Within two minutes of takeoff, US Airways Flight 1549 lost both its engines. At an altitude of 2,818 feet, the aircraft hit a flock of Canadian geese and started to lose airspeed while still climbing. Within 3 minutes Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger turned the nose south, glided over the Hudson, and ditched the plane off Midtown Manhattan. All lives were saved. The "Miracle on the Hudson" happened in 2009 and it sparked much discussion about aviation excellence.
When examining human excellence, psychologists focus on understanding exceptional achievement in domains such as science, art, or sports. Some focus on natural talent, others on intensive training and practice. Then there are those who examine excellence as a product of context. For those supporting the nurture argument, it is all about exceptional performance training, deliberate practice, and a precocious involvement and commitment to a specific domain.
The nurture fans believe that anyone can make it, and all they really need is hard and smart work. Regardless of context, personality traits, or upbringing, anyone can succeed with the right training. This is fully in line with our fascination with the underdog. The notion that we were all created equal has taken root in our public discourse and has powerful implications socially, politically, on a personal level, and in our educational system. Popular culture reinforces these ideas with potent stories. From Rocky and The Silence of the Lambs, to Avatar and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we follow and care about the journey of an unlikely hero who overcomes huge obstacles. Mainstream media reinforces this idea, too. We are accustomed to reading all about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Malala Yousafzai. They all achieved their status, fortune, and fame with tons of hard work and by overcoming unusually hard circumstances.
What is interesting about the nurture argument is that it is a relatively modern occurrence. Up until a few short decades ago, people were not expected to achieve much unless they were from the right caste, the right college, or born with the right title. In some countries you had to be a member of the Communist Party.
We are now mostly done with the caste systems. There are fewer social barriers than ever, and this has increased our expectations. Never before have expectations been so high about what humans can achieve in their lives. The president of the United States is African American, the CEO of Microsoft is Indian-born, and rapper Dr. Dre sold his headphones company to Apple for $3 billion. We are told from many sources that anyone can achieve anything. This spirit of equality is a beautiful idea. Everybody now wears jeans and a T-shirt, yet deep, real inequalities remain. We are made to feel that if we have a bright idea, a garage or office, and work very, very hard, we can all become like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. In reality—it is more likely to be hit by a lightning or win the lottery. Yet, the notion persists.
The second and perhaps more interesting fact about these high expectations is that we now officially live in the age of meritocracy. Politicians on the left and right, educators and social influencers agree that it is a good idea, and we should make our society more meritocratic. In other words, if you’ve got talent, energy, and skill, nothing should hold you back. You will get to the top. It is a logical, beautiful idea. If you deserve “it,” you will get “it.”
There are a few problems with this idea. For one, if we truly believe in it, by implication the opposite must be true as well. Those who deserve to get to the bottom will get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life is merited and deserved. As a result, failure is much more harsh, personal, and devastating. It is almost presumed to be deliberate.
It is curious how language has evolved to reflect this change in attitude. If we met a poor person a hundred years ago, we would likely call them unfortunate. Back then, we would describe them as someone who did not have enough fortune, who was not lucky enough. Nowadays, we would not be surprised to hear someone at the bottom of society be called a loser. I think we can all agree that there is a big difference between unfortunate and a loser.
As a society we have evolved to believe less in external forces like God, or government, and more in ourselves. We are in the driver’s seat of our lives, and, therefore, we own both success and failure. On a personal level, this has made it more difficult to feel good about our current level of success. By accepting the idea that we could achieve anything, we have increased the pressure on ourselves to do so. Paradoxically, this makes it more difficult to reach our goals. But isn't reaching our goals what success is all about? Yes, it is. This is why I suggest we "change the channel". Instead of working for the external goals that we call success, why not focus on building an Excellence Habit? Then we can have personal fulfilment, while still an underdog. If we treat ourselves like we can perform a miracle, one day we might. Just ask Captain Sully!