Fortune’s careless aim: The myth that hard work alone creates success

It’s the American mythos: if you work hard enough, you can accomplish anything. But I no longer think it’s true.

Mind you, I’m all for hard work. But I think success also requires good resources and good luck. Actually, I think resources and luck are more important than hard work. They make hard work gain solid traction. Without them, a lifetime of hard work usually yields very little.

I see it all the time in the inner-city church I attend: teens struggling to make a viable life as they enter adulthood, adults working hard only to barely tread water. Many of these people are bright and capable and have dreams they’d like to achieve. Few of them make a stable life, despite their best efforts.

In contrast, I’ve done well in my life. I make upper-middle-class money — not so much that I’m free from financial worry, but enough that the wolves are so far from the door that I’ve pretty much forgotten what they look like.

What has brought my good fortune? Hard work has certainly been important. But I’ve also had resources that my inner-city church friends simply lack, and those resources and my willingness to work have let me capitalize on the luck that has come my way.

My story illustrates my point very well. So I’m going to tell it three times: first through the lens of hard work, then through the lens of resources and luck, and finally through the lens of some of the difficulties I’ve faced, some of which were severe. As you read it, think of your story. How hard have you worked? What setbacks have you experienced? How have your resources and luck enabled — or lack thereof limited — success?

My story through the lens of hard work

Here’s the version of my life story, from the perspective of the success I’ve found in my life. Told this way, it looks like hard work really pays off.

I applied myself in school and got good grades. I also learned how to program computers. These things got me into a top engineering school where I worked harder than ever before or since. I got a degree in mathematics and computer science. I moved into a career in software development, where I’ve worked hard for more than a quarter century now and have risen through the ranks. Today, I’m a director in a software company. I have an upper-middle-class job and I’m doing well.

My story through the lens of resources and luck

I have worked hard. But when you look at my life through a wider lens, you can see how many resources I had available to me, and how good luck at key moments led to important opportunities.

I was born in 1967 to working-class parents who had high-school educations. We didn’t have much for a long time, but my parents were frugal and we never went without. Manufacturing jobs were reasonably plentiful then and Dad worked steadily. He was smart and capable, and in the 1980s was promoted to management.

My parents deliberately created a quiet, stable environment for my younger brother and me. We were well cared for and loved. Education was everything to them. Homework came first. They praised and rewarded our scholastic achievements. They always spoke of college as something we would do as if it were the natural next step after high school.

I was intelligent. I taught myself to read by age 3. And then I turned out to be well-suited for school — I was naturally well behaved and liked the rules and structure. I did the work and got excellent grades. In high school, I was accepted into all the advanced-placement classes, and I liked the challenge.

As I entered high school, the then-new home computers were just becoming affordable. I’d shown aptitude so Dad, flush with a new management-level salary, bought me one. I taught myself to write code on it. I spent hours mastering programming and really loved it.

I started writing programs to illustrate the concepts I was learning in my advanced-placement geometry class, and the teacher learned of it and had me demonstrate them to the class. He was impressed. “Jim, you could do this for a living.” That was a revelation: I had no idea people made careers out of programming computers. “You’ve got talent,” he continued. “You should study at Rose-Hulman. You have what it takes to make it there.”

I’d never heard of Rose-Hulman. It turns out it’s one of the nation’s top engineering schools, and it’s here in Indiana. I thought surely I couldn’t get in, but I applied anyway. To my astonishment, I was accepted.

In my room at Rose in 1987

Rose is expensive, and was out of my family’s reach. But the Lilly Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Indiana pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company, was at that time helping bright first-generation college students go to private colleges. Their grant paid for a large portion of my college expenses. I also got a federal grant and a couple smaller scholarships. One federal program let me borrow some money, and another paid me to work part-time on campus. A state program helped me find summer work to earn more money. My parents were left with about 1/3 of the bill, bringing Rose just into reach. They lived on next to nothing while they paid for it.

Rose was enormously challenging. Like that teacher said, I never have worked harder before or since. But I made it through, with a degree in mathematics and a concentration in computer science.

At graduation, the country was in a recession. Like many of my classmates, I had trouble landing a job. I wanted to be a programmer, but those jobs were scarce. But I had taken a technical-writing course as an English elective, and the professor connected me with a local software company that wanted to hire a technical writer. The company was founded by a Rose grad who liked to hire other Rose grads. I got the job.

I wrote and edited technical materials for a dozen years at several companies. At one company, my boss saw something in me and promoted me to manager. And then it turns out I had an aptitude for leading people, and liked it. After completing a successful and important project, he gave me a new opportunity to lead software testing, and mentored me as I learned the ropes.

A burgeoning software industry has formed in central Indiana, and I’ve ridden the wave, moving every few years from company to company to take on greater responsibilities and new challenges. Along the way, several people have mentored me or taught me a skill I lacked. It’s enabled me to deliver well everywhere I’ve worked.

