Monday, September 12, 2005

The Secrets of Success (and Failure)

As has been mentioned in a few other places, the past week's worth of posts at Asymmetrical Information have offered one good read after another. Jane Galt revisits the subject of poverty from time to time and shows an unexpected compassion and clear minded-ness when examining who make up the underclass. She concludes that the characteristics of poor people contribute to their lot in life, more so than other oft cited circumstantial factors, like racism, the injustice of capitalism, or the lack of an extensive welfare state. She is mindful that that life isn't equally easy or hard for everyone, but she does suggest that the kind of things necessary to escape poverty is simple enough for any person to remember. The difficulty lies in actually choosing to do these things. She writes:

If poor people did just four things, the poverty rate would be a fraction of what it currently is. Those four things are:

1) Finish high school
2) Get married before having children
3) Have no more than two children
4) Work full time

If you don't CHOOSE to finish high school, you limit the range of jobs you can qualify for. If you CHOOSE to get married before having children, you will ensure you and your family some financial stability by having another earner. If you CHOOSE not to have fewer than 3 children, the tremendous expenses in raising them will limit you in furthering your education or take jobs that require more of the mother's time. And if you CHOOSE only to work part-time instead of full time, not only will you obviously earn less money, but managers won't give promotions to people who choose to be partners since they are not loyal enough to work full time.

Yes, life is about choices, and many of those choices are influenced by one's family and how it brought its children up. If there is luck in life, it comes down to being born not into money, but into a family environment that encourages the right choices to be made. I sympathize a lot with the smart kids I have known in my life who have suffered from scant moral support from their parents, and the destructive influence of their peers. Jane Galt argues that many of the decisions she had made as a young women were influenced by the general social mores and ambitions of her peers of similar background. The pressure to conform to one's peer group is probably one of the most powerful determinants in an individual's personal development. The pull towards conformity is far from a detached rational pr0cess, since it deals with personal desires unaffected by logic. One conforms to achieve an emotional and psychological balance, a feeling of being accepted, even loved, of reinforcing one's ego. Because of the irrationality that is an inherent part of 'fitting in', it's not that difficult to seek acceptance with the wrong crowd and subvert your rational faculties with illusions of tangible benefits by belonging to the group. Often times we encounter people who spout off the silliest ideas simply because his or her friends believe them, too. Group loyalty is powerful, and fulfills a psychological need that often resists any contrary ideas based on reason. Unlike Jane, I rarely made decisions based on what my friends would agree with. The only peer pressure came from my older brothers, of which I have quite a few. My parents set high expectations for their children, and each brother likewise set a benchmark for their younger sibling to achieve.

Beyond the realm of the family, the influence of friends or classmates was minimal. I was socially awkward for most of the time I was a student, and was therefore hopeless in winning the approval of any of my peers. I carried on as individual with this idea in my head that if you did what your teacher demanded of you, you would reap the benefits later on. As a product of the public school systems of Louisiana and Texas, I was often surrounded by classmates who had completely different ideas of what was expected of them at school. Many of them were unserious about learning or even behaving and respecting rules, but often much of their problem stemmed from trying to please their peers. Performing pranks, passing notes, or even sleeping in class is not unusual, yet they serve for social rewards. I never did those things for the simple reason that classmates come and go, but a clean academic record and remembering most of everything you learned would pay off in a big way throughout your life. Somehow, I had never doubted this vague reward even as very young kid, and my faith in this helped me ignore the taunts, the ridicule, and visible contempt of the class clowns, the troublemakers and even those who wanted to have good grades without doing the work. I was the nerd, the teacher's pet, or the weirdo, and although such names were indeed trying to my spirits, I had an unwavering belief that I would leave my peers behind and that I would be better off in the end and that those around me would be only recipients to my pity. During this none-to-easy time, I was very unsympathetic of my unserious peers, and being obviously immature most of the time, I wished ill of them.

Now that I am an adult and long past my days in grade school, I am hopefully more mature.
I look back at that time and realize what a formative influence it was in my understanding of people in general. Had I known more about the families from whom many of these failing students were coming from, the complex social pressures and cultural influences they were subject to, I definitely would not have felt as contemptuous. I'm far more aware of certain psychological and emotional needs that affect a person's behavior that cancel any good sense kind of advice. In simpler terms, when trying to understand why so many of my classmates at school were making such terrible choices on how to make the most out of an education, it helps to remember that you can never understand it all when you were young. Things seem simpler when you’re young, and one of those things was to simply follow the rules and take the advice of your elders seriously. It wasn’t a big intellectual leap then and it isn’t now.

The biggest leap is a moral one, tied closely to culture since it codifies moral values within a group. The culture I absorbed from my family contains a relatively rich intellectual core, but its moral core underpins it more so. Follow instructions, respect the teacher, and most importantly, do your best were associated as good, while the opposites of laziness and disrespect were judged as bad. I took this black and white approach to learning for granted, but I never dared to doubt it. The tragedy that is poverty is that some cultures do doubt these basic tenets and turn them what is good and bad upside down. In these decadent cultures, good and bad are flipped, and academic success is scorned. A teacher can go only so far in inculcating positive morals and values to children, but the most significant transference of culture and the morals that come with it is through the parents. A healthy morality is the most fundamental aspect to the success of any government welfare program, as well as any benevolent state institution like the school system. If the student’s moral fiber is rotten, there is nothing that any outside institution can do unless they undertake total control of rearing them.

If one can fix moral poverty then financial poverty will be less of a problem. Now if one could somehow disregard the pervasive influence of moral relativism, the better...

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