The White Lie of the Self-Made Person

[3rd article in a series of 6: {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6}. A version of this post first appeared in The Atlantic online, March 30, 2011]

When you rent a car in India, the car comes with a driver, partly because their wages — as low as $2-3 a day — are negligible compared to the cost of the rental. I traveled a lot within India, so I met a lot of drivers. We rarely had a fluent language in common, but through a patchwork of different languages, we’d manage. Some trips were 10-hour journeys over bumpy rural roads, and I learned a lot about their lives.

One thing that took a while for me to get used to was having to make the drivers wait at a destination while I worked. If I had a long day of meetings, they would wait the 12 hours in the parking lot. If I had a late-evening event, they would wait into the wee hours. Some drivers wouldn’t go eat meals while waiting unless I explicitly mentioned they could. Most were faithful servants to the point of embarrassment.

But as I got used to it, I started wondering what they did while waiting. Some chatted with other drivers. Some listened to the radio. A few read the newspaper. Most drivers, though, would tilt back the driver’s seat and sleep. A lot.

I found myself thinking, there must be a way to spend that time more productively. I imagined I would study English if I were them. Good English can double a driver’s income and open doors to other jobs.

Then, as I thought about productive use of time, I found myself thinking maybe they were lazy.

Talk of virtue makes different people uncomfortable for different reasons. Liberals worry about blame poured on victims. Libertarians sense paternalistic assaults on personal freedoms. Hard-nosed policy-makers recoil from mushy intangibles that defy human nature. Even social conservatives, who often hail virtue, dislike preachyness and moral self-righteousness.

These concerns are valid. Polite people avoid virtue in conversation even more than religion and politics. But if virtue is the ultimate controllable cause of our own and others’ well-being as I believe it is, avoiding the subject dooms us to superficial or incomplete solutions to problems.

The discomfort has to be addressed head on, and I’ll start with the hazards of “blaming the victim.”

The issue comes up in the United States: High unemployment incites accusations of insufficient diligence and counteraccusations of blaming the victim. Deep in the American psyche lies the belief that if virtues lead to good consequences, then anyone who isn’t successful must not be virtuous.

Success, though, is obviously a function of both virtue and luck. Virtue alone isn’t sufficient for material success (e.g., hard-working people laid off in the recession), and people with little virtue can succeed wildly (Charlie Sheen, anyone?). Luck matters — luck of the parents you were born to, luck of talent you inherited, luck of the people you happen to know, and often, just plain vanilla luck. Virtue’s link to success is partial and probabilistic, never an absolute guarantee.

Still, even if life outcomes were only 1% up to you and as much as 99% up to luck, it helps to believe that it’s all you for three reasons: First, you’re the part of the world that you have the most control over. Second, it’s discouraging to think that it’s mostly luck. And third, even 1% every day accumulates like compound interest. That’s why Benjamin Franklin propagated the idea that “God helps those that help themselves.” That’s why we love rags-to-respectability Horatio Alger stories. That’s why we blithely tell our children, “You can achieve anything, if you just work hard enough!”

But though the white lie of the self-made person is great motivation, accepting it as fact leads to both blaming the victims in the unemployment line and encouraging oversized self-esteem on Wall Street. This gap between what motivates us and what explains us is the crux. Hobgoblins lurk in the attempt to reconcile.

Conservatives lionize the self-made person and assume that others aren’t applying their talent. This view is consistent. It’s also oversimplified, but conservatives have committed to it and gone far.

Liberals deny the self-made person (at least in public) and invoke social context. This view is also consistent and oversimplified, but liberals waver on it because it violates their own intuitions. Liberals, for instance, are no different from conservatives in wanting to instill individual virtues in their children.

The snag is in unquestioning assignment of moral value to individual virtues. We praise people for their virtues and condemn them for their lack of virtues, as if they deserved all of the credit or all of the blame. But research shows that virtues like self-control and compassion depend not just on individual choices, but also on genes, childhood nutrition, and upbringing, all variables over which individuals have little control. Virtues themselves are part luck and social context.

For liberals, this doesn’t solve the rhetorical challenge, but it allows them to accept the importance of virtues without blaming any victims. It also permits a shift in dialogue, from debating whether individuals or society matter more, to debating which virtues (both individual and societal) are important and how they can best be nurtured.


Getting back to Indian drivers, a non-judgmental account of their virtues might go like this: Most are diligent workers on the one hand, but many lack other virtues such as self-confidence and initiative that could help them in their own dreams for middle-class life. Their weaknesses could be traced to upbringing and education.

Once in a while, though, a driver is diligent, self-confident, and focused, and does remarkably well. One of them was Narasimha, a taxi driver I met through a dial-up cab service, and whom I came to rely on for trips to the Bangalore airport [photo at left]. Unlike other drivers, Narasimha showed up 10 minutes ahead of time, and he drove safely and steadily. Through bits of English, Hindi, and Kannada, I learned that he came from a village a couple of hours outside of the city. His family farmed, but he had bigger dreams. At the time, he paid a flat fee per day to rent a car from a man who owned a fleet of cabs, but Narasimha wanted to own his own car, and he told me that he was close to saving enough money. As we approached the airport terminal, he handed me a business card and asked me to call him whenever I needed a ride. By calling him directly, I’d dispense with the middleman.

And so I did. I sometimes had flights leaving at 2 a.m. in the morning, but he never once turned me down. If he couldn’t come himself, he’d set me up with one of his driver friends. None of them though, were as prompt, safe, or reliable as Narasimha.

One day, Narasimha arrived in a shiny white Ford Icon. I happened to be the first passenger in his new car, and he beamed when I congratulated him. He had purchased the car on a loan, and it meant that he was finally his own master.

I asked him how he managed it all, and here’s what I could gather: Narasimha had an uncle who invited him to Bangalore, got him into the taxi business, coached him as a driver, and helped him procure the loan. I couldn’t understand everything he said, but by his tone, it was clear he was deeply grateful to his mentor. As hard and as smart as he worked, Narasimha had yet another virtue that helps counter “blaming the victim”: humility.