“Social Mobility” is NOT the Issue!

“When I was 12 or 13, I wanted to build something and I needed some parts, so I picked up the phone and called Bill Hewlett–he was listed in the Palo Alto phone book. He answered the phone and he was real nice. He chatted with me for, like, 20 minutes. He didn’t know me at all, but he ended up giving me some parts and he got me a job that summer working at Hewlett-Packard on the line, assembling frequency computers. ‘Assembling’ may be too strong. I was putting in screws. It didn’t matter–I was in heaven.”  –  Steve Jobs

Here’s why I think that if 12- and-13-year-olds in our society were taught to think like 12-or-13-year-old Steve Jobs, “social mobility” wouldn’t be a problem.

social mobility[image source: http://uncomfortablesoul.com/post/66933680664]

Regardless of statistics, 73.3% of which are made up on the spot, understanding the attitude of most of our current culture tells you exactly why there’s a lot of social stagnation.

I’m not as concerned with statistics as I am with the nitty-gritty how-to’s for individuals. Because I’ve seen, history has proved, Thomas Stanley and many others have documented, and a lot of people like Steve Jobs and Sam Walton are proud of the fact, that“social mobility” has more to do with an individual’s self-control (including having the humility to ask for and accept help), self-awareness, and determination–more to do with those than with the family they were born into, the schools they got to attend, the “people they knew.”

I’m not as concerned with the general state of our economy as I am with an individual’s self-discipline because it’s each individual’s self-discipline or lack thereof that makes the general state of our economy. And it’s the very idea that we need to “be more equal because social mobility is hard” that encourages the laziest people in our society to stay lazy.

When people complain about the difficulty these days of social mobility it bothers me. Because I’ve worked with the people at the bottom of the social ladder for a long time and tried to help them as much as I can. I’ve offered to buy someone an alarm clock so that he can stop missing work and maybe get promoted and been turned down because he “can’t take help.” I’ve been begged for “$5 for gas or else I’ll miss work and get fired and my kids will go hungry” by someone who smokes hundreds of dollars of cigarettes a month and whose car is decked out in a terrifying amount of Ed Hardy bling.

[Side note: For one thing, the “good old days” were certainly not some dream world either. For every Michael Dell, who started work as a dishwasher at $2.30 an hour and saved enough hard-earned money through high school to buy a car and computers so that he could try to start a risky business, PCs Limited, in his college dorm room–there was another kid who decided screwing around was a little more comfortable and kept washing dishes all his life. We just never heard about him.]

Sure, there’s not as much social mobilizing going on these days as we’d like… but I’m convinced that it’s because almost everyone in our society is no longer being taught “you’d better work hard,” but instead “you’d better get what you want.” Most of those complaining about how “unequal” it all is and how “it’s impossible” for them to get anywhere are the ones who simply don’t think they should have to raise a finger (or stop overdrafting every paycheck for more illegal weed). The worldview of modern America’s “underclass” is this: I should be able to have as much fun as I want, do as little work as I want, and be carried up the social ladder.

I strongly believe that “social mobility” is not out of the question for any able-minded person. In fact, with a world full of new ideas, new inventions, and new businesses, there are more opportunities than ever. It just takes certain ingredients our society no longer values or demands. Especially: self-control, humility, and determination.

1. Self-control: I knew that a great resource for my finding my next step on the social ladder would be to visit a Toastmasters club. The idea was a little scary–I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what to wear, didn’t want to ask and sound silly, didn’t know whether I should be there early, didn’t know if they would ask me to talk, was worried about what the members would think of me. For someone who had been for two years in the food industry and faced lots of put-downs, a professional public speaking and leadership club made me nervous and self-conscious. Very much so.

So after committing to myself three weeks in a row to visit and finding an excuse to let myself off the hook each week, I finally went. I threw some nice clothes in a backpack, left more than an hour early on my first day off in ages, walked the three miles into the city (since I didn’t have a car), changed clothes in a gas station bathroom, and hurried down the road to the meeting place. I arrived two minutes early and panicked. “What kind of an impression will it make to rush in at the last minute???” So I turned around and walked the three miles home. After worrying all the way to the meeting, I despaired all the way home.

Doesn’t all seem like that big a deal, I know, but sometimes the little scary steps are the hardest. Especially when you’re just getting started. Practicing self-control and self-direction isn’t easy. The next week I left an hour and a half early and waited in the meeting room for twenty minutes before anyone showed up. Following that nerve-racking meeting one of the club members invited me to his beautiful home for a wine and cheese party with several other business owners and invited me to join his small business.

Taking the risk of embarrassment, controlling myself when I really didn’t feel like doing something scary–it was a big step in my own “social mobility.” I’ve told all my former co-workers about Toastmasters–about all the professionals you can meet, all the connections you make, all the help they offer. They think it’s scary–of course! Everyone is self-conscious when they first go to Toastmasters! They say, “yeah, I should try that.” But they never do. Because it’s a lot less scary to just go buy another 6-pack and watch more football.

