Friday, March 28, 2008

A Bias for Success

Ever since I was young, I have come across several fascinating accounts of great individuals and their remarkable achievements. These come in various forms (biography, quotations,anecdotes, aphorisms, a short segment of life) and from different sources (newspaper articles, television, textbooks). Great leaders,wise men and philosophers, brilliant scientists, spiritually enlightened souls that guide humanity, selfless social workers, intrepid soldiers and physically disabled people who showed great strength at times of adversity. In my case, given the academic background, it is no surprise that most of them that made a mark on me were either physicists or mathematicians. Newton, Hawking, Einstein, Archimedes, Feynman, Leibnitz and Godel were all legendary and storied about. Anyone doing physics would point to one or several of these were icons as sources for inspiration, particularly during their early years.

Often it happens, especially when directed at a broad audience, that the portrayal of these giants of humanity is so constructed that it conveys an idea to the reader that such a level of greatness can be attained without requiring any superhuman efforts. It is understandable that most people would not consider following the footsteps of great men if doing so is shown to be arduous, painful and drearily long. In order to make these immortal lives more accessible to the average Joe, the magnitude of accomplishments and the unusual qualities that made them possible are all carefully masked by some generic, oversimplifying statements.The achievements are presented in an incomplete and narrow way without proper context or historical background and that way that makes appear quite attainable. This strikes me as being a sham that manages to create an inaccurate picture of the reality involved and leads the young impressionable-mind to form opinions and make assumptions that are entirely misguided.
My principal criticism has to do with the fact that, people are falsely lead to believe that absolutely fantastic feats in life can be performed by just following some simple guidelines and this is made convincing and appealing by using a renowned person as an epitomizing example. So, when importance of determination and will-to-succeed is stressed we hear stories about Tenzig Norgay just as we do Edison when it comes to dogging persistence, and Newton for having childlike curiosity to understand the world. What we are never told are the innumerable cases where such virtues have not resulted in the commensurate success but rather left people much worse-off. We never hear about the lives of the bold men who died trying to conquer the highest peak, the thousands who tried hard and failed at inventions, and dozens of exceptionally gifted minds for whom childlike curiosity did not lead to anything very noteworthy. I certainly do not deem such instances to be failures in life but isn't it only fair to expect that one gets to know about these less-than-great people who appear (on the surface atleast ) to possess those same attributes that are extolled as the basis for extraordinary feats. Instead, we are repeatedly informed about the select few who did accomplish. It is important that one stops and asks what this "few" really implies. In other words, what is the fraction of those who attained the rare and celebrated distinction to the hundreds or even thousands who had attempted but failed. I would bet that his ratio would be a disappointingly tiny number. If developing certain positive traits is all it takes to elevate normal people to the plane of greatness, then I am sure many of those less-than-accomplished, unheard-of people who happened to fall short of grand success would possess some of the same qualities to a great degree and in specific cases even more.And yet they never made it. If such cases received greater exposure one would possibly be able to truly appreciate what distinguishes the great from the excellent, the good and the commonplace. Not just that, it would also ring a cautionary bell in people who are trying to emulate the success of remarkable individuals. They ought to know beforehand of the several instances where people have attempted that with earnest commitment and yet , never achieved anything quite comparable.
All this may seem like I am advocating a very negative approach. It is certainly true that if cases of failure or even limited and unspectacular attainments becomes more widely known, many would be discouraged at the outset and never aim for anything so big. It can also be argued that even those who are likely to go through with the challenge would be intimidated right at the start and never try. This is certainly possible but considering how one-sided the current trends are, I still feel that it is important to give a more balanced picture of what the reality is like. The positive effects of such an honest examination can be plenty. It would lead many to ask searching questions about whether they are prepared to embark on a notoriously difficult quest that several have quit or failed in the past. One has to have the courage to accept the challenges ahead. After all, it would be required in great measure once the arduous path begins. Besides, it is better to have a more balanced view at the beginning than be disillusioned later on. The idea is not to discourage but to inform, not to intimidate but to warn, not to dampen spirits but question how far the motivation can an individual.

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