The White Lie of the Self-Made Person

RuralRoads.JPGBy Kentaro Toyama

When you rent a car in India, the car comes with a driver, partly because their wages -- as low as $2-3 a day -- are negligible compared to the cost of the rental. I traveled a lot within India, so I met a lot of drivers. We rarely had a fluent language in common, but through a patchwork of different languages, we'd manage. Some trips were 10-hour journeys over bumpy rural roads [photo at right], and I learned a lot about their lives.

One thing that took a while for me to get used to was having to make the drivers wait at a destination while I worked. If I had a long day of meetings, they would wait the 12 hours in the parking lot. If I had a late-evening event, they would wait into the wee hours. Some drivers wouldn't go eat meals while waiting unless I explicitly mentioned they could. Most were faithful servants to the point of embarrassment.

But as I got used to it, I started wondering what they did while waiting. Some chatted with other drivers. Some listened to the radio. A few read the newspaper. Most drivers, though, would tilt back the driver's seat and sleep. A lot.

I found myself thinking, there must be a way to spend that time more productively. I imagined I would study English if I were them. Good English can double a driver's income and open doors to other jobs.

Then, as I thought about productive use of time, I found myself thinking maybe they were lazy.

Talk of virtue makes different people uncomfortable for different reasons. Liberals worry about blame poured on victims. Libertarians sense paternalistic assaults on personal freedoms. Hard-nosed policy-makers recoil from mushy intangibles that defy human nature. Even social conservatives, who often hail virtue, dislike preachyness and moral self-righteousness.

These concerns are valid. Polite people avoid virtue in conversation even more than religion and politics. But if virtue is the ultimate controllable cause of our own and others' well-being as I believe it is, avoiding the subject dooms us to superficial or incomplete solutions to problems.

The discomfort has to be addressed head on, and I'll start with the hazards of "blaming the victim."

The issue comes up in the United States: High unemployment incites accusations of insufficient diligence and counteraccusations of blaming the victim. Deep in the American psyche lies the belief that if virtues lead to good consequences, then anyone who isn't successful must not be virtuous.

Success, though, is obviously a function of both virtue and luck. Virtue alone isn't sufficient for material success (e.g., hard-working people laid off in the recession), and people with little virtue can succeed wildly (Charlie Sheen, anyone?). Luck matters -- luck of the parents you were born to, luck of talent you inherited, luck of the people you happen to know, and often, just plain vanilla luck. Virtue's link to success is partial and probabilistic, never an absolute guarantee.

Still, even if life outcomes were only 1% up to you and as much as 99% up to luck, it helps to believe that it's all you for three reasons: First, you're the part of the world that you have the most control over. Second, it's discouraging to think that it's mostly luck. And third, even 1% every day accumulates like compound interest. That's why Benjamin Franklin propagated the idea that "God helps those that help themselves." That's why we love rags-to-respectability Horatio Alger stories. That's why we blithely tell our children, "You can achieve anything, if you just work hard enough!"

But though the white lie of the self-made person is great motivation, accepting it as fact leads to both blaming the victims in the unemployment line and encouraging oversized self-esteem on Wall Street. This gap between what motivates us and what explains us is the crux. Hobgoblins lurk in the attempt to reconcile.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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