The Washington Post

The top 1%

America has developed an achievement fetish. Which would be fine, but we’ve badly skewed out reward system to match. I think we think about achievement the wrong way. In a couple wrong ways.

The first wrong way. Credit where credit isn’t due. Oh, somebody worked hard, and achieved much! Except, as we know, “correlation does not imply causation.” Actually, we DON’T know this. If ever there were a bit of wisdom that runs 100% counter to the way we usually perceive the world and think about it, there it is. The reason is simple. In day-to-day life, correlation sure DOES imply causation. ‘Oversleeping’ and ‘late to work’? Correlated in a causal kind of way! But on the other hand, how big even IS the correlation between hard work and achievement? I see a LOT of people working their various body parts off. “Achievement” pretty unevenly distributed in this group. What about some people “working smarter”? I’d say it’s some people with a proclivity to work hard at a thing that happens to be the thing that gets better rewarded. And being at the right place at the right time.

But what about people who get to the top? You look and you see that only a few people get to the top of Mt. Everest! (Okay, maybe not so few anymore). But look at this another way. If everybody was just standing around evenly distributed for long enough, some would end up on the top of Mt. Everest without doing anything. Want proof? The rocks at the top of Mount Everest! Did the rocks up there achieve more than the rocks in other mountains? Should we reward them more? We can if you want to.

But here’s the other wrong way. The rocks at the top of Mt. Everest are up there basking in their glory, receiving adulation for their achievement, and nodding at the wing of economics that says they are the job creators for the Mt. Everest mountain-climbing industry and should get some stock options for that. But, surprise ending! The greater achievement is being the most beautiful valley.

Tom Toles is the editorial cartoonist for The Post and writes the Tom Toles blog. See all of his cartoons here.


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