Everything you have been told about success is a lie

- 17 mins

When I first started my entrepreneurial journey some years ago, a journey I'm still on due to the nature of the role I'm currently working, I decided I was going to write a book. The title of that book, chosen a short distance into the journey, was to be something along the lines of "Successful People Are Not Experts In Success". To some degree I still believe that. However, were I to write that book now the title would be something close to "Everything You Have Been Told About Success is a Lie, and Other Lies".

This journey I've taken has been during relatively poor economic times. The term used most often is Global Financial Crisis, or GFC. It's an economic downturn affecting the majority of the world that started more or less in the United States when their unregulated financial system happily loaned money to people with little or no chance of ever paying back. That sounds like an obvious mistake, but the belief was that so long as property prices continued to rise then people would have equity at least equal to debt and would simply be trapped in a sort of mortgage purgatory, but not actually default.

The middle-class sold this lie did, of course, collapse. This in turn caused an economic contraction that spread globally. It was at the height of this economic downturn that I, like many others, was laid off into an incredibly soft job market. I began to re-evaluate all of the career advice I had been given the lead up to this point. I learnt a lot over the next two years. I learnt that government safety nets aren't. I learnt is that worker protections don't. I learnt that career advice wasn't. But most of all I learnt that being an honest hard-working employee is more likely a path to ruin, not success.

I did eventually get back on my feet, after feeling desperate for about a year and somewhat exploited for another. Most interestingly, my perspective on what had happened continued to evolve, and still does. It seems unrelated at first, but I spent much of my free time in 2017 researching my family history. There has been three really interesting outcomes from this. One, I've gained a greater appreciation of modern history. Two, I've discovered the value of the concept of mind mapping when it comes to organising information. And three, and this is the relevant one, I've come to realise that the middle and lower classes are gradually, permanently, failing, but being restocked from the upper-class who have fallen out of favour.

That last point is what this article is about, in part. I was told growing up that good honest hard work alone was the path to success. That is demonstrably false. Putting in your time and money at college or another tertiary education option, then becoming a salaried employee at some half decent company where you work hard and do a good job has about the same chance of long-term success as winning the lottery or being bitten by a shark. Being beholden to a single employer for your economic stability makes about as much sense as a company with a single client; you can, at a moments notice, find yourself with nothing. The social contract I was sold as a child has been broken. I'm not sure it was still valid when I was a child.

The thing you have to keep in mind is that nobody actually wants to be an employer. Nobody wants employees. Nobody wants to have to deal with payroll. Nobody wants to have to be familiar with employment law. Nobody wants to have to pay superannuation on behalf of their employees. Nobody wants to have to get a bigger office because they got more employees. Nobody wants to have to trust somebody else to help them be successful. Given half a chance every company on the planet would replace all of its workers with software or robots; tools under their control that don't want to form a union, that don't want to strike for better pay and better conditions, that don't get tired, that don't have to go and pick up a sick child from school, or that don't want to take a day off to vote.

What business owners really don't want to do is pay people for even the smallest moment when they aren't working. Much as 40 hour a week salary positions do have severe impact on individuals' ability to participate in society, needing to do 40 hours a week of work (or more) because the wages are so low and not having an agreement with an employer for those 40 hours is even worse. The natural state of a lot of employment, as far as an employer is concerned, is to pay people for a task. Let me correct that, it is to pay people as little as possible for a task. Dockworkers in the 1800s would get ready for work pile off to the docks gather in a crowd and hope that on that day they would get some work. Many would not, so they would turn around and they would go home with no money. If one days work is enough to survive for three days that's not as big of a problem, when one days work is barely enough to survive for one day it's a much larger problem. Ultimately dockworkers on the equivalent of the modern zero hours contracts unionised and the unions were able to fight for some sort of predictable employment at a reasonable salary that allowed people to focus on the rest of their lives and not on where the next hour's wage was going to come from.

I have written previously on the friction caused when a business tries to take what is essentially a task-based service and turn it into a subscription business model. I have entire articles dedicated to the adversarial environment created when a business wants to provide something with a fixed recurring fee and a customer, be they a business or an individual, wants to just pay task by task. It is an unnatural state of affairs and causes constant to and fro between the vendor and the customer with the vendor always wishing to increase their price or upsell to the next service tier, and the customer always wanting to reduce the subscription cost while receiving more work at no extra cost. It is therefore obvious, one would think, that this same friction will be found between an employee wishing to have a salaried position, which is a kind of subscription, and an employer that would really prefer to pay people to do things per task.

