Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Empowerment - Why Wealth Is All In Your Head

What makes one person a success and another a failure?  It is mostly mental?

Americans like to whine a lot - about what a rotten deal they got out of life, how their cell phone provider sucks, and how long they had to wait in line to go fly 400 mph on a jet airplane.  And of course, two-thirds of us complain about being overweight.  We are so used to the good life here that we fail to realize how obscene our complaints are, on a global scale.

But it is true that our life outcomes vary greatly in the U.S. - from abject poverty and homelessness all the way to multi-Billionaire status.  How far you can rise - or fall - in this country is quite dramatic. And often, people of similar backgrounds or opportunities end up with radically different outcomes.  Moreover, people can end up changing their lot in life often through their own efforts.

And a lot of it has to do with your mental attitude.  Yea, I know what you are going to say - that some folks start out life with a head-start.  If you come from wealth, or at least a middle-class background, you will likely end up wealthy, or wealthier, or at least fairly well-off.  And yes, this is true, but not determinative.  There a lot of folks who start well-off and work their way down.

But there are also folks who come from humble beginnings and end up successful, or at least more successful their their peers.  I've met such folks in my travels, and they are not as rare as you might think.  And I know firsthand, many a young man or women who came from a life of privilege, and yet managed to throw it all away in an orgy of alcohol, drugs, low-self-esteem, and teen pregnancy.

What makes one person a homeless bum, and another - from the same background, with the same opportunities, and the same education and intellect - a Wall Street tycoon?  How can one college graduate be an "OWS protester" - unemployed and living in a tent in a park, while his former college roommate is working a dozen floors above, at a Wall Street firm, making over $100,000 a year?

Both had the same or similar opportunities.  Why the different outcomes?

Over the years, I have met a lot of people who have gone from "rags to riches" in the USA, and it is possible to do.  The hardest thing, of course, was wanting to do it.  And along the way, I met a lot of people who went from riches to rags.  What sets these folks apart?  Mental attitude, for the most part.  Here are some of their stories.  Their names have been changed for obvious reasons.

1.  Suzie was born in raised in South Philadelphia.  She lived in a rough neighborhood, where the crime rate was high, and the success rate was low.  More than half the students at her local high school never graduated.  Most of the boys gravitated toward street life early on, posturing as tough "gangsta's" who called their girlfriends "bitches" and "hos".  Two-thirds of her classmates ended up getting pregnant, some in junior high school.  Many dropped out.  Drug and alcohol abuse was rampant.  And many of the girls ended up becoming prostitutes, to pay for their drug habits.

Suzie told me that she saw this going on around her and decided that she didn't want to end up the same way.  Getting out of South Philly was the first step.  Getting an education, the second.  She signed up for, and joined the Navy, and left Philadelphia right after high school.   It was an opportunity - to get away and to get an education.

Not only did they pay for her to attend college, they also paid her way through law school.  I met her when she was working on her Law Masters degree.  She had a great career at that point, was financially successful and happy.

2.  Billy came from a rural farm in Maine.  He was a good student at his local school, but most of his fellow students would end up never traveling more than 100 miles from home.  Many would be married, with children on the way, before they left high school.   In a way, Billy's environment was not too dissimilar than Suzie's - only more rural (most people living in poverty live in rural areas, contrary to stereotypes about the inner-city).  Employment opportunities were limited and drug and alcohol abuse were fairly rampant in his high school.

Billy was able to get a scholarship and leave Maine to go to college.  He did well and after graduation, moved into an apartment with an older man who became his lover.  But Billy resented being kept as a pet, and decided that he wanted more in life.  He applied for, and was accepted into, an Ivy League law school.

He excelled in school and got a coveted summer job with a big New York law firm, who made him an offer to become an Associate upon graduation.  He worked hard at the firm, earning big money and is now a partner in that firm.  He now lives in downtown Manhattan in a beautiful condo with a view of the city.  It is a long way from milking cows on his father's farm, to be sure.  And he lives today in a world that most of this classmates would find incomprehensible.

3.  Sharon grew up in a very impoverished part of West Virginia.  Her father left her when she was three years old, and her Mother had to earn a living as an over-the-road truck driver.  Sharon was raised mostly by her Grandmother, seeing her Mom only on weekends or whenever her trucking route took her through town.

Most of Sharon's friends in high school were going nowhere fast.  Drugs, particularly amphetamines, were prevalent, and many of her girlfriends were pregnant before the 10th grade.

