There is a lot of self-help advice on the Internet that claims to give people the secrets to success. People are telling you to hustle harder; to fake it till you make it; to smile more; to state your intentions. And of course, all of these people are willing to tell you exactly how, as long as you pay them something for their guidance, or if they are desperate, to shower them with attention.
I am not one of those people. I am the asshole telling you that these people are full of shit.
Here is the cold, bitter truth — you might not succeed. That idea you have, the one you sweat and toil over, might not earn you the fame or notoriety you desperately want it to.
There is this pervasive myth in America that if you work hard, that effort will translate into success. This concept is called a meritocracy, though it is referred to almost exclusively as the American Dream, and it runs pretty deep in the American mythos. In the words of Senator Tammy Duckworth — who is by no means a conservative icon — “The American Dream I believe in is one that provides anyone willing to work hard enough with the opportunity to succeed.” The American public is heavily invested in the meritocratic ideal of success coming from hard work. It’s something heard in countless rags-to-riches stories from Whoopi Goldberg to Barack Obama. If you work hard, the refrain goes, then you will get the recognition and riches you deserve.
It’s a familiar story.
It’s also predominantly a lie.
In general, social mobility is declining within the United States. If you start out poor, there is an increasing likelihood that you will stay poor for the entirety of your life. For many Americans, real wages (i.e., your salary when adjusted for inflation and cost of living) have not budged in decades. Meanwhile, the cost of living for things such as health care and college tuition has been steadily increasing.
These difficulties do not mean such success never happens. The number of self-made billionaires within the United States is increasing, but these people make up 0.00017% of the population. You literally have a better chance of winning the lottery. And unsurprisingly, this success cuts more dramatically along racial and gendered lines.
Maybe, however, your definition of success is smaller. Forget building Facebook 2.0. You just want to create a moderately successful career. That’s admirable, but it’s getting harder. The share of smaller, newer companies in relation to the rest of the economy is decreasing. It has been for decades. Larger companies are consolidating greater market share, and that’s (probably) stifling entrepreneurship. It’s just more difficult now to start even a small, new business.
You might be one of the lucky few that do succeed, but there is a substantial possibility that you won’t. There are literally millions of desperate Americans pushing towards the same end, and they are also trying to hustle their problems away. They are taking the same online webinars, reading the same self-help books, adhering to the same crazy sleep schedules, reciting the same mantras. They want this more than anything, and it just isn’t enough.
There are significant, systemic issues within the United States that are stifling entrepreneurship, and you cannot merely willpower them away. There isn’t a self-help book that will teach you how to dismantle systemic poverty in one sitting. A form of meditation won’t magic-away the United States shitty healthcare system. A workout routine isn’t going to suddenly grant you a livable wage.
And even if there were — even if wealth inequality weren’t an issue — you still might not succeed. The nature of popularity ultimately means that some ideas cannot win. Not every project is endorsed. Not every applicant will be hired. Not every company will make it off the ground. Failure is both inevitable and healthy.
What’s not healthy is the collective delusion that we live in a meritocracy. We pretend like hard work is all an idea needs to thrive, and then make people feel like they are 100% to blame when their efforts fail against the ideas of richer, more educated, more privileged people. We tell people to throw their entire existence into a goal without warning them first that they will most likely fail — repeatedly — before (maybe) finding moderate success amongst a small group of like-minded peers. And that’s the ideal scenario. It’s far more likely that after giving it their all, they will struggle to remain within the same economic class they started out in.
If I told you that you would spend the next ten years of your life devoting the majority of your time on a project that would ruin you financially, socially, emotionally, and maybe even physically, then would you still do it? Would you still live for weeks on end on unhealthy food? Would you still risk ruining your back on long work shifts that last for days, if not weeks? Would you still keep that entrepreneurial sleep schedule of 4 hours and 14 precisely calculated minutes?
I don’t think that you would. I think once you let go of the idea that you will succeed where everyone else has failed — that you are just better and more deserving — then you will start to look around.
You will realize that the concept of hustling was never meant to lift you up, but rather, to keep you down.
Congratulations, you did it! Since you made it to the end of this article, you should follow me here on Medium. I write about pop culture, politics, and feelings. Who doesn’t love feelings? You can also find me on Instagram, and if you want to help me continue doing this, then consider supporting me over at Patreon. Hope to see you around!