“They say they got where they are by working 60 hours a week for years,” my friend said (I’m paraphrasing). “They made it and they don’t see why they should pay anything to help other people who did not.”

It is a message my friend hears from doctors he knows. (This was one of those intense bar conversations, rapid-fire and wide-ranging. The kind you wish you had recorded to review again later.)

But the “I made it. Why can’t you?” view of capitalism is history written by the victors, isn’t it? An oversimplified success formula derived from too few data points, from too small a sample. We see the same kind of myopic analysis in the nation’s capital. From wealthy politicians surrounded by wealthy donors and wealthy lobbyists. Georgetown cocktail parties, high-dollar fundraiser dinners. When you and the people you hang with are all successful and rich, it is easy to question why everyone else is not. The problem must be them. That’s it, the poor are just lazy.

It’s not that most success doesn’t involve hard work and persistence. But as someone recently wrote, “Politicians can’t get past the idea that the only possible way to fail in America is if you sit back and do nothing.”

Yet the vast number of new startups fail each year. Estimates are all over the board (depending on what you count), but 3 out of 4 failing is not an outlier for new startups backed by venture capital. Half of small businesses fail in the first 5 years according to figures presented by Barry Ritholtz. Those odds don’t compute in an alternate universe where hard work by “risks-takers” guarantees success.

In this universe, watching a child keep trying and keep failing is one of the toughest challenges for a teacher. Obviously, the success formula is infallible. The problem must be the teacher.

In a world out of balance where the spread between rich and poor is at Gilded Age levels, it’s “I’m all right, Jack!” The Golden Rule and the Golden Mean are largely forgotten, as is the old proverb, “There but for the grace of god go I.” This makes “I made it. Why can’t you?” a kind of whistling past the graveyard view of our economy. It blithely ignores the casino aspects of capitalism that failed businesses and the families who owned them experience every year.

Our success formulas involve a certain degree of magical thinking. Victors are eager to share the simple, guaranteed formulas that worked for them and that anyone can copy. Some sell theirs late at night on cable TV. The uncle who hit it big at the slots in Vegas will tell his grandchildren the story of how he became the big winner years later. How he selected his machine. How he guarded it scrupulously. The wrist action he used to shove in dollars. The order he pressed the buttons. The lucky sweater. Most importantly, how persistence pays. The other uncle, the one who went bust and had to sell his watch to get home, will not be telling his grandchildren a similar story.

At a prayer meeting I once attended, a woman questioning her faith was upset that God had not answered her prayers. Another believer offered some handy, “battle tested and battle proven” advice.

“Did you plead the blood? You have to plead the blood.” (Or else the magic won’t work, she didn’t add.) Maybe she had unconfessed sin in her life, someone else offered. See, the distressed woman’s mistake wasn’t in treating the Bible as a book of spells, no. The problem was she wasn’t doing the incantations right. Because crank in a simple formula and the Creator of the Universe must jump out of his box on command, just like Jack.

Our thinking about our own wealth — and others’ lack of it — seems no less magical.

(Cross-posted from Scrutiny Hooligans.)

About the Author

Tom Sullivan

4 Responses to “I made it. Why can’t you?”

  1. Mark Calloway says:

    I absolutely agree with the “I made it, why can’t you?” statement. I started out with nothing, except for a good upbringing from two parents (a mother and a father). I used the GI bill to go to a trade school, then joined a company and worked my way up from the ground floor to management. I own my my own home, free and clear, that I built with my own hands. I have provided health insurance and retirement for my family. I am debt free. A goal of mine is to be a man of maximum practical application and I don’t like to rely on anyone else to do things for me. I am no genius, but I am a hard worker with common sense. I feel that I am an unremarkable person, so if I can do it, then almost anyone can.

    • Rfree says:

      So you admit that you were given the precious gifts of good parents, good upbringing, the GI Bill, the trade school, and the company you worked for, and now consider all these things–and countless other things you evidently forgot– that were made for you to be “nothing”. Sounds kind of thoughtless and ungrateful and sad.

  2. mbl says:

    Yes, what really annoys me about the “I made it. Why can’t you?” people is that they lie. They claim they got where they are all on their own but most of them don’t. They get a lot of help from their wealthy families and friends and from lucky forces beyond their control.

    Yes, some may work 60 hrs per week but so do a lot of poor people. (Although most of the wealthy just inherit their wealth or “earn” it by playing the stock market.) I’ve worked 7 days a week myself but I was still poor @the end of it all. In fact, I’ve been working since I was 12. Most of these “I made it” people haven’t been working since they were 12.

    Their rich parents paid their way through college, so they don’t graduate w/student loan debt. They don’t grow up in dangerous neighborhoods dodging bullets and drug dealers on their way to school. They go to schools that prepare them for college and have parents who help them w/their homework. Often they have connections who help them get the best jobs so they don’t have to worry about working at McDonalds for the rest of their lives. They know they’re going to go to college and get upper level jobs. Their future was mapped out for them b4 they were born. They have no clue as to what life is like for those of us born with real obstacles in front of us. They’ll never understand that. They lack empathy and compassion and that will never change unless they lose their jobs, their homes, etc., and they have to face real obstacles in their own lives. IMHO, that’s why the country’s falling apart right now. Americans need to learn compassion again and they’ll only learn that by suffering themselves, sadly.

    In a sense, such people are wealthy in terms of money and material things but they are poor in spirit.

  3. Johnny West says:

    The problem with the “I made it” statement is that there was a total, wealthy support system for most of these guys already in place. Rich parents, loyal frat brothers, legacy businesses to join, etc. As well, if they could afford college (on their parents’ dime) the colleges were usually there because of tax dollars helping along with corporate grants and other freebies.

    It’s not sour grapes I’m spitting, but it’s far too easy for these types to say something stupid without remembering back to when they were 18 and, without mommy and daddy’s help, would have had nothing. And that’s how MOST 18 year old kids start: nothing. No money, no help.

    I started with nothing, zero college, no endorsements, no frat brothers, no money. Luck paved the way and I ended up working in advertising and marketing until I launched my own business that is now 19 years old. While it may falter once in a while, I’ve had good years too. I have zero debt and own two homes. I truly started with nothing, no money, no schooling and nothing but some lousy drawings in a borrowed portfolio. It took a lot of fast talking, bullshitting and working for 7 grand a year at a publishing company to give me my first break that led to other breaks later. And I had some talent which helps.

    Luck of the draw.

    Much like the rich luckily being born into a rich family, luck helps quite a bit. But they don’t like to talk about that, now do they?

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