I love the most recent episode of This American Life, first because it name-checks my alma mater in Ira Glass’s funny interview with Georgia Tech’s director of undergraduate admissions. Glass concludes the interview, appropriately enough, with the cheer, “Go Jackets!”
As if that weren’t good enough, I was blown away by the episode’s main story, “My Ames Is True,” narrated by Blind Side author Michael Lewis. In it, Lewis talks to Emir Kamenica, an economist from the University of Chicago, who describes his unlikely path from a childhood in war-torn Bosnia to Harvard. The way Emir remembers the story, he was one of a small handful of white students in a dangerous inner-city high school in Clarkston, Georgia (not far from where I grew up, by the way, in Tucker), after his family emigrated to the U.S.
One day, for a writing assignment, Emir translated and then plagiarized a passage from a favorite Bosnian novel that he had stolen from a library before he came to America. His teacher, Ms. Ames, was so impressed with his paper—not suspecting the plagiarism—that she persuaded an elite private high school in Atlanta to offer Emir a scholarship. Emir changed schools and, as a result, drastically changed the course of his life—all because of a plagiarized passage from a stolen book and one idealistic teacher.
Or at least that’s how Emir remembers it.
With the help of a private investigator, the show’s producers tracked down Ms. Ames (who had long since left teaching and moved to another state) to get her side of the story. She remembered Emir as her most gifted student. In fact, she said she checked the names of Nobel Prize winners each year, half-expecting to see Emir’s name on the list.
But she didn’t remember the plagiarized essay and said it would have played little role in her effort to get him into private school. She said that Emir had distinguished himself in her class in many ways over the course of months. It was hardly any one thing that he had done to inspire her to help him.
Moreover, the school she taught at was hardly a dangerous “ghetto school.” It had a sizable white minority (which statistics proved) and a large international population. Even if he hadn’t changed high schools, she said Emir would have gotten a good education. And from there he would have gotten into either the University of Georgia’s honors program or Georgia Tech (my alma mater, again!), after which he could have easily gone on to Harvard.
In other words, even without her intervention, Ms. Ames believes that Emir’s own talent and hard work would have enabled him to achieve the same level of success—if only by a different path.
If Ms. Ames is right, however, then the story that Emir had been telling himself and everyone else his entire adult life was wrong. He hadn’t simply been the beneficiary of some dumb luck that altered his destiny. As it turns out, he was just a bright, conscientious, hard-working kid who was responsible for his own success, just as everyone thought.
For his part, however, Emir wasn’t quite ready to let go of his story: about the stolen library book, the plagiarized essay, and the angelic teacher who comes to his rescue after mistaking his plagiarism for a mark of genius.
Why? Michael Lewis offers a possible answer:
Why does a man who makes his career as a scientist cling to his story in spite of evidence that it isn’t true? And that’s when it dawns on me: Emir Kamenica is just an unusually happy human being. He exudes the emotion from every pore. [Lewis asks Emir] “Have you always been happy?” [Emir answers] “I think I’ve been happy for a pretty long time now.”
There was no obvious connection between a person’s happiness and the way he tells stories about himself. But I think there’s a not-so-obvious one: When you insist as Emir does that you’re both lucky and indebted to other people, well, you’re sort of prepared to see life as a happy accident, aren’t you?
It’s just very different if you tell yourself that you simply deserve all the good stuff that happens to you: Because you happen to be born a genius, or suffered so much, or worked so hard.
That way of telling the story is what you hear from every miserable bond-trader at Goldman Sachs. Or for that matter, every other A-hole that ever walked the earth.
Did you catch that? Lewis is suggesting that gratitude is the secret to Emir’s happiness. Emir’s version of events, more than Ms. Ames’s, conforms to his outlook on life: He doesn’t deserve all these good things. Therefore, he can afford to feel grateful rather than entitled. And the difference between those two states is nearly as great as the difference between heaven and hell.
Like “every miserable bond-trader at Goldman Sachs,” my own life is at its most hellish when I think I’m not getting what I deserve.
By contrast, when I realize that I deserve nothing and instead receive every moment of life as pure gift from a loving God, well… not that I achieve this outlook as often as I should, but when I do, I’m truly happy.