In Part I of this series, we described how Americans pursue happiness by watching heroes like Rocky Balboa and Chris Gardner pursue theirs. In Part II, we examined why the basic scripts for films like Rocky Balboa and Pursuit of Happyness–placing the individual in charge, making him sovereign, and letting power and responsibility fall to that person, while minimizing the role of the paternalistic and intermeddling “regulator” or “social program”–are the same foundational scripts employed by most influential policymakers and legal theorists today.
While these scripts are compelling, intuitive, and often affirming, social science indicates that they are upside-down. These scripts miss the power of the situation and how our schemas are primed to find (or imagine) causation and disposition in others’ behaviors and attitudes.
But there is no need to exhaustively review the social psychological evidence to make this point. All we have to do is go back to those same two films to see how, even by each movie’s own account, the bigger part of the story is about luck and situational forces that have little to do with the main character’s choices!
Remember back to the original Rocky — before it was known as Rocky I. Recall the setup. Rocky’s boxing career was done, finished, never having even reached the level of a has-been. Rock had hit bottom and found himself firmly anchored to a “never was” and more clearly, “never will be” status. Although Rocky may have shown flashes of talent as a boxer in previous years, and although he had a strong jaw and a never-broken nose when the story begins, he was also a second-rate club fighter who had just been thrown out of his locker, and his future seemed more intertwined with breaking legs for a small-time loan shark than with bustin’ face for the world title.
Rocky was without assets, without family, without reliable friends, and without his youth. His best friend was a manipulative and self-serving alcoholic. Completely by fluke – owing nothing whatsoever to Rocky’s will, choices, preferences, or character, Apollo Creed, the world champion, arrives in Philadelphia to take on a challenger, who, at the last moment backs out because of an injury. It was to be a bicentennial bout, and canceling it was going to cost a lot of dough. Creed wanted a substitute – some local guy who the city might get behind but who posed no real threat. He thumbed through a book looking at names of local boxers and picked Rocky for one reason — a reason that had nothing to do with our hero’s talent, drive, intelligence, or merit. Creed selected Rocky simply because of his nickname, the “Italian Stallion.” The opportunity is as much the product of Rocky’s hard work as a lottery winner’s take can be attributed to good choices — more or less random luck.
But Rocky’s good fortune didn’t end there. When the opportunity arose, Rocky’s other options were bleak. At that moment, he had one foot into a dead-end life of low-level organized crime and thuggery. Had his alternative career options been more promising, the tiger’s eye may have remained dormant.
Pauly, who as friends go, left much be desired. But he happened to work at the slaughterhouse where Rock could spar against a warehouse full of bovine carcases. Rocky was also blessed to have an experienced trainer and manager, Mickey, who had immense knowledge of the sport and — owing to his age and his own star-crossed fighting career — something to prove. Mickey’s lessons were integral in Rocky’s battle with Creed.
Other sources of luck were Rocky’s idiosyncratic physical endowments. As five movies would demonstrate, Rocky had an unbreakable jaw. Rocky’s lackluster boxing skills meant that more punches landed, but his steel jaw absorbed blows that would have flattened most fighters. Similarly Rock was a south-paw, a factor that even Creed’s trainer worried about and that Mickey exploited. Fighters, if the movie is to be believed, expect power from the right side, and are taken by surprise when hammered from the southside. It was also plain luck that this aging pugilist didn’t pull a groin running steps, or break a finger glovelessly pounding cow cadavers , or otherwise injure himself from that unorthodox, treacherous, and full-on training regimen.
Rocky was also extremely lucky that his opponent, Creed, was himself situationally constrained — preoccupied as he was with the business side of the faux fight and unconcerned with the challenge Rocky posed. It’s a truism that being underestimated by one’s opponent is an enormous advantage.
Most important, at the very moment of Creed’s serendipitous selection, Rocky’s wooing of Adrian was just paying off. The growing mutual admiration between those two quirky and lonesome souls gave Rocky someone to impress, someone to show that he was more than he seemed. And as their love developed, Adrian provided Rocky confidence, inspiration, and someone who would be there for him win or lose.
In short, Rocky had all upside and no downside. Rocky’s situation created his disposition, not the other way around.
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In our next post in this series, we will discuss the situational sources of Chris Gardner’s success.