In his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success, journalist Malcolm Gladwell sets out to obliterate the myth of rugged individualism. No one is self-made, he asserts, no matter how humble that person’s beginnings might seem. Everyone who has reached the pinnacle of achievement has been afforded opportunities and advantages that provided a foundation for hard work and persistence.
Money and status are obvious springboards for success. But Gladwell digs deeper than that. Athletes get a leg up when they barely miss early childhood cut-off dates for sports signups, making them bigger and more physically mature – and thus getting more playing time, attention, and investment from coaches – than their peers. The peculiar demands of rice farming created a culture of year-round work in Asian countries that filters down to students, setting them up for an unwavering focus on schoolwork. Bill Gates came of age in exactly the right era to get in on the personal computing revolution, and he lived in the right place to capitalize on a series of opportunities that got him thousands of hours of coding practice on the newest – and scarcest – technology. Privilege comes in many forms.
Though the myth of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is inspirational, the real-life weaving together of generations and circumstances strikes me as profoundly biblical. Scripture is full of success (and failure) stories that have their roots in previous eras, others’ choices, and living in a certain place at a particular time. And Jesus makes it clear that we belong to one another, as the effects of our words and actions ripple out far beyond what we can see.
What, then, are the hidden forces that have contributed to our success? And how might we help others to see their own advantages and opportunities? One possibility is to map out our lives, starting with the present day and going backward to examine (to the best of our limited vision) the factors that brought us to where we are. Who mentored us? What were our lucky breaks? How did our birthdates, cultural heritage, physical makeup, access to options, and location shape our trajectories?
If we can unearth the forces at work in our lives and give up the narrative that we got where we are under our own power, the implications for widening our (individual and congregational) understanding of and call to mission are huge. And we might discover innovative ways to support others in less traditional ways when we don’t have much money and status to offer.