When we see someone who seems to be doing well in life, we can wonder what they are doing “right.” Self-help authors, TED talkers, thought leaders, and other gurus give us plenty of answers as to what this not-so-secret formula is. It is usually some combination of:

  • Effort – a willingness to work hard (i.e. grit),
  • A Beginner’s Mind – a willingness to learn (i.e. growth mindset)
  • Courage – a willingness to take chances (i.e. daring greatly)

Throwing in some neuroscience or referencing studies done at prestigious universities (or even better if you can cite your own published research) also helps sell both the idea and lots of books.

This advice can be quite helpful for a select group of people, so there is a basis of truth that these ideas are grounded in. But that select group of people is actually not most people. For those that are barely getting by, or even worse for those that live with scarcity, it’s really not possible to “self-help” your way to wellbeing and goodness. Let’s take a hard look as to why.

What Isn’t Being Said

There is a factual basis for many of these current self-help ideas. However, since these ideas don’t apply to all people, they are better understood as partial truths. The problem is that research done on a select group of people is frequently generalized to apply to all people (see The Impact of Environment Part 1). When that happens, these partial truths can actually become complete falsehoods for those for whom the facts don’t apply. To be able to make the distinction, it is important to understand not only what these experts are saying, but even more so it is important to acknowledge what is not being said.

Angela Duckworth’s work on grit tells us that people who have this trait will distinguish themselves amongst their peers, and by certain measures will attain more success in life. We could be talking about who is likely to be the most elite amongst the already elite, such as the highest achieving West Point graduate. Or, we could be talking about who is most likely to overcome the odds, such as who will go on to college from a low income school district where most students don’t complete high school. All this is true about people who have grit.

However, what isn’t said as explicitly is that even the highest achieving, low income, college-bound high school graduate has practically no shot getting into the most elite universities, since 40% of the spots at the Ivy Leagues are reserved for rich white kids who otherwise wouldn’t get a look based on academic achievement alone. Also, the most intellectually gifted person living in poverty has the same chance of actually finishing college compared to the least intellectually gifted person from a wealthy family. Over the last 30 years, every systemic institution of social mobility, such as education, work, and government spending has been working more for the already wealthy. The effect has been that it is even harder to move upwards in terms of socioeconomic class. At the same time it is also making it more difficult for mediocre rich people to fall. What isn’t said is that grit alone cannot overcome historical and generational income inequality and systems rigged to favor the already wealthy. What isn’t said is that more than grit, being already wealthy is what makes people more successful than others.

Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset tells us that people who have a belief that their abilities are not fixed, but are a product of learning, adaptability, and effort, can in fact grow in their abilities. Her research has shown this to be an effective way to develop academic skills, emotional resiliency, and self esteem. All this is true about people who have a growth mindset.

What isn’t said as explicitly is that refraining from telling kids they are “smart” in a effort to focus on “effort” has more detrimental effects on children of color because black and brown kids are already working against negative stereotypes about their intelligence and work ethic. This is especially relevant given the lack of real world efficacy of growth mindset interventions (a study published in 2019 following 100 schools and 5000 children showed that growth mindset interventions made no difference in standardized testing compared to control). What isn’t said is that growth mindset and growth mindset interventions are not the same thing, and so far there hasn’t been any meaningful evidence to show that teaching the idea can actually make a difference for students. Perhaps it is because growth mindset alone cannot overcome the consequences of the adversity experienced by kids outside of those learning environments.

Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and courage tells us that people who have more joy and fulfillment are able to be resilient after experiencing hardship, and that those of us that can believe we are worthy of love are more able to push past those seasons of hardship. All this is true about people who are resilient, and brave, and loved.

