Hard Work Pays…Still

By Brad Thomason, CPA


Yesterday a report was released by a group of economists lead by Harvard professor Raj Chetty which concluded that it is no more difficult today for someone to climb the economic ladder in American than it was 50 years ago.

Back in November, you may recall, I wrote a piece in this forum titled “Is There Any Opportunity Left?”  I was responding to an assertion by some talking head that kids who came from disadvantaged backgrounds no longer had any hope of ever moving beyond their starting condition.  I argued that was hogwash.  The economists who did the study and wrote the report seem to back me up on that conclusion.

Now, in fairness, just because it is possible doesn’t mean it’s easy.  The number of people who pull it off is still relatively small.  But the percentages have reportedly remained static for decades, implying that it is no more of an uphill climb than it ever was.  Abandoning hope, as our talking head suggested, would seem to be a bit premature after all.

Despite my obligation as an Auburn grad to hate the Crimson Tide in all things athletic, it is not lost on me that legendary University of Alabama coach Bear Bryant was a winner, and a pretty smart guy to boot.  He used to say that everyone like the idea of being a winner, but relatively few were willing to put in the work necessary to be one.  Amen.  Couldn’t have said it any better myself.  So it should not come as a surprise that substantial economic mobility is infrequent.  It requires work, maybe really hard work over a sustained period of time.  And such efforts are simply not the norm, nor I suspect have they ever been.

However, doing so is not impossible:  the world has not changed enough to make upward mobility a thing of the past.  If you are in need of a glimmer of hope, there it is.  Just understand, it won’t come easy.

You may have noticed that there are certain recurring themes that seem to come up again and again in business, situations which have some sort of internal structure that is similar to past circumstances even if they are outwardly different.  Over the years I’ve taken to giving names to some of them.  Perhaps in another blog I’ll tell you about the Rosebowl Paradox, or the Hyena Principle.  But the proposition of working hard and moving up in the ranks is what we would refer to in my office as a Dirt Pile Problem.

Consider a pile of dirt, with a couple of shovels leaning up against it.  Your job is to move the pile from point A to point B.  Do you really have to spend very much time thinking about what to do or how to do it?  Now, I’m not saying that there won’t be time and effort involved: in fact that’s why the analogy of dirt is a good one.  It won’t be fast nor physically easy.  But neither is it going to be very complicated to figure out.  You don’t have to think about it; you just have to do it.

Upward mobility is a dirt pile.  Be responsible.  Show other people that you can be relied upon to achieve the necessary result.  Understand that you will not be trusted with big tasks until you have proven yourself on small ones.  And otherwise let time solve the rest.  That’s all you have to do.

Will it be quick or easy?  Likely not.  But it isn’t very hard to figure out either.  So things could be worse, right?  And mechanically this works for an inner-city kid looking to get offered a full-time salaried position, as well as an upper-level manager looking to break into the executive ranks.  Be patient, work the shovel, and let the rest take care of itself.

It is attractive to assume that those who achieve a lot more than others are clued in to some hidden truth that eludes the rest of us.  And maybe there are such hidden truths out there.  I wouldn’t know.  But I do know that moving up in the world doesn’t require you to know any of them.  The way you advance your position today is the same way which has always worked: be the kind of person other people will go looking for if they need something done, and then hang on for the ride.  Hard work still pays.  Hoorah.

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