Sharon wanted more out of life than a child and a trailer home and an abusive drunken spouse with a low income.  She would look at the pictures of the dream homes in the magazines in the library at school and wonder why she, too, couldn't have that lifestyle.

She did well in school and managed to avoid the advances of the sweaty beer-soaked sons of coal miners and thus avoided a teen pregnancy.  She got a small scholarship to an art college to study interior design.  Upon graduation, she moved to the big city and got a low-paying job with a design studio.  She changed her name to a more artistic sounding one and had business cards printed up.  Before long, she was doing interior design consulting work on the side, and eventually, it became a full-time job.

She married a nice young man who owned a computer consulting business and they had two daughters.   She and her husband bought a nice home in the suburbs, which she decorated as she always dreamed of, during her childhood. 

She still stayed in touch with her Mother, who was now retired, and also very proud of her daughter's success.  She had gone from the trailer park to Architectural Digest, within the span of 20 years.  It was quite an accomplishment.
* * * 
These are just three stories.  I have met many more folks like this, who came from backgrounds of modest means and modest opportunities, to become wildly successful in their own right.  And there are many, many more that might not become wild successes, but nevertheless become successful and happy, when many of their peers fall back into poverty.  What are the common denominators in these stories?
1.  Attitude - You have to have a desire to want to improve your life, to get ahead, to be financially independent.

2.  Avoiding the teen pregnancy trap - when you knock up some girl (or get knocked up yourself) at an early age and then quit school to support the baby, it basically shoots down your career for at least 20 years.  You are fiscally behind the 8-ball and will be playing catch-up the rest of your life.

3.  Avoiding the drug/alcohol trap - You can't get ahead if you just want to get shitfaced and stoned all day.   People like to say they are "functional" alcoholics or drug users, but the truth is, you can't succeed when you are stoned all the time - ambition is the first thing sacrificed on the altar of the almighty ganja.

4  Avoiding the mental illness and depression trap - Granted, this is not something you always have a choice about, but the drugs and alcohol often feed this.  If you are depressed and feel worthless, chances are you are not going to succeed.  And similarly, merely having delusions of grandeur is not the same as having a plan to succeed.

5.  Moving Away - If there are no job opportunities in the Ghetto, or in Rural Maine, or in the Coal-Mining Regions of West (by God) Virginia, then move to where there are some.   This very simple concept eludes about 90% of the population, who, for some reason feels the need to stay on the same acre that their mother spit them out on, a couple of decades earlier.  Move.  It is often your best bet.
Now, let's look at the other end of the spectrum - people who came from wealth and then squandered it all.  Is there a pattern here as well?  Here are some typical stories of people I know.  Sad to say, I know more people who have moved down the economic ladder than moved up. The names have been changed and some of these stories are composites of a number of people, to protect the identity of the individuals.

1.  Tim came from a family of strivers.  His Father had gone to college and worked his way up the Corporate ladder, which was quite an accomplishment for a family that was only a few generations removed from the Irish Potato Famine.  Tim's Father had to struggle to get ahead, and to him, the struggle was worth it.  "I want my kids to have the things I never had," his Dad would say, "And not to have to struggle as I did."

So Tim was pampered, comparatively speaking, and not pushed or challenged in any way.  It was assumed by his Dad that Tim would be a star quarterback on the football team - or at least a valuable player - and get good grades, get into college, join his Dad's Fraternity, and then graduate to a career in business, climbing the corporate ladder, to heights even his Father never achieved.

It didn't quite work out that way.  An introspective lad, Tim never was much for football, and his academics were a mixed bag.  His mental health was in a precarious state - and it didn't help any that his parents drank heavily and argued all the time.  Mental illness, depression, alcoholism, and suicide ran in the family.  Tim easily slipped into the world of alcohol and drugs, which were readily available to a high school student at that time.  Before long, he was getting stoned every day - and pretty much all day long.

In his late teenage years, Tim started developing the signs of incipient schizophrenia and had to be hospitalized once.  Alarmed, his parents sent him to a psychiatrist who put him on medication.  Tim's Dad was disappointed that his son was not to be the football star and man-on-campus he had hoped for.  This only made Tim feel worse.

But Tim still had opportunities.  His parents could afford to send him to whatever college he was accepted at - and grad school as well.   He didn't have to worry about feeding himself or providing a roof over his head or paying tuition - a true luxury, for most folks.

