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The American Fantasy

Central to the myth of the American Dream is this idea: Hard work will bring you success. Hard work could build railroads, land men on the moon and bring them back, discover the cure for everything from polio to cancer, and turn brilliant but underfunded entrepreneurs into instant millionaires.

But what about people who aren’t successful? They’re told it’s their fault—they aren’t working hard enough in school, or they’re not productive enough at their job to get a raise or promotion, or they’re not working long enough or hard enough to support their families. Those all may be true. But  if these people are born into poverty or dysfunction (or both), and they don’t pull themselves up by their boot straps, they’re told that’s their fault too, because they didn’t try hard enough, strive enough, or sacrifice hard enough.

How bogus.

I’m not sure hard work was ever enough all by itself. It’s necessary, certainly, but it isn’t the whole formula for success.  You need the right expertise, with or without a college education. You need luck, too, to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of an opportunity that you leverage or create.  And you need the right set of social skills and relationships – so you can sell your ideas to people who can and will help you.

In any case, no matter how charming, educated and capable you are, you’re still facing battles way beyond your control: the economy, hiring trends, the shorter shelf life of skill sets, and, if you’re a female and/or a person of color and/or over 50, you’re also facing the likelihood of discrimination. No amount of hard work will ever level that playing field.

I believe that something else altogether is the biggest driver of success: connections to the right people, mutual support driven by trust and respect, types of information exchanged, and shared vision and values.

So whenever people hold up Horatio Alger’s fiction as some sort of model for character, remind them that in Alger’s stories there’s always a kindly, wealthy, worldly character acting as mentor and patron. It wasn’t just that Ragged Dick and his ilk worked really, really hard. They had plenty of help.

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