What Creates Success?

Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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52 Responses

  1. Liberty60 says:

    Have you documented that poor and middle class people DON’T teach their children the work ethic? What causes you to think this?

     An aristocracy that simply bequeaths money and social position to its children will eventually fall. In rebuttal, I present one Mr. George W. Bush. Or if you like, Mr. Theodore Kennedy.

    Both failed miserably at the vital life lesson of college,Ted had a spectacular and in-all-other-case career ending scandal,  and GWB failed at business, yet both were given endless second chances by their network of aristocratic relatives.

    The notion that investment bankers “work harder” than middle class and poor people is laughable on its face; 50 hours a week toiling away in a corner office is not nearly the same as 40 hours a week picking lettuce or stacking boxes.

    Were you to pluck a farmworker or Wal Mart clerk out of obscurity and give them a Harvard education, a executive track job, influential friends in high places, and the connections to secure a heads-I-win tails-you-lose bailout deal like Wall Street got, I am sure he would do just as well as they do.Report

    • wardsmith in reply to Liberty60 says:

      Liberty, I would agree with you, but I know a Mr. Gates personally and by reputation. It is a well known fact that the richest man in the world quite regularly worked 20 hour DAYS. There were developers there who would get 3:00 A.M. emails from Bill and would assume a bot had sent it. Then when they replied they would receive an immediate answer indicating a human named Bill was on the other end of the conversation. He would also be there for the 7:00 A.M. meetings the following (same) morning. Jobs likewise was famous for roaming the halls into the wee hours, haranguing his staff.

      As for the mythical CEO 50 hr week, I know several CEO’s who not only have the office hours, but the off-office hours as well. It might look like fun to be at sporting events with your biggest investors, but the slightest slip-up and your stock is in for a drubbing overnight. If you’re the CEO of a publicly traded company you are on call 24/7 and even if the phone isn’t ringing, you may well be spending sleepless nights worrying about the office.

      I’ve done both kinds of jobs, the 40 hr menial labor and the 80hr running the company gigs. I never once enjoyed the piece of mind of the menial jobs doing the other. I wasn’t up late because I was worried about the office, I was up late because I was out chasing tail and partying. Huge difference.Report

    • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Liberty60 says:

      There’s more to the equation than a good work ethic. But if you don’t have one, there’s a much better chance of being poor.

      The other part of the equation is personal discipline and not making bad choices.  The two worst choices are of course dropping out of high school and having babies in your teens.  Drugs and alcohol don’t help either.

      There are a lot of floors between the penthouse and the pavement, between a Kennedy scion and a farm worker.  For most of the rest of us, if you don’t have a good work ethic and make bad choice, your chances of poverty are much improved.  And even a Kennedy can make a mess of his/her life in the same way.  Eventually the great families regress to the mean.

      This was good, Tyler Cowan, “Turning the Dialogue from Wealth to Values.”

      In the future, complaints about income inequality are likely to grow and conservatives and libertarians won’t have all the answers. Nonetheless, higher income inequality will increase the appeal of traditional mores — of discipline and hard work — because they bolster one’s chances of advancing economically. That means more people and especially more parents will yearn for a tough, pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution. And so they should.

      It remains to be seen how many of us are up to its demands.

      “Work ethic” is a simplistic reduction of what is a constellation of values.  It’s not sufficient in itself, but neither is it irrelevant.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        TVD, that’s a sorta ironical post to link to. His premise is that conservatives and libertarians won’t have all the answers except for platitutudes about bootstraps. Isn’t he really admitting that there’s a vacuous political/philosophical view that those on the losing end have to adopt just to make sense of the ‘increasing income inequality’?Report

        • Well, Mr. Stillwater, I wasn’t fronting, there’s no point.  I linked precisely because it took a swipe at conservative/libertarian rhetoric on this.

          Plus I like Cowan, and I also like the argument that “values” are certainly involved.  There are undeservedly lucky people, and there are also liars and cheats.  But there will always be; the only thing we can look to is what’s under our control, and the individual’s.  And work ethic is not irrelevant.  But to argue that it’s the only factor makes for too easy a target for the concern trolls, where everybody’s a victim of society.Report

          • Stillwater in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

            But to argue that it’s the only factor makes for too easy a target for the concern trolls, where everybody’s a victim of society.

            See, this is one of the primary differences between libs and cons/libertarians. A liberal will consider someone a victim of society to the same degree (more/less) that they will attribute the success of an individual to society. Did you read BSK’s link to the NYT article downthread? The upshot is that cultural/social/governmental structures are inherently contributory to the success of any one individual. People don’t, so to speak, go it alone.

