Recently, I wrote a review of Adam Shepard’s book Scratch Beginnings. In the book, Adam describes his attempt to “start from scratch” – employing nothing more than $25, a bag, and the clothes on his back (and not using any personal contacts or resume builders) to see how far he could go in a year.
Largely, Adam succeeded. He was able to get a steady job that paid very well, moved from a homeless shelter to an apartment, and saved thousands of dollars in a little under a year. Adam’s journey shows, quite simply, that a person can lift themselves up by their bootstraps.
But what kind of a person? The comments on that post started to really dig into that question, arguing that even though Adam did start from scratch in a material sense, he had several inherent advantages that he couldn’t just drop at will: a college education, good mental and physical health, his relatively extroverted behavior, relative youth, the fact that he’s white, and the fact that he’s male all give him some inherent advantage.
I absolutely agree. Each of those attributes helped Adam get ahead. In various ways, these attributes helped Adam make personal connections and friendships, enabled him to find work, and helped him to keep the jobs he found.
Many of the readers offered up the opinion that Adam’s inherent advantages made his story invalid. With so many inherent advantages, they argued, most people could lift themselves out of a terrible situation. And this is where our perspectives diverge.
First of all, whether Adam succeeds or not is largely irrelevant – the lessons learned along the way are much more valuable. In this story, Adam himself is relatively incidental. The real meat of the story is the game of life – how can it be played to bring someone success?
Adam’s success only makes it a better story – one with a “happy” ending instead of a “sad” ending. With either ending, though, a good reader would be able to pull out life lessons that they can use for themselves, and that’s the real benefit of a book like Scratch Beginnings – to teach us something new that we can perhaps use in life.
Second, Adam is a pretty poor litmus test for what it takes to make it in America – but so is everyone. Likely, a minority would tell a different tale than Adam. As would a woman. As would a high school dropout. As would a disabled person. Their story would vary in a number of ways – they would have very different challenges, but also different opportunities along the way.
For me, the value in Adam’s story comes not from the idea that a person can lift themselves out of despair but the tactics he used along the way. Most people are aware that it is possible for people to lift themselves up from their situation. People do it all the time. The question is how – and Adam shares those things quite openly.
His tools were simple – and most were things that anyone can do, no matter what the situation:
Practice frugality. Cut every possible corner you can, even if you consider it humiliating or beneath your station. Live in a homeless shelter if you have to, or a tiny apartment.
Use social programs. If you’re eligible for a social program, that program is in place to help you. Take advantage of all of them. Often, there are more programs available for people with inherent disadvantages.
Communicate. Do everything you can to meet others in your situation and share ideas.
Don’t blame others Sure, others have some advantages that you don’t have. That inherent advantage isn’t your fault and it isn’t their fault, either – it’s just the facts of life. Instead of stewing on it, find your own path.
The value in Adam’s story isn’t that he made it – it’s that he tries the above tactics (and many others) and talks about what actually works and what doesn’t.
No matter what your situation, you have the capacity to try something different to improve your hand, whether it’s seeking psychological help or it’s shaving some money from your spending. That’s the lesson to take home here – and that goes far beyond the off-the-cuff observation that some people have inherent advantages over others.