My daughter didn’t want to start a pissing match when she responded to a post called “There is no monopoly on being rich.” She knew it was a possibility, however, and turns out she was right.
The site’s author, Sam, responded with an oblivious chirp of a comment that stated, among other things, “I have set backs [sic] and disabilities too, but I’ve decided to always look on the bright side. Why does something optimistic on my blog insult and aggravate you? If this short and sweet post makes you angry, then I fear your life is going to be even more difficult than normal.”
And one reader growled, “Who would want to hang out with someone like you? No wonder why you are having such trouble! … Why not create a blog as big as (Sam’s) and generate online income, that way, you wouldn’t feel as financially constraint. [sic] I’m sure it takes a lot of work, but if Sam and what looks like many others can do it, why can’t you? Finger cramping?”
So Abby wrote a piece for her own site called “Flame war, party of two!” It asks readers to weigh in on her comment, which says there kind of is a monopoly on being rich.
Generally speaking, you need things like a good education, the talent and temperament to work in a lucrative field, and health that’s stable enough so that you can work. It also doesn’t hurt to be conventionally attractive, nicely dressed and well-spoken.
“So it can be hard to read posts that seem to say that attitude is everything. The deeper implication there is that, if you’re not rich, it’s because you’re not trying,” Abby wrote.
“For the record, I’m not disputing that optimism is important. It does make a difference. It just isn’t always enough to get you over obstacles. Not all circumstances can be overcome with hard work and optimism. I wish they could.”
Obviously I have a dog in this hunt, i.e., my daughter is the dissenting author. But there’s more to it than that. Some people would use my own example as “proof” that all you need is willpower and a strong work ethic.
They’d be mistaken.
It’s not what you know…
Sure, I worked hard. But lots of people work hard. It was a piece of sheer luck that changed my life.
While working at the Anchorage Daily News in Anchorage, Alaska, I sat next to a writer named Liz Pulliam (now Liz Weston, author and MSN Money columnist). She and I were friends and when she left Alaska we stayed in touch. When my divorce was finally settled she looked at my e-mail update and thought, “That sounds like a freelance piece.”
It was: “Surviving (and thriving) on $12,000 a year” was to have been a one-time payday, but it got more response than anything else MSN Money published that year. “Write another one,” the editor said, so I did. He then bought half a dozen other pieces from me and, when MSN Money decided to start the Smart Spending blog, I was hired to write it.
I’ve been writing for them ever since: first Smart Spending, then a personal finance column, then the daily Frugal Nation site; now I’m back writing for Smart Spending. [Edited to add: MSN Money stopped producing original work and fired all its writers in Sept. 2013.] Because of the “name” recognition I’ve been able to guest-post anywhere I like, and ultimately was convinced to join Get Rich Slowly as a staff writer. A few months ago an editor from Woman’s Day contacted me and we came up with a list of ideas for me to do.
None of that would have happened had I not sat next to Liz Weston.
Yet to apply Sam’s logic, there’s no monopoly on writing for MSN Money. Anyone who wants to do so and isn’t must not be trying hard enough.
The self-made man
Okay, now I’m being a little simplistic. But when that commenter told Abby she should stop complaining and start making money from her site, Sam agreed: “Blogging is an equal playing field because any blogger can decide to write more, build a brand, guest post, etc. to gain traffic and earn more money.”
Again: Anyone can do this. (Unspoken corollary: If you don’t succeed, you must be shiftless.)
Our country is in love with the idea of the self-made man, the self-starter who sees what needs to be done and does it in the face of tremendous odds. Sometimes that still happens.
But by and large these myths are just that: fairy tales. We applaud them the way we applaud to keep Tinkerbell from dying. We want to believe. If we acknowledged that Horatio Alger stories are fiction, then a little part of our nation’s self-reliant, can-do spirit might die, too.
We might have to acknowledge that maybe we didn’t do it all on our own, that Lady Liberty’s lamp has gone out and that the Golden Door actually remains stubbornly closed to a whole group of people.
Worse, we’d have to acknowledge that layoff, accident or illness could one day put us on the other side of that door.
What’s luck got to do with it?
People who do well tend to forget (if they ever recognize) the advantages they had, especially since some of those are “invisible” privileges.
Having been raised with good manners and decent dental care, knowing how to turn on the charm, having been told how to dress appropriately to the situation — all these things can help you get a job.
Not having one or more of those things can keep you from getting a job.
Having that strong work ethic modeled to you is a huge advantage. After I got pregnant at age 20, I could have ended up on welfare and living in a trailer in Fairton, NJ. But I’d grown up watching both my mom and my dad bust their butts to succeed. I was determined to succeed, too.
But there was more to it than that. Namely: luck.
I got a job typesetting and proofreading at a small printing company, where I heard about a similar job at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I met the guy I would marry and where I started freelancing. He got a job at an Alaska newspaper and so did I, despite my lack of a college degree. From there I freelanced even more – and sat next to Liz Weston.
A couple of decades later, while turning my life upside down, I decided to go for a degree. I lucked out there, too: My work-study job was right next door to the office where Phi Theta Kappa stored donated books. One day I helped a PTK volunteer – another older student – box up books for shipping. She told me about a three-year scholarship to the University of Washington and urged me to apply. I did, and I got it.
Again: Hard work was necessary to my success, but propinquity was just as important as perseverance.
Where you start
No doubt Sam intends for his words to inspire. What they do, however, is exclude. Not everyone starts out from the same place – and where you start too often determines where you stay.
A clerical error placed Michael Rose in the “voc-ed” track; his uneducated immigrant parents didn’t know they were supposed to be monitoring his schooling. That put him behind in his other classes once the mistake was fixed, and if not for serious mentoring by a dedicated teacher he would never have made it. Ultimately Rose gave up a fellowship to Stanford to become a teacher himself.
He describes his earlier experience in the book Lives on the Boundary:
“You’re defined by your school as ‘slow’; you’re placed in a curriculum that isn’t designed to liberate you but to occupy you, or, if you’re lucky, train you, though the training is for work society does not esteem; other students are picking up the cues from your school and your curriculum and interacting with you in particular ways.”
How many youths are still being given enough basic coursework to let society off the hook (all Americans are entitled to an education), but being groomed, overtly or subtly, to take on menial jobs? How many youths are being ignored entirely, and just pushed out into a world that has less and less room for the uneducated?
You don’t know what you don’t know – and if you don’t know that, then how can you move beyond it?
I’m not saying that hard work isn’t a good thing. What I’m saying is that hard work isn’t always enough. The playing field is actually a little hillier than it might seem when glimpsed from the goal line where you already stand.