The single weightiest and greatest predictor of outcome is the starting point. That’s what all the social scientists say. And they are correct. Statistically and otherwise.
No; things are not predetermined. But things are often overly determined. In some cases, way overly determined.
Yes, we have freedom. But we do not have total freedom. Just some freedom. More on some days. Less on others. And likely never as much freedom as we prefer to think we have. We exercise freedom within the non-negotiable influences and sometimes immutable limitations of the starting point.
If you were born in inner city, urban decay to a poor, single, teenage crack addict mother, and to a father who left town before you were born, maybe or maybe not even aware he was a father let alone your father … if you were then bounced around between variably competent relatives and foster families … if, by age 6, you were already running from gangs and drug dealers and gunshots and attending funerals of classmates and siblings murdered by those gunshots … if, by age 9 or 10, you learned that stealing for and working for those same gangs and drug dealers would make them stop chasing you …
If then you set the local high school record for rushing yards and got a full-ride scholarship to attend a NCAA Division I football power at which you set school and collegiate records, then were drafted in the first round of the National Football League draft where you acquired more team and league records and two Super Bowl trophies and became a warm and loving husband and father and family man and citizen (not to mention a guhjillionaire) and were a first-ballot Hall of Famer where, during your induction speech, you told the story of your difficult and harrowing starting point and you inspired us all by how hard you worked to overcome your starting point as evidenced by your standing here in Canton, Ohio, next to a bronze bust of yourself …
Well, isn’t it likely, then, that those of us listening to your story would make the obvious and inevitable leap of reasoning and draw this conclusion: With hard work and commitment, a human being can endure and overcome even the most difficult starting point.
Uh, no. In the case of the story above, your starting point has to include being born with phenomenal athletic ability. And you have to meet the right coaches, teachers and other advocates. I’m saying of course none of this happens without hard work and commitment. But there are a lot of other luck-of-the-draw factors also contributing to this success story.
I’m saying the above story is indeed an inspiration and deserving of celebration. But it is also a gross statistical outlier. Most people in the above story do not fare nearly as well.
And it would be absurd and unfair to conclude that those doing poorly as a consequence of this starting point simply didn’t work hard enough and had insufficient commitment.
When I was a boy playing basketball in my driveway, I set a goal for myself to dunk a basketball. Nobody tried harder. Nobody worked harder. In my heyday as a player, I could graze my index finger on the rim. That’s it. Never jumped one inch higher. The outcome was overly determined by the starting point, which in this case included progenitors who were not overly tall or overly athletic people.
Don’t misunderstand me. There is no excuse for not working hard or for not making faithful commitments. Nor will I ever stop insisting each of us is and must be radically morally responsible and accountable for misbehavior, even the misbehavior that is overly determined and predictable. Just saying there is always — always — more going on in a successful life than a series of prudent decisions followed by a continuity of effort. More going on in an unsuccessful life, too, than a lack of effort.
Potential is a human variable overly determined by the starting point.
When I see a man on the street corner with a sign that says “Will Work For Food,” I wonder what sorts of starting points overly determine and predict this outcome. I think this is a more useful, not to mention humble, approach than “What a bum. That could never be me.”
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.