            So to the extent that someones success derives from social/cultural/governmental actions, that person’s success is not a result of their own efforts. And to a significant degree. So when libertarians claim that it is – that individuals are complete determiners of their own destinies – they’re patently wrong. And when conservatives claim that wealth imbalances are part of the natural order, it preserves the false view (demonstrably false!) that wealth imbalances – determined by merit or luck – are a consequence or evidence of virtue.Report

            • No, the argument is that your chances for poverty are greater if you lack the necessary virtue of self-discipline.

              GWB made something of himself.  Many with the same advantages have not.  BHO [or fill in the blank here with somebody else] made something of himself; many with the same disadvantages did not.

              And in between the pavement and the penthouse, many of those who started in the bottom quintile have carved out decent and dignified lives for themselves and their families in the next couple of quintiles up: they did this by their own virtue, not by “cultural/social/governmental structures.”

              And per the passing reference to teen pregnancy and fatherless children, it’s true that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children.  But “society” isn’t to blame. We have spent virtually trillions on trying to rectify that cosmic injustice, but there will never be enough trillions, because it isn’t about money.

              And on the other side, I think of “to the manor born,” and all those manor houses in England now being rented out as Bed & Breakfasts by what’s left of the English aristocracy.  It’s pathetic actually, and chockful o’schadenfreude for the rest of us.

              Heh heh.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Again, the War on Poverty during the years it was actually fully implemented and well funded, so basically, until 1968, it dropped the poverty rate between 30% and 50% depending on the measure of poverty you used. Unfortunately, forty years straight of center-right governance basically armed the war on poverty with muskets going up against the Russian Army.

                Also, I’d like to meet these people who did it all “on their own virtue.” Who took no tax breaks for their education, who got zero student loans/grants/work study, accepted no unemployment, and so on, and so forth. No man is an island. No man is self-made. We’re all where we are due to the actions of each other and whole lot of luck.Report

              • wardsmith in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

                The “War on Poverty” was won. The problem is the definition of poverty keeps moving. Now you’ll tell me that a family of four living in a four bedroom house with all the goodies (like cable TV, phone, cell phones, multiple indoor plumbing fixtures etc) doesn’t count. We’ve had this discussion on the OWS threads as I recall. In fact a recent rant against the OWS is they’ve been strictly organizing electronically. No iphone, ipad, droid, nook, notebook, too bad, you’re not getting to the next rally.

                Now of course you’ll redefine poor as having less than that guy up the road, rather than a full belly, a roof over your head and so on. Your ancestors would laugh at you.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to wardsmith says:

                Yes, yes, I know. Because electronics and clothing has gotten less expensive over the past forty years, we’re supposed to ignore the ever rising price of housing, health care, education, and transportation.

                Of course, going by the conservative argument, the worker’s striking in the 1890’s should’ve sit down and shut up because look, you got roofs and walls made out of solid wood or concrete. Look at your ancestors in thatched huts.Report

      • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

        Of course, it makes perfect sense to say people should be in the lowest income quintiles for life because of decisions they make when they’re brains aren’t fully formed yet.Report

    • James K in reply to Liberty60 says:

      In economics, the normal function we used to describe output are non-linear.  I think the same logic applies to an individual.  Everybody has so much “capital” (skills, connections, qualifications, whatever) and that combined with how hard you work gives you your pay, the more capital you have, the more your work returns to you.  Hard work is necessary, but generally not sufficient.Report

  2. Liberty60 says:

    And thousands of Microsoft employees likewise worked 80 hours weeks. Did that work ethic lead to riches for them? Or did they suffer some other flaw in their character that led to their not being rich?

    Come to think of it, what flaw in your character denied you a spot in the 1%?


    • Stillwater in reply to Liberty60 says:

      How do you know he’s not already there?Report

    • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Liberty60 says:

      Hey, they should’ve all been born to a well-off corporate lawyer and gone to one of the most exclusive private schools in their area and as a result, have the resources to kind of screw off throughout their 20’s.Report

    • wardsmith in reply to Liberty60 says:

      There is a group from Microsoft called the billionaire’s club. At one time I know it had dozens of members. I’ve lost track of the number of millionaires minted there, in the thousands. Therefore the developer working 80 hr weeks wasn’t doing too shabby for him/herself.

