The Success Myth

As Mark Twain once said in a letter to Helen Keller: “It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did.”

Stigler’s law of eponymy states that no scientific discovery is named after its original inventor. Instead, acclaim for discoveries is more often than not assigned to renowned scientists who use their credibility to bring attention to obscure ideas, whether or not those scientists are the ideas’ original discoverers. This brings us to an interesting question: why do we credit some people with genius and not others? Just below, an excerpt from a comic begins to answer that question (click on the image for the whole comic).

This comic by Toby Morris is a great depiction of how certain people accumulate advantages over time. Even “self-made” people who don’t have family wealth or other traditional advantages can accrue benefits over time once they start succeeding.

A quintessential piece of American culture is the myth of the self-made person. This myth states that some people’s success is entirely of their own making; they didn’t take handouts, inherit a fortune, or otherwise “get lucky”. Instead, they worked hard, acquired knowledge, and made wise choices. When these people make it to the top, they believe it was something innate in them that got them there. However, this is, in most cases, false.

President Obama, during his 2012 reelection campaign, gave the unfortunately-phrased “You Didn’t Build That” speech. Numerous people took it out of context and accused Obama of insulting their drive, intelligence, and ambition to create and grow new businesses. The core of his speech is as follows:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

There is no doubt that Obama phrased part of this speech regrettably, but the surrounding context makes clear what the president’s intent was. His goal was to highlight government’s foundational role in business success, whether through research, education, or infrastructure. In fact, in summary, Obama said: “The point is … that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

Ultimately, the society we live in is fundamental to our success. Societal progress, especially in the technological and economic senses, seems to grow at an accelerating rate; that is, progress is exponential, not linear. Take a second to reflect on how far we’ve come as a species over the last few thousand years. We went from being illiterate cave-dwellers 10,000 years ago to having Amazon stores that don’t require waiting in checkout lines. Our progress as a species is accelerating, just as it has this entire time.

Notably, these compound returns also occur on an individual level. If you have a lot of resources that you can use, you will accrue more resources faster than someone who starts out with less. Even if you start out with just a few resources but find a way to start compounding them at the rate that society evolves, you’ll be fine. That’s what Steve Jobs did: he created products that both captured and enabled change on a societal level. But we also need to remember that he jumped on a train of progress that had been going for a long time: other people invented the Internet, telephone service, glass, steel, factories, and so on. Returning to Twain, we certainly tend to credit the last person in a long line of effort needed to make something come to fruition. Perhaps, in the future, we might try to credit others as well.

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