“I made it. Why can’t you?”


“They say they got where they are by working 60 hours a week for years,” my friend said (I’m paraphrasing). “They made it and they don’t see why they should pay anything to help other people who did not.”

It is a message my friend hears from doctors he knows. (This was one of those intense bar conversations, rapid-fire and wide-ranging. The kind you wish you had recorded to review again later.)

But the “I made it. Why can’t you?” view of capitalism is history written by the victors, isn’t it? An oversimplified success formula derived from too few data points, from too small a sample. We see the same kind of myopic analysis in the nation’s capital. From wealthy politicians surrounded by wealthy donors and wealthy lobbyists. Georgetown cocktail parties, high-dollar fundraiser dinners. When you and the people you hang with are all successful and rich, it is easy to question why everyone else is not. The problem must be them. That’s it, the poor are just lazy.

It’s not that most success doesn’t involve hard work and persistence. But as someone recently wrote, “Politicians can’t get past the idea that the only possible way to fail in America is if you sit back and do nothing.”

Yet the vast number of new startups fail each year. Estimates are all over the board (depending on what you count), but 3 out of 4 failing is not an outlier for new startups backed by venture capital. Half of small businesses fail in the first 5 years according to figures presented by Barry Ritholtz. Those odds don’t compute in an alternate universe where hard work by “risks-takers” guarantees success.

In this universe, watching a child keep trying and keep failing is one of the toughest challenges for a teacher. Obviously, the success formula is infallible. The problem must be the teacher.

In a world out of balance where the spread between rich and poor is at Gilded Age levels, it’s “I’m all right, Jack!” The Golden Rule and the Golden Mean are largely forgotten, as is the old proverb, “There but for the grace of god go I.” This makes “I made it. Why can’t you?” a kind of whistling past the graveyard view of our economy. It blithely ignores the casino aspects of capitalism that failed businesses and the families who owned them experience every year.

Our success formulas involve a certain degree of magical thinking. Victors are eager to share the simple, guaranteed formulas that worked for them and that anyone can copy. Some sell theirs late at night on cable TV. The uncle who hit it big at the slots in Vegas will tell his grandchildren the story of how he became the big winner years later. How he selected his machine. How he guarded it scrupulously. The wrist action he used to shove in dollars. The order he pressed the buttons. The lucky sweater. Most importantly, how persistence pays. The other uncle, the one who went bust and had to sell his watch to get home, will not be telling his grandchildren a similar story.

At a prayer meeting I once attended, a woman questioning her faith was upset that God had not answered her prayers. Another believer offered some handy, “battle tested and battle proven” advice.

“Did you plead the blood? You have to plead the blood.” (Or else the magic won’t work, she didn’t add.) Maybe she had unconfessed sin in her life, someone else offered. See, the distressed woman’s mistake wasn’t in treating the Bible as a book of spells, no. The problem was she wasn’t doing the incantations right. Because crank in a simple formula and the Creator of the Universe must jump out of his box on command, just like Jack.

Our thinking about our own wealth — and others’ lack of it — seems no less magical.

Categories : Economy, Sunday Sermon


  1. Susan says:

    I got post graduate degrees and a profession by working 60 to 80 hours a week. I gave up a lot of social life to do this, which is not easy when you are in your 20s.

    However, I also had several things going for me:

    a local university
    a healthy body
    a good intellect


  2. TJ says:

    Well, Susan, I would agree with your formula. Although, it was not a local university, I did manage to get through…so, I have the same fate as most, an outstanding student loan, on long-term forebearance, it seems…slowly creeping down.

    My healthy body did not guard my mind, however, and, PTSD slammed it’s way into my life and turned upside down all the things I thought was right in the world.

    Intellect served me well in school, but, often annoys those who’ve settled into a long-term complacency, in all sorts of areas in their lives. That’s okay, I still am thankful for my intellect, even when others wish I wouldn’t use it so much.

    My skin color? I guess that’s up for grabs. White people see me as white. Hispanic, Native Americans, and, occasionally others, see me as they project. It depends upon my mood, what I claim, although, I’m comfortable claiming the Hispanic-Jewish heritage I used to be ashamed of when I grew up in my adoptive WASP family.

    Either way, I have been very successful. However, at this time, I have found myself in one of those, “there, but for the grace of god, go I” moments.

    However, even in the midst of it, or, perhaps, BECAUSE of being in the midst of it…I have found myself more richly blessed than any amount of dollars could ever bring. As I struggle against my self(and, societally)-imposed criticism, I am learning to rest in the warmth of the acceptance and trust and faith others offer me-even when I doubt my self-value because my “outcome” does not match my image of “success.”

    As I move more toward that “acceptable” image, I hope I never get the foolish idea that “making it” somehow is the “goal.” The larger goal is how I, as a human being, interact with others along the way, and, how I share that with others when I am “there..,”whatever that means.

    I guess you can tell I will never make a “good” 1%’r, even if I were to be one.

  3. Tom Sullivan says:

    From Morning Edition on Monday. On Broadway, “Good People” looks at “choices, and those who may not have them.”

    “The doctor character feels totally entitled to his life and feels like it was never going to go any other way because he worked hard and pulled himself up by the bootstraps. And if you don’t do that, that’s why you get stuck where you are,” Lindsay-Abaire says.

    His old friend had a different experience.