Is There Any Opportunity Left?

By Brad Thomason, CPA


The other morning while driving to work I heard a little snippet on NPR about an upcoming story.  The sound bite chosen from the person being interviewed was something along the lines of, “Urban youth start out at such a disadvantage that there is essentially no opportunity for them to ever improve their lot.”

Now, I admit that I am drawing a conclusion on scant information, and maybe the story goes in a different direction than what would seem to be apparent, or maybe provides some substantiation for the advertised viewpoint.  But I found myself sort of snarling a little bit at that statement, and with the benefit of some time to reflect, I think I know why.

Because it simply isn’t true.

America’s image is that of Land of Opportunity.  It’s more than a marketing slogan, and it’s more than just a self image.  Folks I talk to in other countries are astounded by things which we take as common place; and often have a greater appreciation for just what is possible here than we do: they have a better frame of reference for just how different it can be, because they see it every day in their own country.  People in this country can and do still routinely work hard and end their life in a much more elevated place than where they started.

The basic mechanism for this ability to move upward is pretty understandable.  At some point a young person is given a responsibility.  If they do well with it, they are handed a slightly larger responsibility.  And so it goes, at least until they get to the limit of what they can handle.  Does that mean that there are some natural checks in place that will serve to keep some people out of the highest levels?  Yep.  But the fact that they may not be able to get to the top certainly doesn’t mean they are destined to be stuck at the bottom.  With time and effort, anyone coming from “modest origins” can still make gains.

I have a friend who really exemplifies this.  Though I would not say he came from poverty, he certainly didn’t come from an excess of prosperity.  His dad died when he was young, and his mom worked a blue collar job in the Detroit area to support the family.  He started working at an early age, waiting tables and later as a bouncer at bars.  But he worked hard, demonstrated his capabilities to his superiors, and started moving up through the ranks.  He eventually became a restaurant manager.  Jump to the present, he’s the VP of international marketing for a company that franchises theme restaurants all over the globe.  Guy’s seen half the world (ever opened an ice cream store in Moscow or burger joint in Rio?  He has.), and is well positioned to ascend even higher in the industry over the next 15 to 20 years.

Again, this sort of thing works for a simple reason:  people who can perform are given ever greater responsibility.  Decision makers instinctively gravitate towrd those with a proven ability to accomplish.  Because what reason could they really have for turning anywhere else?  From the worker’s perspective, bigger responsibilities mean you can deliver more value to the market; which in turn entitles you to a bigger paycheck.

This dynamic is naturally-occurring and universal.  What makes it hum in the US though is that there is an actual supply of bigger opportunities, and no pre-determined class limitations on who gets offered a shot.  The significance of our what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture is that performance eventually trumps most everything else.  In America, it is still the case that people are more likely to focus on what you can do today than where you came from 10 years ago.

The thing that clouds the matter is that it takes time to work through those increasing levels of responsibility.  And to be fair, where you come from may indeed have an impact on how ready someone is to give you a responsibility in the first place.  Some people do in fact have a longer road to travel than others.

But that’s not the same thing as being barred from the road altogether.  Nor grounds for denying that the road is even there.

I am not in the business of advising inner-city kids on how to overcome their initial disadvantage.  But if I were, I do not think I would be leading with proclamations about how they have no chance.  I can’t see what benefit such a poisonous message serves, especially when it is demonstrably false.

Instead I think I would tell them that they need to accept the fact that they may have to work a little harder than some other people: perception matters and unfortunately they drew an unlucky opening hand.  I would tell them that this acceptance is important because they need to use it as a motivation to work harder than the next guy, to make sure that it becomes evident that they are someone who can be trusted to take care of the company’s business.  Moreover, acceptance is a protection against distraction, the distraction of dwelling on the initial disadvantage and letting yourself think that it constitutes an acceptable reason for never really amounting to much.  Victim mentality is not a means to much of anything worth having.

In other words, if you believe a group of young people are disadvantaged it seems better to focus on teaching them to respond to the rotten luck in a way that will cause the situation to eventually be better, than it is to tell them to abandon all hope and lie listlessly about until the powers-that-be swoop in some day to recreate the environment.  Because the other thing that goes hand-in-hand with America’s deserved reputation (still) as the Land of Opportunity, is the notion that individual learning and application of lessons-learned is ultimately the road to the top, not dwelling bitterly on your bad luck or waiting for someone else to come in and save the day so you don’t have to.

I can buy into the notion that it would be callous and insensitive to say to an inner city kid, “Get over it,” and leave it at that.  But I believe it’s even worse to give them the false impression that they are up against something that they are never going to be able to climb over.  Because even though the climb will require effort, and maybe even a number of years, that’s really not very much different than what anyone else who lives a life of consequence is up against either.  Brass rings do not get grabbed in most cases without substantial time and effort.  It may be fair (and even important) to acknowledge that some members of our society have to put in the standard effort and then some.  But don’t tell them that there’s no brass ring for them.  Because there certainly is.

Instead, isn’t it better to acknowledge that the road might be a tough one, then immediately switch focus to coming up with a solution, and getting to work to bring about the eventual win?  For that matter, isn’t that a pretty good game plan even if there’s not an initial disadvantage?

Success requires time and effort.  But the main point is that it’s still there to be had.  No matter where you start out.

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