May 2014

Everything I wish I’d known at 17 about social mobility

Hey. I’ve got some important stuff I want to talk to you about.

It’s presumptuous as hell for me to claim any authority at all here. I haven’t won anything yet.

I’m pretty excited, though, to be in a position at last to pursue my dreams and goals. No knowledge is ever perfect, and if I hoard it much longer it may reach you too late to be useful. Or worse, I might be hit by a bus and then it just ends inside me.

So contained here is everything that I, at the age of 17, wish someone could have told me about winning the game.

Which game?

The game.

The one we’re all playing.

I’m going to define winning as you closing the gap between what you are and what you want to be. You get to define the goalposts. You’ll know it when you’ve got it.

But you may be very worried. Worried that the goalpost you’ve chosen for yourself is a little (or a lot) out of range from your current position.

You may be worried that navigating the path is beyond your abilities.

You may be worried that even if you arrived, you would not belong.

If those anxieties are familiar, then we have things in common. I’m going to open the vault for you on everything I know about addressing those concerns.

Spoiler alert: it’s going to lean heavily on the internet.

If you’re rolling your eyes as though this is obvious, we’re cool: you know everything you need to know. You’re good to go; skip the rest.

But I need to make the case to anyone who was like me at 17 that this perspective is relevant.

Here’s what I’ve got.

Life is risk

To advance from one position on the board to a more favorable one, the player must venture.

Some ventures are straightforward:

Buying a slice of pizza requires a small amount of capital and minimal risk. You need to survive traffic and have four bucks in your pocket. There’s risk but it’s small and if everything goes as well as you hope, you get pizza.

Other ventures carry more risk:

You need to learn a skill in order to compete for a job. This used to be nearly as risk-free as the pizza example. But in the last 10 years, this deal got broken. “Learn a skill” got defined as “go to college” and then going to college lost a lot of value.

The costs for this sort of venture can vary dramatically. And what happens if the job hunt fails? You’re still on the hook for the education bills.

The more ventures you can undertake, the more spaces you can advance around the game board.

Risk requires resources

Resources determine how many ventures you can safely undertake within any given period.

Since each venture has risk, sane pursuit of them has certain costs. Some costs are immutable: you only have so much time and energy.

Other costs can be mitigated through investment, or infusion of resources.

If the only pizza in walking distance was in a neighborhood that made you feel unsafe, you might not undertake the venture. But if someone came along and offered you a free ride across town to another pizza shop, of course you’d go.

And you’d pick something up for them, if they wanted, too. It’s only fair.

So on this game board, resources equal game moves. The more you’ve got, the further you can go. You can cooperate with others for access to their resources.

Money is not the only resource

A resource is anything that has value. Your resources can be used for your ventures. They can also be used to trade for other resources.

Money is a pretty great resource, don’t get me wrong. It’s accepted almost universally. It is very well quantified. It can be transmitted instantly and electronically. Money’s efficiency makes it very easy to convert into almost any other specific resource.

Another pivotal resource is information. The more information you have, the easier your transactions will be. Persuading your counterpart often requires information. Information protects you when your counterpart is dishonest. Information illuminates opportunity, and often unlocks other resources.

Information, when applied as a skill, is often traded directly for money. Economics apply here: if your skills are uncommon, they may command a higher value. Governments often try to give this resource away through public education and college subsidies.

Companionship is a critical resource that impacts your ability to survive. Everybody needs other people. The people who care about you give of their time and flexibility to share in the joy of companionship. Neglecting your responsibilities to this resource can have devastating consequences.

Imagination can be a transformative resource, but trading in it can be challenging. When combined with sufficient skill, imagination commands substantial value.

Time and energy, or sweat: the work you’re able to do. You’ve got finite time between now and when you fall asleep tonight. You’ve got a finite number of nights. Sweat is scarce and irreplaceable, so it should be traded carefully.

Resourcefulness is your ability to identify and use resources, even when they’re less than obvious.

There are other resources. Even if you don’t have money, you’ve still got other tools to work with to advance your ventures.

Resources are allocated inefficiently

Okay.

So you want to move across the board. But you feel like your resources are lacking. I understand that.

I was conceived as the bastard son of a 51-year-old philanderer and a 20-year-old girl haunted by addiction. There were not resources, of any kind, in abundance.

