How Much of Our Success Should We Claim Credit For?

Our most recent podcast was called “Would a Big Bucket of Cash Really Change Your Life?” It showed that the winners of a 19th-century land lottery did not appear to convert their windfall into intergenerational wealth. This challenges the modern argument that cash transfers are one of the most effective ways of helping a poor family escape poverty — and, therefore, as we said in the podcast, might be seen as a depressing conclusion.

Judd Campbell from Odessa, Texas, wrote in to dispute the depressing part, and offer some worthwhile commentary:

I just finished listening to the latest podcast about the Georgia land lottery in the 19th century. I actually found it not to be depressing at all.

Here’s why:

1. It would be depressing to me to know that poverty has existed into modernity, and the solution would be a simple one-time transfer of wealth. Surely, we could have figured that out by now and eliminated poverty. Clearly, the issue is more complex than that, and thus we have an excuse for not developing a solution. Yet.

2. While I don’t consider myself wealthy, I do make a healthy salary and live in a comfortable home with 4 kids. There are a couple of things that I believe about my life, that may or may not be logical or factual, but provides me comfort:

a. My financial success is not due to my parents. I did it on my own. I did grow up in a comfortable home with loving and supportive parents, my father has a master’s degree, and I appreciate what they have provided me. But in my gut I feel like I achieved my own success. This podcast was uplifting, because it seems to confirm that I am responsible for my own success.

b. On the other hand, I feel like my financial success will help my children be financially successful. Even though I don’t give my parents credit for my success, I believe that I can influence my children to be successful.

I thank Judd for his thoughts. I think the seeming contradiction between points 2a and 2b highlights a common problem when thinking issues like these: we are able to judge, assess, and analyze our own experiences so much more than others’, and therefore probably over-attribute causality; when we look at the experience of other people, meanwhile, we probably tend to impose our own experience onto theirs more than we think.

So, the big open-ended question of the day: how much of our success should we claim credit for? I think about this question a lot. In my family there wasn’t much money but my parents gave me and all my siblings (there were eight of us) good health, an appetite for curiosity, and a sense of optimism. How much is that worth?

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  1. Burcin Tuglular says:

    Priceless :)

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  2. John says:

    I attribute a ton of my success to my parents. Because of them I am white and I had private schooling through college. They were married for 27 years. Many people (of color) are more likely than me to have parents that are single, drug addicted, in jail, poor, lacking education etc. and all these are curses in place of the blessings i received.

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  3. James says:

    I think the common link between 2a and 2B is Mr. Campbell has taken on the responsibility for his career and the responsibility for helping his children. I imagine that he learned to assume this responsibility from his parents and his kids are learning it today by watching him.

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  4. Alex says:

    It’s hard to put a price tag on any of this. Even the word “success” is subject to interpretation.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      The word “poverty” is subject to interpretation, too.

      Compared to a middle-middle-class person in 1830, I grew up in something not far from luxury, even though my family qualified for some welfare programs. We had two pairs of shoes (most of the time), hot water at the turn of a knob, only two people per bedroom…

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  5. Daniel says:

    It’s not that your parents HAVE money that helps you to be successful. It’s having parents that taught you how to manage money that helps you to be successful. The difference is EARNED wealth. If your parents knew how to earn money and spend wisely, whether or not they were in poverty or not I’d wager you’re more likely to succeed. Similarly, if you parents are rich, I would venture that if they earned it themselves, you are more likely to be successful, vs if they won it or inherited it, you are probably less likely to be successful.

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  6. Kurt says:

    Is is possible that parents open the door for possible success? If so, he can be responsible for seizing the opportunity (which was provided by his parents opening the door). If this is true, then he can feel as though his success is his alone; however, he may also be striving to help his children by opening doors (potentially helping them more than they realize).

    In that sense, it would work (although that is not exactly how it is stated).

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  7. dj says:

    One of the books that I read recently explained it well – your success is a combination of primarily three factors – your natural talent, the environment and the support you receive. Parents obviously are responsible for the third in most cases. You have articulated the seemingly innocuous paradox very well Judd – just goes on to show the biases we suffer from….

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  8. Min says:

    Point 1 seems misguided to me. Who cares if there was an easy solution to poverty that was under our noses the entire time? The shame of not having found it until now is irrelevant. What matters is that there is an easy solution to poverty, which would save countless lives going forward and improve the quality of countless more.

    I think that such an easy solution doesn’t exist is unambiguously more depressing than if it does.

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