The hard-work lottery and the myth of success

There’s a myth in the US, fanned by agents of the super wealthy, that if you just work hard, keep your nose to the grindstone, you’ll be rewarded with riches. It’s an easy sell all the way around. Regular people want to believe it, and it fluffs the tender feelings of those who are rich. Work hard and you’ll succeed, everyone wins! Good luck, you’ll need it. There are more powerball lottery winners in the US than people who started in the middle class and became billionaires. But even for more moderate winners it’s just not true. I know this for a fact, I’m one of the moderate winners.

Ten years ago I retired at age 39, a helluva boom in the stock market, no kids or big financial commitments, and stellar performance by my 401-K had made it barely possible. Like millions of other Americans I moved to Florida with my wife and planned to spend the rest of my life in sandals and a robe. But there were two miscalculations: 1) I got bored, fast (Which is how I started writing btw). I didn’t have enough to live well, just enough to scrape by and that’s no fun. 2) Health insurance, I didn’t have any and could not afford a decent private policy to last until Medicare age. Between the two it was necessary to get a job, any job, the easier the better. All I had to do was make minimum wage and get employer sponsored group health insurance rates.

I got a job at a local call center. How bad could it be? Worst case scenario I stayed there long enough to get on the insurance plan, get myself fired, and at least Cobra would keep me covered for six months at a somewhat reasonable cost. The center I worked at was a third-party contractor, they did everything from answering phones for doctors and lawyers to outbound telemarketing. The team I was assigned to handled inbound calls for an electric utility, specifically billing and new service. The pay was terrible, the lowest since my part-time jobs in college. I used to look at my paychecks and laugh.

This was before BushCo crashed the economy, so just by virtue of showing up on time wearing a shirt and not calling in sick every other week I stood out. After I got the job wired, which took all of two weeks, it turned out those years of working on the phone managing customers’ investments and running trades made me particularly good at the gig. Besides the competition wasn’t exactly tough, most of the other agents were kids or retirees who didn’t give a shit and didn’t stick around. But one of the 20 something year-old kids sitting nearby was halfway intelligent, he was an engineering major at a local university. We’ll call him Matt.

One day the energy client our team worked for happened to be visiting, (Why are so many third-party call centers in Florida? Could one reason be client-executives now have a justification for visiting the Sunshine State and the links nearby in the middle of winter on the company dime?) one of them struck up a  conversation with me, and it turned out we both used to work in the investment field. Tada! They liked me. That’s all it took for my hobby job to take off. Within a month I was promoted to junior supervisor, a few months later full supe. Then senior supe, then assistant floor manager, etc. The pay was still terrible, at the apogee of this ad hoc career it worked out to about $15/hour.

Stop and think for a moment of an entire economy built on this corporate ecology. Temp agencies, fast food restaurants, or call centers, where the large majority of workers get few if any benefits, work for entry-level wages and are going nowhere. In my center 90% of the employees were phone agents making $9.00 an hour and barely half of them were full time and/or had graduated from temp status. Out of 500 people there were maybe 20 who made more than 36 grand a year and three who made more than 50k (Sales manager, center director, and IT manager). That broad of a pyramid will never support a middle class or sustain a first-rate nation. And yet if anything the usual suspects and toadies are drooling at the thought of cutting worker pay and benefits even more, anyway they can.

I was soon in the position of needing supes below me and I didn’t want to risk promoting someone who would screw up. The pickings were slim. Matt was the only guy I really knew in the place, he had a good head on his shoulders, so as my career blossomed so did his. Matt wasn’t getting promoted because he worked hard, he was promoted because he was competent and had once sat next to me. There may have been other people who would have done better, FSM knows I tried to find them, but I had no way to know anyone else the way I knew Matt. I never got to listen to them all day in unscripted moments. What it boils down to is Matt’s career took off because my career took off and I liked him.

Within two years of getting the original shitty job a competitor recruited me. The main reason for leaving was that new employer was two miles from my house as opposed to thirty. Matt lasted a few months after that at the old place, but during a minor shake up when a big account walked he was selected as the fall guy. The new lucky ducky who replaced him happened to be the room-mate lover of one of the other assistant managers. I assume she was chosen because the promoting manager liked her.

This is how it really works in corporate America. There’s a minimum standard upwardly mobile workers have to meet, they have to show up on time and perform competently … beyond that it boils down to luck, especially in unskilled labor, in the beginning, where anyone who can fog a mirror and bothers to show up on time is as qualified as the next person. Who they sat next to, who they know, who liked them. Look at any career of any senior executive today and odds are, beginning early on, a friend or mentor or family buddy got promoted or was in a position to help them, and they came along for the ride. For people who move from the frontline to the most lofty positions, odds are this happens more than once, i.e., they are unusually lucky.

