Dear Mr. Opinion Guy,
Over the past few years, I've built a successful business. I've worked hard, and I'm proud of what I've done. But now President Barack Obama tells me that social and political forces helped build that. Mitt Romney went to Israel and said cultural forces explain the differences in the wealth of nations. I'm confused. How much of my success is me, and how much of my success comes from forces outside of me?
Confused in Columbus.
This is an excellent question. It has no definitive answer. There were many different chefs of the stew that is you: parents, friends, teachers, ancestors, mentors and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. It's very hard to know how much of your success is owed to those people and how much is owed to yourself. As a wise man once said, what God hath woven together, even multiple regression analysis cannot tear asunder.
Nonetheless, this question does have a practical and a moral answer. It is this: You should regard yourself as the sole author of all your future achievements and as the grateful beneficiary of all your past successes.
As you go through life, you should pass through different phases in thinking about how much credit you deserve. You should start your life with the illusion that you are completely in control of what you do. You should finish life with the recognition that, all in all, you got better than you deserved.
In your 20s, for example, you
In your 30s and 40s, you will begin to think like a political scientist. You'll have a lower estimation of your own power and a greater estimation of the power of the institutions you happen to be in.
You'll still have faith in your own skills, but it will be more the skills of navigation, not creation. You'll adapt to the rules and peculiarities of your environment. You'll understand that the crucial question isn't what you want, but what the market wants. For a brief period, you won't mind breakfast meetings.
Then in your 50s and 60s, you will become a sociologist, understanding that relationships are more powerful than individuals. The higher up a person gets, the more time that person devotes to scheduling and personnel.
Then in your 70s and 80s, you'll be like an ancient historian. Your mind will bob over the decades and then back over the centuries, and you'll realize how deeply you were formed by the ancient traditions of your people -- being Mormon or Jewish or black or Hispanic.
In short, as maturity develops and the perspectives widen, the smaller the power of the individual appears, and the greater the power of those forces flowing through the individual.
But you, Mr. Confused in Columbus, are right to preserve your pride in your accomplishments. Great companies, charities and nations were built by groups of individuals who each vastly overestimated their own autonomy. As an ambitious executive, it's important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it's important for you to know that's nonsense.
David Brooks writes for The New York Times.