Did I Build This?

I’ve been thinking and writing about failure lately, but it seems as though this is the week to argue about where success comes from.

July 24, 2012

I’ve been thinking and writing about failure lately, but it seems as though this is the week to argue about where success comes from.

In the ad created by the Romney campaign to capitalize on their out of context snipping of President Obama’s remarks, the subject, Jack Gilchrist, the owner of a metal fabricating company says, “Through hard work and a little bit of luck, we built this business.” He contends the president is “demonizing” people like him with the president’s observation that successful businesses are surrounded by a larger infrastructure (bridges, roads, etc) provided by the government. President Obama is, apparently, somehow coming out against individual initiative, which would be a silly thing to do for a man who is the living embodiment of the American Dream.

At the same time, President Obama knows that “success has many fathers”: “I know that you recognize a lot of people help you in a business. Perhaps the banks, the investors. There’s no question your mom and dad, your school teachers, the people that provide roads, the fire, the police. A lot of people help. But let me ask you this, did you build your business?”

Wait, Mitt Romney actually said that. President Obama said this: “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.”

The notion that President Obama wants to hobble the successful and talented Harrison Bergeron-style, is frankly ridiculous. The twisting of the president’s admittedly inartful sentence construction shows an embrace of post-modern notions of textual interpretation I wouldn’t previously have considered “conservative.”

It’s weird that we’re arguing where we agree. So what exactly are we arguing about?

Maybe it’s about the proportion of luck v. hard work and individual initiative necessary for success, with people like Jack Gilchrist and Mitt Romney on the side of just needing a break or two, like an $800,000 tax-exempt bond to expand your business, or being born the son of the Governor of Michigan/Chairman and President of American Motors.

I snark because I can.

In my professional life as a writer, I like to think that I am successful, or maybe more accurately, that I have had some successes. Hey, I’ve published four books. I write a weekly column about books for the Chicago Tribune. I’ve got a gig for Inside Higher Ed where I get paid a modest, yet not insignificant sum to share whatever pops into my head on their virtual pages. Add it all together, and at this moment, I’m one of the small percentage of writers who could actually support himself on his art. (Depending somewhat on your definitions of “support” and “art.”)

I work hard at writing well just about every day, which really is the key to my past and hopefully future successes.

That is except for the boatloads and boatloads of luck or chance or fate that have intervened over the years.

Like how I was born into an upper-middle class family with two college-educated parents living in a Chicago suburb with an outstanding school system where everyone is reading by the end of Kindergarten just about everyone goes to college.

Or junior year of college, needing to pick a major once and for all, my father chooses “Rhetoric” from the course catalog, which would lead me to my first creative writing class with the professor who would ultimately tell me about the graduate program in creative writing where I would enroll and be exposed to amazingly talented colleagues, and professors who set my hair on fire over learning.

Or going on a set-up date with a young woman who would one day become my wife, who also happened to be close friends from high school with one of the leading writers of our generation, who would be among the first to publish and showcase my work, a publication that would lead directly to my first book, which led to the second and so on and so on.

Or winding up in a “peer mentoring” group led by a handsome and unassuming man who would one day become the great Oronte Churm, and then many years later, loan me his blog for the summer.

Or never being in a movie theater where a deranged man starts shooting.

When I look at my successes, my career appears before me like a game of Jenga. Sure, you can remove a piece or two, but past a certain point, the whole thing comes tumbling down. I didn’t have anything to do with an awful lot of those blocks.

People like me were born on third base. Mitt Romney was twice around the bases before he emerged from his mother’s womb, and has gotten around a dozen more times on his own initiative and hard work, but he would have been economically secure no matter how he spent his life. He could have been Paris Hilton.

This may be my liberal brainwashing speaking, but I thought the myth of the self-made man had become exactly that, a myth. I had kind of assumed that we all agreed that together, society is a kind of chain where we should be concerned about the weakest links having an opportunity to make themselves into stronger links, that ultimately, we all benefit from that which we build together.

Maybe if we think about society as Jenga, we could move forward together. It’s not really any fault of the blocks themselves if they wind up on top, but if there’s too many of them, and not enough supporting the bottom, we’ll all come tumbling down.


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