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Does environment/background affect competence/success?

By Isaac Maloba

The debate on whether the most successful of the lot are favored by their environments and the less competent affected thereof has been of great interest since history. It is a general conviction that a person’s quality of attitude, scope of knowledge and level of skills are determined by the environment in which they live. This question is increasingly becoming vital in pursuit of business and personal excellence because several times people behave consistent with their inner convictions. Whenever an upward looking fellow questions low levels of productivity, efficiency, innovation and commitment, in response we hear statements like; “That level of customer care is not fit for this place/business”, “That degree of innovation is not possible here”, “one cannot attain that level of discipline working in this department/company/town/country”, “If I were in a different place, I would give more of myself to my service than I presently do”, “to practice honesty here is to risk making losses”, etc. And by this, it is suggested that if one stays in an inferior environment, they are doomed to mediocrity, will live an inferior life, submit to weak ideals and more certainly degenerate into perverse lifestyle. While the one who finds themselves in superior environments will live a superior life, become more original and generally more competent. As such, change of environment would drastically change the ability and commitment of a person. Whether this is true or false is purely a matter of perception and belief. The fact is that what one believes is true for them and determines their approach to excellence. On one side, we can choose to believe that man is a helpless victim of his environment, who is always controlled by externalities while on the other hand; we could choose to believe that man can control his response to his environment and become the architect of his destiny. What shall we persuade ourselves to believe then? Should we, as a general rule, owe one’s business exploits and professional excellence or failure thereof to their environment or would we rather owe them to one’s self help (self education, hard work, focus and preparation)? What is fundamental is that one’s perception significantly affects their level of motivation, ambition, innovation and clarity. One perception is empowering while the other is enervating; one encourages active dedication while the other precipitates passive anticipation; one calls out the higher side of an individual while the other compromises self exertion.

I doubt if there are many people out there who would claim to inhabit superior environments and desire no better; or claim to be living in the worst environments compared to everywhere else. How then should excellence, innovation and industriousness in business be pursued if the general belief is that such qualities can’t prevail in particular places or regions? Early positive thinkers discovered a great principle that unlocks self exertion and has proved as an inspirational point of reflection to spur individuals to greater achievements. It is the principle of ‘self supremacy’. This principle is founded in the firm realization that man can control his environment; what he thinks and does are his own choices hardly owing to his environment. We know that the very environments and circumstances that groom failures are the same circumstances from which the successful are born. Environment to a positive thinker is nothing more than the analogy of a flower to insects… from the same flower where the bees gather honey, the spider gets poison.

Competence, by whatever name we call it, is a natural creation of the individual through dedication not an artificial privilege bestowed upon the bearer by their environment. True, some environments may seem less or more crowded than others but so are the corresponding dynamics. If a superior environment determines a superior competence, how then should we explain the fact that over 85% of the leaders and finest people across all careers and trades are but from humble beginnings? These heroes are/were but children of simple farm hands whose cradles where rocked by poverty and want. Men and women, who were bred in the country, didn’t attend the finest schools nor attain the highest education levels. However, regardless of the inferior environments and backgrounds, they were determined to develop the attitudes, knowledge and skills that would enable them fill top positions better than their counterparts.

Environment has been the excuse of poor work and low ideals. The constant thought that where someone lives is not the right place and time to develop a competence, demonstrate excellence or make attempts at change - has robbed many of a potential breakthrough. To believe that one is a victim of their environment is to refute the fact that one can gain control over circumstances in their environment. This belief suggests that human effort is of no consequence to the results of that individual; even if one did completely nothing, that belief implies that environment would destine them as it pleases and that to belong to the same environment is to share in a uniform destiny.

 To hold both beliefs (the positive and the negative) as true is to live in confusion. One belief should automatically dislodge the other; you either believe that your abilities will be at the mercy of your environment – or, that what will become of you will largely depend on your own choices, actions and general cultivation of your potential through self study and exertion. The self submissive person will live in the state of self pity and be conformed to whatever forces his environment contains. However, the person of self supremacy has transcended that weakening cloud; their lives follow an inner loci of control, not an external loci of control. They have graduated into the reality of taking charge of their lives, picking up the broken pieces, unlocking their potential, mending the spoils, coming to their own rescue and living their lives on their own terms. They cease to settle for the lower when the higher is visibly possible. They will create the change if need be but they will focus farther than their current position or circumstances.

 I choose to believe that competence is dependent on the individual and not just their environment. Unlike in the past where exposure to different information and system was very limited, today, we live at a time of information overload. Someone can literally observe and learn almost anything they choose; one can actually get the worth of a college degree through private reading – if not more. There has never been a time in the history of humanity where information was more available than it is today regardless of the environment. The competent have disciplined themselves to absorb and apply knowledge profitably while the incompetent have either out of neglect or low ambition left all learning opportunities go without utility.

The belief that environment seals one’s destiny renders self help irrelevant. Grand attributes like self culture, self education and self mastery are of virtually no benefit to the individual who sways according to the winds in their environment. Human ability can be developed from anywhere provided interest and endurance prevail. What would be the value of human effort in the affairs of business and human relations if their results were already predetermined? Michael Murdock asks, ‘If man’s destiny is predetermined already, why would obedience be rewarded and sloppiness punished?’

There is no single person who can claim to be using all they have to maximum utility where they are; all people believe they could do better elsewhere – preferably in superior environments. This being the universal aspiration, many neglect opportunities of improvement and service where they are - in wait for distant wishes. However, to the person who marks time and place, their aim is to do the most where they are with what they have. And nine times out of ten, whoever excels in ‘difficult’ and challenging environments virtually excels elsewhere. The call is one: to succeed wherever one is – not where they aren’t; to conquer at home before venturing abroad.

Isaac Maloba is a Human Resource consultant and Chief Administrator at Potential Management Centre ( POTMAC)

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