Thursday, November 10, 2011

There's a reason why wealth is called a "fortune"...

Working hard is a lot like playing the lottery - if you do it long enough and get really lucky, you can end up rich.

This is a pretty simple fact of life that seems completely lost on conservative critics of the "99%".

When Herman Cain arrogantly chides the OWS protesters, saying "If you're not rich and you don't have a job, blame yourself."  He's feeding into that ridiculous line of crap that everyone who is wealthy in this country only got that way through their own, personal hard work and determination.  Yes, hard work can lead to success and certainly the combination of a strong personal work ethic and relentless determination will produce much more fruitful results for the average person than sitting on your ass, waiting for a hand-out, but to act as if the only thing that determines a person's likelihood for success or failure is how hard they are willing to work is incredibly disingenuous and insulting to every hard-working American who's not a millionaire.

Let's look at the entertainment industry, for example.  What's the difference between a singer with a hit record and an amazingly talented singer busting their ass in clubs and dive bars for just enough money to get to the next gig?  Luck, that's it.  What's the difference between a pro athlete and an incredibly talented kid who plays ball in his free time while working a day job and living paycheck to paycheck?  What's the difference between a working actor and a waiter with a promotional kit waiting for a big break?  It's all luck.

Hard work is what prepares you to shine when you are blessed with the good fortune to have an opportunity to prove yourself.  I'm not dismissing the importance of hard work or determination.  However, without that opportunity, all the hard work in the world is just spinning your wheels.

I have friends right now who are up before the sun, home after it's dark, never take a sick day, never go home early, never coast through a day of work.  They've worked at their jobs for 10 to 20 years or more.  They're considered invaluable in their departments, people depend on them when they need something done and done right.  They have the most amazing work ethics I've ever seen in a person and they make an average, middle-class salary and will never become millionaires no matter how long they stay with that company, no matter how much harder they work.  If all it took was "hard work" and "determination" to become rich and successful, I have friends right now who would be millionaires.  Instead, they're struggling to get by month to month.  Don't tell me it's all hard work and skill, because it's not.

I said earlier that working hard is a lot like playing the lottery - and if you're middle-class in America in 2011 and if your parents were middle-class and you don't have a ton of money in the bank for some reason and your parents couldn't afford to send you to one of the top, prestigious colleges in the country, then you have just as much chance of becoming a millionaire by "working hard" at your chosen career as you do buying super lotto tickets every payday.

The odds of a person from a middle-class family, who makes less than $60,000 per year, achieving a net worth over $1 million before they retire is over 150,000 to 1.  For people making under $30,000 per year, those odds are almost 500,000 to 1.  Basically, if you're poor to lower middle-class, you have almost as much chance getting rich playing the lottery as you do busting your ass day in and day out at your job.

It's not just about how hard you work and the insistence by many wealthy conservatives to the contrary is perpetuating a fantasy world that simply doesn't exist.

Like I said  before, yes, hard work is important.  I want to be very clear when I say that I'm not trying to downplay the importance of working hard and doing everything you can to realize your dreams.  As I mentioned earlier, hard work is what prepares you to shine when you're given the opportunity.  Every person who worked hard, got a chance to prove themselves and rose to the occasion is proof that hard work is an invaluable asset to someone looking to achieve personal success.  Likewise, the determination to never give up on those dreams, to never take "no" for an answer and to keep getting back up every time you get knocked down is an essential part of being successful as well.

Going back to my example earlier about the entertainment industry, a person who is talented, works hard and never gives up will almost certainly hear a thousand "nos" before they hear that one "yes".  It's through hard work and determination that they can keep going through rejection after rejection, it's how they can keep getting better and better until eventually they get the right opportunity to perform in front of the right person and put on the right quality of show to get their big break.  After that, it's hard work and determination that gets them to the top of their industry.  I will never say that working hard and never giving up aren't the bread and butter of achieving personal success.