After many brushes with the law, Tim managed to get a job and support himself.  However, he lead a lifelong struggle with substance abuse, mental illness, and depression.  While he didn't end up homeless or insane, his standard of living was a slip down the scale from the heights his parents had reached - and certainly not the level he could have achieved, given the opportunities he had.

2.  Jimmy's father was an Engineer at a local company, and they had a comfortable life in an affluent suburb.   Jimmy, like most of the kids at his high school, was pretty spoiled.  The kids at his school all had cars and disposable income from after-school jobs.  When he turned 16, his Dad bought him a secondhand Camaro, and he was a big man on campus.

Jim's Father hoped that Jim would go on college and perhaps become an Engineer like himself.  And Jim's Father could afford to pay the full price for tuition, room and board, which back then was a lot less onerous than it is today.

But the temptations of teen life in the affluent suburbs of the big city were many - sex, drugs, alcohol.  And before long, he was spending weekends with his buddies, cruising around in the Camaro, drinking beer and smoking pot.  He had a run-in with the law and a DUI.  And Saturday nights were spent in the back seat of his Camaro, with his girlfriend, who promptly became pregnant.

College suddenly was out of the question.  He was a teenaged Father now, much to the embarrassment of his parents, who were then shunned from the cocktail circuit as being low-rent white trash.  He got a job at a local factory, and he and his wife rented a cheap apartment above a bar.  He continued the lifestyle he lead as a teenager - hanging out with his friends, drinking beer, smoking pot, and having sex.  It was not an ideal environment to raise a daughter.  Eventually, he and his wife divorced.

3.  Billy's Parents were Millionaires.  I met Billy and the likes of him in Prep School, where his parents sent him starting in grade seven.  Billy really didn't have to try very hard in life.  His parents had money, and if he just hung around until they died, he would inherit enough money, even after dividing it with his three siblings, to get by.

So, even though he had his way paid through a prestigious prep school, and the opportunity to go to any college he could choose, Billy decided instead to drink beer and smoke pot and do as little as possible. And one reason for this was the mental health issues in the family.  His parents were a little odd, and his older brother was schizophrenic and suicidal - and eventually killed himself shortly after his 21st birthday.

This had a profound effect on Billy, who took to drinking and drugs with a new vigor.  His parents, alarmed and shattered by the suicide of their other son, left Billy largely alone, blaming themselves for "pushing" his brother to succeed.

So, Billy just hung out.  His parents gave him a small allowance and bought him a succession of inexpensive economy cars to drive.  He would do odd chores for them, such as mowing the lawn or painting the house.  He became their live-in handyman.  And Billy just waited - waited for his parents to die, so he could inherit.

Unfortunately for Billy, his parents were remarkably robust and long-lived.  He would be over 50 years old before he would inherit.  When the will was finally read, he was shocked to discover that his share of the estate would barely leave him enough money to live on, the rest of his life.  While his parents lived as millionaires, Billy would end up dying in poverty.

* * *

What do you see here as a pattern?  People with opportunity who fall down the economic ladder due to emotional illness, alcoholism, drug use, and teen pregnancy.  Granted, perhaps one can't control mental illness, but the other aspects are, to some extent, controllable.  Not smoking pot, not being a beer-soaked 20-something party boy, not getting a girl pregnant (or not getting pregnant yourself) are key to getting ahead.

And these three examples have one other thing in common:  The people refused to move away to find better opportunities, choosing instead to live in their home towns, near (or with) their parents, where they felt secure and comfortable.  They chose not to push the envelope, or push themselves.

Now, what about my story?  It is sort of a hybrid of all of these.  I came from a family of strivers - and a family with a history of mental health issues, suicide, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, schizophrenia.  And also I came from a family where money was not an issue - at least initially.  My siblings all had their way paid through prep school and college.  When it was my turn, the money started drying up - which, as it turns out, was the key.

Forced to work for a living - and to work my way through school - my attitude toward college was different.  I started to really appreciate how expensive and precious a college education was.  It was not just some continuation of high school where I could drift for four more years without direction.  It cost serious money - much of which I had to borrow.

And I fell into the drug and alcohol trap at an early age - but thankfully did not get any girls pregnant (that I am aware of).  My friends - many profiled in the composites above - liked to drown their sorrows in pot and alcohol, and they wanted companions to take down with them.  And, if I hadn't changed my course, I would still be living in my home town, drinking beer and smoking pot with them today.

But one day, I woke up, literally and figuratively, and thought to myself where this was all headed.  Did I want to end up like them?  Living on the margins and hoping to be able to borrow money to buy a Jet Ski?  Always broke, always looking for pot and beer?  Or did I want more out of life?