      I’m not sure where the line is for the 1%, and whether it is measured by income or net worth. As for myself, there came a time when my wife and I got together and had a very serious discussion on whether “enough” was enough. For us, we decided to step off the merry-go-round (mostly me, she’d already started looking for part time work, which confused people looking at her MBA, CFO credentials). I’ve stayed involved with smallish companies I’ve invested in but have resigned from all but two board of directors. It is absolutely different to be watching “the game” from the audience. In many ways (although I’m not pretending any equivalence) I know how someone like Michael Jordan feels from the sidelines. Not sure how winning would be accomplished, but certain that being involved /directly/ would make the difference. You can’t give someone else that drive to succeed you were born with.

      In many ways, my wife and I were happiest when we had the least. Like a lot of consumers, she absolutely loves pinching a penny. It is somewhat incongruous to be shopping in a thrift store with a high net worth, but it is what makes her happy so I don’t begrudge her that. Even then, shopping isn’t what it used to be because we already have virtually everything we need or want. Only this Christmas did I buy my first smartphone (and have posted an OP from it as wall as many comments). I could have bought them when they first came out, and was tempted, but didn’t want the headache. In my younger days I was an ardent beta tester and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the newest gear. I always envied Jerry Pournelle’s Chaos Manor. Once I had my own, the bloom quickly faded from that rose. While it was cool (for awhile) to have computers (and printers) all over the house dealing with it all got to be a huge headache.Report

      • Kim in reply to wardsmith says:


        Oh, you can’t give someone drive? Look at every NFL player from the ghetto? Look at Carnegie… Look at yourself… Look at my friend who grew up never sure if he’d get fed that day…

        They got something in common — grew up looking up.

        You may not be able to give someone drive… but there’s way too many ways to take it away from someone. Complacency kills, and kids who grow up rich tend to be complacent as anything.Report

  3. DensityDuck says:

    “But that guy totally didn’t work hard!” Neither do lottery winners. What about it? That some people get lucky doesn’t mean everyone who’s rich just got lucky.Report

    • Jesse Ewiak in reply to DensityDuck says:

      I don’t have a problem with lazy rich people. I have problem with conservatives who deify anybody with an income above x, as long as they didn’t make their money within the city limits of Los Angeles.Report

      • BSK in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        Or are athletes.  Particularly basketball players.Report

        • Jesse Ewiak in reply to BSK says:

          Well, they also belong to a union. So, it’s OK to hate on them. Just like it’s OK to hate on public officials who take large pensions, but it’s socialist to attack ‘job creators’ who take massive golden parachute payments after laying off a couple of thousand people.Report

          • BSK in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

            I read an interesting article in the NYT Magazine years ago that estimated that 90% of an individual’s “social capital” was attributed to factors outside of their control, when looked at in a global context.  I don’t know how scientific such a stat could ever be, but the article did a great job of debunking the notion that people are primarily or solely a creation of their own making.

            At one point in my life (high school, I believe), I summed up the difference between conservatives and liberals thusly: conservatives care too little about context and liberals care too little about personal responsibility.  This is far from the best distinction, but I return to it from time-to-time when I hear GOPers argue that poor folks just need to work harder and Dems argue that poor folks (particular people of color… oh the racism of patronizingly low expectations) are inherently victims.  And, yes, I realize the problem with conflating conservative with GOP and liberal with Dem but I presume we get the point here…Report

            • BSK in reply to BSK says:

              I believe this is the article, or at least an adaptation of it: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/20061217.htm

              Note that I misrepresented it a bit.  It is not stating that 90% of social capital is not related to the individual.  It states that social capital (which includes a country’s natural resources, technology and organization skills within the community, and the presence of good government) is responsible for 90% of what individuals earn in a wealthy society.

              Personally, I think there is more to it than that, since individuals interact with those and other elements of “social capital” within a given society very differently.  But given that the author is looking globally and internationally, it makes sense to factor in how context matters when comparing an American technology mogul with a Kenyan farmer.

              Also, it was written in 2006.Report

  4. BSK says:

    The fatal flaw to this type of thinking is the assumption that there exists any ONE trait that spells the difference between success and failure.

    I’m sure we all know people with amazing work ethics who just can’t get ahead in the world and people with horrible work ethics who live like fat cats.

    I’m sure we all know people with academic histories in elite private schools and Ivy League institutions with little to show for the time and money and people who made much of themselves with nary a high school diploma.

    I’m sure we all know people who came from money and end up broke and people who came from nothing and end up wealthy.

    It is a confluence of issues, not all of which fall under the umbrella of “nurture”.

    The uber-successful, generally speaking, find themselves on the positive side of most of these spectrums (lest we mistake them for binaries).  And, in the areas where they are on the negative side, they often have one thing or another that compensates for this (e.g., someone who grew up in a failing school district without private options but benefited from a parent or mentor somewhere along the line who helped them get more than what the school offered him/her).

