Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

The secret of my success


A persistent obstacle to social reform is the common tendency to ignore the merely fortuitous in ones good fortune, and to attribute success to some self-flattering decision or essential virtue. I dropped out of school, taught myself computer programming, and became a wealthy entrepreneur. Or I became a world-famous surgeon despite growing as an impoverished black orphan. So don’t complain about being held back by poor schools and racial discrimination. It’s just hard work and faith that you need to get ahead.

This fallacy was already recognised, I have just noticed, by the Amoraim, the authors of the Babylonian Talmud. The tractate Yoma mentions Kimhith, a woman whose seven sons served, at some point*, as high priests:

The Sages said unto her: What hast thou done to merit such [glory]? She said: Throughout the days of my life the beams of my house have not seen the plaits of my hair. They said to her: There were many who did likewise and yet did not succeed.

In other words, she attributes her sons’ success to her exceptional modesty in always keeping her hair covered. The rabbis answer, many women have covered their hair without having such success.

* The story is pretty weird. If I understand correctly, two of the sons were called in to do the High Priest duties because on two different occasions their elder brother Ishmael ben Kimhith was defiled by having spat on himself during a heated discussion.

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