Of “non-genius” and gratitude

In a previous post, I commented on the surreality of watching The Social Network, the recent movie about the founding of Facebook, at a movie theater just off the Harvard University campus.  Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is getting a lot of scrutiny in the movie’s wake, including over at the NYTimes where Robert Wright suggests that–contrary to the movie’s portrayal–Zuckerberg may not be a genius.  Wright asks rhetorically:

[C]an you be considered a genius, a visionary, if the globally dominant network you built wasn’t the fruit of far-reaching vision — if, indeed, the network’s internal momentum was such that it was almost destined to build itself, and the question was only which driven and capable entrepreneur would happen to be standing at the right place at the right time when it started to unfold?

I think that Wright’s observations are relevant–if familiar to anyone who’s ever gotten advice about finding a job.  The platitudes about “making your own luck” and “something will turn up eventually if you keep trying” may have played out on a vastly larger scale for Zuckerberg than they do for most of us, but the difference is in degree rather than kind.  Deep down, we all know that the race is not always to the swift (sorry Orkut, Friendster, et al.) and that the real world is less of a meritocracy than we delude ourselves into thinking.

To which I say:  thank goodness.  I think Wright’s right in his observation of the mechanics, but I disagree with his implication.  Zuckerberg may have benefited (unfairly!) from “positive network externalities,” but so have we all.  We all benefit from centuries of mathematical, scientific, and agricultural discoveries that allow us plentiful food and leisure.  Particularly in the U.S., we benefit from a long-running, stable democracy that few of us have made significant sacrifices for–and none of us started.

Thank God for positive network effects.  It doesn’t take a genius to remember that our response to the Zuckerbergs of the world must not be jealousy but gratitude for the unmerited, unearned gifts we ourselves have received.