Are You Rich? If So, You Probably Got Lucky

As a businessman, myself, I become frustrated when my peers depict their success as the sole result of hard work and competence. To be sure, many of them sacrificed tremendously. They gave up parts of their families, their marriages and their time. They risked their money. They put it all on the line and deserve respect for their accomplishments. But successful businesspeople can be loath to admit that there were other significant contributing factors. Contrary to what their egos might tell them, they didn’t do it all on their own.

Opportunities are not distributed equally. Some of us just have a better shot than others. For example, a white American male raised in affluent Manhattan in the 1960s will automatically have had a better chance at creating wealth than a black woman in Mobile, Alabama. Racial, sexual and economic bias exist, although they are fortunately decreasing in many places.

In fact, one does not need to visit extremes to identify inherent disadvantages. They exist in plain sight. Consider this: in the United States, alone, over 10 million people suffer from medically debilitating depression each year. That means they may be unable to sleep properly, concentrate and make good decisions, etc. Oftentimes they have suicidal thoughts and cannot focus on anything positive. Imagine trying to build a business, something that’s daunting enough, while also suffering from clinical depression!

In the US, people of lower economic status generally have less access to affordable health care. Treatment there is expensive and insurance premiums can be costly. Moreover, poorer folks may find it unaffordable to take time away from work for visits to the doctor. As such, they typically lack the resources that a middle-class person might have to overcome the same obstacle. There are roughly 40 million Americans who live below the poverty line. Their children simply do not have the same access to care for depression. When that logic is extrapolated to all serious medical conditions, it is clear how starting from less wealth can be a major setback.

Disparities can vary in every country. But it is generally true that the richer one is, the better access to health care and education one has. Therefore, the economic category of family we are randomly born into greatly impacts our future chances at financial success. To underscore that last sentence: being born to a middle or upper-class family is pure luck of the draw. It is neither an accomplishment nor is it a right.

To me, the most blatant example is where I live: Vancouver, Canada. The average cost of a home here is over $1 million. As such, anyone who bought a house in the 1980s, 90s or 00s is likely a millionaire — often several times over. Homeowners in Vancouver did the same thing as many other adults around the world. They saved up and purchased a place to live. They should be commended for their initiative. But the fact that real estate boomed in this city — something that they had little to do with — made them wealthy. Homeowners here are not generally investment wizards. They just happened to buy in Vancouver because that’s where they lived.

Success in business does usually require endless hard work and prudence. I don’t intend to take anything away from those who have done well. Indeed, one often has to overcome gruelling obstacles. I also do not submit that success (or lack thereof) is promised by one’s location, race, gender, family, access to health care, education or connections. But it is deeply influenced by those factors. It is necessary to acknowledge that because those who are not as well-off are frequently characterized as lazy, dumb or incompetent. Though that may frequently be the case, it is also often not.

What would happen if the richest 5,000 Vancouverites were stripped of wealth and challenged to rebuild it in a city like Detroit — where the average home price is $60,000? How many of them would become millionaires again? If I had to guess, I’d say that 10% would achieve great economic success. The other 90% would have the same net worth as the average citizen of Detroit.