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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Success Takes Generations

We know it takes a certain number of hours (let's say 10,000) to develop excellence in any skill. But skills only account for part of what makes for a successful career. Ecosystem knowledge (who you know, how that social system works) is just as important.

That is the big shock that most twenty-two-year-olds are in for. All the skill in the world does you very little good without knowledge of the ecosystem and the people within it.

Most people know that in Hollywood "who you know" matters more than talent. But Hollywood is not some special industry where that is the case. That's the case every industry. The first ten rungs on the ladder are all merit based, yes. But after that, when two equal players are vying for the same part, success becomes more relationship based. Building relationships in any given industry takes time. Let's say ten years of time.

My point is that outlying success takes 10k hours of skill development and 10k hours of ecosystem development.

Simply by virtue of spending eighteen years sharing a house with you, your child will have a certain number of hours in the skills you have and a certain number of hours in your ecosystem. This is a huge leg up in whatever field it happens to be that you work in.

For example, I didn't try to acquire skills in my parents' lines of work. I never assumed that I would be following in their footsteps; I focused on school. Even so, I knew so much about wine (my mother's line of work) that I taught a class on it to my peers when I was in college. Later my husband, after reading countless books, but having no real world experience, decided he wanted to be a farmer. As a child I had hated my father's line of work (farming) so much that I specifically avoided learning about it. And yet, after my husband and I moved to a farm, it turned out that I knew quite a lot about farming.

I wish a school counselor had sat me down when I was eighteen and said:

"You have two paths ahead of you. In one, you choose to work in wine, a field where you already know more than 99.9% of the other people your age in the world. You will find a career in wine natural and easy because you have grown up in that ecosystem. You already know what part of that world you like the most, and you know the people in that world you need to know to get where you want to go. Should you choose a career in wine, you will find success naturally and quickly, depending on the hours you put in, of course.

"The other path open to you is one of exploration. You go to college, study different things until one catches your fancy, and then set out to acquire knowledge and skills in that field. Four to ten years and much debt later you will have the skills, but you won't know anyone or how that job works in the real world. So you will spend what is left of your twenties and all of your thirties acquiring the social network and ecosystem knowledge required to do your chosen line of work. If you work hard, and develop the right relationships, you will be successful, but much later and with much more strife than if you had chosen to work in wine.

"Do you like this other career SO much more than wine that you are willing to work until your fifties for career success rather than attain it in you thirties? Or to put another way, do you hate wine so much, that you would be happy to leave your family, your home town, your friends, your social network, your world, to pursue the life of a pioneer?

"If you are super passionate about something else, and it absolutely must be your line of work rather than your hobby, then by all means go do it, but if you could be happy working in wine, you will have a much easier life, you will find career success at a much younger age, and you will be much closer to your family.

"Lastly, by the time you are thirty there is a high statistical probability that you will want to start a family. Should you have attained career success in your twenties, you will have much more time and energy to focus on your children. And a lot more money. Are you so passionate about being a pioneer in a new field that you are willing to sacrifice having children or you are willing to have children, but not have a lot of time or money to put into them?"

I am not saying that kids should do what their parents do or that parents should push their kids to do so, just that if it works out that way, it would be very advantageous.

Many parents push their kids to do something different than what they did because "they want a better life" for their kids. But here's the thing (and I have told this story before):

I met a guy the other day named Matt. He never went to college. He was raised by a single mother, an immigrant. She worked a minimum wage job and could barely feed him when he was a kid. He quit school at sixteen. He is now forty years old and owns thirty-two convenience stores. He makes a fantastic living. How did he pull that off? Hint: He was not a pioneer.

His mother worked at a 7-11 for his entire childhood. She couldn't afford daycare, and they didn't know anyone, so he hung out at her 7-11 after school. He knew how to run the place by the time he was twelve, started working there himself when he was fourteen. He saved up and bought his first 7-11 when he was twenty-five. Killed it. Most people who run 7-11's don't understand how to run them, he told me. He does.

The lesson: If you are a struggling pioneer don't assume your child will struggle as hard as you. You paved the way. Your child has been paying attention. Invite your child to your life. He will do it better. Don't assume your career is a dead end or you life isn't a worthy one to invite your child to join. If you can just keep it together, despite the insane difficulty of your life, your children will do great.

Gladwell points out in Outliers that it is very rare for children who grew up in poverty to become very wealthy, but it is very common for them to make it to the middle class. Children who grow up in the middle class are the ones who are more likely to become very wealthy. Which is to say: A truly successful career may require three generations to make.

I have noticed this in Hollywood. Failed actors have children who are working actors and grandchildren who are stars. I'm not arguing that this is The One Rule; there will always be exceptions, but this idea that building something amazing takes more than one generation was common knowledge for farmers in the time of Laura Ingles Wilder.

The pioneers were going to have it rough, and they knew that going in. They knew that to break in virgin land takes a decade. Want a tree to shade your house? Another decade. But they also knew that if they did the work, their children and grandchildren would have it easier than they did. The farm would get better over time.

If they moved to a farm far away, in a climate they knew nothing about, it was even harder. Move far enough away and you don't even know what native foods to eat, dig up, preserve, and avoid, nor do you know the dangers of the area. For example, Scandinavians could more easily succeed in Wisconsin than Florida, the climate in Wisconsin at least being similar to what they knew.

Not saying they couldn't succeed anywhere. Just saying: How hard do you want it to be? Is it worth it?

Doing a career other than what your parents did is like being a pioneer.

It may be unfortunate that we idealize, as a culture, "getting out" of our hometowns and not following in Daddy's footsteps. When we are choosing our careers, we might want to think a lot more long-term than we are currently thinking.

When we see a family "outlier" we are not noticing the generations of focused people that came before him and are responsible, in part, for his success. It's the same with family failures. No one exists in a bubble. We are all bred and raised by specific people in specific circumstances, and we turn out the way we turn out for a reason. Failures, like successes, take generations to make.

UPDATE

Decided to look up the pattern of success in Donald Trump's family. Here it is:

The first generation came with Fred and Elizabeth, immigrants from Germany, no experience in real estate. Fred worked as a barber and an inn manager. He saved, bought land, and put an inn on it. Did that several times. Then switched to houses and apartments. By the time he died he owned the house his family lived in, five vacant lots in the Queens area, and had fourteen mortgages on other properties all totaling a net worth of about 500k in today's dollars.

His son, Fred, worked at the family's construction sites from a young age and took over his father's business. (The other son, John, went to college and did fine as an electrical engineer, though he had children there is nothing about them on Wikipedia, so he disappeared into obscurity.) So Fred, second generation, is still scrappy, but has a focus, unlike his dad. He marries a maid, builds up the family business, pulls some interesting/possibly immoral deals, and does well enough that his children attend private school. His children do fine for the most part, though all end up divorced. He was a super hard working second generation guy, though the focus was definitely business and not health or relationships.

One of his children is Donald who, third generation that he was, takes his family's business big. Donald has another brother that also works in the family business and does very well financially but no kids. They have a sister who becomes a judge and does fine. Her one child becomes psychologist. They are still a scrappy family, not intellectual, not what you'd call a "good" family. All of them, every single one, is divorced. And it's not like real estate is their sole focus. Donald (and his most successful child, Ivanka) does reality television and writes books in addition to real estate. Ivanka has clothing line in addition to real estate. So no idea where this family is headed but the point remains: I think outlying success takes more than one generation.

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