The Story That’s Sold

Let me tell you a story about two of my friends, Adam and Benjamin (not their real names). 

Adam grew up under some difficult circumstances. His parents filed for bankruptcy when he was just five years old and divorced shortly thereafter. In the years that followed, Adam’s life was a bit turbulent. He would bounce around between different schools and different condominiums where he lived with his mother, sister, and whoever his mother was dating at the time. Though his living situation at home wasn’t unbearable, there wasn’t much money to go around. His lowest point was living in a cockroach-infested condo where he would regularly steal napkins from fast food restaurants to save money for his family.

Eventually, Adam moved out of that cockroach-infested condo and into a real house when he was in middle school. And though this was a step up for Adam’s living situation, it was a step down for his schooling situation. The high school Adam would eventually attend was in the top 100 for most dropouts in the state. Nevertheless, Adam studied hard, got good grades, and got into a great college.

Now let’s turn our attention to my friend Benjamin. Benjamin grew up with a nice middle class lifestyle. Though his parents also divorced when he was young, Benjamin’s father and extended family were heavily involved in his life. In fact, his mother and father got along so well that they would sometimes attend each others’ family functions alongside Benjamin. As a result of this, Benjamin had a great childhood with lots of love and emotional support.

And while Benjamin’s family didn’t have a ton of money, there were moments of financial prosperity. For example, when Benjamin was in high school he lived in a three story house, had a big screen TV, and his parents owned a sports car. This nice lifestyle provided immense stability for Benjamin to do well in school. As a result, he graduated valedictorian of his high school class and got into a great college.

Here we have two stories about two people with two seemingly different upbringings. But what if I told you that, despite their differences, Adam and Benjamin went to the same university, got similar jobs after college, and have had roughly similar lifetime earnings? What would you say to that? How would that make you feel? Are Adam and Benjamin equally deserving of their success? Or does background matter when taking into account one’s achievements?

You probably already have your answers to these questions. But, I have a confession to make—Adam and Benjamin aren’t two of my friends. They aren’t even two different people. They are both me.

Yes, every detail about Adam and Benjamin’s lives come from my life. I just selectively chose what to tell you about each of them. For Adam, I emphasized the struggles I had growing up, but with Benjamin I emphasized the immense privileges I had that most others don’t. Neither story is more true, they are both biased in their own way.

But think about how often this happens without you knowing about it. How many stories do we hear from people who overemphasize their struggles and downplay their privileges to shape their image?

For example, there is a part in the David and Victoria Beckham documentary, where Victoria talks about how she grew up “working class.” That’s when David barges in and says “Be honest…What car did your Dad drive you to school in?” To which Victoria begrudgingly replies, “In the 1980s my dad had a Rolls Royce.”

Many people want to downplay what advantages they had growing up to make themselves seem more deserving of their current lifestyle. They are always trying to seem less privileged then they really are (or were). For example when you ask people, “To which social class do you belong?” only 1%-2% will ever answer “upper class” even though the upper class includes the top 5% of the wealth spectrum.

People will also downplay their advantages when they are trying to sell you something, especially in the financial space. Just think about how many financial influencers tell their “rags” to riches story as evidence of how to get rich, only to sell you on how to get rich as well. Unfortunately, often the only thing being sold is their story.

After all, wouldn’t you rather listen to the person who was “broke” and then got rich over the person who was already rich and then came up with a system to get rich? It seems logical that the broke-to-rich person’s advice is probably better than the rich-to-rich person’s advice. But how would you know? You wouldn’t.

I’m not saying that every person who went from nothing to something is lying. Of course not, but I am saying that many of them are probably overemphasizing their struggles to help their cause. Why? Because it makes a better story. Because it sells better.

However, I don’t think that someone’s current financial standing or background should hold much weight when determining whether their advice is useful. Just because someone is rich doesn’t imply that they know how they got rich. The same goes for someone who was “poor” and then became rich. After all, you could’ve gotten rich in a different way than what you claim publicly.

What we should do instead is judge the advice based on its own merits. Could this advice have worked for other people? Does it have any evidence of doing so? This is what ultimately matters, not how broke/rich its creator was.

Unfortunately, I know this line of logic won’t sway most people. Because most people do care about someone’s financial background and story before they will listen to them. It’s only natural to want proof of work. But, before you go all-in on someone else’s advice, make sure you know why.

Because it may not be their advice that is selling you, but their story. Thank you for reading.

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This is post 392. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering:

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