And I made a decision, right then, to give up drinking and drugs and put my life back on track.  It was a matter of mental attitude, nothing else.  What changed my life was not an inheritance or winning the lottery, but changing my attitude toward life - becoming proactive instead of passive - of grabbing opportunity instead of letting them pass by.

When I was with my drug friends, the idea of being a Lawyer someday was as alien as the man-from-Mars.  My self-esteem and mental attitude at the time was that Law School was "hard" (Remember "The Paper Chase"?  Law school is nothing like that) and that only "Smart People" could get in.   Of course, I was fairly smart - and a lot smarter than some of the idiots out there who are practicing law.

Suddenly, I was able to finish my Engineering degree. I moved out of a depressed area and moved to an area where there were jobs and opportunity.  Not only was I accepted into Law School, my employer offered to pay my way!  And these were not once-in-a-lifetime opportunities offered to a precious few, but rather fairly easily obtainable opportunities that anyone with a modicum of smarts could achieve.

Yet few even try.  It is all a matter of mental attitude.  Seriously.  I knew people at the Patent Office, when offered the chance to go to law school - paid for in part by the Office - took a pass, as it would cut into their evening television viewing time.   Priorities, I guess.  We all make choices and they still did well, but they can't complain about the choices they made, can they?  Yet so many others do, and don't perceive their situation to be a result of the choices they make.

Now, I am not saying Engineering or the Law is the right path for you (please stop being reactionary, I hate that!) but that in everyone's life there are opportunities, and what prevents people from going after them is often low-self-esteem. What people often chase after instead are bad ideas - consumer spending, borrowing, and the like, convinced that getting a loan is a "great opportunity" or a privilege, and that having a shiny new car in the driveway is the equivalent of success.

What I am saying is that mental attitude is the key to taking advantage of whatever opportunities are thrown your way.  And if you are too beaten up by life to grab hold of the controls, chances are, you won't make the effort.  It is a phenomenon called Learned Helplessness, and I have written about it before.  Breaking free of Learned Helplessness is very, very hard to do - and most people aren't even aware they are victims of it.

Now, in response to this posting, some Wacky Liberals will shout back, "Well the whole system is stacked against the workers, and people don't have opportunities like you had!  We need to redistribute the wealth to make everyone equal!" - and other sorts of whiny things like that.

Now, before you flame, please read. Wacky Liberals are different from Liberals - there is nothing wrong with being Liberal, but there is everything wrong with being a Wacky Liberal.  Liberals want to see a society with equal opportunity - which is a fine and noble goal.  Wacky Liberals want a society with equal outcomes which simply is not a sustainable model, as the former Soviet Union has proven.

Wacky Liberals are victims of Learned Helplessness and want to perpetuate it.  In their world view, nothing you can do in your own life makes any difference.  The first three examples above - of people born into poverty with limited opportunities who nevertheless became successful, are nothing but bizarre aberrations or people who "got lucky."  You have no choices in life, they argue, so don't bother trying.  Let the government help you out - and punish those that try, in order to pay for it all.

And that is why Wacky Liberals refer to the poor as The Less Fortunate, as if life were a casino, we all place our bets, and some win, and some lose.  And not surprisingly, a lot of Wacky Liberals are basically casino winners - people who inherited money or who earn obscene sums for doing little or nothing of value - and thus feel guilty they are so fortunate in life.  In their world-view, effort or attitude mean nothing - it is all a matter of winning or losing the lottery of life.

But as the above examples illustrate, you can throw money at people all day long, and in many cases, it has the opposite effect - if they don't have to strive, they won't strive.  Helping people out is one thing, telling them "game over, give up" is another.   Even giving a needy person a free car can be problematic and cause more grief than good.  Unearned wealth corrupts at all levels.

And that is why altruism can be very evil - you hand someone everything they ever wanted in life, and well, they stop living life.  Life is the struggle - that is what gives it meaning.  And that is why winning $300 million in the lottery can make you very unhappy.  Suddenly, everything you have struggled for is meaningless - overnight.

The struggle gives life meaning.  A life without struggle is meaningless - which is why people who live perpetually on public assistance are not happy-go-lucky, but miserable.  Life without purpose is misery.  A life without a job, a purpose, a contribution, is a recipe for disaster.  And oftentimes, the difference between success and failure in life is the choice - the choice - to struggle or not. To make the mental decision to try for more than you have.

And that makes all the difference in the world.