To Be Born Poor Doesn’t Mean You’ll Always Be Poor
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To Be Born Poor Doesn’t Mean You’ll Always Be Poor

by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins | April 12, 2013 | Forbes.com

Long after he had established himself as one of America’s leading businessmen, as well as history’s greatest steelmaker, Andrew Carnegie reflected that “We all live in the richest and freest country in the world, where no man is limited except by his own mental attitude and his own desires.”

At the time — a decade or so before the First World War — Carnegie’s attitude was nearly universal. In America, anyone could carve out a better life for himself if he worked hard. Today, Carnegie’s attitude is considered almost quaint.

Opportunity? Why, opportunity is a rare thing, and those Americans not lucky enough to be born with it should be given it at other people’s expense. Whether it’s an education, a job, a house, or a grant, opportunity is seen as something that others have to provide you with. If you don’t succeed, it’s not because you failed to capitalize on plentiful opportunities. It’s because you just weren’t one of the fortunate few.

Carnegie would have bristled. “My men began in exactly the same station in life which I occupied a few years ago,” Carnegie once observed. “They have had the same privileges for personal advancement that I had.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone beginning in a lower station. Carnegie had arrived in America, a twelve-year-old Scottish immigrant. With barely a penny to his family’s name, and with only five years of formal education behind him (“Lack of schooling is no valid excuse for failure; neither is an exhaustive schooling a guarantee of success,” he would later say), young Andrew went to work at a textile mill, twelve hours a day, for $1.20 a week.

It wasn’t much, but it was enough. The job gave Carnegie the opportunity to learn and to demonstrate his dedication to hard work. Very quickly he moved on and up: less than a year later he had secured a position at O’Reilly’s Telegraph Company, starting at more than twice what he had earned at the mill.

It was there that Carnegie’s rise began in earnest — not through some “lucky break” but through the habit Carnegie would later refer to as “going the extra mile.” Carnegie, still working incredibly long days, began going to work early in order to learn how to send and receive telegraph messages. He worked so hard at it that he could eventually take telegraph messages by ear rather than by transcribing the Morse code — a feat only two other people in America could perform.

That ability helped him gain the notice of Thomas A. Scott, a superintendent for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Scott hired the young man, still a teenager, to be his secretary and telegrapher at $35 a month — a tidy sum at the time and a far cry from $1.20 a week.

Carnegie soon became indispensable to Scott. The real turning point came not too long after he was hired. Carnegie was in the office alone one day when news came of a wreck on the Eastern Division. Rail traffic started backing up; instead of shrugging his shoulders and saying “not my job, not my problem,” Carnegie chose to take action. “Mr. Scott was not to be found,” he would later write. “Finally, I could not resist the temptation to plunge in, take the responsibility, give ‘train orders’ and set matters going.”

It was no easy decision. Although Carnegie had watched Scott deal with similar problems in the past, lives and property were at stake. “I knew it was dismissal, disgrace, perhaps criminal punishment for me if I erred. On the other hand, I could bring in the wearied freight-train men who had lain out all night. I could set everything in motion. I knew I could.” And he did, forging Scott’s signature and issuing orders until rail traffic was back to normal.

Thanks to Carnegie’s determination and hard-won abilities, Scott started opening doors for the young man and teaching him the skills he would need to succeed in business. Later, he would help Carnegie make his first investment, launching Andrew’s career as a capitalist in earnest. By 1860, at the age of 25, Carnegie was making almost $50,000 — more than enough to count himself as wealthy.

“Opportunity” means a set of circumstances in which a course of successful action is possible. Opportunity is abundant. What’s scarce is the willingness to take advantage of it. To the extent a country is free, a person with no money, no education, no connections can rise as far as his ability and ambition will take him. But developing ability and ambition is a challenging, uncomfortable, even scary process. Relatively few people in any era choose to do it, and as a result, few capitalize on life’s unlimited opportunities.

In Carnegie’s words, a “man may be born in poverty, but he does not have to go through life in poverty. He may be illiterate but he does not have to remain so. But . . . no amount of opportunity will benefit the man who neglects or refuses to take possession of his own mind power and use it for his own personal advancement.”

That was what led Carnegie to success: the constant use of his mind in pursuit of a better life. Whether he was learning a new skill, taking decisive action in an emergency, or forging the most innovative and efficient steelmaking company in the world, the commitment to following the judgment of his reasoning mind was the only opportunity he needed.

That — the willingness to think — is something no one else can give you.

About The Authors

Yaron Brook

Chairman of the Board, Ayn Rand Institute

Don Watkins

Former Fellow (2006-2017), Ayn Rand Institute