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Friday, May 17, 2024

Origin Story

Origin Story

Every one of us has an origin story: We define ourselves by our background, the narrative of what made us who we are. However, people often don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, and the narrative of “I” is often that, a story.

James Frey found no takers for his novel, so he repackaged it as a memoir, his story, which became the No. 1 bestseller A Million Little Pieces. Biographies and memoirs are America’s second-favorite book genre. Ronald Reagan tried to curry favor with Israeli leaders with a story about how he helped liberate Nazi death camps in WWII. He didn’t — did his military service in Hollywood. P. Diddy built an empire on allusions to his criminal past, but he attended the same prep school as the founder of Sequoia Capital before attending Howard University. Fabricated military service is apparently so common that Congress passed a law against it.

People embellish their origin stories, as it’s the only thing others have to go on — from potential employers and friends to potential mates. We are the product of our circumstances, personally and professionally, and a good origin story confers meaning to our life and career. We should recognize that and embrace it … but also be honest about it.

Self-Made? No Such Thing

The most important factor in determining a person’s future is when and where they are born. Each of us, born into any other situation, would experience a different outcome. Just as the market trumps individual performance, so does circumstance. I likely would not be an entrepreneur or an academic had I been born in South Sudan. If I’d been born in 1920s Germany, I’d likely have been a Nazi who perished on a Russian field.

This isn’t just true across continents and centuries — it’s also evident at a micro level. Being born one year earlier or later can make a big difference. People who graduate into a recession earn less for 10 to 15 years than those who graduate amid prosperity. Fate also changes block to block: One of the strongest signals of life expectancy (and much else) is the ZIP code where you’re born. Within the same city, life expectancy can vary by 30 years based on ZIP code. Meanwhile, an American female whose parents rank in the bottom decile of earners has a 3 in 10 chance of having a teenage pregnancy. For daughters in the top decile, it’s 3 in 100.

This all confirms a basic point: The cards you’re dealt matter … a lot. Your income is the clearest indicator of how much money your kid will make when they’re 30. Churn is increasingly a rare-earth element in the U.S. Per a Georgetown analysis, “It’s better to be born rich than smart … The most talented disadvantaged children have a lower chance of academic and early career success than the least talented affluent children.”

However, the people dealt the best cards can’t see their hands. The myth of the “self-made man” is rife among U.S. citizens who’ve never faced a draft or registered a devaluation in their currency — people who are remora fish on investments made by the U.S. government. Tech has raised a cohort of people who simultaneously credit their character for their success and blame a rigged market for their failures. The real cage match in tech is entitlement vs. empathy. The former is winning, and that results in a staggering accumulation of power that’s amoral, focused only on the aggregation of more power regardless of what happens to people with less. (Side note: I hope they beat the shit out of each other. Is that wrong?)


Until 40, my story was that I was the son of a single immigrant mother who lived and died a secretary. I overcame those humble beginnings to achieve significant success because, you know, I’m awesome. After 40, my eyesight began to wane, but I could see clearer: I was born a straight white male in 1960s California, which gave me state-sponsored access to elite universities (UCLA and Berkeley). UCLA had an acceptance rate of 76% when I applied — this year it’s less than 9%. Later, Berkeley admitted me to its MBA program with a GPA of (no joke) 2.27 from UCLA. Total tuition for all seven years? $8,000. I came of professional age in an era of processing power and the internet. I lived in San Francisco, where, in the decade of the nineties, more wealth was created within a 7-mile radius than in all of Europe since WWII.

I was given a rocket ship, built by others. To be clear, I’m talented and navigated the ship well … but I wasn’t going to soar without the sacrifice and talent of millions of others. The ship blew up several times, but I survived, and there were other vessels waiting. “Luck” doesn’t begin to describe my situation. My freshman college roommate, born gay, took his own life at 33 when his HIV progressed to full-blown AIDS. Two decades later, I’m in Ibiza with friends finding a quiet place to FaceTime my boys and get updates on our dog Leia. (She’s not feeling well.)

Like others, I have faced hardship (an absent father) and tragedy (lost my mom early). But each of these losses has played a role in my good fortune. I make my living communicating, and much of this skill isn’t the result of my own hard work. My dad can captivate any room, and even though he wasn’t around much, I inherited some of his ability. My mom’s sickness, and our inability to access good care, was a hugely motivating, defining moment for me. I saw the rough cut of the American story and decided to get my shit together in hopes of living a richer life and garnering the resources to take better care of the people who mattered to me. Capitalism is brutal — and motivating. Lately, the balance has swung too far to the former. But that’s another post.

Coming Home

Supposedly each of us has bits of every material present at the dawn of the universe. It makes sense — at least the morning after mushroom chocolates (see above: Ibiza) — that our matter will also be present in galaxies/stars/planets/organisms birthed trillions of years from now. Our stories may or may not make the journey, but the emotions they inspire will become instinct, then DNA, and this matter will disperse. So the question is, distinct from the story you and others tell about yourself, how do you make people feel? When people come in contact with you, do they feel insecure or inspired? Do you leave people cold or comforted? Do you bring joy, harmony, love?

I’m in a deficit here — I’ve taken more than I’ve given. I have a debt to pay. I’ve started with my boys and am working outward from there. Still time. It’s a comforting thought, that bits of us will live on and arrive at distant places trillions of years from now. We all have our longest journey still ahead of us. When you get there, when you show up, what will be felt?

Life is so rich,

P.S. This week on the Prof G Pod, I spoke with Kai Ryssdal, host and senior editor of Marketplace. We talked economics, fatherhood, being a good partner, and more. Listen here.

P.P.S. Section’s new Marketing Mini-MBA bootcamp is launching this fall. Cohorts are limited to 100 people, so join the waitlist to be the first to hear when enrollment opens.

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