Fixing the 'Underprivileged Victim' Problem

I’m a big fan of folks that start with nothing, pursue their dreams, and beat the odds to make it big. Sure, they have advantages over others. They are disciplined, self-reliant hard workers that stick with it day in, day out. They’re not slackers. That’s why they’re successful.

I feel just as strongly about those that incessantly whine about the deck being stacked against them because they don’t have access to all the opportunities and connections of privileged folk. They’re right, they are handicapped, but not for those reasons. They’re handicapped by their victim mentality.

I hear from both types of people in equal measures, more or less. The other day I wrote an article about how successful people don’t screw around when they should be working. They’re not slackers like so many of us are. You can read it here. In response, I received this email from a reader (actually, this is an edited, more readable version):

“Oh why is it that most people who are motivated to do their work come from California? Is it the weather, palm trees, good food? At the end of the day we are all products of environment, circumstance, genes and society.”

Of seven successful workaholics I cited in the article -- Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Tim Cook, Howard Schultz, Marissa Mayer, and me -- all were born to working-class families and the only one who actually came from California was Steve Jobs. Go figure.

Contrary to the reader’s perspective, I’ve actually observed the benefits of growing up with adversity. It’s been an enormous factor in the breakout success of so many entrepreneurs and business leaders, from Alibaba’s (NYSE:BABA) Jack Ma and Softbank’s Masayoshi Son to Shark Tank’s Daymond John and former Verizon (NYSE:VZ) CEO Ivan Seidenberg.

In an interview last year, Sting said his kids wouldn’t be getting any of his $300 million fortune. The musician, who grew up without much in Newcastle and taught his children self-reliance and to succeed on their own merit, said, “I am determined that my children should have no financial security. It ruins people not to have to earn money.” Indeed.

So I got to thinking about the persistence of the underprivileged victim mentality. As patently false narratives go, it’s perhaps the most insidious and obviously self-serving myth affecting our culture today. And yet, the lame excuses just keep coming.

Privilege, race, gender, height, weight, religion, poverty, handicaps, environment, circumstance, genes, society, food, weather … I thought I’d heard every possible excuse until I saw that email. And then there it was: Palm trees. That’s what’s holding people back. Not enough palm trees.

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Remember the Occupy Wall Street movement? Everyone running around with their iPhones and iPads and their dopey signs, whining about there being no jobs and they didn’t go to college to end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

This is nothing new. I went through the same thing after college and that was more years ago than I care to remember. I moved back home with mom and dad and made $3.25 an hour as a part time bank vault attendant. And I had a B.S. in physics, for God’s sake.

It was so depressing I had to find a better way. So I did. I went back to school, got an M.S. in electrical engineering, got into the high-tech industry, and the rest is history. If I had instead wallowed in self-pity and played the victim that never would have happened. Funny how that works.

One of the mantras of the 99% -- they should have called themselves the 0% (their odds of getting anywhere in life with that self-defeating attitude) -- was that corporations are not people. Of course they are. Employees, executives, directors, investors and customers are all people.

It’s so convenient for folks to forget that every big corporation started out as a small business. A couple of entrepreneurs start a company and make a product people want to buy. They’re good at it. They’re successful. They grow and make money. They employ lots of people who also benefit.

Never mind all that. Don’t try to confuse the victim narrative with facts.

Better to imagine all the CEOs, executives and business leaders just dropping out of sky into cushy corner office chairs. They’re not regular people who just worked hard every day of their lives to get to where they are. They’re the 1%. They’re privileged. They’re evil, just like the big corporations they created.

Instead of taking a cold hard look in the mirror, taking their lives into their own hands, and finding their way to a better life the way so many of us did, these victims embrace the whiny child living inside them and act out their entitled dramas on those who work hard for a living to get their piece of the American pie.

Before this turns into any more of a rant I’d better make my point. Look, I’m not sure if this ludicrous self-defeating narrative is something new or just the same old thing amplified by social media and politicians that benefit from entitled, coddled, dependent voters.

My gut tells me it’s the latter but I don’t think it’s a good idea to just sit around and wait for this generation to grow up. I’m not sure it’s going to work that way this time. This persistent and self-destructive narrative is simply getting reinforced in too many ways, which means we have to fight fire with fire.

So here’s what I suggest. I’m out here writing every day -- fighting the good fight -- and I could use a little help. If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like every single one of you to go out and preach the gospel of self-reliance, strong work ethic, and competitive spirit. And no whining or coddling.

Tell it to your kids, your grandkids, your employees, your friends, your friends’ kids, your social media followers, anyone who’ll listen. Even if nobody’s listening, say it to yourself and shout it from the mountaintops. That’s what I think we need. That’s all I ask of you. It’s time to change the narrative. Now.