There are two competing worldviews in financial success: that anyone can get ahead, and that no one can. So, can anyone become wealthy?
After being a financial coach for a decade or so, I’ve learned that there are two primary and competing narratives in financial wellness. They can be summarized by these two quotes:
“Anyone can get ahead, so success is up to you.”
“The system is rigged, so there’s nothing you can do.”
For ease, I can call these two competing world views “Team Hubris” and “Team Aggrieved”, but you could also call them “Team Optimism” and “Team Pessimism”, “Team Individual” and “Team System”, or even “Team Active” or “Team Passive”.
But which one is more accurate? And is there any truth to either of them?
Table of Contents
In general, financial gurus tend to be on Team Hubris.
You know that Dave Ramsey is in this camp, with his “everyone can be rich” mentality (with Jesus’s help, of course).
But it’s not just him. Look at the business bestsellers. David Bach’s “The Automatic Millionaire”. Suze Orman’s “The Courage To Be Rich”. Even Ramit Sethi’s “I Will Teach You To Be Rich” has a bit of the “this is so easy, even an immigrant kid like me can do it” flair, though his pointedness has softened a bit recently as his politics has evolved.
In theory, I don’t mind Team Hubris. I think we all need some help infusing our thoughts with positivity, in order to embody what is possible. I’m not getting too woo here, but I do think there is some truth to the gnomic “you are the total of the five people you spend the most time around”.
But the problem I have with so much of Team Hubris is that they take it too far. If “anyone can be wealthy”, then what does that mean if you’re not?
Victim. Whiner. Loser. It’s your fault.
Listen to this screed by Dave Ramsey on how the “Victim mentality has to stop” to get a sense of how toxic this viewpoint can go.
It’s not surprising that financial gurus are on Team Hubris. These people are selling a belief (as well as their products and courses). They have to claim fealty to the belief that anyone can make it. If not, their message would be less compelling, and they would sell fewer products. Their salary depends on being on Team Hubris.
No one on this team is going to say that anyone can be a millionaire.
Now, Team Aggrieved has a point. You need only to watch this video to understand how wealth is distributed unfairly. (And I do mean unfairly. To quote the video, does the CEO really work 380x as hard as the average worker in his company?)
The problem I have with Team Aggrieved is that it can lead to inaction. Yes, you are likely not part of the 1%, you likely don’t have it easy, and yes, these forces are intentional, based on entrenched power that seeks to hoard wealth. Yes, that is basically the definition of late-stage capitalism.
But that doesn’t mean that you should just give up. I don’t want anyone to throw their hands up and say that there is no hope. Because there is.
And besides, what is the alternative?
What team am I on?
As should be obvious by the above, I don’t subscribe to either team. I’m not going to say that everyone can be wealthy if they just try harder, and I’m not going to say that there’s no hope either.
Why not? Because everyone starts in a different place, faces different obstacles, and encounters different levels of fortune.
Here’s what I mean:
- Starting point. Are you a white male? Then you’re statistically more likely to achieve wealth in the U.S. Don’t live in the U.S.? Where you were born affects your likelihood of achieving wealth too.
- Obstacles. I hope you don’t have a major medical condition, but if you do, good luck finding an easy path to wealth. Get caught up in a financial scandal? Have an unplanned pregnancy in a state that doesn’t value women’s health care? Well, what do you think is going to happen?
- Fortune. Seventy years ago, a high school education and some vo-tech training could net you a stable job in a factory for life. But now, the people who make the livable wages are concentrated in very specific fields. And not everyone is cut out for those jobs. Also, don’t discount meeting the right person at the right time.
What I’m talking about in the list above is privilege. All of those situations above have everything to do with circumstance, and nothing at all to do with hard work.
And they can be invisible to those who have it. Witness all those people who said they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. They don’t know they’re lying, but they’re lying.
So, to answer the question, can anyone really get ahead, I’d say yes, they can. But it’s going to be a lot harder for some than for others. Sometimes massively harder. Sometimes, near impossible.
That is injustice. That I as a white male have a better chance of becoming wealthy than a woman of color in the exact same place, this should not be.
And that’s why I’m working to help everyone, not just wealthy white men, achieve financial success.
Because some people need all the help they can get.
What team do you subscribe to? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.