Strategies for Success

Robert Hayes, the other libertarian gadfly at Alas, has an excellent comment on Ampersand's response to The Pursuit of Happyness:

You’re quite right that it was a 1 in a million jump for Gardner, because he went from being very-lower middle class (and that mostly through his wife’s income, IIRC) to very wealthy in one jump. That’s a damn hard jump to make.

But (and this is the part we talked about in class), it’s about the only jump that many black people get to see being others of their race make when they’re growing up. Oprah makes it to billionaire status, Michael Jordan goes from wherever he started to superstar, etc. Those transitions are spectacular (and praiseworthy, when like Gardner’s, Jordan’s, Oprah’s they come from skill and brains and effort rather than luck), but they aren’t the transitions that create real social mobility. Mobility in the mass comes from people moving from lower-middle to upper-middle, or poor to lower-middle, or desperately dirt-poor to stable working poor, and so on.

There's more, and it's worth reading. But come back, because I like to think that what I have to say is worth reading, too.

This brings to mind a theme first brought to my attention by a post Patri made here back in 2005. As in poker, some strategies for success in life are riskier than others, and selection bias tends to make the high-risk strategies appear to work better than they actually do.

As inspiring as Howard Gardner's, Oprah Winfrey's, and Michael Jordan's stories are, I don't think that they're necessarily good role models. The high-risk strategies for success they adopted paid off for them, but the kind of success they've achieved requires extraordinary talent and more than a bit of luck. For every person who succeeds with these strategies, there are dozens, probably hundreds, who fail, often miserably. But we don't see these people. We just see the tiny minority who succeed, and that hides the shortcomings of these strategies.

Most people, particularly those who have very little in the way of a family safety net to rely on, would be much better served by a more conservative strategy. If you're fortunate enough to be born in the US today, it's not hard to make it into the middle class. If you can make it to the age of 25 without having children, getting arrested, or developing drug or alcohol problems, and having graduated from high school and community college or trade school, you're set. It doesn't matter who your parents are or how much money they have. It doesn't matter what color your skin is. If you can do these things, and then show up on time to work every day thereafter, you'll do all right. If you live below your means and save up some money, you might even become moderately wealthy someday.

This strategy probably won't make you spectacularly rich, but there's no surefire way to get spectacularly rich. I'm glad that there are people who take big risks and succeed, but it's not a strategy I'd recommend to a young person of average ability, and it's arguably not an optimal strategy even for the gifted. The disproportionate emphasis on superstars keeps kids in the ghetto from seeing the role models they really need to see---the ones who achieve moderate success through a conservative, low-risk strategy.

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