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Playing the rules of the game: getting started when you know what works

By Sean Jacobs - posted Thursday, 21 June 2018

According to the think tank the Brookings Institute, to avoid poverty in the United States you need to follow three simple rules – graduate from high school, wait until 21 for marriage and kids, and be sure to keep a full-time job. Following these rules, they say, will reduce your chance of falling into poverty to an astonishing 2 per cent.

I like this finding as it's a simple reminder of self-responsibility at a time when instances of victimhood, offence-taking and seductive explanations of inequality are becoming more common.

In the United Kingdom the lesson is the same. By following a similar set of protocols the chances of being poor in your mid-30s drop to just 13 per cent. However, by breaking all of these rules, your chances of poverty rise sharply to 78 per cent.


While I'm unaware of any equivalent study in Australia the lessons are none the less instructive. In Australia we're often told of poverty – just above $510 per week – and how uncomfortable the experiences are. But rarely do we hear of the individual and personal characteristics that can help avoid it.

In my recent book Winners Don't Cheat I mention the Brookings study to show that, especially among young Australians, circumstances are no excuse in not just avoiding poverty, but in getting yourself together. You have to follow these rules, avoiding self-pity, finding ways to produce something somebody wants and constantly recalling that character requires no money.

But to adopt such messages today is not so easy. The most obvious hurdle is the explanations given to young people about systemic 'injustice' and why they can't succeed. A few years ago, for example, I attended mandatory Indigenous Australian cultural awareness training that presented a circular diagram called 'the poverty wheel'. This unbreakable and frustrating loop, trimmed with references to historical and cultural considerations, laid out the setbacks that young black Australians face. 'Why bother?' it seemed to ask – the cycle simply couldn't be broken.

Sitting there I wondered how any progress, regardless of skin colour, had ever been made? No wonder so many people are angry at the system, I thought, yet don't look to themselves for their conditions to get better.

People, and I feel young people in particular, rightly sense that the path to improvement and responsibility means focusing on one's self rather than on blame or looking at 'the system' as fundamentally rigged.

And such a message, thankfully, seems to be experiencing a revival. For example, a key theme of Jordan Peterson's widely successful 12 Rules For Life is to 'tidy up your room' rather than railing against capitalism or the foundations of western civilisation.


In Winners Don't Cheat I share Peterson's messages but in two ways. Firstly, examining other people's success compared to your own is important. But only so much. In spending years studying role models I've found that we need to emulate our heroes for what they've done not really for who they are – Tiger Woods' five hour a day regimen, for example, not his approach to fidelity. In applying the lessons of role models, you shouldn't be distracted from your own goals, capabilities and attitudes. If you doggedly follow someone you look up to (or even your friends or colleagues), it's easy to get carried away with their success and not your own carefully calibrated standards. Aptitude and slowly finding out what you're good at are key in this process.

The second way I share Peterson's message in Winners Don't Cheat is setting out a path to improvement that means something to you, or what Peterson calls your own 'hierarchy of motivation'. Goals that are too aloof, or way beyond you, are a sure-fire way to make you miserable.

In my own life, when coming to the end of my international relations degree, I can remember being knocked back for literally every job I had applied for. It was a deeply crushing experience.

But rather than despair I created a long-range path toward my goal. Clearly, what I needed was more experience. So I used my comparative advantage in sports by volunteering for an assignment running Fiji Swimming in Suva, Fiji. From there I built contacts with international development agencies and was then recruited by the United Nations to work in Papua New Guinea. During this time I also boosted my academic credentials (and picked up new professional skills) by completing a postgraduate certificate. Experience 'on the ground' in two countries that are incredibly important to Australia naturally increased my chances of eventually winning a place in one of the most competitive graduate programs in the country – the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It's an instructive example of not losing hope but, most importantly, laying out a path toward achieving your targets. A lot of life, Peterson recalls, is being someway better than you were yesterday and using this as motivation to keep going.

There's a growing appetite to spread messages of improvement like these in Australia. Preaching systemic oppression or messages of victimhood will only take one so far and, other than retard individual achievement, encourages negativism and self-defeat. We know that following some basic principles gives young people a decent chance. Combined with a message of self-responsibility, and a slow path to improvement, it can take individuals even further.

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Sean Jacobs book Winners Don't Cheat: Advice for young Australians from a young Australian is available from Connor Court, 2018.

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About the Author

Sean Jacobs is a former public servant, political adviser and international aid worker. He currently lives in Brisbane.

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