me. I also recognize that other things I have written took enormous effort. They exist because of continuing acts of will on my part, sometimes extending over long periods of time. Those give me increasing satisfaction as I grow older, not less. I am proud of my younger self—at a remove, as if I were thinking about another person; almost the same way that I am proud of my children.
Continuing acts of will are associated with every kind of major success, including those that arise from family, community, and faith. They also are associated with major success in business, the law, the sciences, or the arts. That’s why studies of greatness in all of those fields have one finding in common: The greats in all of those fields worked incredibly hard. See Human Accomplishment for details.
At this point, dreary people will try to push us into the “Oh, but your ability to make those acts of will was because of factors over which you have no control” line of argument. But that argument works only theoretically. We certainly know that other forces have made a big difference, but as we get older we have a pretty good sense of what they have been (in my case, my wife standing above all others). But we all know from our inner history the many times that we had the choice to exert an act of will and failed to do so along with the times that we did. We experience in our hearts the reality of free will. Knowing that, it’s okay to take credit for the times we sucked it up and did the right thing. Those things, we built.