Here’s one more poorly kept secret in corporate America, in my experience the higher up you get and the more you make the easier your job gets (Assuming you’re up to the task anyway).  As a utility agent in a cube I had to show up on time, no excuses, five mins late was an official demerit or whatever dumbass term used. Three absences in six months was a counseling session where a supe with a ninth grade education would show sympathy for whatever was causing the problem — while secretly trying to uncover and document any perceived character flaws in preparation for firing you should anymore work be missed. The pay was horrible, poverty level, and a minor sore throat or routine ear infection would turn every phone shift into a painful reminder of how little power you had over your own life. Breaks, days off, everything was scripted and measured and metricized right down to bathroom visits. God forbid you would dare go on the Internet!

As a supe this all eased off. As an assistant manager it disappeared. Those halcyon days started with a morning meeting where We the Elite would all shoot the shit drinking coffee and eating donuts, then we’d review past numbers, finish up talking about the issues ahead, and adjourn. That would kill two hours. Then I’d wander off to my little office where I’d fill out reports and do other easy work, between surfing the Internet and IMing coworkers with pictures of kittens wearing hats, the main idea being to kill time until lunch. Every now and then I might have to put in a 12 hour day or fire someone, but that was more than offset by double the pay, company paid lunches and other perks, three-day weekends every few weeks, coming in late or leaving early all the time, weeks of vacation every year, and going to bathroom whenever I fucking felt like it.

I did simple things my bosses thought were Rainman brilliant, like a deal where the top producing agent in some category would get to leave an hour early on Friday and I would sit in their cube and do their job. This had the advantage of killing time, for me, keeping me current on what my agents faced, and showed them I could walk their walk. The latter is something way too many mid level and senior managers shy away from and trust me, the subordinates know it. But it wasn’t brilliant, it was just basic management 101: establishing goals and finding ways to motivate your employees to reach them.

On top of all that the job was way, way more fun and paid more, which makes for an easier job. I got to come up with strategies, comp plans, big picture ideas, implement them and watch the results. The poor slob back on the phones was getting yelled at by a hillbilly sitting in the dark after spending all their power bill money on crack, or enjoying the privilege of informing a single mother with a cancer stricken kid that her credit was too shitty for our client to accept her as an energy consumer, or yelled at by a supe for not following approved workflow procedures with the crackhead hillbilly and cancer mom. 

Hard work does not equate to promotion and success, it just doesn’t; everyone is working hard in this economy anyway or they’re not working at all. The number of people who work hard and get nowhere is legion. It’s not brains alone that make it, the number of stupid people in high positions I’ve met in my half century on earth boggles the mind, and the chiefs that gave us Enron were definitely some smart guys. Once an employee crosses the threshold of showing up on time, basic education and proficiency with office tools like computers or spreadsheets or whatever the company uses, it’s just luck, pure unadulterated luck, that makes the difference between becoming a boss or remaining a peon. It’s what  country and industry you happen to be in, what company in that industry you happen to work for, how healthy you are, the state of the economy, or who you sit next to.

And that’s something the lucky winners in this national lottery, who happen to have more influence over everything despite their much smaller numbers, would very much like to pretend isn’t true.


  1. coragyps says

    Amen, brother! That describes my fourteen years at Halliburton with far better accuracy than my words ever could. And my present employer, now that we’re up to 100 employees and over $100 million in sales, is beginning to head that way, too.

    I can’t cite the source, but some smart fellow once observed, “Whenever a man tells me that he owes his wealth to hard work, I always wonder ‘whose hard work'”?

  2. Didaktylos says

    A line from a John Stewart song you would probably agree with: “I never had a boss who wouldn’t steal the bass drum from his own brass band”.

  3. says

    There’s also a vicious age compenent at work these days. I’ve seen it, I’m sure we all have. Middle aged workers seeking a living wage are at a disadvantage and those a bit older are SoL. Everyone loves wiz kids … there’s not so many wiz 40 year-olds and wiz 50 or 60 yos are unheard of, despite the fact that it is precisely those highly experienced men and women who have had the time and put in the effort to become so great at what they do that they really are wizzes.

  4. unbound says

    As someone that has steadily worked their way up the corporate ladder (currently director level), I have to agree with this almost 100%. Success comes from competence and having connections, not hard work.

