I take little pleasure in seeing people fail, or the mighty and the privileged fall. I consider myself somewhat less than human in this respect, but it comes from and ego I like to describe as an iron fortress with a periscope and a cat door. It also comes from an unrealistic insistence on unconditional existential egalitarianism: nobody, anywhere, for any reason, should be judged better or worse than any other person on some platonic scale arbitrarily imposed on them by another. All acts and people in context.
However, I’m not stupid. Part of considering context is knowing that I will never beat Michael Jordan at basketball, outmaneuver a grandmaster in chess, or take down Jet Li with a clever shin kick. I don’t think this makes me a worse person, and I don’t think I’m better than all the people I could beat up with shin kicks. All the hierarchies of skill and talent are only important insofar as they can teach us two basic principles of getting through life: nobody can have everything, and everybody’s doing the best they can.
Which is why I get upset when the latest drop of blood in the celebrity pool attracts enough sharks to close a book deal, ghostwritten and titled “Anybody Can Do It!” or something synonymous. The latest cringeworthy moment (that I paid any attention to) came from Michael Phelps on the Daily Show, pumping his book “No Limits: The Will to Succeed.” When Jon Stewart asked him if he really thought that anybody could have done what he did, he was momentarily flummoxed, before voicing an awkward sentence that translated, roughly, to “well, sure.”
This was especially galling coming from someone whose physique had been the hot ticket in two months of Olympic media coverage. Depending on the source, Michael Phelps’s body was described as something between genetic miracle and half-dolphin freak.
I far prefer the Bruce Lee style of self-description: “To tell you the truth, I could beat anyone in the world.” Even if I had the Nietzschean will to succeed, I could not beat Michael Phelps in the 100 meter freestyle unless I strangled him in the locker room beforehand. We are not born equal, and no will of any kind will fix that.
But it’s not just genetic luck, which is why people who have given up on the sports freak physique will still buy book by billionaires outlining the secrets of their success. Let me save you $8.99:
1. Be born.
2. Take an interest in business.
3. Want a lot of money.
4. Work all the time.
5. Get lucky.
6. Write a book.
There you go. Countless starry-eyed business grads go to the market with the same drives and talents as the ones who get rich enough to lend credence to their ten step guides for beating the law of averages. Guess what: if they’re not an over-the-top outlier, they’re at least way up on an arc supported by the far more common failures of the millions of people who didn’t make it. I’m not going to say that’s a reason not to try, but the person who made a billion dollars didn’t try a million times harder than you did. They didn’t have ideas a million times better than yours. They didn’t have a million times more willpower. The dollar value of their luck and persistence is an artifact of the self-propelling nature of wealth: you only have to hit one good shot and not get addicted to heroin or crime, then you hire a bunch of people to make you wealthier while you write your book.
It is beneficial to the people with money, and in particular the people with money and employees, to convince the public at large that hard work is justly rewarded. Hitherto, it was acceptable to think of “work ethic” as an innate human virtue. In classical Greek times, working hard signified that you didn’t deserve to spend your time lying around thinking about art and seducing young boys, so the purpose of your life was to support the people who did deserve such pastimes. Judeo-Christian interpretations said work was punishment for original sin, or, more accurately, punishment for not being a member of the clergy. The only thing that’s changed, really, is that you’re supposed to feel good about working, and the only thing that’s changed lately is that you’re supposed to believe you’ll get rewarded in this life.
The fact is people living in poverty work far harder on a daily basis than those of us who don’t. I certainly haven’t worked consecutive 16 hour days since I swapped waiting tables for desk jobs, and not one of the desk jobs I’ve had has been nearly as difficult as waiting tables. They all required an enormous amount of downtime to learn how to do, which I got in college and while living off my middle-class parents, and, occasionally, unemployment. I find the less “hard work” I do, the more money I make.
Nobody doing a hard day’s work is on their way to the top. Nobody on their way to the top is reading books on how to cultivate a strong work ethic and seven habits of successful people. The illusion that hard work alone is virtuous or lucrative is a double lie designed to keep Wal-Mart staffed. What will absolutely get you ahead is a keen and amoral eye for opportunity; if you’re ethical, just having the keen eye will at least keep you comfortable, most of the time. Not being a millionaire by thirty or forty is no evidence that you did something wrong, or that you weren’t good enough, smart enough, or that people didn’t like you.