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 corporate CEOs and Vice Presidents 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 (and good insurance) to get help 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 VP/CEO 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.
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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.