How Much of Our Success Should We Claim Credit For?

Our most recent podcast was called “Would a Big Bucket of Cash Really Change Your Life?” It showed that the winners of a 19th-century land lottery did not appear to convert their windfall into intergenerational wealth. This challenges the modern argument that cash transfers are one of the most effective ways of helping a poor family escape poverty — and, therefore, as we said in the podcast, might be seen as a depressing conclusion.

Judd Campbell from Odessa, Texas, wrote in to dispute the depressing part, and offer some worthwhile commentary:

I just finished listening to the latest podcast about the Georgia land lottery in the 19th century. I actually found it not to be depressing at all.

Here’s why:

1. It would be depressing to me to know that poverty has existed into modernity, and the solution would be a simple one-time transfer of wealth. Surely, we could have figured that out by now and eliminated poverty. Clearly, the issue is more complex than that, and thus we have an excuse for not developing a solution. Yet.

2. While I don’t consider myself wealthy, I do make a healthy salary and live in a comfortable home with 4 kids. There are a couple of things that I believe about my life, that may or may not be logical or factual, but provides me comfort:

a. My financial success is not due to my parents. I did it on my own. I did grow up in a comfortable home with loving and supportive parents, my father has a master’s degree, and I appreciate what they have provided me. But in my gut I feel like I achieved my own success. This podcast was uplifting, because it seems to confirm that I am responsible for my own success.

b. On the other hand, I feel like my financial success will help my children be financially successful. Even though I don’t give my parents credit for my success, I believe that I can influence my children to be successful.

I thank Judd for his thoughts. I think the seeming contradiction between points 2a and 2b highlights a common problem when thinking issues like these: we are able to judge, assess, and analyze our own experiences so much more than others’, and therefore probably over-attribute causality; when we look at the experience of other people, meanwhile, we probably tend to impose our own experience onto theirs more than we think.

So, the big open-ended question of the day: how much of our success should we claim credit for? I think about this question a lot. In my family there wasn’t much money but my parents gave me and all my siblings (there were eight of us) good health, an appetite for curiosity, and a sense of optimism. How much is that worth?

Burcin Tuglular

Priceless :)


I attribute a ton of my success to my parents. Because of them I am white and I had private schooling through college. They were married for 27 years. Many people (of color) are more likely than me to have parents that are single, drug addicted, in jail, poor, lacking education etc. and all these are curses in place of the blessings i received.


I think the common link between 2a and 2B is Mr. Campbell has taken on the responsibility for his career and the responsibility for helping his children. I imagine that he learned to assume this responsibility from his parents and his kids are learning it today by watching him.


It's hard to put a price tag on any of this. Even the word "success" is subject to interpretation.

Enter your name...

The word "poverty" is subject to interpretation, too.

Compared to a middle-middle-class person in 1830, I grew up in something not far from luxury, even though my family qualified for some welfare programs. We had two pairs of shoes (most of the time), hot water at the turn of a knob, only two people per bedroom...


It's not that your parents HAVE money that helps you to be successful. It's having parents that taught you how to manage money that helps you to be successful. The difference is EARNED wealth. If your parents knew how to earn money and spend wisely, whether or not they were in poverty or not I'd wager you're more likely to succeed. Similarly, if you parents are rich, I would venture that if they earned it themselves, you are more likely to be successful, vs if they won it or inherited it, you are probably less likely to be successful.


Is is possible that parents open the door for possible success? If so, he can be responsible for seizing the opportunity (which was provided by his parents opening the door). If this is true, then he can feel as though his success is his alone; however, he may also be striving to help his children by opening doors (potentially helping them more than they realize).

In that sense, it would work (although that is not exactly how it is stated).


One of the books that I read recently explained it well - your success is a combination of primarily three factors - your natural talent, the environment and the support you receive. Parents obviously are responsible for the third in most cases. You have articulated the seemingly innocuous paradox very well Judd - just goes on to show the biases we suffer from....