I wasn’t there, but as I understand it, prevailing opinion in those days was that my mom should’ve terminated the pregnancy. I hasten to say the world is best when women have first and final authority on decisions regarding their reproductive future.

But for my case, it seems to have worked out that my mother chose to ignore our family’s advice and buy me a ticket to the game. The cost was pregnancy, a brutal delivery, and diverting resources toward me for over two decades.

All starting at age 20.

That’s not an easy deal for anyone at that age, much less someone who is resource-constrained.

My mom would kill me, at this point, if I didn’t mention this: she never took foodstamps, or welfare. She was too proud for that. She preferred to convert her sweat into resources, rather than accepting them as a gift from the government.

And I never starved. There was always food, there was always a safe place to sleep. I don’t know how she pulled it off, because I know it wasn’t easy. But that stuff was always solid. Many things, indeed, were solid.

Other things were less solid.

Domestic violence was a feature of my home for several years. At one point I slept through a robbery: I had grown so used to the sound of commotion, I thought my mom and her then-partner were just fighting again.

My mom had never had the time or resources for college. This limited my access to people who could give me meaningful advice about education decisions.

I had no mentorship on the development of my skills and talents broadly, either. I didn’t know anyone who could help me grow or give me advice on my passion for computing devices.

And sometimes money was just fucked. I was registered to start high school. I was looking forward to seeing all of my friends again.

Suddenly, my family and I were moving across the country, fleeing bills that had stacked too high. Living in a house filled with roaches. Cigarette ash piled anywhere that remotely resembled a bowl.

Eventually we dug out of that one. Eventually I didn’t feel a searing shame when I thought about anyone knowing where I lived.

But all this stuff piled up.

Then I chose a college. A college that cost me over $85,000 in debt. Nine years after I finished, I’ve barely made a hole in this.

By 22, I’d given up on getting anywhere close to my dreams. I didn’t know how to find them. Even if I did find them, it felt like I had started too far behind to do anything meaningful with them. The weight of debt took so many options off the table. The dysfunctions of childhood made me feel like such an irredeemable fuckup.

The transition of someone with dreams to someone with a listless acceptance of whatever was painful.

I felt like a failure. I didn’t know what I had failed at — but when I stopped dreaming, I stopped feeling like me.

Punishing student loan bills demanded I work a job. I did. But my heart wasn’t in it. I was treading water.

But other forces would intercede.

Network effects

The most precious resource of all is your network.

You will hear network used in many slimy ways, often as a verb, especially as applied to business.

But in the great game of competing/cooperating apes that is humanity, network has a specific meaning. Here I describe the series of connections you have to other people willing to trade their resources with you.

The more people connected to your network, the more valuable it is.

If I have garnish and you have meat, big deal. If we’re both also friends with Jordan and she has a loaf of bread, the three of us have a sandwich to split. Neither of us know Danny but Jordan does and he has mustard.

Upgrade.

If you’re behind on other resources, you may be behind on the breadth of your network as well. Of all resources, the network returns the highest yields in the long term because it is renewable. Uniquely, a network can potentially provide literally any other resource you need.

You can expand your network by doing things that connect you to more people. But it’s not enough just to meet them. You must invest in them. You have to develop deep relationships. Life is miserable without companionship.

People trust you based on the personal connection you make with them. The more trust, the more opportunities your network will deliver.

But not all nodes are created equal. Your goals may require cooperation with very specific individuals. How do you find them? How can you build a connection with them?

Well. What if there were a way you could move around the game board instantaneously? This teleporter has limitations: only your mind can go. Your body must stay put.

But so much of what we are is our mind. So this advantage is better than nothing, right?

That teleporter is the internet. With the internet you can reach nearly anyone else on the planet. Instantly.

On the internet you will find other disembodied minds. They’re tweeting each other. They’re murmuring around discussion forums. They’re writing essays to each other.

There are piles of communities according to every interest you can imagine.

So. Connect.

And in doing so, you will find friends who’ve been waiting forever to talk to you. You’ll find new ways of seeing the world. You’ll find recommendations for all the stuff your brain just needs to put inside itself. Everything from classes to take to music to hear to shows to watch.

These minds also want help. They have projects they’re working on. Maybe you can pitch in.

This teleporter allows you to invest yourself in people based on your shared values, rather than your geographic proximity. This is a great way to come up from behind in the network department.