What isn’t said as explicitly is how Adverse Community Environments disproportionately affect marginalized communities, and the sheer volume of hardship experienced by people living in poverty or people facing systemic discrimination is a load that isn’t something that can be readily overcome by any combination of grit, growth mindset, or self-esteem. Research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) tells us that this heavy load of negative experiences in childhood is directly proportional to the amount of suffering in adulthood, and most people have experienced multiple childhood hardships. ACEs research also tells us that it is specifically experiences in the home environment that are the harmful risk factors, coming from the very people that are responsible for taking care of children. So those with the most ACEs are also specifically the ones that are the least loved. Isn’t it really unfair that those with the most to overcome have the least access to the tools to overcome? This isn’t said loudly or clearly enough.

Also, what is also not stated explicitly when talking about vulnerability is that there are unique risks in exposure when certain marginalized groups put themselves out there. It takes courage to reach out for help, but when a black man interacts with law enforcement he is much more likely than his white counterparts to experience violence from the police. It takes a lot of courage when a gay youth comes out to their parents, but when they are rejected by their families for their sexual orientation they are at much higher risk for mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness compared to their straight peers. Sometimes, for some people, daring greatly is far too great a risk to take and therefore it is irresponsible to dare them. This needs to be said also.

Even if we can acknowledge that this advice doesn’t work for all people, the lack of intention in pointing out its limited application ends up hurting people who are already suffering disproportionately. It places the burden onto the individual to solve environmental and systemic problems that they didn’t create, while at the same time asking them to utilize resources that they don’t have. In addition, the normalization of the unnatural Individualistic worldview that is common in America makes it too easy to put the both the blame and burden of suffering on individuals (I talk about this point in Part 1), when in fact almost all sources of suffering come from the environment.

It places the burden onto the individual to solve environmental and systemic problems that they didn’t create, while at the same time asking them to utilize resources that they don’t have.

When these impossible expectations to self-solve environmental hardships lead to inevitable failure, individuals are judged for not having enough “insert self-help buzzword here,” even though those buzzwords never applied in the first place. Those that are stuck in poverty are told that they just don’t have enough grit. Bright kids that are already seen as dumb and lazy because of racist stereotypes are intentionally told to not think of themselves as smart and to put in even more effort. Someone who correctly understands the violence and hatred they are likely to face is told that they must make themselves vulnerable if they want more out of life.

But as Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Self-help Is For Those That Can Already Help Themselves

So who exactly benefits from this type of advice? People who live with abundance, who have “more than enough.”

This doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to just being wealthy, but it can also be an abundance of energy, time, opportunity, visibility, security, support, help, access and other resources. However, being wealthy does increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to attain all the other resources in excess as well.

The reason having abundance is such an advantage is that it specifially allows you to do three things that people who have “barely enough” or “not enough” can’t do:

  1. Abundance means you have the resources to do things the “right” way to begin with. You have the choice to follow good advice.
  2. Abundance means you have a buffer to do things the “wrong” way, like make mistakes, learn from trial and error, or even lie or cheat, without the consequences being a permanent hindrance to moving forward. You have the opportunity to try again.
  3. Abundance means you have a buffer to deal with hardships outside of your control. You have the resources to deal with the unexpected.

Implied in this understanding of the advantages of abundance is also the insight as to why having limited resources or being impoverished is such a detriment to wellbeing and growth.

  • more than enough = can do things the right way + can afford to make mistakes + can deal with the unexpected
  • barely enough = can do things the right way + cannot make any mistakes + cannot deal with the unexpected

Having either more than enough or barely enough resources both allow you to do things ‘the right way.” It’s like having all the ingredients needed for a recipe. The difference between these two is that those with abundance can mess the recipe up and try again, whereas those with barely enough essentially have only one chance to get it right. The latter is much more stressful, and in that stressed state, we are generally more reluctant to take chances, spend too much time paralyzed in our analysis, tend to be more selfish with our resources, and are less creative in our problem solving. The thing is, as uncomfortable as this state may be, it’s actually a rational approach to dealing with problems because the cost of failure is high. When you have only enough resources to make one attempt, failing means that your problem remains and you’ve depleted your resources to fix it, which now puts you in the worst category — not enough.

