A Theory of Success; Confession

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The path to success is a process of increasing the likelihood of good fortune and preparing to take advantage of it when it comes, while minimizing the likelihood of misfortune and planning how to deal with it when it shows its inevitable, ugly shadow.  It’s a dedicated Randian, indeed, who won’t acknowledge that success requires, at some point, a coin to turn up heads… or (viewed differently) not turn up tails.

As proof that I’m not yet fully initiated into the scripture of capitalism as morality, I’ll offer this as a confession: I’ve moved from Piddlinghouse into a home a few miles down the road that is (to be crass) pretty nice. It’s nowhere near the scale of the summer homes in which I ingested asbestos and figured out how to find a radius from any two points on a curve, but it’s got room for a family of seven, and my office has a full window viewing the street, rather than one of those basement jobbies behind a bush that provided my writing light for the last decade or so.

There was good fortune in the purchase, not the least because we had helpful timing with the seller. We’d been looking at other houses in the same price range that were smaller and in need of renovation, and we happened to catch a contractor soon after the person for whom he’d built it backed out. You luck out sometimes.  In eighth grade, my English teacher knew the editor of a brand new magazine, and my class probably provided all of the entries to a contest on one of its pages.  I won the top prize, which was a six-component stereo with tower speakers that is now serving as a relic in the museum of my garage.

We stand out in our new neighborhood.  Put euphemistically, my house is the one on the block from which the work van doesn’t roll out of the driveway at the end of the workday.  We’re like Clampetts without the fortune up-jumped to a middle-class street.

I’m presenting this gratuitous biography because politics can be a game of insinuation, and my life circumstances may become the subject of taunts and accusations. How, after all, can I oppose centralized government when I’m no longer struggling just to put Christmas presents under the tree?  (Although, here’s the kicker: I am!)

We were able to move, in part, because hard work has increased our household income, although our two salaries still do not amount to that of a high-school-educated RI Senate aid.  We were able to take the risk of the mortgage because my mother was a virtuoso of responsibility when it came to financial planning and, with the unsung brilliance of savvy Americans, had prepared for two retirees to live for twenty years in an area of New Jersey where Piddlinghouse would have sold for a higher price than our new home, in Rhode Island.  The coin turned up tails, though.

Even so, we’re maxed out in terms of time and money.  We’re at the outer bounds of what current circumstances enable us to strive for.  And that’s why the “productive class,” as I’ve called those in the lower-middle and working classes, drive the economy.  More than the trickle-down wealth of the stock markets (inflated, at this point, by printed money from the Fed and the borrowed money of the feds), the investment of time and effort of people trading their talents for a better life makes the real economy bigger.

From this premise grows my political philosophy. What affluence means for a particular family, what certain people need to do to get to the level at which they’re comfortable, what risks they have to take, what they’ve had to do to get where they are, what their priorities are and why, what markers of success are “fair” and what are “greed”… these are all highly subjective judgments and dependent on circumstances.

A system that attempts to centralize social power and to redistribute wealth must create thresholds and ceilings that can’t possibly account for the complexity of human life.  Therefore, neither people who foresee too many barriers nor people who  are tied in place by too many strings will strive for something more.

That is why catches and interference by the government will tend to harm greatest those who have the most tosses of the coin between themselves and success, like a bureaucratic guarantor of misfortune.



  • Warrington Faust

    Justin, you have hit on one of the things that annoy me. That is people who demean success by saying the successful were "in the right place at the right time". In other words, luck. It is my experience that one usually has to work fairly hard to "be in the right place" at the right time.

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