It’s been enough to impress software company executives all over town enough that I can call them up and meet them for coffee. Last summer, I reached out to them all in search of a new challenge. With their help, within eight weeks I was in a new role at a company with a bright future.

My story through the lens of life challenges

You might now think that I’ve lived a charmed life. But I have had some deep difficulties and stunning setbacks.

I’m not going to air my family’s dirty laundry here, but suffice it to say that there were challenges that led me to enter adulthood with difficulties forming healthy relationships, and that held me back for a long time. I lived with major depression and anxiety through my 20s and 30s. I was abused by someone who was supposed to love me and was left with PTSD. I endured a terrible marriage and, inevitably, a brutal and expensive divorce. I’ve had a monkey on my back. I live with a chronic health issue that, for a while, I worried would leave me disabled. I’ve been let go twice by companies that couldn’t afford to pay me anymore, and I was fired once.

These things have, point blank, held me back from greater success.

Yet they didn’t crush me. They could have; I’m not made of rock and titanium. I see people at my church struggle with many of the same challenges and it devastates their lives, leading to bankruptcy and homelessness, or severe chronic mental and physical illness. Sometimes they never recover.

The major difference, and the reason I’ve come through all of that okay, is because I’ve had good resources: family and friends who offered support, and money (cash and insurance) to see me through when I needed it.

Key themes in my story

Several key themes are woven through my story.

Timing. That I was born in 1967 is very important. I was about the right age for all of these things:

  • When I was a teenager, home computers became affordable to a family that had just emerged into the middle class.
  • When I entered engineering school, the Lilly Foundation was actively helping people in my situation pay for it.
  • When I entered the workforce, software companies were just starting to exist in quantity, creating demand for talent even during the recession we were in then.
  • When I began to mature in my field, the dot-com boom was forming and software companies were desperate for talent. It gave me the opportunity to move into leadership, which springboarded my career and, eventually, my income. That bubble burst, but another, more sustainable boom followed, and has created endless opportunity.

If I had been born a few years before or after 1967, I would have been the wrong age to fully enjoy most of these advantages.

Family. The family in which I grew up wasn’t perfect, but my parents loved me and raised me well overall. They didn’t have much money, but they were hyperfocused on making sure I got a very good education. They have been a source of support and encouragement throughout my life, especially during the most difficult days.

Natural abilities. I’m intelligent and intensely curious. My brain is wired just right to understand and enjoy technology.

Working/middle-class life skills. I know how to get to work on time and how to please my boss. I have good life-organization skills: there’s always enough food in the house, I pay my bills on time and have good credit, I keep my car and house well maintained (and do as much of the work myself as I can).

Willingness to work hard. I like to work. Look at me today: director in a software company, raising teenagers, president of a nonprofit, elder in my church, publishing in this blog six days a week.

Good people. Just look at all the people who have helped me: The geometry teacher. The English professor. The boss who promoted me to management and taught me the ropes in software testing. The other mentors and colleagues I’ve alluded to who have elevated my abilities and helped me find new opportunities. Friends who supported me through difficult times and connected me with professionals who could help me.

Money. Just look at all the places money came from. My parents’ labor and sacrifice. A philanthropic organization. Federal and Indiana governments. And now, a healthy salary thanks to being a reasonably talented person in a booming field. Funds have been available to pay for college, for lawyers through my expensive divorce, and for healthcare professionals.

These incredible resources have provided a solid foundation on which I’ve been able to build a pretty good life — and recover from setbacks and difficulties.

My story through the lens of great wealth

Let me try to tell my story through one more lens, as best as I can: from the viewpoint of someone who was born into far greater privilege than me.

One of my college roommates was from a very wealthy family. To give you an idea of just how wealthy, he grew up in his own wing of his family’s mansion. Given my working-class roots, we were an odd pair of friends. I had no real concept of his reality, and he had little concept of mine, but we had Rose-Hulman and computer programming in common and it made our friendship work.

He could see that I had no clue about what success looked like in his world. Sometimes he gingerly offered me advice from his perspective. More than once, he coached me hard to save money and build capital. “When you get your first job, save up $10,000 as fast as you can,” he said. He detailed some ways I should invest it. “And then save another $10,000. And keep investing. It won’t take that long, really, for your money to grow to $50,000 or $100,000 or beyond — and then you’ll have money you can really work with.”

I couldn’t get my head wrapped around it. I came from a mindset of working to pay the bills — and if you had any left over, it went into a fully liquid emergency fund. And $10,000 was an unimaginable sum to me then. Even if I could save it, why would I tie it up in investments? What if something went wrong and I needed it?