    And, as alluded to earlier, there is the “nature” side of things.  Some people are faster, taller, smarter, etc. than others.  We are far from finished products with regards to these characteristics, but I do feel that we have individual limitations in all these areas.  No matter how hard I work, I’ll never be 6’8″, 250 pounds, and able to move like LeBron James.  That is just not in the cards for me.  Does that mean there was never a chance for me to become an NBA player?  Surely not.  But the window was small and has likely passed (though I do hold out hope that it hasn’t!).Report

  5. BlaiseP says:

    After four terrible days in Basic Training, the drill instructors informed us we could ask for a private audience with them.   After formation, I asked for an audience.  They told me to meet them after lights out and to take the first fire watch.

    “I can’t bolo out of Basic.  I won’t.   But I’m doing literally everything wrong, so maybe if I had some insight into how I could, maybe, get some military point of view. I’d be on the right track.   My family’s been soldiering for this country before it was once, I have to do this.   I’ll die trying but I simply don’t know how to think about it.   Are there some things I can do to be a better soldier?   What can I do about this?”

    Sgt Nance said  “Most of being a good soldier is looking like a good soldier.   Here’s what you do.   Everyone else will take their first paycheck and blow it on booze and whores and stereo gear.   You go down to the PX and get yourself a complete new set of uniforms and another pair of boots.   That way you can always have a set in the cleaners, one in your wall locker and another in your footlocker.   You’ll have one set of drying boots, another shined and another on your feet.   You will stay strack while those bozos look like they got dragged through a knothole.”

    Took their advice, stayed strack and things got better for me.

    Want to be taken seriously?   Look like you take yourself seriously.    And find a mentor, someone you admire, someone to learn from.   Good manners distinguish anyone. Emulation is more than the sincerest form of flattery, it’s following the long-established map of best practices.   As you think, so you are.

    Megan McA has it back-asswards:  the skills and earning potential of a new generation of young aristos require substantial investments in first-rate colleges.   Look at the competition for the best nursery schools in places like NY City:  those investments begin early.  Success may be mostly luck, but luck only favors the prepared.

    I don’t like the phrase “work ethic”.   My ethos is not defined by my work.   Successful people do what they want to do:  nobody does something 80 hours a week and thinks of it as a job.   Such a person is chasing something: power, money, success.   “Work ethic” is one of those phrases used by DFH bashers who derive some hair shirt sense of virtue from doing jobs they hate.Report

    • BSK in reply to BlaiseP says:

      The problem is that the standards for “looking” the part are constantly shifted and, ultimately, arbitrary.

      I work in a town called Tuxedo.  It is wear the dinner jacket derives from.  The story goes that the Manhattan bluebloods who used the area as their private game reserved wanted a way to set themselves apart from other, less blueboods.  So they came up with a new outfit which has become the status quo in America for uber elitism.  And all because a bunch of men (all men, mind you) decided that they didn’t like other folks they considered to be lesser to look the same as them.

      Sociologists have documented a similar effect in other areas.  Social norms are set by the elite, trickle down to the masses, and subsequently changed when the elites realize that they look no different than the commoners.Report

  6. Mike Dwyer says:

    I should probably clarify that ‘work ethic’ is a broad term. There are many skills that come with being successful. I would also add that it’s just as important that upper tiers transmit skills for success as the unfortunate fact that many in lower tiers don’t.


  7. Scott says:


    Does this mean that values really do matter despite what liberals have been saying for years? Parish the thought. Heck this even sounds a bit like what Newt got in trouble for saying about poor kids.Report

  8. Roger says:

    Nice piece, Mike

    Different people want different things. If someone wants to be part of the club of the mega rich, then that is fine with me as long as they don’t harm others in the process. They will probably need to use every advantage at their disposal: hard work, contacts, education, status displays, coalition politics and so forth. And probably a bit of luck too.

    Others of us want to live a good life and have a happy family and perhaps accomplish something personally or artistically.  But whatever they choose, it takes dedication, skill and some degree of luck. Again, this is fine with me as long as they don’t harm others in their pursuit.

    The points I am trying to make are that there are lots of ways to define success. Each requires  different innate skills and external conditions.

    I am not sure why there is so much envy of those pursuing wealth. I wish them well. What I am pissed off at is why some people are naturally gifted at surfing. Some people are born with natural skill, live near the beach and have parents that take them regularly to Trestles or Black’s. It isn’t fair! Maybe I should start an Occupy Pipeline Movement.

    Nah. I think I’ll just paddle out and catch a few waves and maybe a sunset.Report