Being Poor Is Never Good

  • not enough = cannot do things the right way + cannot make any mistakes + cannot deal with the unexpected

If having more than or barely enough allows you to do things the right way, then by definition, people who don’t have those resources are going to do it “the wrong way.” Every. Time. All the efforts made are to minimize how wrong. Even when doing your best, making the most of a situation, making the smartest choice possible, executing your plan perfectly — the outcome will still have its unavoidable, inevitable flaws. Again, because the lack of resources takes away the ability to do it flawlessly.

Looking in from the outside, from the perspective of a person who has the advantages of abundance and therefore has the experience of doing things correctly (or healthily, or justly) one can conclude that people who are impoverished are always doing things incorrectly. Their actions may look like incompetency, laziness, or even sociopathy. But their actions are in reality improvisation, and even more specifically, forced improvisation.

In the absence of being fully resourced, what other real world choices are available other than to make due with what is available? Cutting corners may not be due to laziness but rather a product of limited choices. I skipped that step because I didn’t have enough time. Varying degrees of dishonesty may be the only way for your needs to be met because you do not have the privilege of someone else’s benefit of the doubt. I took the plea bargain because I couldn’t afford bail, even though I didn’t do it. Making seemingly short-sighted choices, even if it costs you better future opportunities may be the only way to get through this day. I had to feed my kids, even though rent is coming up soon. In addition, the nature of improvisation is that it is inherently creative, so you might even see what looks like wild inconsistency while dealing with the same problem. I know I said I wouldn’t do that again, but look what happened last time when I said no. I had no choice. This is what happens when good choices aren’t an option. You choose from the bad choices that are left.

Our ability to shift from an individualistic view that might say “I wouldn’t do that,” towards an empathetic one requires us to not just see things, but also feel things, from the perspective of another. In order to really do that, we’re not supposed to put ourselves in their shoes, but rather take ourselves out of the picture, and imagine what it’s like to be them, living their lives, in their world.

Let’s practice with an exercise.

Changing Circumstances

Consider these three scenarios. Even better if you can really imagine that this is your life:

  • Scenario #1: You have an important work meeting today where a consultant is going to talk about “Growth Mindset and Grit in the Workplace.” You know your boss is super excited about this meeting. It starts in two hours. It now takes only about thirty minutes to get to the office since moving closer to work, and your new electric vehicle lets you use the carpool lane. After getting through your usual morning routine, you review the reading material again for the meeting while eating breakfast. On your way out the door, you hear your partner call to you, bringing you the meeting notes you forgot on the counter. “Thanks, hon. What would I do without you?” you say as you peck them on the cheek. You leave your house an hour before the meeting is to start. On the way to the office, you hit some unexpected traffic which makes you relieved that you gave yourself a buffer. You listen to some music on the way there, call a friend to catch up, and before you know it, you’re rolling in the office with fifteen minutes to spare. You’re the first person to arrive for the meeting, so you mindlessly scroll through your Facebook feed while you wait. Your boss greets you with a smile as he walks into the meeting a few minutes later. He thinks you already have a growth mindset since your promptness shows an eagerness to excel. The two of you chit chat until it’s time for the meeting to start.

How are you feeling? Pretty good? Good.

  • Scenario #2: You have an important work meeting today that your boss is really excited about. You’ve been up for awhile now, even though you’ve only had five hours of sleep, but that’s how life works these days. Since your spouse needs to leave really early for work, you’re the one that gets the kids ready in the morning and this year your kids are two different schools. After you drop off your last kid, you check your watch. The meeting starts in forty five minutes and your GPS says it’s going to take about forty five minutes to get to the office. The whole drive there you’re stressed. Every red light seems like it’s taking longer than usual. People seem to be driving extra slowly today. You’re concerned that you’ll hit unexpected traffic. You try to remember what you skimmed through from the meeting notes late last night before you dozed off, but recognize that you’re too worried about getting there on time to really focus. As expected, it takes exactly forty five minutes to get to the office, and you jog into the conference room just as the meeting is about to start. People give you some looks because you probably look as frazzled as you feel. As you sit down, you realize that because you were so rushed, you left your meeting printouts on the counter at home. You try and search your emails on your phone for the attachment as your boss starts the meeting and introduces the topic and speaker. He’s annoyed that you’re on your phone instead of paying attention.

