As a child, I dreamed of greatness. I wanted to be a major league baseball pitcher, but I’d have settled for quarterback on an NFL team. Basketball also attracted me, especially Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers. I would have loved to play for the Lakers. Season by season, I practiced these sports with my friends. I possessed some skills. Pitching a rubber baseball against a wall, I could hit the same mark over and over. My football passes were accurate. I was small, but I believed that I would grow bigger. Years passed before I realized that anatomy is destiny in sports. Desire and hard work could never reshape my body into a fast runner or a great pitcher. I had the wrong build for speed. I would never be broad-shouldered and strong enough for football. I grew taller, but that didn’t matter. I was bound to the earth in a world where other guys could fly.
If you think that I could have competed with Usain Bolt in the hundred meter dash if I’d had a better attitude, trained harder, and been morally stronger, you’re wrong. I try to remind myself of this when I think about social and economic injustices. Before we even get to economics, natural inequality already limits our options. Tragic injuries add further obstacles. In one way or another, we’re all losers because life is fundamentally unfair. That should be a humbling thought that makes us sympathetic toward children who have natural talents but simply lack opportunities for developing them.
Those of us who didn’t hit our mark through strength or beauty or artistic talent might find other paths to satisfaction if we’re fortunate enough in socio-economic terms. Socio-economic power brings high quality education, dedicated mentorship, and important social connections—really, a whole world of informal and institutional investment. Without it, we’re left to struggle, dependent on natural qualities that may never be developed, if they’re even recognized. That is, without assistance, we may be denied our natural advantages—math prowess, facility with languages, leadership talent, bravery. Wealthy children, by contrast, receive assistance of the best kind, making it possible for them to succeed in life even without much in the way of natural gifts and without any remarkable effort. However, in the worst of economic conditions, absolute genius might not be sufficient. “Try harder,” we tell the poor.
The idea that hard work leads to success isn’t the worst ideological falsehood. Working hard may create unforeseen opportunities. Hope is no doubt good for your health. In some circumstances, hard work is even its own reward. But this is to speak about the worker in isolation, as if the rest of us had no stake in their success. From a societal perspective, though, it’s possible to see that we waste far too much human energy and talent by pretending that we all have equal access to social and economic opportunities. The doctrine of hard work, when preached by socially advantaged adults to disadvantaged children is fraudulent. “You need to try even harder!” It’s like telling short kids to stretch themselves taller. Putting all the emphasis on effort treats economic disparities as irrelevant, when in fact a lack of money and a lack of education are major differences, real disabilities. The important distinction is that these differences, unlike natural inequalities, can be bridged; these disabilities can be healed. All the preaching about trying harder covers up the fact that we aren’t trying hard enough as a society to give children adequate opportunities to discover and develop their natural abilities.
Music: "The Way It Is" by Bruce Hornsby