If you haven't noticed were heading that way again. "Gig Economy" jobs are all task-based and pay like crap. A recent investigation into Deliveroo has confirmed that the company is treating all of its deliverers as subcontractors or worse, paying them her job at a rate that doesn't meet minimum wage, and then avoiding all of the responsibilities and employer would normally have such as holiday leave, sick pay, the requirement of a safe workplace, redundancy pay, notice. This is the Uber model; avoid as many responsibilities as possible, ignore as much regulation as possible, and pay workers as little as possible, and per task. Uber, of course, doesn't stop there. They will also rent you the vehicle you use for them, then they will not pay you enough to make the payments on the vehicle that they have rented you.

There is constant downward pressure on employment. At the time I am writing this, the Australian government has not long released employment growth numbers that it is very proud of, but that do not even stay ahead of population growth. As supply of works out-paces demand, keeping your head above water as a member of the working class is not something you can guarantee you will achieve simply by honest hard work. But since that is the consensus opinion of society, that if you just work hard enough you will succeed, you are blamed when you fail.

The Australian government's favourite word is bludger. Our current Australian government believes anybody on unemployment benefit is by definition a bludger. That they are there because they have not worked hard or they have not been willing to do shitty jobs that fail to pay the bills and damage your health. Australia is not alone. The American government believes that if you didn't buy that last iPhone you'd be able to afford your insurance. The deck is stacked against the "Aussie battler" and no amount of "lower class worker makes good" stories will make up for the fact that there is a line somewhere between the middle-class and the upper-class and everyone below it is slowly moving downwards.

I mentioned my interest in genealogy earlier and my opinions on the economic movement of classes. One thing I tended to notice in family trees is that if you go back far enough on almost every branch you will inevitably find one or both of the married couple had some wealth and affluence. I started wanting to look for "where the money went", but after a while you see what happens. A large wealthy family cannot sustain every member, nor can it be assumed to be wealthy for ever. Wealth is created in fits and starts when unique opportunities arise. A competent and lucky individual with access to finance at just the right moment will find an opportunity to multiply that wealth and boosts their family a little. As the opportunity fades or subsequent generations show less talent the wealth is eroded. Eventually members of the family lose their wealth and fall into the top of the working class. The number that make it back into the upper-class are so small as to be statistically insignificant. What actually happens is that over the generations there is a slow spiral downwards with the occasional sudden drop. Eventually some event will trim off a branch of the tree and there will be no more descendants from them.

Once somebody who was previously wealthy has to work for a living they discover that the number of hours they need to put in in order to survive would mean that, even if their still-wealthy previous friends wanted to have anything to do with them, there are not enough hours in the day to maintain the same sort of social network that they previously used to build their wealth. Nor is there any time to be politically active or influence people in their interests. When you are caught in the 40+ hours a week wage trap is very difficult to find any time for the same activities that the wealthy use to stay wealthy, hence the slow spiral downwards.

The message that you can be successful through honest hard work is a lie perpetuated by the wealthy to control those with nothing. It is the quintessential victim blaming. That somehow you can be just as successful born into nothing with the wrong colour skin as someone born into wealth with the right. The fact that America's current president only needed to be white, rich, and a good liar (while the previous had to be the best at everything for his entire life) highlights the inequity in the system and challenges the idea that honest hard work is worth anything.

No article about digging yourself out of the dirt to become a billionaire would be complete without addressing some of the recent success stories. I am going to cherry pick here. Let's start with Bill Gates. His early opportunity in his career was able to be seized because he had absolutely no problem ripping off somebody else's product. If you're interested in knowing what I'm referring to Google CP/M v DOS. Richard Branson, whose autobiography I have read, was only able to maintain the viability of his little record shop because he was dodging import duty illegally. While his honest competitors failed he was able to survive and later pay a penalty with money he should never have. Deliveroo I have already mentioned. Uber, need I say more? Not a day goes by without a new article about Uber's misdeeds. Once the darling of Ycombinator, there was a time where everybody wanted to be the "Uber of..." whatever stupid idea they had, but now the name is synonymous with illegal data gathering, misogyny, and unsustainable business model that runs competitors out of business by subsidising prices using venture capitalist funds, intellectual property theft and many, many other horrible things. It's these "success stories" that are the reason why I am challenging honest hard work. Yes, absolutely, you have to work hard. Even those who are wealthy, those who do not necessarily need to put in 40 hours a week to keeping themselves afloat, do still have to put the time in to maintain their trajectory. But "honest"? A lot of old American money was made in the slave trade. Some families that are able to say their hands are clean from that; they made it during prohibition.

