99 Lives Out of 100 Are “Comparative” Failures — Wait, Why?

The problem with measuring success by productivity

Melissa Toldy
Feb 22 · 5 min read
illustration from ‘How to Analyze People on Sight’ by Elsie Lincoln Benedict
illustration from ‘How to Analyze People on Sight’ by Elsie Lincoln Benedict
source

Some people think the 2020s will be the next Roaring Twenties. A century ago, electricity ushered in an economic boom. These days, artificial intelligence, among other technological breakthroughs, might lead to soaring productivity, the thinking goes.

Like my fellow humans, I’m curious about what happened in the world, back then. I had this idea: Look at the popular books published in 1921.

A title by Elsie Lincoln Benedict caught my attention — How to Analyze People on Sight. But I didn’t get far into the text before I encountered this unsettling statement:

ninety-nine lives out of every hundred are comparative failures

Benedict was a “human analyst,” that is, someone who analyzes humans. How to Analyze People on Sight promised readers a scientific basis for personalities. By studying physical characteristics, you could glean “types.” For example, a “bony” person would have “prominent ankles, wrists, knuckles and elbows.”

First, and most importantly, you needed to identify your type. Once you did that, you would have a guidebook for how to conduct your life “confidently.”

How to Analyze People on Sight was popular in 1921, and it’s still read today. Project Gutenberg shows the number of downloads in the last 30 days: 732. For comparison, the top 100 books on the site, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, range between 4,000 and 70,000 downloads in the same time period.

So, Benedict’s book is not widely read, but it’s still circulating. In fact, on Project Gutenberg, it was downloaded more often than Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity.

On Goodreads and Amazon, I read the reviews for How to Analyze People on Sight, and I saw three camps:

  • Readers appalled by the politically incorrect language, one that reinforces stereotypes

Some readers argued that the book’s age — having been published a century ago — gave the author leeway. Like, how can we judge Benedict for making unscientific claims, when clearly, this book was a product of its time?

I don’t know if that argument holds up, but let’s consider what else was published in 1921. Ludwig Wittgenstein produced Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that same year, from which we have the famous line:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

“Be sure you are right and then go ahead,” Benedict advised her readers. She claimed, “Science has discovered … five types of human beings.” These types included:

  • the fat people who eat

Benedict’s book was “based on scientific data,” but the book itself only offered rules:

These rules do not work merely part of the time. They work all the time, under all conditions and apply to every individual of every race, every color, every country, every community and every family.

Benedict was an American and a millionaire and a suffragist (cool) and a public speaker who drew crowds in the thousands. But what did she mean when she wrote this:

The masses of mankind form a vast pyramid. At the very tip-top peak are gathered the few who are famous. In the bottom layer are the many failures. Between these extremes lie all the rest — from those who live near the ragged edge of Down-and-Out-Land to those who storm the doors of the House of Greatness.

source

The pyramid metaphor still holds weight today. You can’t read about productivity without coming across the 80/20 rule. The economist Vilfredo Pareto developed the concept by observing the wealth inequality in his native country, Italy.

The 1920s and the 2020s have something in common already: outrageous economic inequality.

Was Benedict influenced by the Pareto Principle, introduced in 1906? Or was she simply aware of her unlikely success as a millionaire?

Comparative might be the most important word in Benedict’s earlier statement about failure. Compared to the successful one percent, the remaining ninety-nine look like failures.

The interesting thing is, Benedict and Pareto saw this inequality as “natural.” Benedict attributed success to a person’s physique, and Pareto came up with his idea when looking at the peas in his garden.

When nature tells a story, who are we to argue? Well, considering how we humans keep distancing ourselves from nature — through the very technological breakthroughs that bring us wealth and success — I’m not sure we need to follow nature’s rules, if they include drastic inequality.

Humans are really good at evading responsibility. We blame the coronavirus pandemic on unforeseen “natural” events, even though experts warned about its inevitability. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina was caused by a “natural” disaster, and yet, we knew the levees wouldn’t hold. Climate change is “natural,” too, right?

But when we want to believe in a different story, we make one up. Like, when you die, you go to paradise. (Sure, why not?) And don’t worry — some people go to a different place (the people you dislike). Sounds great!

It turns out, you can have it both ways. You can tell people that they’re responsible for their own happiness (if you work hard, you’ll be successful), and you can also tell people that ultimately, it’s out of their control (God has a plan for you).

Amid Benedict’s “rules” for success, she offered this contradiction:

We spend a great deal of energy giving praise and blame but when we realize — as we are doing more and more — that the type of an individual is responsible for most of his acts, we will give less of both to the individual and more of both to the Creator.

So, after a lifetime of working your ass off, making sure you’re fulfilling your destiny, in the end, none of it matters, because, you see, nature wins. (I suppose, on some level, that’s probably true.)

Why believe this story, though? Why accept that one percent of people find success? After all, isn’t “success” something we define?

From my perspective, How to Analyze People on Sight is a capitalist manifesto, poorly disguised as a scientific text, one that reads like a self-help book. Productivity is its main theme, and although Americans have been conditioned to see their lives as synonymous with their output, I know not every country follows these rules.

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