To market, to market

The internet is also a collection of markets.

There are uncountable numbers of places to buy, sell or trade resources. Resources of every stripe, from game currencies to computer components to Beanie Babies.

There are also markets for ideas. Places where your voice can cooperate or compete with others.

The internet has global reach built in as a default parameter. Every single one of us who can connect to it is a potential player in the global economy.

Producing any sort of online content, from funny jokes to awesome cat photos to apps, puts your name into a stream that can flow to anyone. What if it flows exactly past a future friend? A future boss? A future spouse?

You won’t know if you don’t play.

Reputation aside, if you create stuff that’s good enough, markets can make you money. By 19 years old, I was selling my ideas for money in Second Life. I made enough to pay my real-life rent.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Dem Broads

Broad City is a refreshing, hilarious, filthy show.

Broad City began as a startlingly funny series on YouTube. Two comedian friends recording tales of being young and broke in New York.

Today Broad City is on Comedy Central. Somewhere out there, a fan base was craving stories only these two could tell. The internet provided an audition that made a whole TV show seem like an obvious choice. The folks with money noticed. The rest is history.

All Mine

Then there was that time a guy from Sweden made a side project that turned into a profitable, global business.

Cycle of progress

Okay, fine. So if we buy that the internet is a valuable tool, how is it leveraged?

It’s going to be different for everyone. Different based on goals and values. Different based on passions.

But in general, the cycle seems to have three stages:

Learn

Use the vast data and connections afforded you by the internet to learn new ways of being creative. New tools, new techniques, new communities to share with. The hunt is up to you.

Try

Then you have to try to apply the combination of your passion and your learning. Maybe you participate in photoshop contests. Maybe you build websites. Maybe you make photo collages of cats being funny. Maybe you write essays with sweeping advice.

Hell, maybe you record yourself in front of a camera. Anything that you can create is fair game.

The most important thing to remember: you do not need anyone’s permission to try. You can try whatever you want, whenever you want. It’s in your hands.

Share

Once you’ve tried, you need to tell people. You need their feedback so you can be better. But you also need them to know you exist. Sharing is a discovery strategy.

Your output will let other people understand your values. If they find them resonant, you may find yourself with new friends and opportunities.

But even if, at first, no one cares…

Repeat

You have to keep learning, trying and sharing. The more times you go through this cycle, the more your talents grow, the more your connections strengthen.

Not every cycle bears fruit. Not every venture pays off.

But I believe that sustained application of effort this way is the most reliable means of developing the skills and network to overcome whatever deficits you feel you were born with.

It’s not cheap, it’s not fast. But the last ten years have taught me its incredible power. I couldn’t be in the position I am without this approach.

While I didn’t have much in the way of resources at the beginning, the internet allowed me to make leapfrog progress at many stages.

Even if it all comes tumbling down and I’m begging in the streets next year, I can’t believe coming this far was possible.

What about college?

As in, should you go?

Maybe.

Schools are a great way to recover from a network deficit. But they cost money and results vary. The better the school you attend, the better your network upgrade.

Schools are also a great way to develop knowledge and skills.

But you have to choose school very early in your path. You may have limited resources. You may not know quite yet what you should do with your talents.

Attending school in that position can leave you with debt so painful, it cancels out any other resource benefits. Choose carefully. Evaluate the resource trade closely. Don’t let inertia carry you into the decision.

No guarantees

All this to say: life is risk.

Nothing is guaranteed.

But what’s essential is understanding the problem space. Understand just how much is under your control, even if it feels like you’re behind.

Understand that the game is winnable. Social mobility has stagnated in the United States. This is not an easy challenge. But you have a tool at your disposal that is unprecedented in human history. You have a means to reach everyone.

Starting from anywhere.

The tl;dr

We live in an information age.

This is a tedious cliche but it’s the foundation of my argument.

The part of you that you think of as you?

That’s information. Everything it sucks in, everything it knows, everything it spews back out: all information. You’re compatible with the teleporter.

As of the 21st century, there are teleporters all over the game board. You can use these to exchange resources and bring them to you in a way that’s unprecedented in human history.

This is it: this is the whole opportunity. Whatever it is you think a path to your success has to look like, throw it out. Those blueprints were written in a different age.

As of right now, everything is up in the air. Grab a handful of it.