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I don't think it's fair to categorize everyone who lacks an education or job as "lacking ambition".

Why are we all not millionaire successful entrepreneurs? On this site, I don't think it's because we lack ambition. I think it's more that there's a path toward success (or technically, several paths), but it's really easy to step off that path, and most of us have never been there before, don't have a guide, and only have the fuzziest of maps.

It's the same with people lower down on the socioeconomic spectrum. Most don't personally know anyone that has successfully jumped classes; they have no idea what this looks like, or what's entailed, or if anything they do is on the right track. And so they make very subtle mistakes.

You can see this a lot with the choice of institutions they go to and the fields they study. Popular articles - like the one posted here - simply say "Go to college and you'll get a job." So what many poor people do is they go to University of Phoenix and study Sports Medicine or something, and take on $200K of debt to do so.

You and I know this is stupid - but that information never filters down to the people who need it. The mainstream articles just say "Go to college and you'll get a job", they never say which college, or what to study, or how to study, or what it feels like when you just don't understand a concept but need to pass the final to graduate. I can give you a list of a couple dozen top colleges off the top of my head - but that's because I've worked in elite institutions, and I know which schools my coworkers went to, and I have lots of friends in that social circle. For the average person, that list is "Harvard. MIT. Stanford", and then if they don't get into one of those, they have no idea what to choose.

It's really easy to forget just how much we know simply by being part of a community that's "made it". Much of this stuff is not obvious at all until you see someone do it, and if everyone you know is in similarly dire straits, you have nobody to teach you.

I think we lack ambition as a civilization more than as individuals.

Being more efficient means that we have to do more. When agriculture was mechanized, we went from a population that was half farmers (or more!) to one where less than 1% of the population farms. The remaining 49% of the population was not unemployed for the next century, nor did they all get work building mechanized farm equipment or drilling oil. They did other stuff, like build internets and go to the Moon.

Being ambitious as individuals is not enough; we need an ambitious civilization which is constantly trying to do more than it was before, and is endlessly hungry for more workers. Or else we are doomed.

It wasn't half farmers, it was like 95% farmers. And despite nearly everyone engaged in food production, people were only one bad year away from mass starvation.

> It wasn't half farmers, it was like 95% farmers.

Yeah... no. The first US Census, in 1790, already recorded an urban population of over 5%.

By the mid-19th century, urban population had climbed over 15%, and by 1910 (last census before the Fordson Tractor, the first really popular tractor in the US) it had already exceeded 45%

In praise of idleness: http://www.zpub.com/notes/idle.html

"You and I know this is stupid - but that information never filters down to the people who need it."

How exactly is it that this works? Do people go around to all the nice neighbourhoods and explain to the kids there that shit schools give shit degrees that nobody wants? It seems like this is just common sense, hardly something that needs to be taught.

No, I don't think being poor initially has very much to do with it. Rich kids can waste their time at party schools just as easily as poor kids can waste their time at degree mills. Similarly smart poor kids will try to get themselves real degrees (or make it on their own), as will smart rich kids. (Of course the rich kids will have an easier time of this, but that's because... they're rich.)

Common sense is nothing more or less than tacit knowledge that you learn implicitly through observing your peers within a culture. If there's nobody in your peer group with that knowledge, that sense won't be very common.

Here's an example from the startup world. Imagine that you have this great idea and you're desperate for funding. You're approached by a key investor, and they ask you "Is anybody else interested in your startup? Have you been talking to other investors?" Nobody else has expressed interest, and you haven't been talking to any other investors. How do you respond?

If you spend any amount of time with successful entrepreneurs, the answer is common sense: you lie and say "Oh yes, we're talking to a bunch of people and everyone's pretty excited." This is the answer the investor expects you to give: it shows that you know how to drum up interest in your product from nothing, and if you can't do that with him, you probably can't do it with anyone and you've just disqualified yourself in his eyes.

But if you grew up with a typical middle-class upbringing, this advice will seem very strange, even evil. Because you're lying. And more than that, you're lying to a powerful person about a business deal that directly concerns him. What would your mother think?

It's even more complicated because there're specific, unwritten rules about what you can lie about, and nobody ever explains this. If a journalist asks you "Are you working on X?" and you are, you're perfectly within your rights to lie and flat out say "No." If you lie about how interested people are in your product, that's fine, and people even expect that. But if you fudge the numbers in a due diligence audit, you're guilty of securities fraud and can go to jail for that. It's an awfully fine tight-rope with no clear guidebook.

Many of the rules for jumping from the working poor to the middle class are like that. Sure, everyone tells people to go to college and you'll get a good job. But which college? How are they supposed to know that University of Phoenix is nowhere near as good as, say, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor? Or that there's a big difference between a UC-Berkeley degree and a UC-Santa Cruz one. Who tells them that they should study software engineering rather than sports medicine? Or maybe they miraculously find Proggit or Hacker News and hear that you should study software engineering, but don't realize that when it comes down to the actual degree program, you're often better off with Computer Science rather than Software Engineering. Or they do all that right, get great grades, but nobody tells them that GPA doesn't matter so much and they really need to have been doing internships and helping their professor with his research to actually be qualified.

If you've studied academic sociology, there's a lot written about this under the general category of "cultural capital", particularly the work of Pierre Bourdieu. It's all the little advantages we have simply by growing up in a peer group that's successful. Usually you can't put your finger on these if you have them, but you very much feel their lack if you don't.

Fantastic writeup on social and cultural capital. So good, in fact, I'm going to link it next time I have to argue with people about the cultural and social advantages being born wealthy privileges them, even if they don't inherit a dime of actual capital.

But which college? How are they supposed to know that University of Phoenix is nowhere near as good as, say, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor?


Who tells them that they should study software engineering rather than sports medicine?


How do they know to look? That advertising works for expensive items is a good clue as to how much research people are inclined to do.

This is a very well thought out and well worded answer. Thank you! I've always had trouble expressing this.

I don't think being poor initially has very much to do with it.

Is that just your hunch? What if you're wrong? Do you care?

Yes, that is my opinion/hunch/suspicion/whatever. If I'm wrong... nothing is going to happen. I'm not a policy maker, nobody really cares what I think and what I do has no real effect. I've certainly been wrong many times in my life before, I don't think I'll get too worked up if I'm wrong this time too.

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