People who have succeeded in their careers without social capital?
November 18, 2016 3:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm 29, stuck job-wise, and have always lived paycheck to paycheck and below poverty line. I'm looking for examples of people who have succeeded in their careers or dreams without social capital to make this dreary Friday better. Not looking for a lecture on what I need to do, just some examples. Thanks.

I'm currently reading JD Vance's new book, "Hillbilly Elegy," and relating a lot. I'm basically immigrant "white trash" from a small village not in the US. I work my butt off and despite trying to ignore it for years, have finally realized while reading "Hillbilly Elegy" that I don't have social capital and will likely never have it. It's been such a long struggle, I'm 29, stuck job-wise, and have always lived paycheck to paycheck and below poverty line. I'm looking for examples of people who have succeeded in their careers or dreams without social capital to make this dreary Friday better. Not looking for a lecture on what I need to do, just some examples. Thanks.
posted by Kombucha3452 to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Stockton, a pretty big town that's primarily working class, just elected a 26-year-old as its mayor.

"Mr. Tubbs was born in south Stockton to a teenage mother and an incarcerated father. He went on to graduate from Stanford and intern at Google and the White House, before going into politics."
posted by janey47 at 3:52 PM on November 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

OP, can you tell us a bit more about what social capital signifies in this context?
posted by bunderful at 3:54 PM on November 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Sure @bunderful, for me it means social ties / social networks with people that have the power and the desire to help you get an advantage over others (an "in," so to speak) in your career, education, and financial situation.
posted by Kombucha3452 at 4:11 PM on November 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

The few people in my extended circle who did that without any kind of leg up from society (via the restaurant business, real estate, and a profession) 1) had nothing to lose, and nowhere to go but up (came from deep poverty; had left or lost families of origin) and thus 2) were utterly fearless and singleminded, which 3) made a lot of hard work and initial hardship not feel like a chore. They also were 4) very charming, likeable (some internal capital here), and 5) lucky (as far as living in a time when people could still make deals on a handshake, which I don't think anyone could do today).
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:16 PM on November 18, 2016 [19 favorites]

Kickstarter; people with an idea and drive who found a platform to get their product funded and advertised, and found success.
posted by NoraCharles at 4:27 PM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I come from a rural area and my origins are not too far off from hillbilly. I've been in settings where my lack of social capital was really distressing to me - surrounded by Ivy-league types, for example. However in other, slightly-less-fancy settings I've been able to build connections, participate in various efforts, and feel like a valuable member of the community. I know you're talking specifically about success at work, but perhaps this applies to some degree?

I have a couple of friends from more humble origins who've climbed the corporate ladder. One works very hard at fitting in and creating an image and working very hard on his network. The other is less image-oriented but has managed to build trust with superiors who then promote him.

Your question also reminded me of The King of the Golden River from Terry Pratchett's novel The Truth. It's a bit of a caricature, but the character finds a niche that needs filling and is able to succeed financially.
posted by bunderful at 4:29 PM on November 18, 2016 [11 favorites]

Sorry, worth mentioning though - 6) they didn't really care what they did, as long as there was an opening. They improvised from there, always with an eye out for opportunities. I know the one who eventually made it through a profession started out as a cleaner. (To bunderful's point - he then met some people, who introduced him to other people. Contact with one charitable organization, arranged through one of them, was pivotal.) Also, maybe obviously, I'm talking about immigrants.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:21 PM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Alexander Hamilton! Lin Manuel Miranda says,

"He was born a penniless orphan in St. Croix, of illegitimate birth, became George Washington’s right-hand man, became treasury secretary, caught beef with every other founding father, and all on the strength of his writing."
posted by paulcole at 5:55 PM on November 18, 2016 [8 favorites]

The Millionaire Next Door is basically a series of case studies of people like this. Harry King (the fictional character brundlefly mentioned above) would fit right in to that mold.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:21 PM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My guess is you have more social capital than you think. Former professors, people who are even just acquaintances, and similarly tenuous contacts have all helped me with jobs just as much as close family or close colleagues. Without knowing your job experience or areas of expertise, I would suggest you can build social capital at any time. You said you want examples, so two from my own life jump to mind:

One person I know wanted to work in politics but didn't have any experience or connections, so she interned at a senator's office, even though she had already graduated college. By working hard, she was able to get references and contacts to push her career along. It led to a long and impressive career with her working in the White House.