How about now? Stressed? Frustrated? Flustered?

  • Scenario #3: You have an important work meeting today that starts in two hours and your average daily commute is two hours because apartments are much more affordable in this part of town compared to the areas around work. One of your kids was feeling sick last night, and you were hoping he’d be well enough to go to school today because you don’t have any childcare options on a school day. Well, he’s throwing up this morning and he’s got a fever. By the time you’ve gotten off the phone with your elderly neighbor who was the only person available and willing to check on your son while you are at work, you see that you’re going to be late for the meeting no matter what. Your company doesn’t offer many sick days, and you’ve already used them up this past year which has been really hard. And this is a really important meeting. What are you going to do? You decide that the best thing to do is to tell your boss the truth and go to work late, hoping that your kid will get better on his own even though your gut tells you that going to the doctor is probably what he really needs. You arrive at the office very late and walk into the conference room with the meeting pretty much over, already feeling terrible and still worried about your son. You see your boss leaving the conference room. You ask if he got your text which he acknowledges he saw just now. He looks unhappy but doesn’t otherwise say anything else. You tell him that you’re sorry that you missed the meeting and in fact you were really looking forward to it, since you’re already familiar with Dr. Dweck and Dr. Duckworth’s work as you’ve been trying to apply those principles with your kids. He doesn’t seem to be listening and mumbles something about hoping your kid feels better. Two months later when the company downsizes (because apparently the growth mindset and grit principles didn’t really help the company) you’re in the first group of people to be let go. Two months after that, you and your kids have been evicted from your apartment and you have no idea what you’re going to do.

From a certain perspective, without knowing about any outside stressors, the person in scenario #1 appears to be responsible, likable, well-adjusted, and a good person to have working for you. The person in scenario #2 seems stressed out all the time, distracted, and disorganized. The person in scenario #3 is unreliable, irresponsible, someone who makes excuses, and is ultimately easily replaceable. Making an interpretation this way is pretty understandable when coming from an Individualistic standpoint, which makes judgments about people based on their observed choices and actions. Of course there’s a bias based on what is observed versus what is hidden, which can really distort what an observer concludes.

Let’s make one more consideration. Read through those scenarios again, and this time, instead of thinking of them as three different people, imagine it is the exact same person — but at three very different points in their life.

The first is when they are recently married, with no children, doing well in life. The qualities observed about them being responsible, likable, well-adjusted, and a good person is what you know they are capable of being.

The second scenario is a few years down the line, after having a couple of kids, necessitating both parents to work to stay responsible, but now with different priorities, and a longer list of needs to address. This is where modern society tells us we are supposed to be. Relatable?

The third is the same person after a separation and divorce, the most common place a marriage will lead to, statistically speaking. There are similar priorities and needs for themselves and their kids, but now with half the resources to meet them, and things were already hard before. And given that most people who get married and have kids aren’t expecting divorce, it is a time of unanticipated scarcity.

Does it feel different when you do the exercise this way? Is it easier to have empathy for someone’s suffering when we make sense of their difficulties when reflecting on their situation?

What you see on the outside is rarely a manifestation of individual merit or ability, but rather, it is most often a reflection of the environment in which those people live and the resources they have to deal with life’s inevitable challenges.

In Part 3, we’ll talk more about why rich people stay rich, why those who struggle continue to struggle, and why poverty is a failure of society, not individual people. If you are following this series, I do promise we are working our way towards good strategies to make things better. But before we get there, it’s really important to first understand the full scope of the problem so that the solutions make sense and we are ready to change.

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