However, luck is what determines who happens to come along and take a bite of that sandwich you just made.  Luck is what puts the right person in the right place at the right time.  Luck is why the guy who invented a better mousetrap in Missouri managed to get a meeting with the executives from DeCon and why the guy who invented an even better mousetrap in Illinois is just really good at catching mice around his house.  Luck is why Bobby Flay is a household name, but Bobby Jones isn't.  Luck is why Herman Cain managed to rise from humble beginnings to become a CEO, millionaire and presidential primary candidate and his cousin didn't.

Yes, Herman Cain worked hard.  Yes, he was determined.  However, without the good fortune to be given an opportunity to prove himself, he could very well be just another middle-aged black guy working twice as hard as his white co-workers for less pay.  Hard work might get you through the door, but luck is why it was open just wide enough to get your foot in there in the first place.

So yes, I think that hard work and determination can make you successful.  Yes, I think that hard work and determination can make you rich.  But, let's be honest, without at least some degree of luck, that could be Joe Schwartz who invented Facebook instead of Mark Zuckerberg.  Without a little luck, Lady Gaga might still be a chubby, average-looking girl playing club gigs with her band.  Without luck, Steve Jobs might not have been put up for adoption and could have grown up to be a really smart pencil pusher working for IBM, instead of the guy who competed head-to-head with them and changed the world of computing forever. 

Without luck, whoever you are reading this right now could have been born the son of a poor nobody and grown up with no opportunity to become wealthy and the lofty aspiration to just get a good, middle-class job and hope you can work there until you retire, whenever that is.  Likewise, with luck, you could have been born the son or daughter of a millionaire, gone to the best schools and had a whole host of professional contacts lined up for you on graduation day so you could go right to work in your chosen career field on a fast track to personal success and fortune.

Hard work is the engine in the car, determination is the gas that fuels it, but luck is the streetlight.  If it's green, then four wheels, no brakes.  If it's red, you just sit there, revving away all your gas and waiting.

I feel that it's important to acknowledge this because it's insulting to me to hear the arrogance of some conservatives who claim that a person's lack of success is due to them being lazy or not working hard enough.  I also think it insults the intelligence to act as if your personal success exists in a bubble, that it's entirely a product of your own creation and that you owe nothing to no one else for being where you are today.

Every millionaire businessman is one bad business deal away from being out of work.

Every investor is one bad move away from being broke.

Every athlete is one injury away from early retirement.

Every artist is one bomb away from obscurity.

Every farmer is one drought away from bankruptcy.

Every doctor is one slip-up away from a malpractice suit.

Every pilot is one bad engine away from a disaster.

Every politician is one bad debate away from losing the race (Hi, Rick Perry!).

You can't "hard work" your way out of that.  You can't "determination" your way out of that.  Shit happens, sometimes it's good shit and sometimes it's just shitty.

(Bad luck is why my page froze up when I tried to paste this and I almost lost everything I had written.  Good luck is how I was able to miraculously retrieve it from my browser history.  Irony, indeed.)

1 comment:

  1. Dave,

    I think that a lot of people don't fully understand what "hard work" truly is when applying it in the quest for "success". Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I do, nor have I fully figured out what success looks like. I have an idea of what hard work looks like though. I have known a few folks who most people would consider successful. Most of them epitomize the definition of hard work, but also go beyond that definition into other areas that I think create the situation that most people define as luck. The hardworking, introverted computer programmer who sacraficed sleep and spare time outside of normal working hours to network and figure out the needs of the market is an example. I also know an older gentleman who created a business that complemented his farming operation and was able to accumulate a great deal of wealth. In trade, he sacraficed a relationship with his family as well as the structural integrity of his knees and back. In his eyes, he made it. Most of these people do not "succeed" in order to by the Porsche or the Rolex and have the entourage and all that bullshit. They are competitors with an ingrained itch to "succeed" in life. It just happens to be coincidence that most people keep score in that competition with dollar bills. Im not trying to break your balls or anything, but telling some of these folks that they are lucky would get me told to go to hell. I think we can all make our own situations that look like luck to others, but it comes at a varying degree of difficulty depending on the person. Thanks for your post.