Point 1 seems misguided to me. Who cares if there was an easy solution to poverty that was under our noses the entire time? The shame of not having found it until now is irrelevant. What matters is that there is an easy solution to poverty, which would save countless lives going forward and improve the quality of countless more.

I think that such an easy solution doesn't exist is unambiguously more depressing than if it does.


As a high school teacher, I see firsthand how huge of an influence parenting has on kids. In fact, in my 12 years of teaching, I can't think of a single troubled student I've had that didn't have adverse conditions at home.

For Judd to claim that he did it all on his own is a bit disingenuous. Perhaps his parents didn't directly give him any money, and in that sense, all that he's earned is truly HIS, but if his parents were of lower-income and couldn't provide him with the necessary tools to just live a 'normal' life, I doubt that his life would have turned out nearly as well. He makes it sound as though a 'comfortable home with loving and supportive parents' is commonplace. It's not UNcommon, but it's certainly not as common as it should be.

Looking back on my life, my parents sacrificed so much so that I could get everything I needed. More importantly, they didn't get me everything that I WANTED, which I think was just as good a lesson. It's an insult to my parents if I ever told anyone that my comfortable life now is simply a result of my own efforts.


caleb b

I believe I am in a unique situation where I can partly attribute my financial success to the complete failure of my parents.

My mother was bi-polar, addicted to crack, and disabled. No father. We lived in section 8 housing in a high crime area, survived on welfare and food stamps, and I routinely missed school. I was held back and put in the “dumb” classes because I couldn’t read at the end of first grade. Eventually, my mother’s dealers began robbing and we were evicted. We lived at a Salvation Army until we could secure a one bedroom apartment in a slum. My room was a walk-in closet that flooded every time it rained. She picked up a boyfriend that didn’t work, adding more pressure to the budget.

I had to work to help us make rent. We went through a series of evictions/moves. Each time, I would need to work more to fund the cash to secure us a new apartment. By 18, I brought in about 60-70% of the income working up to 55/hrs a week between two jobs. In order to be able to go to school, work, and play three sports, I had 18 hour shifts on the weekends. The long hours meant I failed senior English and didn’t graduate on time.

I attribute my success to God’s will (which I’d be happy to explain if someone desires), but for those that prefer another explanation it was the conscious decision to never be satisfied with a life of poverty. I went to college (though it took two tries) and graduated near the top of my class. I begged, borrowed, and dealed to make tuition. I slept on couches, sold plasma, worked in the cafeteria, did tutoring on the side. I chose math as a major even though I failed many math classes in HS because I figured math was hard and it would help my job prospects. Luckily, I graduated in 2007 when good jobs could be had. This year, I’ll make more than $100k at 32 years old. The student loans mean I’m not “rich” or wealthy or whatever, but I have so much more than that. I have the most wonderful wife who is the perfect combination of beautiful, intelligent, and fun. We have the best, sweetest, cutest little baby girl. We have a handsome dog. We have three TVs in the front room to watch football. I have it all, or at least all I ever really wanted.

ESPN’s recent documentary on the Manning family mentioned several times that the sudden suicide of Archie’s father was probably the catalyst for the amount of effort that Archie put into being a great father to his children. Again, while I believe that Faith plays a tremendous part in that equation, it can’t be ignored that sometimes the worst of conditions bring out the best in some people.



I wouldn't say your situation is entirely unique, as there are a good number of us who have become prosperous despite not having come from family situations that were conducive to such. We might learn more by looking at people who've overcome bad environments (and conversely, those who fail despite coming from "good" ones), that by whining about those who do just what their parents did.


After reading Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers", I think it's impossible for me to believe that ANYone is fully responsible for their own success. There is so much randomness in the world and so much impact attributable to things outside of our control that it seems absurd to claim responsibility for the outcome.

For example, performance on standardized tests are highly correlated with family income [1]. There is no way for a child to affect their parents' wealth, so family income is a condition we inherit by birth.

[1] "Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say", NY Times Feb 2012

Joe J

"For example, performance on standardized tests are highly correlated with family income "

Except that here is also the genetic factor and cultural factor in play too. Does the child do better on tests, because of the income or because of the genetics and culture from the parents, which contributed to make them a success in the first place.

