There was an interesting article at CNN Money this morning that talked about the income disparity between households in the top 20% and households in the bottom 20% between two 10-year time periods (1976 to 1986 and 1996 to 2006). Basically, the household income of the top 20% has grown pretty steadily while the household income of the bottom 20% has barely moved. The article also mentioned that there is less mobility between income levels. In other words the rich tend to stay rich, and the poor tend to stay poor. This kind of article always interests me because I grew up in a pretty poor family. I don’t think we were in the bottom 20%, but I’d put us as “working class”. Things were always really tight, especially with raising four children on my dad’s modest income.
With this being an election year (don’t worry, I’m not going to delve into anything political here), you hear a lot about the income gap. The term “class warfare” gets thrown in every now and then as if there is some kind of ongoing battle between the rich and poor. Personally, I don’t get into all that. For the most part, I like to believe that people can work hard and make a better life for themselves.
However, I do understand that there are a lot of things beyond our control that really can have a profound impact on our situation. One of the best books I’ve read in a while has been Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book, he writes about what makes successful people successful. A large portion of success is driven by a person’s work ethic and innate abilities. But another large portion of success is determined by random chance.
My Success Factors
There are a number of things over the years that I believe have greatly contributed to my rise from working to middle class (and hopefully beyond):
Household Dynamics: I was raised in a “traditional” home with a married mother and father. They had (and still have) a healthy marriage, and there was always that degree of stability in the home. We had very limited money, and I learned to manage my money carefully once I got a job.
Emphasis on Reading: My parents took us to the library every week, so we learned from a very early age that reading was an important part of life. Reading encourages thought and develops language and literary skills that are essential in life.
Innate Intelligence: I never had to work too hard in school to get good grades. I could listen to the teacher and do my homework, and the material would just “click” for me. This was particularly useful in high school and college because it allowed me to work a part-time job in the evenings without interfering with doing my schoolwork. Important note: I still had to do my schoolwork, but I was able to spend less time on it and get better grades than a lot of my classmates.
Work Ethic: I was always a hard worker in just about anything. Whether it was my schoolwork (I still had to do it, even though I mentioned before that it came easy), household chores, yard work, or my part-time jobs, I always made sure that I did my best. I’ve always been internally motivated to do well. I’m pretty competitive like that. This has helped me in many ways. My college accounting professor thought very highly of my work and provided a great reference that got me an interview that led to my current job. Important note: My professor’s reference got me the interview, but I had to perform well at the interview to land the job.
College Affordability: I live in a state (Indiana) that offered a lot of state grants based on a combination of need and academic achievement. Since I graduated near the top of my class with an Indiana Academic Honors Diploma and came from a pretty poor family with four children, I was able to attend a private four-year college and graduate with minimal student loan debt. Important Note: I still had to do the work in college, but I was able to afford to go due to all the state financial aid.
The Bottom Line
To a large extent, I am a firm believer that hard work is the most important thing to a successful life. I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am today without having the work ethic to make it happen. But I also know that I’ve been pretty lucky as well. My hard work paired with a few “lucky” breaks is the key to the progress that I’ve made. The key is to take advantage of those chance events when they happen, but realize that oftentimes it’s your hard work that helps lead to those lucky breaks.