Can You Claim Credit for Your Life?
Did you know that one of the single largest predictors of good life outcomes is the zip code in which you are born? Yes, it’s true. No, it’s not how smart you are, or how diligent, or how persevering, or how charming may be your personality. I know. We really, really want to believe we are captains of our destiny, that we are solely responsible for ourselves and our lives.
Except the data simply does not support it.
Let’s do a thought experiment to explain.
First, let’s clone you into 1,000,000 exact replicas. Then we need to sprinkle each of you randomly into zip codes across the country. Each of your versions would have the exact same genetics, yet each would be immediately influenced by the family and community culture into which you were dispersed.
Those replicas of you who were dropped into zip codes that are high in poverty, hunger, violence and other stressors while being low in education and economic opportunity would be about 15% less likely to graduate from high school, attain some kind of economic success, achieve reasonable health, and ultimately rise to a fair degree of life accomplishment.
Yes, the setting into which you are born is a huge determinant in your life outcomes. Simply enough, when we are not supported psychologically and emotionally, when we are not sufficiently nurtured because of our circumstances, precious and valuable psychic energy is diverted to survival rather than development. We have to figure out how to get by, at the expense of learning that which allows us to thrive.
I know. Each of you is thinking of an example where someone was dropped into bad circumstances and did well, or a good setting and did poorly. And of course, what we humans do is try to take one example and refute the larger point.
Except the data does not support it.
Of the 1,000,000 of you in our thought experiment randomly sprinkled around America, about 20% would end up in low resource settings, and of those 15% would end up with unfortunate lives. So 30,000 exact versions of you would fail to grow and thrive. We just don't know which ones it would be.
So what are we to do with this information?
You could dispute it, though the data will not support you.
You could realize that the great roulette wheel of Life dealt you a fine hand indeed. And that gratitude could translate into feeling blessed.
You could dig into this information to try to understand why this might be. You’ll find that if a child has a degree of resilience, which can be taught, and sufficient nurturance, we can negate a great deal of the potentially negative outcomes. Resilience and nurturance. That’s why a single grandmother in the life of a child really can make all the difference in the world to that one child.
You could conclude that you can individually do something. You could offer your time, your presence or your resources. Where? Food banks, child care, literacy programs, economic development, social justice, youth mentoring, coaching sports … it is a very long list of possibilities.
But what you cannot do is find fault with those who do not get a fair shot. And you cannot simply credit yourself for your good outcomes. Because were it not for some random good fortune, your life would not be one for which you’d like to claim credit.
Assuming you are convinced that you're living a charmed life, or that you really want to better understand, click here for a really great first person account that illustrates these points.
My dad and mom were born into dustbowl, depression era Oklahoma. Somehow they developed in me a desire to be educated and to be successful in the world. I do not know where it came from in them. I don't know how they translated it to me. Just like I do not know how Thomas Jefferson and others could possibly create the freedom from which I benefit. Or how Alexander Fleming and others created the antibiotics that saved my life as a child with illnesses. Or why in the world a handful of recovering alcoholics would invest so much time in me so that I could be one of the very fortunate minority to achieve long-term sobriety from a devastating condition.
I do not understand, but I see I have a great debt that cannot be ignored.
How about you? Can you see?