If we wish to have success, I think it is helpful to define the components of success, what I call the success equation. As far as I know, this specific equation is my concept, but the ideas behind it do not require any particular genius so I would not be surprised at all if it has been proposed many times before.
Success = Talent x Choices x Opportunities
Here I define talent as your inborn abilities. Choices are the sum of all of your decision. Opportunities are what is available to you in the outside world.
By definition, talent is maximized at birth and is generally a constant. A disability may decrease it, such as an artist going blind. Refining and improving talent is a choice one makes. Also by definition, a person can not create his or her own opportunities. He or she can only recognize opportunities and then make the choice to take or not take advantage of the opportunity.
Since talent is fixed, any political policies that increase success has to do one of two things: increase the probability that people will make good choices or increase opportunities. Conversely, any policy that decreases the probability of good choices or opportunities will be harmful.
To some extent, all three are essential. For example, in a medieval feudal society a peasant was destined to be a peasant, regardless of his or her talent or choices. At this point, I would like to postulate that 21st century America is not a medieval society. There is a multitude of opportunities, even for people who live under the worst conditions. If there were no opportunities, as the peasant faced in medieval Europe, then nobody would be successful. However, some people are successful, so ergo there are opportunities. I would also postulate that for a child growing up in a middle class family with a supportive, stable two-parent family, the opportunities are much easier to find and the child is more likely to make good choices. A child growing up in a slum in an unstable single-parent household will most likely find fewer opportunities, they will be farther from home, and the child will be less likely to make good choices to take advantage of them.
The inherent unfairness of life, however, does not change the equation. Regardless of the background, increasing the opportunities and increasing the probability of good choices will lead to more success.
In Malcom Gladwell’s book “Outliers” Gladwell demonstrates fairly convincingly that the most successful people such as the Bill Gates’s and Steve Jobs’s of the world would not be successful if they did not have amazing opportunities. If they were born a few years earlier or later or if they did not have computer access unavailable to most kids their age, they most likely would not have had the same level of achievement. This premise is entirely consistent with the success equation. To achieve maximum success, all three elements of the equation, talent, choices, and opportunities, must all be at a maximal level. For most of us, however, we do not need to achieve billionaire status to be successful. We just need to use whatever talent we have with reasonable choices to take advantage of reasonable opportunities and we can achieve enough success to have a fulfilling middle class lifestyle.
So how can a third party, such as the government, increase people’s probability of success? It can promote policies that provide opportunities and provide incentives for people to make good choices. The best way to provide opportunities for the most people is to promote a healthy growing economy. I will discuss this at a later time. For now, I would like to propose the idea that promoting good choices is much more important. Even when there are limited opportunities, if a person makes very good choices he or she will find and take advantage of these opportunities. On the other hand, even if there are fantastic opportunities, a person who makes poor choices will never take advantage of them. Therefore, the key to promoting success is by helping people make good choices. How do we do that? That will be the subject of my next blog.