First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 1.3.21
The problem with success stories is they can make the rest of us look like failures. I mean, I know that’s not the point. The point, in theory, is they will inspire us, dare us to dream and also give us hot tips for mapping our very own road to victory.
And I appreciate there is something very thin-lipped and ungracious about refusing to celebrate someone else’s triumphs, but there are also times when trumpeting the success of one person invites us to ignore the very real struggle of many others.
“Millennial forgoes smashed avocado and buys 47 houses in 47 days!” the headline (or some other version of it) will tell us breathlessly, carrying with it a strong implication that, if only you young people stopped wasting money on café brunches, “you can buy 47 houses, too!”
There’s a little bit of hope in that kind of story, then, but also a fair dash of judgement. The reason you, Young Person, can’t buy a home isn’t because house prices are inflated by property investors snapping up all the available stock using equity from the houses they already own and consequently increasing demand for a woefully limited supply which raises prices and therefore shuts you out of the market (no, really, tell me more about how the economy works, snore) it is because – and isn’t this more fun to read – you young people have been eating the wrong thing for breakfast.
When you’re in the midst of a housing crisis, these “man bites dog” stories – the ones that flip the narrative around from an everyday tale of “dog bites man” – capture our attention. Fascinating to read, right? “This is unexpected! Tell me more! Also, how can I get in on this action? What can I learn?”
And so the one who has done the thing most others can’t will have much to tell you about beating the odds within the system as it stands. It will be about having a positive mind-set, goal-setting, discipline, hard work and sacrifice. You will probably need to get up at dawn and maybe run a triathlon in your spare time and drink a kale smoothie, but mostly it will be about really wanting something because when you want your goal that much, they say, things just fall into place.
Which is not a helpful thing to hear if you’re someone who really wants something but things haven’t fallen into place. It makes me think of the t-shirt I didn’t buy for my daughter many years ago which would have had her chest emblazoned with, “If you can dream it, you can do it”. I would have preferred one that said: “You can’t be it if you don’t dream it, absolutely, that is the first step, but even so there is no guarantee because life is more complex than that.” Admittedly, that’s not at all catchy and too long to fit on an eight-year-old’s chest. Accurate, though.
Often, in the “outlier success” story, there will be some important context that is missing. Alongside all the positive mind-set and goal setting and self-sacrifice, you will also need (if you’re a parent) someone to share the childminding load, have sufficient disposable income to create savings (subtracting avocado won’t be enough), and look like the kind of person a bank manager is willing to take a risk on. Your advice will not be universally useful to someone who is not like you, and who faces other challenges.
I’ve often thought that the best people to take budget advice from are women who are single parents and work three jobs and still manage (heaven knows how) to get by week to week, as opposed to someone who starts each week with a full pantry and an income that exceeds their basic expenses. There is real skill in surviving on minimum wage.
The problem is that when we celebrate an outlier – someone who succeeds against the odds within a system that’s not working for most people – we end up erasing the experience of most people. It’s too easy at that point to blame the ones who didn’t buy 47 houses in 47 days for just lacking discipline or being afraid of hard work and not… wanting it enough. And then we don’t take the moment we need to think, hey, maybe the whole system is a bit screwy and perhaps we should look at changing that?
The stories I most want to hear are from people who are doing everything right but still can’t achieve the goals they have set for themselves. Because if we look harder at that, we can see what we need to do to help get more of us there. And honestly, it has nothing to do with what anyone is eating for breakfast.