    One of my resources is a very hard worker, but she isn’t particularly smart. She has a terrible commute that she consistently makes every day. She maintains a great attitude and helps out a lot with miscellaneous activities that help out morale with the team. Unfortunately, she hasn’t made any good connections, and she’s made a number of mistakes on the job due to not thinking things through. As a result, she will never get promoted higher, and she will never be rich. Such is corporate reality.

    My career path has a few components. I maintain very good knowledge of my responsible areas. I can explain very technical activities and technologies to non-technical people in such a way that they understand what is going on. And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve helped (in some cases saved their bacon) a number of superiors out. Again, such is corporate reality.

    The only thing in the article I would have to disagree with is that my job hasn’t really gotten any easier. I certainly have a lot more flexibility with hours, but it is also a lot easier to get in trouble not just from what I might do wrong, but what my resources might do wrong as well. I also cannot remember the last time I’ve had an uninterrupted vacation. I was supposed to be on vacation all this week, but I’ve worked more than a dozen hours so far. Take the good with the bad.

    I think one of the earlier points in the article is the most important point regarding the health of this country. The real corporate attitude of cutting salaries and benefits to the bone will be the ultimate downfall of the country. You can’t maintain a middle class with this corporate attitude…and without a strong middle class, the economy simply can’t grow – especially an economy based on high volume sales of goods and services.

  5. says

    Fantastic stuff. There’s a quote from a Ted Talk (Richard Wilkinson: How Economic Inequality Harms Societies) I think is highly appropriate. “If you want to live the American dream, move to Denmark”.

    I so tire of this ‘just world hypothesis’ people have, just work hard and you will succeed. Or Just be optimistic and self-realize your goals and you will be happy.

    The hardest money to earn, the money that proportionally requires the most work to earn, is the money that comes from the lowest wages.

  6. jakc says

    And don’t forget just plain ol’ nepotism. I too have observed that the less you make, the worse your company treats you. It makes sense in one way – if the execs respected the work of these people, they wouldn’t pay them so badly, but an easy to get better performance is just treat these people ad valued employees and not peons

  7. says

    Unbound, it is unfortunate you haven’t had a vacation. But at least you get paid days off. Having recently taken another low paying peon job to get by, I can assure you that alone is a huge, huge perk these days. My guess is people in mid level jobs aren’t aware of just how horrible it’s become at the low end of the scale. Many companies these days don’t even have lower level employees, they use temp agencies, the advantage being those workers get zero benefits and face instant, brutal consequences if they miss a single day for any reason, and many of them work a full shift on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. There are no days off, none, nada, zero, if you are in the hospital after getting mugged you will be fired before you regain consciousness.

  8. says

    Well said. I consider myself so lucky that my wife works for an old fashioned company. They invest a lot into their employees and do almost all of their promotion from within. A college grad can start there and work for the company for 30 years. It’s almost as if they actually read “The Peter Principle” as a cautionary tale as opposed to an instruction manual.

  9. thepugilist says

    Funny that I read this today after just experiencing in full over the past week in my department at my place of work. My manager just got promoted to IT Director and then gave his two buddies both new titles and nice big raises. Two of these three guys are pretty much worthless, they leave early whenever they want, take 2 hour lunches, and play computer games all day. They delegate jobs to people lower on the ladder then they take they credit for it. The third one actually deserved it and is actually a very good worker and the one that pretty much keeps our companies IT running smooth, not that it matters though, he was just friends with the right person at the right time.

    How all this happened was that we bought a new facility and some of our IT accompanied our COO to this new site to set things up. They all stayed down there for a few weeks and ate and drank together in the evenings until the job was done. They came back with a bunch of good stories. All of the people who went on this trip were eventually promoted, more so because of the bonding that happened on the trip than anything else. There were people left behind on this trip to keep existing things running that had more time and more experience, none of that mattered though because they didn’t get to know the boss and go through that bonding as the others did. It really paid off for the people who went.

    I’m used to working in a union automotive manufacturing plant (I was laid off a few years ago and sent back to school, I chose IT)and this was a big lesson to me, someone who’s never worked in this type of environment before. Hard work and initiative don’t really mean jack when it comes down to it. Sure it will get you some pats on the back and some attaboys, but when it comes down to it it’s who knows you, who likes you, and how much.

