Matters Column

Rich kid, poor kid: Where you end up is all up to you

August 30, 2013
Print
Text Size:
A A

I had an interesting discussion several years ago with a man about the advantages of growing up in a wealthy family. While he grew up in a family of modest means, my father was the general superintendent of all the Buick plants in Flint. He was a successful businessman whom I admired for his ability to implement strategies.

I would never be so foolish as to think my life was negatively impacted by my father’s position. There are, however, some life experiences that children from privileged backgrounds don't have that would help them be better prepared for real life.

Children from well-to-do families may, as young adults leaving the nest, have their first experience with the unfairness of life. Calvin of “Calvin and Hobbs” cartoon fame, when informed by his father that life was unfair, answered he knew life was unfair — but that was OK as long as it was unfair in his favor.

All emotion uses energy. Using energy on the issue of life's economic imbalance is a waste of your time. If your parents are wealthy and you are not, correct the situation by working harder, smarter, taking more risk, etc. If your parents were not financially secure, that is not in your power to change. If your parents lacked equity and you do, too, after a certain age that is your fault. 

There are attitudes about success and failure that develop from the economic condition in which people grew up. The well-to-do individual may feel success should be a natural occurrence for them. After all, with their parents’ position, they deserve it. The young person of modest means may feel the universe owes them some sort of karmic compensation to equal out the disparities of their youth.

Both are wrong. The business world does not care where you came from. It only cares where you’re at now. A sense of entitlement that comes with any experience in early life is misdirected. You are where you are at the moment you are there. The past created in you the attitudes and values that will either help you succeed or doom you to failure.

Whether your parents were rich or poor, you have to evaluate your life assumptions for validity. Just like the assumptions used in financial planning, if the assumptions are wrong, the results will not be useful.

Education is one of the keys to success. In our country, anybody can get an education. The level of difficulty is disparate but the opportunity is there. I decided to attend The University of Detroit in 1960. It was an expensive private school. I worked throughout my time there, but I did not have to. My roommate cut meat at an A&P store in Ferndale, starting at 3 a.m.

We both worked, but my effort was not required to be as great as his. Who do you suppose appreciated their education more? When he hit the job market, my roommate already had been self-sufficient for four years. Do you suppose he was a little better prepared for real life than I was?

On the issue of expectations, I am not sure of the value that comes with living in the shadow of a parent who has accomplished a lot. The expectations I am referring to are the internal ones. My father started out as a metallurgical engineer. Three of my brothers were educated in engineering. I had no interest in it. They felt they had been pressured into that career; I never paid any attention to that kind of pressure.

There can be unrealistic self-induced expectations that cause stress for the child of successful parents. On the other side, there can be a lack of awareness for potential opportunities for a person who grows up in a household where life is viewed as a stagnant situation.

There is a theory that keeping your expectations low means you’re never disappointed. Seems kind of counter-productive to me.

One of my favorite conversations about sources of motivation was with Pete Secchia 30 years ago. I asked him why people pursued the things they do. He said people pursue in their adult lives what they perceived they lacked as children. I asked him what he saw in me. He said that, as a kid, I thought I was dumb, so as an adult I am constantly trying to show people I’m smarter than they are.

Right on. I was virtually blind due to nearsightedness until I was in the third grade. I had three older brothers commenting on my apparent lack of capability. When I have asked people what got them to where they are, it pretty much has followed Pete's assessment.

I think it is a valuable tool in life to understand your internal motivation. Had I understood Pete's concept, I might not have tried to prove I was smarter than my bosses. Bad idea.

There is a simple truth in all this. You are not responsible for where you come from; you are responsible for where you end up. That is the beauty of the culture we have created in this country. You can start anywhere and end up wherever you are willing to work hard enough to put yourself.

Unfortunately, we have elected to office in Washington people who want to kill that dream. If people are free to be whatever they want to be, they don't tend to depend on the ruling elite to dole out benefits to them. How tragic it will be if they succeed. 

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and the past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

Recent Articles by Paul Hense

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus