November 23, 2017

What Matters Most for Success

What Matters Most for Success

Yesterday, I received a link to this video, which very effectively illustrates the fact that, although we may have equal “opportunity” to succeed in life, some of us have advantages that arise from the family and community circumstances in which we grow up.

I believe that the video makes an important point in provoking a more in-depth discussion about equality of opportunity, but, to get to more actionable solutions, we must go far beyond the messages it delivers.

My own life has given me critical clues on what matters most for success. I grew up in a two-parent family. My parents earned incomes that enabled us to live without fear of poverty.

However, we were “disadvantaged” relative to much wealthier people, and classmates of mine appeared to be economically “disadvantaged” relative to me.

I put the term “disadvantaged” in quotes because much of what made me successful or impeded my success was far more situation-specific than this or any other video can possibly communicate or than simply wealth or income statistical data can predict.

The Power of Believing

My most important success factor was the credible and unshakeable belief my parents instilled in me that I could succeed in any endeavor I chose to pursue, if I were willing to pay the price. I overcame obstacles that defeated wealthier and better-resourced contemporaries because I believed in myself and a critical mass of people believed in me.

Many children of wealthy families are raised by nannies and have insecure parents who make their children feel inferior, especially when the parents try to impose what they think made them successful on their children. These children manage to squander the economic and sociological advantages with which they start their adult lives. The gift of self-confidence and determination can overcome financial disadvantages, even single parents, grandparents, or even foster parents raise children. (My parents became foster parents of a child when I was seven years old and did their most outstanding job on him.)

We intentionally made our From the Rough film’s tag line “It’s All About Believing” because we believe that believing in oneself is more important than many other factors this video highlights. Golf was actually a good sport to illustrate this point because emotional and mental toughness is far more important to success than most instructors or golf fans realize.

Learning how the “game” is played

One advantage successful parents provide to their children is the access to resources and insights unavailable to children of less successful families. My parents were high school dropouts who had very little understanding of how to help me navigate through an exceptionally challenging college environment.

However, they instilled in me a good work ethic, recognition of the importance of a good diet, physical activity, adequate sleep and a healthy lifestyle. Most importantly, they taught me the importance of deferred gratification and frugality.

Relative to frugality, we were not economically stressed because my parents and I made big, but selective, sacrifices to insure we had life’s necessities. They understood how to prioritize what could be sacrificed. I wore hand-me-down suits until I was 24 years old. We had no color TV until I was 18 years old. We had no air-conditioning at our home, and our summer cottage had no central heat, no shower or bath, no drinkable water from the tap for our first three years, and no telephone. We had one car, and five of us lived in a home with one bathroom. I walked long distances, including 3-mile trips to and from downtown, to save money on bus fare.

I also earned a full academic scholarship to high school, went to a low-cost state university for college, began working in an after-school job when I was 16 years old, worked during weekends and summers in college and law school and graduated from college and law school debt free.

We were not poor, but many of my classmates lived in higher-income homes in which they had not been taught to defer gratification. One of my college roommates constantly needed student loans, but he had the most up-to-date stereo system and the best collection of record albums of anyone I knew. His clothes were newer and more fashionable, and he wasted a lot of money on alcohol and cigarettes.

The parents of other students forced to finance college through loans took their families on trips that cost the family a lot of money. We went nowhere as a family because my parents decided that trips were unaffordable.

Fortunately, relative to academic preparation for college, I was introduced to Professor Donald Cushman when I attended his debate workshops at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, in 1964 and 1965. He persuaded a group of us to follow him to the University of Wisconsin, and he became an advisor and mentor to us for my first three years of college. He helped me get invited to the school’s Honors Program (which most students did not know existed), recommended the books we needed to read, the importance of collegial team learning, how to do rigorous research, and how to be an articulate public speaker. I emerged from college incredibly well prepared academically.

However, my social skills were underdeveloped. College students from lower-income families often find that they are shut out of the networking that wealthier children have available to them through fraternities and sororities, social circles in which wealthier people travel, summer jobs and enrichment programs, and mentoring conversations with friends of their parents.

Although the book Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, by Professors Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, was more narrowly focused on the disadvantages working and middle class women face in attending a prestigious public university, their finding are broadly applicable to lower-income students, especially minority students.

I missed developing certain social skills and mastering many unwritten rules of success. As a result, I did not perform well in my first two legal private practice jobs because I did not have a clue as to how the game was played. I did not understand that private practice attorneys are rewarded for two things: nurturing and growing the firm’s client base and charging as many collectible “billable” hours to those and other clients. The quality of my work was very high, but my understanding of what mattered to the firm and its clients was deficient.

The person coming from a low-income environment is most likely to be disadvantaged in this way, even if he or she is an exceptional athlete or entertainer earning a lot of money. The athlete or entertainer is highly likely to be exploited by agents, parasitic people that get the athlete or entertainer into bad investments, or those who employ or contract with the athletes. When that low-income athlete or entertainer is a woman, there is the added dimension of sexual harassment.

Moving Between Two Worlds

One of the most difficult and underappreciated challenges for young people who want to escape poverty and adverse circumstances in which they have been raised is the challenge of moving between the world from which they came and the world they have entered.

One interesting manifestation of this is the challenge low-income and minority women and men face when they embark on weight-loss programs. Becoming thinner and reducing their blood sugar and blood pressure is better for their health, but it causes them to eat and drink in different places, and to shop in different stores. Long-time friends, whom they no longer physically resemble, ostracize them.

This same problem surfaces in the hostility young African Americans encounter when they become better educated in a system in which the definition of “education” is created by a predominantly white establishment. African Americans speak and think differently when they become better educated, and are ostracized by those who were friends and confidants. Worse yet, bullies find them and attack them for “acting white.”

Many wealthy people who were once poor also experience resentful family members and friends who expect them to give their poorer relatives and friends money, because they “can easily spare it.”

Preparing people to become and remain successful

Focusing on maintaining two-parent families and the support systems they spawn is laudable. Giving lower-income people enough opportunity to earn a sufficient income to avoid desperate poverty is also a laudable goal. Giving these individuals access to a high-quality education is also necessary.

However, we must recognize that these other challenges loom out there. We must instill self-confidence and grounding in good values, a strong work ethic, and an ability to defer gratification. If parents cannot be role models for these values, then others need to be that role model for children.

Government programs cannot deliver these intangible success factors. The process of bringing up the bottom needs to be more flexible, more adaptable to the realities young people face, and much less rules-driven.

Too many people in government and social service non-profits want to feel like they are doing something to make a difference. However, when they try to micromanage processes to lift people out of poverty, they fail.

The tragedy is that many officials and professionals and many non-profit service providers eventually develop a vested interested in keeping the people they serve in the category of “victims.” They lose sight of the goal of lifting people out of poverty, because they become emotionally, intellectually, and economically vested in the narrative of permanent victimhood in which they must play a permanent role of redistributing wealth.

As frustrating as it is for many well-intentioned people, we will solve the poverty problem by a less heavy-handed and continuous intervention by government and a less intrusive intervention by social service providers. Many approaches work and success can be achieved on a large scale, but large financial commitments that are not well targeted are likely to fail or even make a problem worse.

Every Thanksgiving time, which is close to my November 22 birthday, I reflect on the most important gifts I received from parents, relatives and friends who cared for me and made a big difference in my lifetime. My parents have passed away, as have many other individuals important in my early life, but their legacy will remain with me and my children and future generations.