  10. gddiver says

    I could not agree more. I worked in sales for 23 years for an old fashion company that gave lip service at least, to more than the bottom line. They paid decently and put resources into their employees. However, I noticed two things rather early on in my career. Your hiring manager was your path to advancement. For two or three years you might be his fair-haired child. During this time it was easy to get promoted if the manager was connected. Once your hiring manager moved on or your manager made another hire advancement usually stopped.

    Also, luck mattered a lot. In some years I worked 60 hour weeks just to stay off of probation. In other years, my territory changed slightly, adding two specific zip codes to it, and I would be one of the highest ranking reps in the country without working nearly as hard. This switch happened several times during my tenure, I had no control over the configuration of the territory and every year I could predict my results. Management, however, never saw it this way. Fortunately and unlike most companies, they took the long view so one could survive the bad years.

    In any case I got lucky. My division was sold to some venture capitalists. They offered me a job, which I took, but my original employer also pensioned me off early and, most importantly, provided me with retiree health care. When, after a year, it was apparent that the new company was absolute hell to work for I was able walk away.

    I love my new life but I realize how lucky I am compared to most people. I have health insurance, social security, a defined benefit pension plan and a 401 K that I can just leave alone until it recovers some of it’s value. This used to be the norm for competent people with a good education or marketable skill in this country. Now, however, it seems to be rare and the sad part is that we do it to ourselves. Too many of us resent, not the 1%, but the guy who makes a little more or who has a few nice benefits, like sick leave or vacation time or a pension. We vote for people, not because they will support the 90%, but because they will vote to ban abortion or to bomb Iran or “keep America strong” or to force children to pray in school.

    I know that the people who support the conservatives do not frequent this board in large numbers but somebody voted for the current congress and somebody is keeping the current crop of presidential contenders in the race. Unfortunately these voters are part of us and we, collectively, are getting the government, society and economy that we deserve.

  11. says

    While I certainly agree that hard work has nothing to do with “success”, I think there are many more things that skew your chances. If you’re a woman, particularly young or old, queer/transgendered, not white, disabled in ANY respect, or simply not from the right side of town (overt blue collar stylings) then your chances go from poor to non-existent.

    I have the extreme benefit of being white, male, well spoken, well educated and now over 24. I know many people who would be more qualified than me in many respects, but they fall into one of the above mentioned categories and consequently, I have a well paid, stable job, and many of them do not. This is no accident.

    The playing field is not level. Luck helps, but no amount of luck gets around that fact

  12. jimvj says

    There is a bigger issue here that is addressed in a sobering opinion piece by Herbert J. Gans, titled “The Age of the Superfluous Worker” in the New York Times.

    The issue is that our technology based society is unsustainable because “job creators” will use every possible techno advance to reduce the number of employees. These advances affect the demand side and supply side of the jobs equation. On the demand side are the ease of offshoring jobs, automation / computerization, modular design (which makes the concept of repairing an appliance – or indeed the machinery of a gigantic wind turbine – either obsolete or a minimum wage effort), etc.

    On the supply side are mainly the medical advances that reduce death rates and increase longevity; but also the military technologies that enormously reduce death rates from military actions (wars).

    Europe has attempted to confront these issues by early retirement, fewer hours/week/employee, more vacation, etc. But these concepts are anathema to most Americans.

    There are many axes along which modern society is heading towards unsustainability or collapse: resource depletion, environmental degradation (including climate change), economic dislocation including globalization and financialization, population growth, etc.

  13. anthonyallen says

    This morning, when I first read this, I will have to admit that I was a bit sceptical. Since then, a mere 12 hours later, I ran into a contact while at a stage management workshop, I ran into a contact in the local theatre community. I had done lighting in the last show I did, for which he was the producer.

    It seems that for his next project, he is directing a play that is slated to be performed in the annual Acting Irish festival in Dublin, and he asked me to manage the show!

    So, yeah. I guess it really is who you know.

  14. lanir says

    I recently ran into an issue at work. I pointed out a mistake a manager made. They were fuming about it, which probably shouldn’t have surprised me but did. Suddenly I find myself the target of a personal attack disguised as a disciplinary action over how I said it.

    Fortunately they included my manager in the meeting where we talked about it. Because the other manager who was out to get me clearly made no sense, contradicted themselves on numerous points and just generally made their case sound like a train wreck passing itself off as something else. Because my manager is reasonably satisfied with me and was able to see the eye-poppingly silly way this was handled, this little mess probably won’t hurt me. But if for some reason my manager were to leave the company I’d have to explain what had happened to whoever replaced him or it’s entirely possible they’d think I already had one foot out the door.

