There are only three reasons you clicked on this.
The first one is because you already agree that no one is entirely self-made and that most people who do “make it” come from backgrounds that make it easier for them compared to the average person. The second reason is that you hate this lazy and self-defeatist narrative that tells people that the only way you can get anywhere in life is if you luck out. The third reason is that you clicked on this by accident but hey, you’re already here so grab a seat.
The story goes like this.
I met up with an old friend who I haven’t seen in years. No, it’s not my friend who got out of a cult. It’s a different friend because surprise, I have those.
Aside from a brief childhood stint as a poor person that left me with a persistent scarcity mindset, we shared a similar background as middle-class products of the private school system. Here’s the thing, though: no one prepares you for the culture shock that comes with moving up the socioeconomic ladder.
After sharing a celebratory moment over each other’s financial situations, she looked at me and said, “Wow, anything is possible these days, huh? The only reason anyone can still be poor is that they’re lazy.”
This is when I remembered half of my extended family are blue-collar workers who work more hours than I do but still live below the poverty line.
Is the Self-Made Billionaire Real?
Before you end up thinking that I want so and so canceled on Twitter for being classist, let me just say that said friend is also one of those unrealistically kind and generous types that are always nicer than the rest of your friends. But why would a supposedly nice person think poor people deserve to be poor?
I won’t claim to be a mind reader but part of why we tend to think of poverty as an entirely personal failing is because we also think that becoming wealthy is something we achieve on our own.
Self-made billionaires are the patron saints of capitalism. Everyone wants to be one and their interview snippets get circulated around LinkedIn like they’re scripture revealed through divine insight.
As a collective, we’re enthralled by the idea that anyone can make it as long as they work hard enough. The existence of self-made billionaires proves this belief and gives us something to look forward to even when we know we’re fighting an uphill battle against inflation, discrimination, and the limits of how much we can abuse our bodies through endless working.
Depending on who you ask, the self-made billionaire either exists or they don’t. Pick it apart and you find that this difference in opinion stems from what we count as self-made. For some, just knowing that a billionaire wasn’t born into the wealth they have now is enough for them to count as self-made.
In this sense, Jeff Bezos counts as a self-made billionaire because he took the thousands of dollars his parents personally invested and turned it into a company worth $314.97 billion. Knowing that his parents invested money into Amazon doesn’t make the achievement any less impressive because it does take an incredible amount of business acumen to do that. But think, do your parents have thousands of dollars to lend to you so you can start a company? How about an extra thousand just to help you pay for an emergency?
For most of us, the answer is no.
This is why you also see a lot of people claim that there is no such thing as a self-made billionaire. More often than not, a quick look through their background reveals advantages that the average person just doesn’t have.
Sometimes, those advantages aren’t monetary but come from brushing elbows with people in high places. Take Bill Gates for example. He’s the poster child for the successful college dropout, but even if you had the I.Q of Einstein, it would be hard to replicate his success without your mother convincing the chairman of IBM to hire your fledgling company to develop an operating system for them.
Okay, so it’s hard to achieve extreme wealth if your parents don’t have extra money up their sleeves or the right connections. How about just aiming middle class? After all, that should be achievable if you have the right skills to get a well-paying job, right?
The Social Psychology of Biased Self-Assessment
Having the right skills to land you a high-paying job in the future largely hinges on whether your family had the resources to invest in you. Resources can be anything from money to emotional energy or extra time.
Even at our poorest, my mother could afford to stay at home and actively teach me basic academic skills like reading and writing. The help was apparently substantial enough that she managed to convince school administrators to let me start school at 3 years old — much earlier than you can in states like California. There wasn’t much risk of me becoming one of every six high school students who drop out each year because of illiteracy, a factor largely attributed to poverty.
So are poor parents just neglectful?
Annette Laureau, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, found that while parents generally want their children to do well, the ways in which they’re able to support and facilitate that development changes depending on their socioeconomic class. She says that middle-class parents take a “concerted cultivation” approach while working-class and poor parents let children develop spontaneously.
