Inequality and Cause and Effect

By Guy Higgins

I want to start out by telling you that this post is going to be somewhat different and potentially politically charged. In 2011, Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers, a book of anecdotes about successful people. In it, Mr. Gladwell asserted that luck was one factor in the success achieved by the people he chose to include in his book. Earlier this year, I read an article titled inequality (and I apologize because I’ve lost the reference and there are thousands of articles on inequality). The author asserted that no one achieves success through their own efforts or merits, but rather through the luck of the draw. We’re lucky to have been born to caring and nurturing parents; we’re lucky to have had access to good schools; we’re lucky to have had a good memory and good cognitive skills. You get the idea.

I just read an article, Proximate vs. Root Cause: Why You Should Keep Digging to Find the Answer (published in Farnam Street, a free compilation of interesting and informative articles that I highly recommend). The article is a good one and you should read it – it takes about ten minutes.

A “root cause” is that event or series of actions that ultimately led to a specific effect and for which there is no definitive and specific prior cause and which you could have “fixed.” I think that it’s important to recognize that it is always possible to find some preceding event that may have contributed to the ultimate effect – but that contribution was not direct, so it cannot be a root cause. For example, all disasters can, with enough imagination and time, be traced back to the Big Bang. The Big Bang is not the root cause of your basement flooding or of your getting laid off, and you can’t “fix” the Big Bang.

On the other hand, a “proximate cause” is the most immediate cause of the effect. Your basement flooded because it rained five times more in one day than the previous record rainfall. The root cause, in this case, might be the fact that your drainage system was not sufficient to handle that much water.

Back to inequality and cause and effect. I want to post about this, because I think that, as leaders, we need to be prepared to address claims of inequality (“I’m not being treated equally.”) That means we need to think about inequality, merit (degree of contribution) and cause and effect. I intend for this post to help you get started on those thoughts.

The author of the article on inequality was certainly correct in his assertion that we all are beneficiaries or victims of our birth. That, however, is not a root cause since there is no way we can change those circumstances. The question that we, as leaders, need to ask is, “What have I done, or what has she done, with those circumstances?” That begins to get at the root cause of inequality.

Several years ago, I attended the annual awards ceremony held by the National Society of Black Engineers. The recipients all had extremely impressive achievements to their credit – that’s to be expected. But there were also men (yes, they were all men) who had overcome incredible disadvantages of their birth situations – men who were born into sharecropper families, into families where no one had more than a grade-school education, or into single-parent families. These men displayed extraordinary ambition and drive in getting excellent educations and applying those educations to achieve great things. They did not allow the luck of their birth to become the dominant focus in their lives. They earned their positions and the recognition of their peers.

I think that all human beings are different – indeed, we are all unique. We have different abilities and different disabilities. As I’ve said many times, those differences can become powerful when used together – they are advantages, not disadvantages.

We are all dealt a hand at birth. From that point on, our successes and failures depend on how we play that hand more than on any other factor. I will readily agree that, for example, a child born into a single parent family in an area with substandard schools has many more barriers to success than did I. But that doesn’t mean that the child can’t succeed. It’s a question of determination as much as any thing else. The recent movie, Hidden Numbers, opened with a young black girl, in a poor area, solving a math problem for a group of men who could help her better her education. That girl came to earn astounding recognition in NASA as America drove to put a man on the moon. Granted, she had natural mathematical ability, but her drive to succeed took her the rest of the way.

I think that Ralph Waldo Emerson said it well, Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

BTW, and this is purely a personal opinion, if we, as leaders, want to look at a fixable root cause for inequality, we could do much worse than look at how to better ensure the opportunity for every American to gain a quality education.



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