He also talked to me about the importance of building relationships in my career, especially with VPs and CEOs. But to me, people with such lofty titles might as well have been 25 feet tall. Who was I to them? Why would they want to even talk to me? What did I have to offer them anyway? I’d rather let my hard work and eventual accomplishments speak for themselves.

That friend and I slowly drifted apart after college, I think in some part because he was living in his upper-class reality and I was living life according to my working/middle-class rules. From my perspective, I’ve done something remarkable: moved up one socioeconomic class. But I think my friend was frustrated to see me squander my resources. That’s how he saw it, anyway. From my perspective, I was living successfully.

With my success of about the last 10 years and the world to which it has introduced me, my mind has slowly, finally come to see where my wealthy friend was coming from. You see some of it towards the end of my resources-and-luck story: how I do have executive contacts now, and I maintain those relationships. But even then, I did it the working/middle-class way: by proving myself through my work first.

– – –

So consider your story. What time in the world were you born into and how did that play into your success? Were you born into poverty, the working or middle class, or wealth? What life skills did your upbringing give you or not give you? Was your family emotionally healthy and a source of strength in your life? Did you have any major setbacks in your life? If so, were you able to recover from them? Why or why not? Do you have good friends, good colleagues, good professional contacts? Where has money come from in your life and how has it helped you get ahead?

Because no matter how hard you’ve worked, without those advantages you would be nowhere near as successful as you have been.


24 responses to “Fortune’s careless aim: The myth that hard work alone creates success”

  1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    Wow, a very thoughtful and thorough examination of how you have moved from there to here. You give us all a lot to think about.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Excellent. My nefarious plan is working! :-)

  2. Jason Shafer Avatar
    Jason Shafer

    Terrific exploration of you and how it has shaped you. While your initial premise of hard work not being the only factor in success is spot on, you’ve given me something to think about today. Thank you.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Jason!

  3. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Very astute viewpoint!

    I consider myself an amateur sociologist, so I always ask a lot of questions (maybe I’m just nosey!). As a professional photographer for many years, I’ve been put into situations where I’m photographing people from all kinds of backgrounds and who have all kinds of success. It’s amazing what people will tell a stranger when put in the intimate situation of getting their picture taken!

    A couple of things I’ve learned from all these experiences:

    The well-to-do, or at least, the people who do not live daily with the wolf at the door, have a tendency to have off-spring that do far better.

    People who are “learners” or “readers” , who spend their lives keeping up on and studying things they are interested in, tend to have off-spring that do far better than the rest. This is regardless of economic background (the library is free), or whether they are blue collar/white collar, but provided they take their kids along for the ride and instill the interest in them. This is a good point to bring up that when I grew up in Chicago, there was a classic conform of blue collar workers being of the “Nelson-Algren-poets-of-the-streets” types (many being the grandsons and daughters of German emigrants of the late 1800’s educated trade-union types), not so prevalent today.

    No matter how little or great their education is, there are always people who seem to fall backwards into a pile of money!

    No matter how little or great their education is, there are always people that struggle to make ends meet and can’t make a dime!

    Many times there is no easy or obvious explanation for the above two statements.

    You can have a lot to offer, which may result in financial success, but if you are in an area of the country where they don’t need your talents, you will go unrewarded. A lot of times, people who claimed they “made their own luck”, really just moved around the country to an area that needed their talent and to a sociological environment where they would be appreciated. Sometimes it’s not you, it’s where you are and who you’re with!

    My favorite saying is that there are people that are born on third base, and think they hit a homer i.e. there are many people that do NOT realize the advantage they’ve been given in their daily lives by having a home with educated parents, not worrying if they’re going to keep living in that home, having college fully or partially paid for etc., etc. (which is what you are saying here).

    Lots to ponder, and I’ve pondering it for many years…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Interesting take! My dad was a reader the whole time I grew up. He read the great philosophers, mostly. But he read daily.

      One thing I didn’t touch on in this article, that you did: placing yourself where wealth can happen. While I’ve had a generally satisfying software-development career in Indianapolis, and I’ve made great money from that perspective, if I had moved to the software centers in California, I would have dramatically increased my chances at true wealth — because that’s where the vast majority of wealth in software is being created. I wouldn’t have had to start my own company, just be a part of one that sold or went public.

    2. Gregory Beckenbaugh Avatar
      Gregory Beckenbaugh

      If you’ve expended the time and energy to move to an area of the country that needed your talent, or to an environment where you (and your talents) are appreciated, then I’d say that you’ve made your own luck. You took the time to find your niche, which isn’t easy. It’s easier to stay put and complain that no one appreciates you.

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        Good point. I’m sure there’s more luck needed – but anyone with the drive to go where luck might be certainly gives themselves a leg up. I sort of did that when I moved to Indianapolis. I was in Terre Haute, and the company I was working for showed every sign of failing. The last thing I wanted to be was unemployed with my skill set in Terre Haute. So I moved to Indy.

