We hear a lot about “self-made” billionaires. You know, the ones topping the annual Forbes’ lists. The ones who supposedly pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, earned that cash through their own talent, drive, struggle, courage, hard work, and hence deserve every cent of it. Meritocracy – the basis of free market capitalism – dictates you get what you earn and only the best rise to the top.
How about something a bit closer to reality. As Virginia Woolf once put it in when writing of the necessary requirements for women authors, all you need is “money and a room of [your] own.”
Leaving aside yesterday’s multi-millionaires and today’s billionaires for a moment, consider something quite a bit harder to come by: Greatness – those individuals who become known and idolized by millions, often for generations, who become symbolic of particular outstanding human qualities, even of particular eras in human history – the likes of Albert Einstein, Mozart, Marie Curie, Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Charles Darwin. No shortage of resources here.
Still, there are artists like Berthe Morisot, who started out with full cash and room in hand, yet even today are barely visible outside the galleries. Or look at San Francisco’s 70-plus musical prodigies of the 1920s-30s – only six had successful careers as adults.
Compare them with the likes of Elvis, Marilyn, and Ali – icons who started off with barely a loose nickel between them. How did they make it? Was it down to talent, struggle, like those ‘self-made’ billionaires – blood, sweat, and tears? Or maybe, just maybe, it was down to something else.
In my book, Greatness, I consider a wide range of Western icons. Mozart or Marilyn, Einstein or Elvis – it makes no difference. Talent and effort are merely the givens. Millions have them in every generation. Chance is the decider, over and over again.
Let’s take a look, for example, at the man whose name has become a synonym for genius. How exactly did Einstein, considered the greatest mind of the 20th century, get from the family’s lavish villa in Munich in 1879 to the Theory of Special Relativity in 1905? A few highlights show this progression wasn’t down to Einstein. It was down to Einstein in a series of changing contexts which over and over again worked to his advantage, often not only without his knowledge, but in spite his own best efforts to the contrary.
Early on we find young Albert and his family moving in to share a home for four years with Uncle Jacob, his energetic engineer of an uncle. This uncle knew all about Faraday’s lines of force and what they’d do to a sheet covered with iron filings, and all about batteries and wires and switches and how Oersted would have hooked them up right next to his compass. How many of us budding geniuses grew up with a live-in mentor playing games like that?
Albert’s father then happily followed this up with two business failures over the next several years, thus allowing his son to escape the rote learning of the local gymnasium and the far more serious barracks of the Imperial Prussian Army. Instead Albert – through no effort of his own – ended up far away in Switzerland, at the Araru School, boarding for a year with the Principal’s family.
With no gymnasium diploma, there was only one third level institution that would accept Einstein – ETH, known as the MIT of Switzerland. Crucially he first had to pass the entrance exam. This was the same exam which the 16-year-old had intentionally failed on the first go. The Araru School was Einstein’s last chance to pass the test.
For the first time in his education, Einstein found a school that perfectly suited his temperament. The principal, Professor Winteler, was a liberal-minded man and highly respected teacher who treated his pupils as adults and approached education with a free-thinking manner. As a result Einstein experienced one of the happiest periods of his life. So when next round of exams came up, the 17 year old was not only sitting right on door step of ETH, he was also ready and eager to sit the exams.
ETH, as luck would have it, provided exactly the kind of interpersonal and intellectual relationships Einstein needed to develop the thinking which led to his relativity theory just a few years later. As it happened Newton’s laws – the 200-year-old “foundations of classical science” – had started getting seriously littered with footnotes just about the time Albert was old enough to notice. He came on the scene at the very moment physics was about to be revolutionized.
And after ETH when Einstein critically needed several years to research and think freely about the likes of the electrodynamics of moving bodies? When Einstein needed the time and space virtually any PhD program would have provided, no program would consider him. No academic at ETH would write him a recommendation, given his public contempt for the top man in the ETH physics department, Professor Heinrich Weber, or “Herr Weber” as Einstein liked to call him.
No problem. The father of Einstein’s good buddy, Marcel Grossman, was a good buddy of the Director of the Swiss Patent Office, who’d never let an obvious lack of technical expertise stand in the way of helping out an old friend. Any guesses who was selected as the best available candidate for the position of ‘Technical Expert’ in the Bern Patent Office in June of 1902?
So how did Einstein become Einstein? Pure genius from the beginning, and when the going got tough, the greatest mind of the 20th century got a few more lucky breaks.
Chance is the decider. Chance, as in you didn’t cause it to happen, and might not have even known it happened. You just cashed in on it. Chance events that through no doing of your own matched up with your state of development, and massively accelerated it – advancing you ahead, often way ahead, of your peers simply because you happened to be the right person in right place at right time. As we’ve seen with Einstein, this is scarcely a one-off in the lives of those who become great.
Now let’s expand that logic to one serious ‘self-made’ billionaire: The Donald.
Like most of us, Trump was the beneficiary of several trust funds before the age of four. And – if you can believe the New York Times and their 100,000 pages of financial records – he “was a millionaire by age eight”, and by 2018 had received at least $413 million (adjusted for inflation) from his father’s business empire. He joined the Trump Management Company at the age of 22, and within 3 years, no doubt by virtue of his genius, diligence, and hard work, became company president.
As with all of us, there was of course the odd bonus here and there. How did Trump put it, after receiving a wee bit of a loan from the old lad to enter Manhattan’s real estate business, while his father stayed in Brooklyn and Queens: ”It was good for me,” the New York Times quoted him as saying in his father’s obituary. ”You know, being the son of somebody, it could have been competition to me. This way, I got Manhattan all to myself!”
And so we have it – from Trump to Einstein – it all boils down to meritocracy, that cornerstone of free-market capitalism. When the going gets tough, the tough get going and the best rise to the top.
Just like Darwin’s finches pumpin’ iron on the Galapagos. Those little birds that were so similar in every way, except for their beaks, which varied from island to island, depending on what foods were available – strong thick beaks for nuts and seeds, smaller beaks for catching flies, and even a finch that learned to use a cactus spine to probe grubs out of holes.
Survival of the fittest, except for one tiny detail. We’re talking about fit as in match, not as in strength. Fit as in having slight variations in your beak match up ideally with the demands of food gathering on your particular island, allowing you to survive and reproduce generation after generation.
Fit as in young Albert’s intellectual curiosity being stimulated by his uncle, or as in young Donald being funded and resourced by daddy. Fit as in having your development complemented, stimulated, resourced by the world around you, giving you advantages over your peers over and over and over again.
With that kind of meritocracy going, maybe one of these days we’ll end up with some genius sitting around all night, probing cash out of tweets with a cactus spine.
Bill Dorris (Ph.D., UCLA), is a retired university academic. All of the research above is from his book, Greatness (2017), excluding the reporting on Donald Trump. Free copies of Greatness can be downloaded from his blog: greatnessbd.com.