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20 June 2012

Fortuna Favors the Bold (of Birth)

Most of you have probably already heard about Michael Lewis' viral 2012 Princeton commencement speech titled "Don't Eat Fortune's Cookie." If you haven't seen it, check it out below. (If you want to skip forward, the meat begins at 5:53 and then again 6:55.)

Take this quote:
People really don't like to hear success explained away as luck, especially successful people.... The world doesn't want to acknowledge it either.
This points to an important sociological concept: how people attribute success and failure. Here are a couple tables to help make sense of it:

(green = comfort; red = discomfort)

We are generally comfortable attributing our own successes to individual-level factors (e.g. strong character, intelligence, and strong work ethic) and our own failures to structural factors (i.e. things outside of our control). We generally are only comfortable, though, attributing any outcome for others, positive or negative, to individual-level factors. It is as if others do not exist within society at all. (We're not quite sure about how structure affects others' successes. If we think of them positively [e.g. if they are a member of our group], we're not too comfortable with it; if we think of them negatively [e.g. they are an outsider], we're more comfortable with it.)

Lewis uses the terms "luck" and "accident," but it's not quite this arbitrary usually. Some people aren't just lucky but have advantages that are built into the system, into our social structure. Luck is something that can be thought of as fairly randomly distributed; in all societies, however, certain people, because of their ascribed (i.e. unearned) identities*, are disproportionately advantaged. "Luck" is inexplicable, but social advantage (a/k/a privilege) is socially determined and, thus, can be socially mitigated or eliminated through social movements.

Because people also generally want to live in a just world, acknowledging the influence of social structure requires a shift in worldview. Take it from Mr. Lewis:
With luck comes obligation.... You owe a debt to the unlucky.
* - I suppose we could get into a philosophical debate as to whether some individuals are "lucky" to have been born into certain advantaged identities. For example, being born male, white, and heterosexual to a middle class Presbyterian family is "luckier" than being born female, black, and queer to a lower class Muslim parent, but this is beside the point.

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