For me, I've built a lot of social capital purely online -- the internet is a blessing for introverts. I work in a more (sort of) creative field where work we do is public, so I've managed to build a large network on Twitter. I've never met 95% of these people in real life, but I've gotten to know and befriend people who are established in the field by staying engaged in the field everyday and interacting with prominent voices in the field. It helped me land a job I'd never thought I'd get doing this work full-time because I just reached out to people, looking for advice and to let them know I was looking. Honestly, I have my dream job and I owe it to Twitter, although it took 2-3 years of consistent engagement to really firmly establish these relationships.

These aren't books, but they are examples that may help you nonetheless. To get ahead, I do agree that social capital is necessary, but it comes in a lot of surprising forms. I also think merely being ambitious can get you ahead. You can't have imposter syndrome or be afraid to go after what you want, which is also part of using the social capital you do have. I think that holds a lot of people back.
posted by AppleTurnover at 7:04 PM on November 18, 2016 [16 favorites]

Not directly answering the question, but offering some words of encouragement. I came from the working class and had zero social capital. I've been poor enough that I've gotten food poisoning from eating rotten food, because that's all there was. I worked through and paid for college 100% myself, and I was the first person in one family and in the third in another (of ~50) to graduate. I've never gotten a job or anything else based on anyone I knew. I did go back to a prior organization, and I guess that counts, but I earned that by doing good work, not by knowing some third party.

I can tell by your writing that you're either already educated or smart enough to power your way through. We're past the point in this country where working hard and playing by the rules guarantees you anything, but I do believe if you pursue an education and are willing to move where jobs are, you can at least put yourself in the middle class.
posted by cnc at 7:11 PM on November 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

I read Limbo. It really helped me understand the cultural chasm I was trying to cross. I feel like I have done a great job of jumping that chasm and that I have the social and cultural capital now. But I had to spend a lot of time on things like speech patterns, what to talk about at the office, how to handle questions like what to say if someone asks what summer camps you went to, how to drop restaurants into conversation, etc. But then I also tried to steer myself into niches of my profession where I could find the progressives -- I always blend in with them and seem to know what to say because I'm speaking from my own values in those circles. I also started spending a lot more on my hair and I hired a stylist a few times to help me figure out how to dress and how other people think and act. Then I walk around in jeans and a t-shirt the rest of the time. Also, I find that asking a lot of questions about other people and offering to help them and remembering things about them and being cheerful and helpful and kind goes a really long way...and that's just who I am anyway. I also try to connect people whenever I have a chance and I spent a lot of time learning about networking.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 7:40 PM on November 18, 2016 [7 favorites]

I recommend this book called "Gigs" where 120 Americans talk about their jobs and how they got there. The ones that stick with me are a guy who started what became a multimillion dollar business by cleaning up dead bodies, and a guy who sells peanuts boiled in lemon juice by the side of the interstate and customers keep coming back. There's also awoman who sells glue, but it's the best glue in the world and an international company and she makes bank.
Neither of them had education or social capital, just identified a need and do their job well.
posted by banishedimmortal at 8:04 PM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Frederick Douglass. Born a slave, worked in fields, sent to be broken by an expert bastard, but it didn't really work. Sent off and became a house slave in Baltimore. Took extra bread from the house when sent on errands and bartered it to poor kids in return for reading lessons. Escaped, became a leading abolitionist, too independent minded to merely be hanger on in the groups led by whites like Garrison. Loved reading and music; was apparently a talented recreational violinist. Met Lincoln and influenced policy during the civil war; I'm sure he was one reason Lincoln was thinking blacks needed to be let vote by the end. Ambassador to Haiti after the war. There was an embarrassing decade or so after emancipation where he seemed to enjoy his establishment role and think enough had been done but people like Ida Wells got him back into the fight.
posted by mark k at 8:49 PM on November 18, 2016 [7 favorites]

