In one of the most renowned passages of Greek historian Herodotus’ Histories, the famously wealthy Lydian king Croesus asks the wise Athenian lawgiver Solon to name the happiest man on earth. On account of his unparalleled wealth and power, Croesus has no doubt that Solon will name him. However, Solon instead lists a few other men who all lived noble lives and passed away. He asserts that Croesus cannot be truly happy until death. Solon reasons that although Croesus’ life has gone well up until that point, the vicissitudes of fortune are too unpredictable to say with certainty that one is happy. “Count no man happy until the end is known,” Solon asserts.
As the story goes, Croesus’ fortunes take a turn for the worse. His son dies. He loses his kingdom to the Persian Empire. Solon’s warning about the whims of fortune prove accurate, and Croesus lives out the remainder of his life in subjugation.
At Yale, we are taught to be Croesuses. As long as we meet a certain number of criteria, we can guarantee ourselves generally happy lives. Very rarely do we acknowledge the role of chance in our academic, professional or personal lives. In doing so, we, like Croesus, ignore those elements of personal fulfillment over which we have control.
In his 2001 book “Fooled by Randomness,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains that humans tend to impose causality on random occurrences. The brain naturally seeks out patterns for success and tries to mimic them. While this works to a certain extent, Taleb concludes through statistical analysis that highly successful careers are far more often attributable to good fortune and pure randomness than anything else. When events occur, we retroactively superimpose a causal, narrative structure on them, when in reality, life is much more disorderly.
I constantly hear stories of chance determining major outcomes in people’s lives at Yale: One student happened to meet an admissions officer and made an impression on her when he was applying to college, another student’s internship application got lost in the mail, preventing him from getting the job he wanted. Despite chance happenings determining so much of our lives, most students on this campus believe that so long as they check the right boxes and join the right clubs, they can control their fate. We tend to see ourselves as almost godlike puppeteers pulling the strings of our lives to manipulate our desired outcome, when, in reality, our lives rarely run the courses that we expect or desire.
Rather than meticulously aiming to get everything right, perhaps we should consider the mindset Taleb adopts in his book: “We are a bunch of idiots who know nothing and are mistake-prone, but happen to be endowed with the rare privilege of knowing it.” In this framework, failure is much more acceptable, and one is more realistic about their prospects for success. When we acknowledge our fallibility, we can do what we want rather than what we think we must. Accepting that fortune will determine much of our lives can serve to endow us with the inner peace that comes with letting go of control.
Of course, I do not mean to say that we should not focus on experiences and activity that will prepare us for fruitful careers. Indeed, many of the skills Yalies build for their resumes are worthwhile and admirable. It is important to know how to lead a team, to think critically, to take what you learn in a classroom and turn it outward. That being said, tirelessly working to add hundredths of a point to your GPA or list another leadership role on your resume will unlikely alter the course of your career, and even less likely bring you happiness or fulfillment.
Instead, perhaps Yale students ought to emphasize building inner resources that will allow us to flourish irrespective of the makeup of our resumes. Solon’s admonition of Croesus sprung from a definition of happiness that encompassed a set of personal traits rather than outward achievements. According to Aristotle, eudaimonia — roughly translated to “happiness” — consists of action in accordance with virtue. Although external circumstances play a role in the Greek concept of virtue, eudaimonia above all consists of honing one’s personal faculties to some end greater than material wealth. It may seem obvious, but at Yale it is easy to forget that inner life is as important as outer life in determining happiness.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .