Rags to Riches
We all love a good rags to riches story. The very term rags to riches comes from one of the forefathers of this great US of A, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was one of the true polymaths of early America. Before he zapped himself into history with his notable kiting excursion, Benjamin Franklin was the poor son (one of 17 kids) of a soap and candle maker. He wasn’t born into fortune or fame but created both with persistence, drive and a whole lot of luck. The rags to riches phrase comes about from when he got into the printing trade as an apprentice to his older brother. At the time, much of the paper used for printing was made from old rags. Since Franklin made his fortune in the newspaper biz – the term rags to riches was born.
We love the underdog story. Damn near every year, Hollywood releases yet another sports story about how a team or a player defied all odds, personal hardships, bigotry, aliens, or whatever the hell else it might be to come out on top. ‘Based on a true story’ holds a special place in our hearts because it means somebody actually lived through that story (or something close to it) for reals.
Rudy is one that always sticks out in my memory. Rudy was about a poor kid growing up in a steel town in Illinois back in the 60s. His dream was to one day play football for Notre Dame. The problem was he just wasn’t very talented or big or fast. Early in the movie, he gives his dream up and accepts the day to day grind of working steel, until his best friend blows himself up in a mill accident. This brings him to a come to Jesus moment where he decides he will follow his dream regardless of the odds.
Turns out, not only is he untalented, slow and short, he’s also got some serious learning disabilities to overcome. He fights through these while attending a junior college and finally makes his way into Notre Dame. At that point, he becomes a ‘walk-on’ for the football team. In this role, he is essentially an animated tackling dummy that gets the snot beat out of him on a daily basis. He fights through the pain and the hardship and ultimately gets the chance to dress for the final game. He rides the bench until the final play where a reluctant coach ultimately puts him in and he is able to close his career with a sack of the QB. He gets carried off the field by his team as the only player in the history of the program ever to do so.
Inspiring stuff. Unfortunately, the way it’s presented is mostly horseshit. More on that in a second.
The Train Wreck
Let’s look at the other stories we love to fill our time with – the train wrecks. The only thing we seem to love more than an underdog story is the converse, the drama of a good riches to rags takedown. There’s a reason why every checkout line in your local grocery is filled with tabloids. You ever wonder who reads those things? Riiiiight. Admit it, you do.
As a country we celebrated the demises of our little pop goddesses Britney and Lindsay. These are kids that were basically exploited since childhood. They somehow made it on to the big stage and publicly rebelled from that exploitation. Once that rebellion turned into a train wreck, the country collectively applauded their fall with a joy only paralleled to Romans watching Christians get ripped apart by lions. What the hell is the matter with us?
Why do we love these meteoric rises and falls with such passion? A part of it is this need to know that we can change our stars. When we see the underdog make it, we put ourselves in his or her shoes and think, even if just for a moment, “I could have done that.” We live vicariously through film maker’s eyes. As the protagonist realizes their dream we, in some small way, do too. It shows us that dreams can be realized and that fills us with hope.
On the other side of the coin, we want to see justice done when the entitled take too much. We want to be assured that nobody is untouchable. This allows us the fantasy of a fair and just world. Even when we know that the slice owned by the 1% continues to grow at an exponential rate.
Why traditional self-help sucks
Back to the horseshit element of these stories. The fallacies arise because the whole story is never being told. In the underdog story, two big factors are typically neglected or outright omitted. The first is the sheer volume of hard work required for the underdog to find victory. Sure, this hard work is portrayed, typically in the form of some type of montage, but it makes up a very small part of the movie. The other factor is luck. Every true underdog story needs a heavy dose of luck; a stunning combination of coincidences to make victory even possible. You can’t blame Hollywood for this. A movie that showed nothing but some dude working out for four hours wouldn’t sell any tickets. The same is true with luck. Luck is a lot of things but inspirational is not one of them.
As for the downfall stories, we rarely see the amount of crap that these poor public pariahs have to put up with on a daily basis. All of the parasites that hang on to them. How their families have cashed in on them. How lonely a life they actually live. I honestly can’t imagine anything worse than that type of fame but that realization comes with maturity.
Clearly, we love the meteoric part of the rise and fall as much as we like the rise and the fall itself. Meteoric implies speed. Speed implies that silver bullets may actually exist. That’s what we want to hear. We not only want to know that we can change our stars but we want it to be easy.
That’s what a lot of traditional self-help sells. A lot of self-help has great advice but with zero accountability and no real road map of the hard work required to find success. Self-help is the Hollywood of positive psychology. First and foremost it needs to sell you a story. To do that, it has to summarize the advice into a couple of silver bullets that will look good on a book jacket. It has to make the hard work look montageable.
That’s the Rudy Fallacy. There are no montages in real life. You can’t fast forward the hard work. You have to put the time in and when luck does strike, you have to have the skills and the eye to see it for what it is.