The most insidious thing is the disconnect between the story of how you should be successful versus how the person who is telling you this was successful. People in the SEO game are a lightweight example, but I'll start with them. Search engine optimisation has always been a little bit of black magic and a little bit of snake oil. I was particularly dismissive of the industry in its early years as it typically seems to be focused on gaming the Google algorithm. It has evolved a lot since the early days, but the most common play-book appears to be that an SEO firm will advertise its skills in legitimate, organic, authentic growth in website visits, followers, or Google page ranking, typically involving an unsustainable level of fresh content creation. They, however, will achieve this growth for themselves by buying followers, using bots, or gaming the system in some other way. When a company they have sold their services to fails to achieve the same sort of growth that they have the company will be blamed for failing to provide authentic, compelling, frequent, or engaging content. Essentially the SEO business's customer cannot win in the long term, meanwhile the SEO firm gets its money.

Walmart tells you that its phenomenal growth is a result of, say, an optimised supply chain, or fierce negotiation with large suppliers, but their profitability is largely due to finding a way to pay wages that are below that which any of its competitors pay. They break laws, they fake hours, they play mind games and the end result is that they are able to undercut their competitors based largely on a payroll nobody can honestly achieve. Once they have run their competitors out of town with their low-low prices, they have free reign to lift prices, or screw over her their staff even more, or most likely to use their illegal profits to fund the next Walmart and start the cycle again in the next town. Any company that tries to repeat Walmart's success, by doing what Walmart claims is responsible for its success, will fail.

Compared to Walmart the moderately successful business people who go out on these tours where they give talks to large audiences about how they became successful are small fish, but the formula is still worth examining. It works something like this; a businessman, usually a man, starts from "nothing" and builds a business that appears to work well enough so they don't really have to "work". The business gains exposure, the individual is touted as a success story, and everybody wants to be like him. Breaking it down this is more usually the chain of events; an individual from a wealthy, well-connected family who has until this point done nothing in particular with his life decides that he wants to start a business. His parents kick in the money. His parents' friends help out with advice, more money or connections (particularly in media). He gets all of the money, advice, networking, suppliers, advertisers, and exposure that he needs in order to build a successful business from a very ordinary idea. Is the business successful? Who knows, it's a black box, but the individual appears successful, so he can now tell other people how to be successful for a small fee. Those presentations usually go something along the lines of "Every morning I get up look at myself in the mirror and tell myself today you will be a winner. Stick to your dream and you can achieve it." Standing ovation. Then the audience goes home talks to themselves in the mirror and doesn't manage to achieve anything more than the wage slave job they were stuck in before they gave this guy their money.

This article has, admittedly, been heavily focused on the negative. I've done this because such a large proportion of my life has involved bad advice that was either bad through ignorance or bad by design. The time during which I have examined this bad advice is a small percentage of my life compared to the years I was given this bad advice and blindly accepted it. When everybody tells you a thing without any dissenting opinion you tend to accept it as truth. How would you know any better? So while this article doesn't necessarily offer any solutions, I want it to be that dissenting opinion that makes you question the advice you are getting.

When someone 30 or 40 years older than you tells you that your financial situation is due to you being lazy remind them that either tertiary education was free and they were doing it or that maybe it took three hours of work at minimum wage each day to stay on top of their college fees and now it takes 17. Remind them of the rising costs of healthcare, or the elimination of almost all social safety nets. Show them that the purchasing power of their first job was greatly superior to the purchasing power of yours. Point out that it might've taken them a few years to save up for a deposit for a house and it will probably take you 50. Ask them to go find somebody who works 40 hours a week or more and yet still has time for a family social life and the ongoing professional development necessary to stay ahead of the systemic redundancies in almost every industry.

When someone graciously lays out a roadmap for your success assume it's for their continued survival. People lie to keep their jobs, people lie to advance their career, people lie to get your money, people lie to advance themselves socially, and people lie to cover up the lies. There is no easy way to improve your lot in life, but an ability to spot opportunities and exploit them is likely to be more successful than picking a career in high school with the end goal of getting a full time job.

Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson

May contain traces of nuts

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