Start your business, be your own boss, etc.
The American Dream stipulates that hard work following the rules, & perseverance will bring a life of comfort, security; even a life of leisure if you are so inclined. Not only that, your children and grandchildren will live the same sort of life and become increasingly more wealthy in successive generations. Better homes, better schools, and better opportunity.
But, it’s bullshit. Really. The natural extension is “if you aren’t successful, you’re not working hard enough.” If you are poor, its bad choices and bad work ethic. Society is not responsible for your failure. “Rugged individualism” is the only way forward. Keep working until you are a success!
This is a formula for consistent unhappiness. It is also extremely unhealthy. It makes the daily grind an anxiety-inducing slog of emotional & economic insecurity.
Here’s another shocker: not everyone is built to for “hard work.” Most folks just want to pay their bills and pave the way for their children to have a modestly better & more secure life than theirs. “Just enough” is cool. That is success for a lot of people.
The Real Formula
Before we get into the reality of American Success, I’m going to list the things that really don’t matter:
- Hard Work
- Good Ideas
You’ll see why these don’t matter shortly. Also, there are two very important elements that are not listed: placement and timing. However, they mean nothing without the top three factors.
What most people won’t tell you is that the caviar & champagne life of American Success has three basic elements. Here is the countdown.
Factor #3. Decent Education: This is important because you need to know how the world works and how to speak the language of successful people in your field of choice. A decent state school is good. Elite schools are better.
Factor #2. Access to Capital: You have to pay for that Decent Education, start-up cash, buy a home, investment, tech, marketing, rainy days, etc. If you can’t get liquid cash into whatever you’re doing, it will fail or fail to grow.
Factor #1. Influential or Affluent Peer Group: This is where your dreams live or die. This factor can overcome any obstacle you may have. This is where your good job, investors, and customers will come from. You must know the right people or within two degrees of active separation from the right people.
“Active” means those relationships must be active, enthusiastic and everyone willing to take a chance on one another. Factor #2 can help “move things along.” But, that still requires a certain level of trust. This is also where your guidance, leniency, and protection comes from. If you are well-connected, you can reach “above the law” status. Government & law enforcement aren’t even an impediment to your designs when you move in the right circles.
These Top 3 Factors largely depend on when you are born, where you are born, and whom you are born to. Joining particular organizations or going to the right schools can open some of these doors. But, the surest way is to be born into these circles. Cultivated networks of protected power and wealth inherited from your parents and grandparents. There is no substitute.
As inferred earlier, Factor #1 is about power. These people can influence decision makers, buffer you from mistakes you are bound to make, and mentor you until you can handle it on your own. If your dream is a particular career in your chosen field, you are good to go. If your dream is more entrepreneurial, you’re also in a good place. The more powerful people you have in your network, the less of your own capital you will require.
If you have #1 and #2, your eventual success is all but guaranteed. A Decent Education is less important. In fact, you don’t even have to get a degree. Having attended the right school is often enough.
Even if you “try a few different things” or “find yourself” first, it’s still okay. You’ll be fine. If it’s #2 and #3, you’re still good. If it’s only #3, you may have a struggle ahead of you without any of the other factors.
Hard Work and the Top 3
Many people will say that individual hard work is still required. That is true. However, we have to review the concept of “hard work.” It’s mostly about a certain level of physical or mental exertion and time expended.
No one would argue that digging a ditch, picking watermelons, or loading/unloading 5-ton trucks by hand qualify as physical exertion or “hard work.” However, they are not highly paid, a path to a comfortable life, and you cannot leverage this type of labor for a bigger payday.
Elite sports at the high school level and above; or certain military jobs are the most visible examples of physical & mental exertion combined with long hours. However, none of these guarantee American Success. In fact, these fields may hinder your long term success through physical and psychological harms.
These types of hard work are also a drain on time and energy that could be placed in a career with better long term benefits. Very few people reach the high-paying levels of these fields that get you into influential circles. Additionally, management & executive positions that control these spaces are much more lucrative & have a longer shelf life.
Before you say it, hard work is not a “reward unto itself.”
Market Fundamentalists would tell you that reaching the heights of leadership and massive salaries are all about creating value for stakeholders. If we really think about that, it’s not hard to see that is a load of crap. College and professional coaches are shuffled around based on connections. Executives and board members are often family or “in-network” appointments. Even in our “short term value” culture, many of these appointees fail at their jobs. There is no disincentive for failure at these levels. They are protected by Success Factor #1.
Reparations and American Success
If you understand the history of race in America, American Descendents of Slaves were systematically cut off from all three Success Factors. If you are not allowed to own (or keep) assets, you cannot accumulate wealth and will likely have no Access to Capital. If you are not born in a neighborhood with good schools it is nigh impossible to get a Decent Education. If you don’t live around or go to school with families of privilege, you will never reach the same types of Influential or Affluent Peer Groups that can catapult you into American Success.
This is all a result of persistent and damaging American policy. Especially, real estate policy and practice which was obviously a containment strategy meant to cordon ADOS communities off from success. While leaving families open to exploitation and extraction.
Reparations are not only moral and just. They are long overdue.
The reality is that America, by and large, does not reward hard work. It rewards fealty and service to power.
A Word on Incentives
In closing, I’d like to leave you with the following thoughts:
- What if hard work and following the rules doesn’t pay off where you are?
- What if everyone around you that played the game the “right way” has eventually failed?
- What does all this incentivize in rational human beings?
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