On the arrogance of mistaking a tailwind for talent

Suddenly this summer, despite an agonizingly slow recovery from a fractured foot, I’ve been flying down the Great Western Trail at unprecedented speeds and with surprising endurance. So I started feeling pretty good about myself. After all, I put in all the work in so why shouldn’t I reap the benefit? Why, I even began to harbor illusions of wining my 5K age group sometime soon.

Then a funny thing happened!

Utterly fired up from that fun Festival Park Sunday southern rock concert, I didn’t manage to make it to bed before midnight, which meant sleeping later, which meant running at 8:30 a.m. instead of the typical two hours earlier. What I didn’t expect was that also meant the temperature would be 20 degrees warmer. So, instead of enjoying an invigorating 58 degrees – which it’s pretty much been all summer – I ran in a rather humid 78 degrees.

And I sucked. Considering just how poorly I did, now I’m thinking third place in the 76 to 80 5K age group is probably out of  the question.

Sure, if I wasn’t in reasonable shape I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of a string of cool summer mornings, but the truth is, if wasn’t for those virtually perfect circumstances, there wouldn’t have been any sub seven minute miles.

You know I like to have fun with myself, but the real point here is to point out that we white middle class folks tend to take credit for “accomplishments” that are actually the result of some rather fortunate twists of fate.

And we do it all the time.  white

Though oddly enough, the converse of this dynamic yields some quite different results. We tend to blame our misfortunes on other folks and/or the dastardly and cruel fates. But that’s another column.

Unlike so many of the other phenomena we discuss here, this one’s pretty easy to understand. We want to believe we’re in complete control and we like to feel good about ourselves.

But the truth is, when Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” he was right. And when the President said

“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me—because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t—look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own… If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen”

he was freakin’ dead on.

Of course, as is par for the conservative course, they had a hissy fit when the President uttered those words because someone dared to tell that myopic group that it really isn’t all about them.

I’ve been fortunate enough to run two successful businesses, neither of which would’ve gone anywhere without electronic communications, the Internet, decent roads, a school system that produced great employees, software developers who knew their shit, the Post Office, reasonable public transportation, and so many other building blocks we all tend to take for granted.

Before that, it’s been an immense advantage to be born white, to be born in the U.S., to have parents who could provide a middle class life, to have the benefit a great education, to be able to afford college with virtually no debt, to grow up in a peaceful neighborhood, and to always have access to the best medical care.

We talk about the 1 percent in this country, but compared to the vast masses that populate this Earth, every last American falls within the top 2 percent!

Since I too fall prey to this kind of tailwind for talent thinking, I can certainly understand why it happens. But what I can’t comprehend are those folks who, having been born into the best circumstances on the planet, have no empathy for those who weren’t nearly as lucky.

It’s stunning how people, who’ve never had to struggle a day in their lives, can so easily dismiss their brothers and sisters who’ve had to scratch and claw since day one.

They never, for a second, consider what it might be like to be born a minority, to have to face massive economic disadvantages out of the gate, to be born in a Third World county, to have to live where violence is a fact of life, to have no choice but to attend subpar schools, and to have virtually no hope.

Getting back to the running analogy, if life were a 100-yard dash, white males would start at the 75 yard line, white females would line up at the halfway point, and almost everyone else would start right back at the beginning.

So essentially, when conservatives like to gloat about winning the race, what they’re really doing is bragging about not screwing up. And taking credit for failing to falling flat on your face is kinda like patting yourself on the back for being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. No one should get too excited about it.

So let’s all make a concerted effort to stop mistaking that tailwind for talent, to be grateful for what has so easily come our way, to remember the people who set us up, and perhaps lend a hand to those folks who haven’t been nearly as fortunate as we’ve been.

If I’m not mistaken, I think I remember reading something about that in a holy book somewhere.

2 thoughts on “On the arrogance of mistaking a tailwind for talent

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