The natural approach featured parents who cared for and set boundaries for their children but largely left them to develop their natural talents on their own. Meanwhile, middle-class parents were able to practice concerted cultivation, an approach where they actively invested time and money into enrolling their children in extra-curricular activities and monitoring their education. These differences were further exacerbated by the distrust that disadvantaged parents had towards healthcare and educational professionals who they feared would “take their kids away”.
All of these early influences stick with children. Poor children tend to develop what Laureau calls an “emerging sense of constraint” as they’re raised into a mindset that keeps them from asking questions, advocating for themselves, and taking risks.
In contrast, children of the middle-class go on to have an “emerging sense of entitlement” which they model after the behavior of parents who negotiate with academic institutions to give them more instruction. This creates a child that feels they have the right to negotiate for better, well, everything.
That said, it’s not impossible to make it into the middle-class if you were born dirt poor. A lot of people actually do make that move up the ladder a little later in life. It’s just that you would almost definitely have done better if you had the advantage of being born into better circumstances in the first place.
If the effects and causes are so obvious then why can’t many of us see how lucky we actually are?
It all comes down to a psychological phenomenon called biased self-assessment.
Biased self-assessment, also called self-serving bias, describes our propensity to shift our attributions of error and responsibility on whether the situation is positive or negative. In simple English, it just means that when things go well, we tend to take credit for them and when things go bad, we tend to find something or someone else to blame.
Whether you’re prone to biased self-assessment depends on whether your locus of control is internal or external. People with a more internalized sense of control will credit themselves more than people with an externalized sense of control who would instead attribute their personal successes to luck, whether that luck is superstitious beliefs about fortune or just knowing they were lucky enough to have gotten help along the way.
The funny part is that there’s often little correlation between our biased self-assessments and our actual abilities. Not even education gets rid of the bias as 94% of college faculty members reported that they think they were better than their average peer. Go figure.
While that’s amusingly petty at worst, less amusing findings show that the majority of people think they’re less likely than the average person to experience a great personal tragedy. Examples of these include cancer, divorce, addiction, and involvement, and vehicle accidents. You know, the same way we keep thinking we’ll never be homeless as long as we work hard enough despite how easy it is to become homeless.
Acknowledging You’re Lucky Doesn’t Mean You Don’t Deserve It
Biased self-assessment exists partly due to how it affects the way we see ourselves. No one likes to think of themselves as incompetent or a liability. So we protect our self-perceptions by creating biases that keep us emotionally comfortable.
If you found yourself getting pissed off by the implication that you didn’t work for what you have, which comes with the implication that you don’t deserve it, that’s perfectly understandable.
Our self-biases, despite their drawbacks, are part of what makes us a little bit human. Accounting for what people feel when they’re faced with information that doesn’t fit their view of themselves is, however, something that a lot of cause-oriented folks forget when they go off about how so and so is only successful because of mommy and daddy’s money.
No one likes to hear their efforts be invalidated, especially if they come from poverty themselves.
Inasmuch as there are no entirely self-made billionaires, our personal success is neither just luck nor solely our own hard work. Not even a loan of a million dollars could have made Bill Gates filthy rich if he didn’t have at least a few functioning brain cells.
Similarly, no amount of talent can guarantee success if you never had the opportunity to study because you were too busy trying not to starve to death like the millions of kids whose educations are neglected in favor of survival.
At the end of the day, realizing we’re all a little bit lucky in our own way can help us appreciate the advantages we’ve had and acknowledge that these advantages are something that we deserve.
We all do.
You can help make the disadvantages of poverty less heavy by supporting Food Not Bombs. Food Not Bombs is a worldwide grassroots movement that gathers food that grocery stores would have otherwise wasted and turns them into cooked or ready-to-eat meals that go towards feeding the homeless.
Not having to spend money on food helps the homeless free up their resources for use on clothes and grooming items that can help them land a job. For just a dollar, you can donate to the cause today and help a homeless person break out of the cycle of poverty.