The ideal pounded into our heads from a young age

Let’s talk about rich people thinking that they deserve things. In America, we’re trained to believe that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything, no dream is too grand, no mountain too high. And of course there are always examples to point to, the exceptions. “Look at this guy, born into poverty, first a janitor, then a door to door salesman, and now a CEO.” Well, unfortunately, this isn’t the path taken by everyone born into an unfavorable circumstance. But why? If all you have to do is turn on that motivational switch and pursue a dream, why don’t we see a more impressive number of people overcoming their circumstance and achieving economic success?

Well, we know that little girls and boys born into Catholicism are 98% likely to be Catholic when they turn 18. Was this a choice? Certainly not when we consider that children who are raised agnostic and given the opportunity to think for themselves are less than 1% likely to choose Catholicism by the time they turn 18. And I’d argue that similar numbers apply to qualities like motivation. If someone is born into an ignorant family that teaches bad habits, we can expect that around 98% will struggle or fail to discover motivation on their own. This is a sad human condition, and painful for most of us to admit. We’d prefer to think of ourselves as wolves rather than sheep, able to lead the pack and chart our own destiny regardless of terrain. But these numbers show quite the opposite- that most of us are actually imprisoned by the world we’re born into, and have little chance of freeing ourselves. Of course there are beautiful aberrations. The Einsteins, the free thinkers, the people who escape their circumstance and become who they are despite of their upbringing as opposed to because of it. But I would argue that even these role models, the small handful of those we consider perhaps most deserving of all, don’t warrant as much credit as we think they do. They were exceptionally lucky, typically genetically.

A common site during The Great Depression

Each person comes equipped with an extremely specific set of genetics paired with an equally specific set of life circumstances, blended together to create exactly who we are, how we think, and how we respond to outside influence. Every decision we make is a product of this human combination which we unfortunately have little control over. Did Einstein have control over his intelligence, or did his genetic makeup mandate it? How about his motivation to explore this intelligence? When we muse over this, we realize that perhaps intellect and motivation are as lucky as physical beauty. And perhaps those who are able to turn on that motivational switch, actually just had it in them, somewhere deep down, and what may have felt like a choice to act on something was more a natural inclination.

This is not to say that motivation and intelligence are impossible to cultivate and nurture over time for those who might not experience them more innately, but in an adverse environment, on an arduous path with obstacles like drugs and violence looming at every bend, what drives people to want to cultivate them? How would they even know where to start?

And there’s another problem. What about all those who do have motivation that goes unrewarded? The energy a CEO expends in his office each day is no greater, and often far less, than the energy expended by laborers at the bottom of the economic ladder, the ones who are motivated enough to work two jobs yet find themselves still struggling to provide enough food for their families over the course of a whopping 50 years. These people often work diligently, which means it’s not all about hard work, but the type of work our society rewards, the type of work that is more specialized. People who are born into an unfavorable circumstance, or who have unfavorable genetics, or both, may have motivation but lack the tools to channel that motivation in a way that’s truly effective. Perhaps they weren’t born with the voice of a songbird, the coordination to throw a ball though a hoop, or the intellectual curiosity to read hundreds of books, and perhaps they weren’t gifted the opportunity to develop these skills and desires as a child. So now they clean toilets, or wash cars or do back breaking labor. Was this a choice?

I guess my point is, even if you’ve worked hard for your wealth and believe you deserve it, along with all the silly, fancy things that seem to accompany it, it’s important to acknowledge the complex blend of opportunity, life-events and genetics that made you you. And it’s important to acknowledge that others were handed something entirely different.