Dorothy Allison. I also thought of some of Jen Dziura's work, particularly this essay, "Social Class in the Office", where she describes the catharsis she felt while reading the book Chaussette mentions above. "Here’s a really quick quiz that has a bit to do with social class in America. When you were growing up, did you ever see your parents shake hands? With anyone? Ever?"
posted by trotzdem_kunst at 12:07 AM on November 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Grandfather came to my country of birth as a 2 year old, dropped out of school by 12, then worked hard labour on a ship. Goes without saying he was very poor. Not sure how, but he started a timber business in the forests of another country, spent months away, but then accumulated a small fortune from his business. So he was wealthy but without social capital.
My father went to school, and then to university, where he started accumulating social capital. He worked in retail banking, and so we grew up in a middle income family.
posted by moiraine at 12:58 AM on November 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Several of the writers and artists whose work I enjoy came from a lower middle class or poor background and didn't have a boost like, say, a full ride to an Ivy League university. Lori Rader-Day, a mystery writer who is steadily gaining readership and more prestigious contracts, has said that her second book features one character who didn't emerge from that background, and one who did.

My partner comes from a poor immigrant family. Successful members of his family-- again without the benefit of big scholarships and things-- have settled in a middle class suburban area where the most prominent people are self-starters who own their own businesses, become members of chambers of commerce, and do charity work. A family member is now the mayor of her suburb. I never thought of it that way until you asked your question, but a lot of what they are doing is of course accumulating social capital. In some areas there is a kind of ready-made social capital with people who immigrated from the same place, but that's not what is going on here, I don't think.

This foundation is run by local people whose mother started with no advantages and came to prominence through teaching, community activism and service. While not exactly a common story, it's one of the ones I admire most.
posted by BibiRose at 8:01 AM on November 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another fictional example, but Jacqueline Windspear's protagonist Maisie Dobbs is a woman of the British working class who succeeds as a single woman and an entrepreneur in the early 20th century.
posted by bunderful at 9:55 AM on November 19, 2016

The people I know who succeeded without social capital were people who narrowed in on what they wanted-- namely finanacial stability and independence-- and pursued that which allowed them to do those things without social capital. So basically it meant that they were never going to be fashion designers, upscale chefs/restaurateurs, or corporate executives. But they did succeed in small business in retail or casual dining, or they ended up in health care. All of these were places where the primary metrics of success are, "do you work hard and achieve according to set standards?" Other people ended up focusing on "what is stable and protected for a reliable person?" which drew them into various kinds of unionized work, including teaching.

An ongoing theme of their experience was that the goal they were trying to achieve was less caught up in ego or social esteem of those with social capital as much as having personal/financial autonomy and stability. That in itself resulted in some personal/social sacrifices.
posted by deanc at 2:14 PM on November 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I wanted to answer this the other day when you first posted but I really had to think about it. My parents came here in the late 70s with 2 kids, 2 suitcases, $30 and couldn't speak English. But now my dad and I are firmly in the upper middle class (in our "classless society").

He started his own business and what I had to think about was whether he succeeded with no social capital. I would have to say no, he became a great success by accumulating social capital, which is what I have done too - the accumulation part, haven't quite achieved all the dreams etc I have.

My mother (my parents split years ago) and (my estranged) brother, on the other hand, are still I guess what everyone would call working class. They live in the not-very-nice outer suburbs, not-great jobs, no higher education. A step up from $30 & no english, but not much social capital to speak of.

A huge part of my social capital came from a convergence of luck and merit. My dad and I are very similar in that we're unfazed by risk and change so we've gone after things but my mum and brother are the kind who turn away quickly at the first sign of an obstacle. My dad and I are also quite sociable creatures, we make friends and new acquaintances easily. I went to a different school to my brother. Both schools were local public schools but mine was a gifted & talented program. That put me in contact with lots of middle class kids who have become my friends and my cohort through university and life. I guess I also "married well". My dad did his own version of what I did; he owned several businesses and mingled with people who had more money and connections than he did and eventually became one of them.

Having said all that, recently an old friend and I were talking about when we were kids and how our parents did things and she said things like "but Stella, you didn't have to deal with middle class bullshit..." I didn't, and still don't, know how to feel about the fact that she still sees me as different from her in terms of class. I think that's the first time in my adult life that anyone has ever referred to me as being a different or lower class to them so...I don't know, still processing my feelings about it.
posted by stellathon at 4:47 PM on November 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

The novelist (and Metafilter member) John Scalzi has written about his own experiences of this on his blog. See: 'Being Poor', and 'Being Poor, Ten Years On'.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 7:22 PM on November 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

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