    Needless to say whether I work hard or not doesn’t really enter into the picture. I work the night shift as an IT tech so all I have to do is keep problems from rolling over into the morning too often and my manager will remain fairly happy with me. The other manager I’ll simply be avoiding as again, nothing I do or say will really matter there.

  15. says

    I can very much identify with this. I worked a number of crappy jobs for 15 years. Just barely enough pay to live on. Overtime was expected and not compensated. The managers all hated me. I got one promotion in that time because I was the only person who actually understood computers and my direct supervisor resented the fact (she didn’t want me) and made my life a living hell. Literally.

    I was fortunate enough to get the job I have now, with good people and I seem to have a knack for it. I am always the first one to volunteer for extra assignments (mainly because my assignments don’t keep me 100% busy most weeks). As such, I got to head up a national project, which put my name on a lot of very big documents and have a lot of higher ups very thankful for my efforts.

    One of my advantages is that my division is split over three worksites and the functional manager is at my worksite. Which means we have a much closer relationship than those at other worksites.

  16. Jeremy Shaffer says

    Not really much more to add on this. In the almost 13 years at my current job I’ve seen more then a few people who I swear must have had a lobotomy at some recent point but, since they impressed someone, were on the fast track for management. At any rate, I wanted to comment on this:

    Everyone loves wiz kids … there’s not so many wiz 40 year-olds and wiz 50 or 60 yos are unheard of, despite the fact that it is precisely those highly experienced men and women who have had the time and put in the effort to become so great at what they do that they really are wizzes.

    I’ve seen this a lot too. I think some of it has to do with the belief that a fresh persepective usually gives a better outlook to maximize procedure, but it is ignored that it comes with the expense of lack of expertise in regards to prat- falls. Ultimately, they may have “new” ideas* but no clue to how that would effect outcomes in reality. Add to this the invasive “positive thought” ideals that have wormed their way into corporate thinking and you have the opinions of those with expertise that can predict the most likely end simply getting dismissed for their “negativity”, if their concerns are acknowledged at all, should they remotely suggest an undesirable result.

    Compound this with management that is uninformed of the current state of business requirements and job functions and you have a recipe for disaster.

    *I put new in scare- quotes because often these “new” ideas are anything but new and have probably been rejected a hundred times before. They usually only seem novel to managers that have never bothered to keep up with what the job of their subordinates really entails, if they ever knew to begin with.

  17. rickyh says

    Having worked half my life for someone else and half for myself, at 57, I can also add that working for yourself is pretty much a lottery as well. I admit I’ve made some pretty ridiculous choices that have put two businesses in the dumper and helped me along to one divorce and absolutely no assets. Yet as a reasonably intelligent, and ridiculously hard worker, what I’ve learned is that American dream has the odds way against succeeding for most, even those who are well prepared.

    I like the comment (and link) about moving to Denmark if you want to move up. What’s overlooked (well, feared really) in the current discussion is what kind of society we really want. The interesting makeup of the conservative right which aligns those with money, those with a fundamentalist religious (I didn’t say spiritual) bent and those who feel rights (guns, contraception, conception, etc.), keeps the myth of social mobility alive. In Denmark they have:

    -Very little range between rich and poor
    -Very little poverty
    -No corporate taxes
    -The ability to hire and fire at will without hurting anyone (2 years unemployment insurance, state paid health care and retraining)
    -50% tax rate versus our 35%
    -Very high life satisfaction
    -Very low unemployment even though Denmark has suffered the same recession that we and the rest of Europe has

    The Danes have a lot of respect for one another, and the workers have a tremendous amount of autonomy. Yes, there isn’t the fire-breathing creativity and “entrepreneurship” for which America is so famous. But even with a marginally performing workforce, the “all for one, one for all” approach seems to really benefit all.

    I understand and agree with many positions of the right, for instance:

    -Welfare is a terrible system that hurts those who chronically depend upon it (not as much those who use it temporarily) and must be reformed
    -There is a lot of government waste and mismanagement, particularly at the state and federal levels and constant review and reconfiguration is needed (although I’ve met an awful lot of dedicated government workers)
    -Any system we have must reward individual initiative, talent and contributions by our citizens

    But the tribalism that we still practice where we fear and disrespect one another does nothing but perpetuate the “class struggles” that this blog post is really about. I see a day when fewer, but more valued people inhabit this earth. Where the birth of a child is a momentous thing, and where that child is given every resource available to help them progress our race. And where we all get the opportunity to spend the tremendous wealth of this planet pretty equally, giving each of us the chance to express the talents, ideas, and dreams that make us each human.


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