Hard Work Does Not Equal Success
“Success is always a matter of some luck and timing.” — Kathleen Kennedy
A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that 73% of Americans believe that, on a scale of 1 to 10, hard work is a “10” when it comes to success — or getting ahead in life.
Furthermore, when asked about whether success is determined by outside forces — like your financial upbringing— 57% of Americans say that financial independence is not determined by outside forces.
As optimistic as this belief might be, realistically, success is more complicated than your work ethic.
America, the land of opportunity (but not equal opportunity)
The American culture tries to desperately instill the idea that success is an equal opportunity available to everyone — that the rich and successful are all people who earned their wealth through hard work.
In which case, the impoverished, struggling, unsuccessful people would be responsible for not overcoming their terrible circumstances. Had they only worked a little harder, gotten better grades in school, and tried to make something of themselves, they would’ve been prosperous — right? (Wrong.)
There are a couple of issues with this attitude. Besides presenting the world as a black-and-white picture of all the “diligent” people and all the “lazy” people, it’s also just not statistically true.
Hard work does not always yield success.
Before we can dissect the reasoning behind this, we should probably define what hard work and success really mean, or what they look like in the real world. When I say success, I’m really talking about financial independence or prosperity. Others might define it by happiness, but it’s much harder to graph happiness than it is income.
Hard work is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as:
A great deal of effort or endurance
Unfortunately, this doesn’t offer up much clarity in any kind of real-world context.
Is the single mom who’s living just above the poverty line, but working three jobs just to make rent not a hard worker?
Are the parents who can’t pay their bills and only work part-time to care for a chronically ill child not hard workers?
Really, are any of these people any less hardworking than the boy who grew up in an affluent family, attended an Ivy League college and then landed a six-figure job?
There is something that separates three examples, but it’s not their work ethic — it’s opportunity.
Despite what self-help gurus or motivational speakers might tell you when panhandling their e-books, hard work is not the key to success. It’s certainly not the determining factor in whether or not someone is able to pay their bills or land their dream job.
Uncontrollable circumstances are the real keys to success
Americans may be optimistic that individual abilities control their success, but the reality of “making it” in life really all boils down to circumstances — how and where you grew up.
Just take a look at history — why is it that so many scientific and technological breakthroughs have been invented or discovered by white men? It’s not because they’re smarter — it’s because, in the past, a larger number of white men have had access to more education and resources than minority groups.
A 2009 study by the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University found that 40% of poor children (defined as kids who spent 8–14 years in poverty) would still be poor by the age of 25.
In 2017, the Urban Institute concluded that only 16% of children that had spent half of their life impoverished were out of poverty by their late 20’s — and those numbers were based on individuals who were consistently working or attending school.
Nobody’s saying that hard work doesn’t factor into success, but the truth is, your circumstances play a much larger role in your financial independence in adulthood.
Also, your intelligence doesn’t hold much weight, either — your genius-level IQ doesn’t matter if you have to drop out of high school to support your family. As I said, there’s a reason why so many of the world’s technological breakthroughs seem to have come from white men, and it has nothing to do with a superior IQ.
This brings me to my next point. Growing up poor or rich is only one set of uncontrollable circumstances, but race and gender play a role too.
The Institute for Women’s Policy found, in 2016, that a woman’s median annual earnings were only 80.5% of a man’s.
Following that same trend, the Economic Policy Institute uncovered that the median black household only 61% of the annual income that a white household did.
So, regardless of whether or not you grow up in poverty, your financial success will still be significantly impacted by your race or gender.
Hard work isn’t the main ingredient, but it’s still part of the recipe
Although it may not be the most important quality to lead you to success, hard work shouldn’t be discouraged. Just because you’ve grown up poor and/or are part of a minority doesn’t mean you should just throw in the towel.
There are plenty of success stories about people who came from nothing and gained everything. Of course, even then, you still can’t say hard work was the only reason they managed to prosper.
Oftentimes, the really successful people who “come from nothing” get rich for a couple of reasons — luck, timing, hard work, and other people.
How many successful models have been discovered at malls, football games or other random public events? These models are still hardworking, but luck and timing played a much larger role in their “big break” than work ethic.
The teenagers attending poor, inner-city high schools that land full-ride academic scholarships to Ivy League schools are incredibly hard-working and intelligent, but they’re still getting that opportunity because they were chosen by someone else.
Anyone who preaches that hard work is the sole key to success is fooling themselves — and the people listening. The uncontrollable circumstances surrounding a person’s life along with luck and timing play a much larger role in financial prosperity.