Monday, October 9, 2017

My Problem with the Success Narrative

The FIRE community is filled with personal stories that follow a "success narrative".  Although each one is unique, they all follow a similar pattern:

1)  I started off with no money.
2)  As a result of my own hard work/sacrifice/discipline, I have amassed great wealth and achieved financial success.
3)  Because I was able to do this, anybody can also do it.

I completely understand the appeal and value of this narrative.  For someone who has been financially successful, it's really nice to feel proud of your accomplishments and like you fully deserve all of the success you've enjoyed.  For someone who is still on the path to financial success, these stories can be inspiring, helping you overcome the self doubt and frustration that can be barriers to achieving your goals.  

So why do I take issue with these stories?

Because they almost universally ignore the role of privilege.  Very few people who share their stories acknowledge that they have had advantages in life that have helped them be successful.  While the specific privileges vary from person to person, they may include being male, being white, being heterosexual, being cis-gender, being a fluent English speaker, being free of mental/physical disability, growing up in a stable home free of any form of abuse, living in a safe community, having access to a quality education, etc.  There are many possible privileges, all of which contribute to the likelihood that someone will be successful in his or her life.

As you're reading this, you may be thinking about the story of someone who overcame a lack of privilege to be successful, and of course there are these stories.  Human beings are strong and resilient, and some of us are able to overcome tremendous odds to achieve great things.  But these are only individual stories, which ignore the fact that the greater the odds are against a person, the less likely they are to succeed.  A white, able-bodied, cis-gender, healthy male is going to have an easier time in life, on average, than a black transgender woman or a white man with serious mental health issues living in the inner city.

So why do I think this is important?

First, because although the success narrative can be very empowering to people who are successful, it can also be very mentally damaging to people who face barriers to success.  Imagine you were a single mother of four kids living in a bad school district and working two minimum wage jobs to support your family, and the message that you heard was that your lack of financial success was because you "aren't trying hard enough" or you "just need to be more disciplined".  Being told that you're a personal failure isn't helpful when what you're really dealing with is a lack of social support, a dysfunctional educational system, and inadequate wages.

Second, because the success narrative lets people of privilege (such as myself) off the hook.  If success is only the result of personal attributes, then we don't have to care about (or do anything about) racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, income inequality, or any of the other systematic processes that serve to keep people of privilege in power and keep other people oppressed.  We can sit with our wealth, believing that we're fully entitled to it, and not care at all about the people who are suffering within our very unequal system.

We need to do better.  While it's great to celebrate individual successes and be proud of our own accomplishments, we need to also acknowledge the things that have helped us to get to where we are.  And thankfully, there are some bloggers who are doing this.  Please read the Frugalwoods and She Picks up Pennies and Our Next Life and Cait Flanders for some really good explorations of privilege.  And when you're writing your own success narrative, which I look forward to reading, please recognize the role that privilege played in it.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you for a real insight into how things 'really are'. I've followed your blog for a long time. but I don't think I've ever commented before. I think, perhaps, that was because you always seemed to be so 'together'. It is good to know someone else shares my doubts and worries. luv and Blessings.

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    1. Thanks for reading and for your first comment! If I come across as being "together", it's only because I'm hiding things. I'm still figuring stuff out just like everyone else.

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  2. I think success narratives are important, but they need to include the failures and hard work that led to that glorious success moment. Otherwise it doesn't ring true to people.

    I'm all about celebrating failures because it's much more realistic and shows the journey of learning.

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    1. Yes! This is why I generally prefer blogs written by people who are early in their frugal/FI journey, as I like to see how they are dealing with the challenges of the journey. I find that blogs written by people with net worths of >$1 million can be a bit demoralizing!

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  3. Talking about failure is so important! I missed out on so much growing while I was growing up because I was so busy trying to be perfect (ha. hahahahahalolz). I know my students feel like I pound this idea into their brains, but I wish I had realized it sooner.

    And you know I agree with you about privilege. Thanks for a thoughtful post!

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    1. Sharing this on Twitter for sure! (But I don't know your Twitter handle...if you have one.)

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    2. Glad you liked the post! I didn't have a Twitter account until about five minutes ago...I'm now "FrugalishMD" on Twitter. What's your handle?

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  4. I wish I could up-vote this post into infinity! Excellent and perhaps, one of your best (though you always write well). #Applaud

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  5. "Being told that you're a personal failure isn't helpful when what you're really dealing with is a lack of social support, a dysfunctional educational system, and inadequate wages."
    ONE MORE TIME FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK.

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  6. Thank you for this post. Privilege is the elephant in the room that many personal finance bloggers fail to acknowledge. It plays a HUGE role in the success they have achieved to date. When you have a head start in life, it makes the journey much much easier.

    There are so many components to privilege that affect an individual's ability to be successful as an adult. Do your parents hold college degrees? Are they still married? Did you have access to tutors as a student? Did you need to get a job as a teenager to help support your family? Do you need to financially support a family member as an adult?

    The boot straps mentality completely ignores the fact that a large percentage of our population is starting off at a huge disadvantage and has much larger obstacles to conquer in order to achieve the same level of success.

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