[Shameless plug: If you live in the Twin Cities area, come visit our awesome Toastmasters club 12:05-1:00 every Wednesday in Apple Valley! Here are directions.]

If you have self-control with your emotions, your money, your work-ethic, your habits, and more, you absolutely can make progress.

2. Courage: Here’s a big one. I’ve learned to ask for help. It was asking for help that got my foot into the door of the financial industry where I’m now working and learning lots and even happier than before. But admitting you need help and asking for it are scary things. One thing most professional-development leaders have realized is that the ability to ask for and receive help is very high on “wealthy” people’s lists of what made them successful. Of course there are many more things, but I mention this particularly because it’s one that the “underclass” just will not accept. I’ve been more shocked by this than almost anything else.

The chronically poor people I’ve seen who never can seem to make any progress, no matter how bad they “want” it, absolutely refuse to ask for help. They aren’t even willing to receive it, usually (of course, “help” does not equal just-enough-gas-money-to-get-by or more cigarettes–those, they’d gladly receive). Life-changing, socially-mobilizing help is often refused. Most of the “underclass” I’ve worked with have refused to ask for help, proudly admitting it’s a matter of pride. They’ve also refused to accept real help.

You don’t need “access” to the wealthiest people. If I walked up to Bill Gates and said, “I’m a great guy, you should fund my education,” he’d be a little silly to listen. Since he essentially earns hundreds of thousands per hour, prioritizing unsupported soliciting from some kid wouldn’t necessarily be the most charitable use of his time, which for him equals money–and Bill Gates’s money has helped a lot of people. But there are people a level up from you–the next step you need to take–who would love to help. Just like there are people a little closer to Bill Gates who he might love to help.

The wealthy people that have personally helped me aren’t the wealthiest. They’re just several steps up and had the kindness to give me time and attention and a little extra help. But I had to learn to ask. And when I started asking, I was shocked at just how much people love to help. So the reason it seems like there’s “so little access” to help has a lot to do with the fact that having the humility and emotional courage to ask for help is simply not seen as very important in our society.

If you have the humility and courage to ask for and receive real help, you absolutely can make progress.

3. Finally, determination: You can learn how to ask for help sometimes and you can learn how to force yourself to make the right decisions, but if you’re not committed to valuing your social/financial progress more highly than your immediate comfort, you will hold yourself back. Self-control is about learning to not spend your whole paycheck at the mall instead of a on a business suit for your next interview. Courage is about being willing to ask for help from people who have taken the steps you need to take. Determination is about committing to yourself to keep stepping forward instead of just collapsing in front of your TV every evening.

Determination says, “yes, I value entertainment, but not as much as I value my success, so I will read this book.” Determination says, “So, I’ve done A, B, C, and D–and I’m still not there. I feel like giving up. But I can’t give up on my future.” Determination is what Walt Disney needed when he was fired by a newspaper because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Determination is what Fred Astaire had after his first screen test was judged, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” Determination was what made Thomas Edison say, “I didn’t fail 1000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1000 steps.” Determination is how Colonel Sanders decided to make his 1009th sales call for his first “yes.” Determination is what the failure-of-a-student Winston Churchill meant when he said, “Never, Never, Never, Never give up.”If you are truly determined, you absolutely can make progress.

There is no such thing as “social immobility.” The term just helps people feel better about laziness, self-consciousness, and irresponsibility.

I have no disrespect for people who are trying hard and haven’t made it very far yet. I’m one of them. I respect them because they’re trying. And those truly trying make progress. The ones who are begging for the rules to be changed, the social ladder to be flattened so they can walk across it, life and riches to be spoon-fed them–they’re the ones who would rather just go home and watch another episode than google “how to nail an interview.” I have no respect for that mindset–although it’s a comfy one.

And I think all the great leaders through history who have shown real tenacity would be quite offended by the suggestion that they just got lucky.

So follow in their foot steps. Be self-controlled, be courageous, and be determined. You will see a difference.

I highly recommend:


[I originally wrote this post on Facebook in 2013. At the time, a lot of people seemed to appreciate or be encouraged by it. I recently realized I hadn’t yet posted it on my website, so here you go. I hope in some way it is encouraging or inspiring to you, or may be to someone you know. You can see the original Facebook post here. Thanks for reading! :) ]

Author: Peter Elbridge

I am a lifelong learner and avid reader, which translates into doing smart work for myself, my team, and my clients. I have a passion for effective leadership and an even bigger passion for helping others do and feel better. I have a lot of experience in communication, public speaking, and writing. Above all, I have a deep and genuine care for every life I touch. That's why I write. (My opinions and endorsements are my own and do not represent my employer.)

One thought on ““Social Mobility” is NOT the Issue!”

Thoughts, questions, tips, feedback? Please share!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s