One thing that I believe–that I’ve always believed–is that every single human being has just as much potential locked away inside to be just as great at any given intellectual endeavor. The brain, like a block of marble, is waiting to be carved down and reveal the unique potential you wish to unlock. Some may already have the block carved away at an early age to reveal a precociousness–what we think of as native talent–for a given subject. But, any one of us who had the forbearance, will, persistence and time could also develop our brain to be capable of playing piano like a concert pianist or doing higher mathematics.
What gets in the way is, of course, a combination of societal, cultural and personal factors. We spend a lot of time obsessing over whether we could have done something better for our individual selves, or if our environment and “genes” are mostly to blame for why we didn’t succeed. Some find it convenient to declare radical personal responsibility, especially when it is helpful for them to prevent others from achieving their potential. Others find it all-too-easy to blame everyone and everything for their problems, for why they never quite made it, and they too have missed the mark.
I’ve cast myself in all of those modes. I don’t think anyone who has declared me nothing more or less than a white, privileged spoiled, middle-class American brat has got it right, and I don’t think I ever got it right when I imagined myself at the mercy of inner and outer forces with no agency or volition of my own. Long ago, I got this notion that each decade of our lives we become more and more personally responsible and accountable for our actions, until we peak in our 40s, and age and societal stereotypes about being too old start to take over and we again successfully become less and less personally responsible. So, from 0-10, we are 10% personally responsible; 10-20, 30%; 20-30, 55% (because we are still working ourselves out from under all of the various crap that was put on us in our childhood); 30-40, 75%; 40-50, 95%; 50-60, 75% (of course, anyone who catches cancer or another chronic illness early through no particular actions of their own–purely through environment and genetics, may have their personal responsibility percentage greatly lowered); 60-70, 55%; 70-80, 35%; 80-90, 25%; 90-100, 10%…
Most human societies tend to more or less agree with this model, sometimes requiring their members to grow up a lot more quickly and assigning almost 100% personal responsibility to their individuals by the time they are 20. Future societies might see the curve be pushed even further into old age as advancements in aging science happen, and people are forced to work longer before retiring. But the general gist of the model seems fair enough.
As of right now, I should be moving into the time in my life where I am almost 100% personally accountable for anything that happens in my life. Anything about my life situation that I don’t care for, is all on me. Yet, of course, it is so easy to lapse into states of mind where I forget or minimize such a notion, for the sake of being a victim, blaming others, seeking attention and comfort when lapsing into a childlike state of mind.
It’s true that no one should ever be 100% personally responsible for why they do or do not succeed in life. A face that isn’t as pretty, a congenital disease, a tragic accident, or simply not being as fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to get the same opportunities as someone else can contribute to why you end up not becoming and having everything that you’d ever hoped to be and have. However, by the time you are 41, if you are still sitting around pissing and moaning about how a college or high school teacher didn’t challenge or inspire you in the same way someone else’s did, and this is why you are doing sales instead of programming computers, then you should be seeking more extensive therapy to work through those issues to get to a place where you can comfortably and confidently assert that you are not programming computers because you never wanted to put in the amount of time and effort required to be successful at it.