  4. davidvanilla Avatar

    Excellent analysis. Anyone who thinks hard work was the only factor in his success should do a similar study of his career. Even chance meetings and happenstance events played a role in my success and like you, I stood on the shoulders of those who bore part of the burden of my education.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      One happenstance event in my life: After the dot-com bubble burst, I found myself unemployed like so many others. Jobs were scarce. I went to an event at my son’s preschool and met my boy’s best friend’s dad — who happened to be a recruiter, who happened to have the exclusive contract to place testers on a contract job for Medicare. That was a terrible, terrible place to work, but it was a rock steady paycheck during a tough time in my industry. And after a year testing there I got a management role that provided serious experience that led directly to other jobs I’ve gotten.

  5. puneybones Avatar

    This is a great post. It reflects the humility and gratitude of a life well-lived and still thoughtfully living.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You know, I don’t always feel grateful. It was very useful to me to write this post to remind me just how fortunate I’ve been, and just how often I’ve been fortunate.

  6. Sam Avatar

    Great write up Jim! Personal, autobiographical, and with great experiences that others can learn from. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Sam!

  7. Bill Bussell Avatar
    Bill Bussell

    One of my photographic adventures was working for a hospital. It was my job to put together a slide show to raise money for their “free” health service. I had several motor-drive Nikons, and an associate walking with me around a Section 8 apartment complex that was eventually destroyed by tenants. My associate wanted to walk toward a basketball court mid-morning to see what kind of story/pictures we could dig up. The court was full of young men. We could have looked like plain-clothes police as we approached. Those young men scattered quickly in all directions. In the past, there were job opportunities in this city at Carrier, RCA, Richardson Rubber, Western Electric, Chevrolet, Chrysler Electric on Shadeland, Chrysler Foundry on Tibbs. I could go on and on. I actually worked at many of these companies. All are gone out-of-business, or moved out of the country. The government can do something to stop this trend. The other problem is pure lack of motivation on the part of young people. It is far more fun to play basketball or video games than to work.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wonder if the age of plentiful, good manufacturing jobs is just over, and not because of lack of gov’t intervention, but because it was just a time in our country that was never going to last forever. But unfortunately, nothing has yet to replace those jobs to provide a decent living for the average person.

      I see plenty of motivated young people, and plenty who aren’t motivated. Where I go to church, when I see unmotivated young people I think there are two root causes: family systems so messed up that the kids aren’t raised to think about their futures, and lack of resources making it very, very hard to rise above low-level jobs.

  8. Don Massenzio Avatar

    Very inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Don!

  9. DougD Avatar

    This is a great article Jim, you continue to amaze me with how similar our paths are in some ways, even born in the same year.

    When I finished Grade 6 I remember being quite sincerely congratulated by my Grandfather, because I now had more education than he did. He left school to work as a carpenter in the Netherlands, and emigrated to Canada in the early 50’s.

    Dad made it through high school and took a one year teachers college course. Teaching was pretty much a starvation job in the 60’s but he took additional courses and by the 80’s he was a principal and making a good salary.

    I probably would have been considered ADD today, but Mom knew I was twitchy in school because I was intensely curious and easily bored. So off to Mechanical Engineering school I went (working harder than ever before or since) where I excelled at machine design and worked that into a career.

    Same thing, work, luck, and available money.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Doug, it seems like among people of our generation, parents who had to make something out of very little or even nothing were more likely to have children who did far better than they did — because they valued that and created conditions that promoted it. Thanks for sharing your story!

  10. Photobooth Journal Avatar

    Reading your article, I wonder why so many people both here in Australia and maybe even more so in the USA, don’t understand, as you do, that disadvantage is as heritable as advantage. Just criticising people for the situation they are in, without considering all the factors that have brought them there, is heartless and mean spirited in the extreme. I live in a semi-socialist society that tries to look after the most vulnerable people in our communities but there are always those trying to erode those services by claiming the individual is at fault. Looking critically at how and why we have been able to survive prosperously, as you have done, is a critical step towards making the world a more inclusive and equitable place.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s very easy to look at someone else who’s circumstances aren’t as high as yours, assume that they have had the same baseline that you have had in your life, and conclude that they are at fault for their situation. It’s not just in Australia that this happens – we are enormously guilty of it in the United States as well. Some reading I’ve done recently has caused me to reflect on the advantages I have received. They don’t feel like enormous privilege to me, but when I think about some of the people I go to church with, and the serious life challenges they face with few resources to handle them, suddenly I feel very privileged.

  11. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Somehow I’ve managed to miss this article until now. Your innate kindness and rare ability to see situations through multiple perspectives help to lend a beautiful wisdom to your writings. Thanks for writing this!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m not sure how you even stumbled upon this – it’s deep in the archive! I’m glad you liked my account.

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