“If you’re still poor at 35, you deserve it!” shouts the headline.
The quote supposedly comes from Jack Ma — from his Alibaba story and how he became one of China’s richest men.
It’s a great headline, and the article itself is pretty inspiring (though I can’t verify that Jack Ma really said those things).
But the article has always bugged me for one reason: it puts all the responsibility to become rich on you.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do our best to make our lives comfortable. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be ambitious. I’m a firm believer in taking action; and not hoping for freebies from the universe.
But I think saying “it’s your fault that you’re poor” is way too arrogant.
It completely ignores external factors to financial success. Today, we’ll talk about two of them: privilege and opportunity.
What is privilege?
If you’ve never had to think about privilege — you’re privileged.
Like if you’re a straight white male in America — then you have privilege. Or for that matter, if you’re a straight guy in any part of the world — you’re privileged too.
(If you don’t believe me, here’s a hint: when you’re walking down the street alone, you don’t have to worry 500 times that someone much stronger is suddenly going to intimidate or rough you up in a dark alley.)
Privilege is special benefits that only certain members of society enjoy. Like how men worry less about safety than women. Or how, certain groups in the society have better access to cheaper higher education compared to others.
Of course, we all have varying degrees of privilege. A common Chinese guy living in Malaysia (me) is more privileged than a common white guy living in America in 1943. Mostly because I have peace and security around me; while the American guy in 1943 had to go to fight World War II in Europe. I can actually think about what kind of career I want for my life, and drive Uber if I want to make more money. But the first thing on the honourable WWII soldier’s mind was just to survive.
Now I’m not here to debate about who deserves it, or b*tch about why life isn’t fair. What I’m here to say is that privilege exists, but whether you have it or not is totally random. If you’ve got it, congratulations — you won the genetic lottery.
If you were born at the right time; into the right class of society — it’s always going to be easier to make money.
What about opportunity?
Opportunity is privilege’s cousin; they’re closely related, though not the same. If you were born with privilege, you’re bound to have more opportunities to make money.
For example, there’s this famous article that says most entrepreneurs actually come from rich families; they already have money, so they can afford to take risks.
Here’s another example. Let’s say your dad is a rich businessman with lots of powerful friends. Do you think you’ll have more opportunities to become rich than the son of a construction worker? We’ve just witnessed it: By most accounts, Donald Trump is actually a terrible businessman. His companies have declared bankruptcy four times. But his father was rich; and now he’s going to become the next president of the USA.
Interestingly, Malcom Gladwell wrote a whole book about the topic of opportunity versus success: Outliers. Successful people are often idolised because they seem to have magically controlled their fate; and by the sheer power of their will: forced life to grant them success. What we don’t often hear about is unique advantages and opportunities they received along the way.
But listen closely to their stories, and you’ll notice something: many successful people (at least the honest ones) give credit to family, friends and mentors. For helping them reach where they are today.
Warren Buffett, third richest guy on the planet explains this candidly:
I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society I was born into. If I’d been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can’t run very fast. I’m not particularly strong. I’d probably end up as some wild animal’s dinner.
But I was lucky enough to be born in a time and place where society values my talent…
Is Warren Buffet extremely hardworking, wise and smart? Yes, but even he recognises that without the right opportunities, he’d likely be nothing.
What you can do to improve your chances
Up to this point, it might have sounded like I’m giving excuses for lazy people who are poor. I’m not.
What I’m trying to say is, sometimes we overemphasise our individual abilities. Sometimes we forget that making money has a lot of factors involved, beyond individual ability. I don’t want you to feel you’re a loser if you’re 35 years old and still struggling to pay your bills.
With that in mind, here are some suggestions on what you can do to improve your chances to make more money. There’s no guarantee that if you do these, you’ll become the chairman of a billion-dollar company — but they’ll definitely help.
1. Understand your privilege; have gratitude
So maybe your skin is the wrong colour, and your family isn’t rich. But as I mentioned earlier, all of us have some form of privilege. If you’re reading this, at the very least — you can see, you can read English, and you have access to the Internet. And you’re likely not in the middle of a warzone.
That’s still way better than a lot of people in this world. And it’s still a lot to be thankful for.
I know. I’m starting to sound like your high school teacher; nagging you that you should be thankful for the things you have.
But really, you should be thankful for the things you have. Gratitude is going to make your life happier and more successful. And it’s a mindset that will help you attract more money.
If you still don’t believe me (and all the research above) — think about all the rich, successful people you know. Are they always complaining about things, or are they thankful, happy people?
2. Expand your opportunities
While you likely can’t change your privilege, you can do a lot to get more opportunities in life.
And here’s where I agree with Jack Ma’s supposed article. If you’re ambitious and willing to work hard — this world can give you more opportunities than any other time in history.
For example, if you wanted to learn from the world’s best minds, you could access Ivy League university courses at Coursera for free. If you wanted mentors to help give you career advice, you can make contact with almost anyone on social media today. And if you wanted to start a business, you can use the Internet to reach customers from anywhere in the world.
There are other non-tech ways to expand your opportunities too. Like, you can choose to hang out with positive people, instead of negative-minded ones. Or you can volunteer for extra work that teaches you valuable skills.
And you can always vote for a government that you think has good plans for the economy.
– – –
Whatever your position in life is, it’s largely not your fault that you don’t have certain privileges and opportunities.
I hope you appreciate whatever you have though; and use them to make your life as good as possible. But more than that — I hope you’ll consider how you can help give opportunities to those who are less fortunate than you.
Maybe with your help, they’ll be able to step out of poverty.
And if you’re still poor — don’t give up. Maybe you’ve made some bad life decisions, but it’s not all your fault that you’re struggling. Maybe the government screwed you, some bad people conned you, or you just need more time. Maybe it’s really the system.
Things may look bleak, but by all objective accounts — we actually live in the best time in human history. Things can get better. And if you give it enough time; if you want it — you can have opportunities too.
Now you just need to keep trying.