What We Could Build

One of the more absurd episodes in last year’s U.S. presidential contest came about after President Obama made the following remarks during a campaign appearance in Roanoke, Virginia, in July 2012:

…. 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 we have 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.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

That infelicitous phrase “you didn’t build that” was an instant flash point, igniting a veritable forest fire of heated debate (or, perhaps more accurately, hot air!) as to Obama’s alleged “socialistic” views with regard to successful individuals.  By isolating “you didn’t build that” from its surrounding context, conservative commentators launched an emotionally charged campaign of condemnation.  The culmination of this onslaught of unreason manifested as the repeated, ritualistic chanting of “We built that!” from the floor of the Republican convention in the days and nights leading up to the nomination of Mitt Romney.

Lost in all this mindless chatter, of course, was the common-sense assertion – clearly stated in the full context of the offending phrase – that we are all significantly influenced, for better or for worse, by the cirumstances of our birth and upbringing.

Yes, Obama’s speechwriters could have done a better job.  The sentences that gave rise to all the commentary would have been less open to misinterpretation had they read “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build it in a vacuum.  Other people helped create the conditions in which you could build it.”

But, Obama’s”critics could have done a better job as well.  They simply had to take the trouble to read the full context of his remarks, and to comment accordingly.

This regrettable piece of political distortion came to mind as I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, his penetrating exploration of the social and cultural factors underlying individual success.  In this excerpt from his opening chapter, Gladwell states the book’s thesis with his customary eloquence and clarity:

In examining the lives of the remarkable among  us – the skilled, the talented, and the driven – I will argue that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success.

What is the question we always ask about the successful? We want to know what kind of personalities they have, or how intelligent they are, or what special talents they might have been born with.  And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how the individual reached the top.

I want to convince you that these kind of personal explanations don’t work.  People don’t rise from nothing.  We do owe something to parentage and patronage.  The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves.  But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up.  The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.

It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like.  It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who successds and who doesn’t.

Among the most compelling case studies Gladwell reports on in the chapters that follow are accounts of the surprising impacts that month of birth plays in the selection of Canadian high school hockey all-stars, that year of birth and geographic area of upbringing played in the career paths of technology entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, and that cultural conditioning plays in the core competencies of airline pilots.

In every case, the bottom-line learning is that these achievers didn’t build their successes in a vaccum.  Their parents, their teachers, their culture, and even such purely random circumstances such as the time and place of their birth – all played a part in the successful outcomes these individuals achieved.

Obama was attempting to assert no less – and unintentionally ignited a political conflagration.  And in fact, there was something of a critical backlash against Gladwell’s book as well.  A number of reviewers seized upon a few of the less compelling case studies, and exploited the modest weaknesses in those arguments to fault the book’s thesis in its entirety.

What is it about this simple assertion that provokes such resistance, bordering on hostility?

I suspect that those who are offended feel as if they are being personally attacked.  Perhaps they have constructed their sense of self-worth almost entirely on being perceived as strong individuals who need little if any help in achieving their success.  And then along comes an author like Gladwell or a national leader like Obama, pointing out that success is so much more complicated than the old Horatio Alger myth would have us believe.   What an affront to their self-image!  They didn’t “build it” all by themselves!  No wonder they get hostile!

What’s needed here, I think, is a more sophisticated understanding of the interconnectedness of everything.  None of us exists in isolation.  We are each and everyone of us deeply connected to countless others in a thick mesh of familial and societal groupings.   We continuously influence others and in turn are influenced by them.  From the most trivial of events occuring on the small stages of our individual lives, to the most titanic of events sweeping across the huge stage of history, absolutely everything that happens emerges from the complex web of human interactions that has been weaving itself together since the first humans walked the planet.  We each get to shape this web in some fashion or other by what we choose to do with ourselves while we are alive, and simultaneously what we choose to do with ourselves while we are alive is shaped by the specific time and place in which we happen to find ourselves in this very same web.

Buddhism has been pointing humanity towards this understanding of interconnectedness for three thousand years, but as President Obama discovered when he gave that speech a year ago, there’s a lot of resistance out there – most especially in today’s politically polarized America, where an extreme sense of personal liberty has taken root among a significant portion of the polulace.

But if it’s true in the personal sense that what we resist is what persists, then perhaps it’s also true in the collective sense.  The idea of interconnectedness that as a society we continue to resist is an idea that will persist until as a society we finally embrace it.

I’d like to think that here is a fitting mission for contempory Buddhism – to keep pushing us in this direction, to keep pointing out the undeniable truth of interconnectedness, until we cross some unknown tipping point where our irrational resistance crumbles, and we get down to the serious business of building a more compassionate society and a more sustainable world.

That would indeed be something to celebrate and chant about – “We built that!”


About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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One Response to What We Could Build

  1. Great Post, Tom!

    I never cease to lament the radical disconnect between ‘political discourse’, with its easily accepted presuppositions, and a proper consideration of the way words work together on the surface of things without beginning to touch what one might call ‘reality’.

    As you say, with a bit of judicious tweaking what Obama said would have made much more sense.

    The event that really brought all this kind of thing home to me was the attack on Iraq in 2003. In simplistic political discourse this was supposed to sort everything out with clinical precision; there was no systemic thinking which might have led to the conclusion that nothing takes place in a vacuum, everything is connected: it might have been seen that the attack on Iraq would simply stimulate those who fight a terror war to conduct further acts of terror. Western terror continues to stimulate terror all round the world and vice versa.

    We are in a gigantic interconnected system – it requires systemic thinking to cope. Everything is much more complicated than it seems to be! Gladwell’s tipping point will come about when systemic thinking rules!



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