The most insidious modern doctrine is the idea that successful people are simply lucky; after a role model gave me a copy of The Fountainhead this spring, I’ve found that there has been no better way for me to internally combat this fallacy than with Ayn Rand’s stories and philosophy.
It is impossible to count the times that I have heard the sentiment that success is 100% a function of luck, both on and off my college campus; from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos, the agency and the effort of the successful people in our society is reduced to mere chance. While luck plays a role, the exaggeration of chance and uncertainty does far more harm than good.
The man that gave me a copy of The Fountainhead has worked for himself his entire life: from writing a novel and recording an album to starting his own radio show and magazine. To me he is a Randian hero.
As I read the novel during a backpacking trip, I began to notice the way in which Rand’s villains manifest the vices that ultimately lead to inaction and mediocrity. When I emerged from the woods, I could not go a day without recognizing those who, much like Toohey’s followers, prefer to spend their time creating elaborate but meaningless thought structures and wasting time learning not how to add value, but how to take it. Among all of the empty ideas and concepts sung from the mountain tops of this ‘educated’ and ‘progressive’ society, there is no sentiment more in line with Ellsworth’s desire to neutralize progress than the idea that wealth is a product of luck and luck alone.
Luck should not be ignored, but it must not be overemphasized either. By focusing on chance and providence too much, we run into the very real possibility that we promote more inaction than action. It undermines the value of working to create value. To quote Peter Thiel from a number of his speeches, “You are not a lottery ticket.” As much as we may want to acknowledge life’s uncertainties, it is not good to act like there is so much randomness in success -- if that were the case, why would anyone do anything?
Characters like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead provide an inspirational torch that illuminates the opposite of this corrosive belief: anything and everything is possible when you apply your will. It may seem blindly optimistic to think this way, but, in all honesty, I don’t see how anyone can live a happy life if they don’t believe in their capacity for greatness.
When I finished the book, the man who gave it to me talked to me about his life in review. He said that there were obstacles, there were plenty of times when he was tempted to give in and find some stable but unfulfilling line of work. He never did, though. He kept going, and now in his 50s, he’s always striving for more, always looking to add value, despite the randomness, despite the chaos.
Thanks to Rand, I can see how being a person like that is the only way to go. In my own life, this translates into continuing to write and publish books, even if I have not yet found “my audience.” It has also pushed me to open a hedge fund, even if everyone around me is recruiting for less variable and more stable cash flow than one can expect when running their own business. I’d be unable to live with myself as a Keating, or, God forbid, as a personification of the antithesis of progress, like Toohey. Rather, I choose to be a man like the one who gave me a copy of The Fountainhead, a man who himself was inspired by the uncompromising spirit of Howard Roark and the other Randian heroes. Who will let me? As Howard Roark asks: “Who will stop me?”