Or in other words, smart parents beget smart kids, and smart parents are also good with money.

Nicole Kelly

I literally just finished a conversation about this with a psychologist friend of mine a few minutes ago. I was saying that I see how my step-mom is helping her kids (my half-siblings) get into Ivy League schools and is always very open in communicating with them. I’m proud of them, but a smidge envious, too. The household that I grew up in contained 5 children instead of 2, but my mom and step-dad who raised me are college graduates and at least in theory, could have provided the same emotionally supportive environment that my step-mom has for her children. Instead, it seems like they were constantly frazzled (and slightly dysfunctional—don’t tell them I said that), poor communicators, broke, and dealing with life as it came at them instead of proactively planning and helping me plan my future by mentoring me. Granted, I think I turned out well and they certainly feel they have a lot to be proud of, but I don’t really feel they can or should take a lot of credit for much of it. I joined the Air Force straight out of high school, achieved plenty of awards and even two Air Medals while on active duty, then got out and got my bachelor’s degree. I’m currently getting my master’s from a private college and I gross nearly six figures annually. So, yeah, I do alright for myself if those are what you consider “success”. I can’t be the only oldest child who feels like their parents made a lot more mistakes on them than their younger siblings and still turned out well. To my younger brothers and sister raised by my mom and step-dad I say, “You’re welcome.”



Regarding point #1, we have to remember that "poverty" is a moving target. The poorest people in the US today are, in many ways, incredibly wealthy compared to anyone living prior to say the 19th century. (Just for instance, no one in this country dies of smallpox, polio, cholera.) Likewise, if we established a guaranteed minimum annual income of $1 million, the people with only that would soon consider themselves poor, because there'd be other people with $10 or $100 million.


Emotional support and environment is priceless, like someone else said. So is the luck of being born in a 1st world country with access to public education, libraries, museums, money for college (in whatever shape or form), etc. Most of us are not entirely self-made.

Steve Cebalt

The role of luck cannot be overstated.

Football's Manning brothers provide an excellent, if anecdotal, case study. They were lucky to have been born in a football family, where genes PLUS an idealized football upbringing helped them both become superstars (along with their own hard work, etc.). Right now, Peyton is on fire and his team is unbeaten. Brother Eli's Giants are 0-4. Peyton may be better, but Eli has won twice as many SuperBowls. Success and failure are both fleeting; the whims of random events cannot be ignored.

Less known is their older brother Cooper. Same parents; same athletic gifts and upbringing. Cooper was an All-State player in high school. But he was diagnosed with a spinal condition at age 18 that ended his promising football career. That's just bad luck.

Speaking strictly of success on the football field, how much of their football success should Peyton and Eli claim, compared to their older brother Cooper? It is a humbling question.


Craig Rojek

Boy, is this one complicated. My parents divorced, extremely acrimoniously, when I was 10. I never saw my father again, went 15 years with no communication whatsoever, phone, letter, Christmas or birthday cards, post cards. My mother lost it over the next couple of years, became profoundly paranoid, probably other issues on top of it, was in and out of my life for the rest of hers, mostly out. From 10 until college, I was raised by my maternal grandmother, who's philosophy was that you need to be tough, and her way of toughening me up was to tell me pretty much daily that I was worthless, would never amount to anything. She was constantly on me to drop out of high school, telling me to try to get into an apprentice program as a carpenter, bricklayer, plumber, any of the trades. I don't feel tough, never have. But who knows, maybe I was destined to be a teenage rebel, maybe she's part of the reason I graduated second in my high school class, Illinois State Scholar, National Merit Scholar, went on to get a degree from a good college (The University of Chicago, of course). Like I said, boy, is this one complicated. The bottom line is, who knows? Much too obscure a relationship between nature and nurture, two children in the same or very similar circumstances turn out incredibly differently, some with awful starts (and there are very many with much worse than mine, I know it sounds like I'm complaining, but I meant it when I said I may owe a lot to my grandmother) rise above them, and some with all the blessings come to tragic ends.