Monday, August 18, 2014

Starting and Finishing

I have been offline most of the last two weeks in Texas focused on the birth of my third grandchild.

Warren Buffett would say that little Tyler won the birth lottery. He was born in the United States of America (even better, in Texas). He has loving parents who are both college graduates. Two sets of supportive grandparents. He is white (although whites will be a minority among students in public schools in the United States this Fall).

He has some built-in advantages that many, many other children in this world do not have.

However, as I have written before here and here, success is ultimately more about attitude and application than aptitude and advantages. That is particularly true if you are one of the four out of hundred in the world that are born in the United States.

I am thankful for that advantage every day of my life. In particular, to my great-great grandfather who immigrated to this country in the mid-1800's.

I am also greatly in debt to my father who was the first in our family to go to college. Both his father and grandfather worked on the railroad. Both were killed on the job. My father, at age 5. was the oldest of three children when his father died. There were no social security survivor benefits and a pittance of life insurance. My father sold cottage cheese door to door when he was 6 years old to help support the family. He worked almost every day of his life from that point forward until he retired in his 60's.

He graduated from high school and was working in a washing machine factory at age 19. College was out of the question. There was simply no money. He used to joke that he was so poor growing up he did not know there was any more to a chicken dinner than the neck and wing until he was 20 years of age.

He made it through the Pacific Theatre in World War II and was able to attend college on the GI Bill and by working various odd jobs . He began a career as a corrugated box salesman and ultimately ran a company division with over 20 box plants across the country.

You can't ever say enough about that first person in a family who rises above their circumstances and allows you to stand on their shoulders.

I have a friend who did the same. He was the only one of fifteen cousins to graduate from college and reach a level not experienced by other family members. He broke out and broke the cycle. He not only helped himself but he also greatly increased the birth lottery odds for those that follow him.

This was further driven home to me over the last week or so as I read a biography of Dale Carnegie, Self-Help Messiah, by Steven Watts.

For those who are unfamiliar with Carnegie, he wrote one of the most widely-read and popular books of the 20th century, How To Win Friends and Influence People, in 1936.  He developed the Dale Carnegie course which is still teaching thousands of people each year all over the world how to improve their communication and human relations skills for success.

My maternal grandfather gave me a copy of the book when I was a teenager.

Carnegie grew up dirt poor in Missouri and only through the love and dedication of his parents (who relocated so that he could attend a free teacher's college in Missouri) was he able to escape the hardscrabble existence of his home. He was a traveling salesman and actor before he was able to settle into his first love--teaching people the art of public speaking and effective communication.

His lessons in self-help and his secrets to success had particular resonance with people in the Great Depression who had seen their self-worth eroded and their confidence shaken as well as the notion that hard work would produce success.  Carnegie offered a formula for getting ahead through better human relations skills.

What I found particularly interesting in the book was the stark difference in how people looked at their situations then as compared to today. The predominant feelings of most people who were out of work were of shame and guilt. They did not blame the government, Wall Street or the wealthy. They blamed themselves first and foremost.

Watts cites Studs Terkel who interviewed scores of Depression survivors including a psychiatrist who treated many patients who became unemployed who said this to Terkel.

In those days, everyone accepted his role, responsibility for his own fate. Everyone, more or less, blamed himself for his delinquency or lack of talent of bad luck. There was an acceptance that it was your own fault.

That is a long, long way from where we are today. It is particularly ironic considering the events that are occurring in Ferguson, Missouri in recent days, not too far from where Dale Carnegie grew up in poverty.

I understand the frustration of living in a nation of opportunity when one believes they have no opportunity. However, Dale Carnegie, my father and my friend could have felt the same thing. They did not let it stop them.

It is true that race adds an additional dimension but when we have an African-American in the White House and as head of the U.S. Justice Department (as well as on the Supreme Court) it does show that doors are not as closed as they may have been in the past and there are many more open minds than closed minds among us today.

Could it still be better? Absolutely. But we have come a long way in my lifetime. What is unfortunate is that there are too many who don't take any time to look inward for the solution to their problems.  It is always someone else who is keeping them down and out.

All of this reminded me of a study I cited last year on income mobility.  We often hear that it is no longer as easy to get ahead in America as it was for Dale Carnegie or my father.

However, this study showed that there is still quite a bit of income mobility taking place. For example, in Houston,Texas (where my grandson was just born), 42% of the children born to parents in the bottom quintile were in the top 3 quintiles (middle class or better) by the time they were age 30.

The average child in Houston who had parents in the 10th income percentile ended up in the 38th percentile. That is close to touching the lower reaches of what could be defined as the middle class.

On the other end of the scale, children with parents in the upper quintile do not automatically get a free pass to stay on top.  On average, only about 35% of children raised in households in the top quintile enjoy the same income lifestyle as their parents when they are on their own. This chart (published in a New York Times story on the study) shows the chances of someone raised in both the bottom fifth and top fifth ending up in the top fifth as an adult.

Source: New York Times

It is without question there is a real advantage to being born in the right place and to the right parents to increase the odds of one's success. It is always much easier to be able to climb on the shoulders of someone else starting out. However, merely sitting on someone's shoulders does not get you anywhere in the long run. At some point you have to walk on your own.

The point here is that we have no control over our birth.  Prince George was born last year and does not have any idea right now that he won the Super Bowl World Cup of birth lotteries.  DeShawn who was born in Grady Hospital in Atlanta on the same day is not so lucky.  Sumon in Bangladesh is unluckier still.

We also have little control over the behavior, bias and blather from other people.

What we can all do is take control of our place and position in life by doing all we can with what we have. That starts with looking inside ourselves first before looking outside.  Understanding that we have more control over our life than anyone else.  Understanding that life is often not fair but we are in the best position to change other people's minds by our attitudes, actions and willingness to take accountability when it is necessary.

I hope my grandson appreciates the shoulders upon which he has the benefit of climbing on. However, he also needs to understand his responsibilities and his role in maintaining the hard fought legacy entrusted to him by his forefathers to pay it forward.

It is what you do with your own walk in life that will ultimately define who you are, what you become and where you finish.

These are all lessons that I hope my new grandson understands well as he begin his life.

1 comment: