America loves a Horatio Alger story. We are inspired most by stories of bootstrapping risk-takers, who start with nothing but risk everything at a chance to have the American dream. Just this morning, I read about Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb—a Web service where you can book rooms in private homes at a fraction of the cost of a hotel. As the hoodie-wearing 32-year-old related to the Wall Street Journal, he toiled away for years in obscurity in pursuit of his dream. Early on, his goal was just to become “Ramen profitable”—reflecting the breakeven point for the business if he and his co-founders just lived on Ramen noodles.
Stories like Chesky’s inspire us, because they give us hope that you don’t have to be rich to get rich. They reinforce a core American belief that hard work and ingenuity are foundational to success. Chesky, the son of a social-worker, reminds us that your starting point doesn’t determine your ending point. The hardships and challenges of every man and woman can be converted to grit and determination that will fuel you toward success.
A lot has been written about today’s culture of “entitlement.” There seems to be a gnawing sense that too many people are willing to get more than they give. This sense of entitlement transcends socio-economic status. Sports participation trophies are given to rich kids and poor kids.
The sad truth is there are many scammers out there—people, rich or poor, who feel no shame in getting something they didn’t earn or deserve. Unearned success is especially sad when it is handed to wealthy folks. I’ve known a number of next-generation scions who inherited huge businesses through no effort of their own. In almost every instance, these people would show up late to important meetings, skirt company rules, and not get their work done. Why? Because they could. I’ve also worked with people who worked hard for everything they got. The hardships they endured early in life, etched deeply marked goodness in their character. They are keenly aware of the importance of personal accountability, reliability, and a strong work ethic. They take nothing for granted, and they pay special attention to those who come from hardscrabble upbringings.
Do you want to be successful? Do you want others to respect you? Earn it. Here’s how:
- Carry your burdens with dignity. Ask: “What lessons have my hardships taught me, and how can I best put those lessons to work?”
- Earn something new. It is better to be in a constant state of arrival than to have arrived. Pick a new goal that will require new skills, and keep on bootstrapping.
- Remember your roots. Share your experiences and “war wounds” with others who are struggling. Always remember the little guy that you once were.
This blog post was originally posted on Switch and Shift.
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