Upward Mobility 101: Fundamentals, Facts and Fictions of Social Mobility

Key Takeaways

  1. This article provides an in-depth exploration of social mobility, including debunking common myths and offering strategies for overcoming barriers to upward mobility.
  2. Upward social mobility is the pursuit of a better life for yourself and your loved ones, but it is often misunderstood and sometimes even stigmatized.
  3. There are several myths about upward mobility, including it is only for the young, a zero-sum game or it requires an already-powerful starting position.
  4. Navigating office politics, gaining access to opportunities, and balancing career and personal life are common challenges faced by those pursuing social mobility.
  5. Strategies for overcoming these barriers include building a strong network of allies, lifelong learning, setting personal boundaries, and prioritizing self-care etc.

Social mobility is surrounded by mystery and misconceptions: Some people believe it’s about being scheming or kissing up to “elites”, but the world of upward mobility is more complex: It’s about people, like you and me, who want better lives for themselves and their families. Some of them are heroes, some are tragic ones, and some are anti-heroes.

This article provides you with the fundamentals of what social mobility is all about, what challenges to expect when you embark on this journey and strategies to overcome them.

ABCs of Social Mobility: Key Terms and Distinctions

Let’s begin by clarifying some basic terms which will make this and future articles easier to digest. No worries, we only have to do this once.

Upward mobility means the active pursuit of improving your position in society. There is something fascinating about this, and good “rags-to-riches” stories are my guilty pleasure. Luckily, this topic is omnipresent in media, and we’ll also look at examples of (in)famous up-and-comers in the future from fiction and the real world (which often writes the best stories).

Let’s now differentiate some related concepts to get a more nuanced understanding of what we’re doing here:

  • Social mobility is a more general term and refers to the ability to move within or between social classes – we can view upward mobility as the intended variant of social mobility (vs. downward mobility). We’ll occasionally use the terms social and upward mobility interchangeably from now on.
  • Social climbing is the strategic pursuit of higher status by developing relationships with influential or high-status folks systematically. In this objective way, it is just one social tactic to achieve upward mobility. The term doesn’t really deserve its bad rep as it doesn’t require brown-nosing or cutthroat behaviors etc. However, given the “scorched earth” around this label, we’ll avoid it from now on.
  • Networking entails the targeted development of relationships, typically aiming at accessing opportunities – again, could relate to social mobility or not. In a sense, this term entails all the aspects of “social climbing” beneficial to upward mobility without the nasty stuff, so we’ll keep referring to this concept.
  • Ambition is an internal force that drives you towards your aspirations – that can be in the context of social mobility or beyond: Ever checked out the most absurd Guinness World Records? Thus, both ambition and networking can be seen as valuable tools for or puzzle pieces of the bigger picture of upward mobility.

While we are at it, let’s quickly clarify some further key terms to have a strong basis for the more practical topics:

  • Social status refers to your “standing” inside of a hierarchical social group and is driven by dimensions like your (perceived) power, education, job title, and wealth. However, it’s key to note this differs from culture to culture which we’ll also cover in future articles.
  • Social capital, another big word, refers to your social network and its “playing rules”, i.e., your potential to access information, support, and other types of resources. You might have heard the saying “your network is your net worth” – there’s something to it.
  • Elites, a polarizing concept, are typically the most powerful circles of society due to their proportionally high share of wealth (#paretoprinciple). It’s important for us to explore this group more thoroughly later too as it has many implications especially for those who are not “in the club”.

Great, you weeded through the bland definitions – now let’s get to the more fun parts.

Debunking Common Myths about Social Mobility

Upward social mobility doesn’t always have a positive connotation, especially thanks to some infamous “social climbers” who’d spare no unethical deed to achieve their goals. As clarified in e.g. this article, when we speak about upward social mobility we are not endorsing or associating with such unethical practices. 

However, there are still plenty of biases and myths around upward mobility which we now shed some light on:

Myth #1: Upward mobility is unethical (e.g. zero-sum-game)

I can’t deny there are, in fact, “specimen” who “jumped the shark” with manipulation, exploitation and other iniquities. As “tales of caution” we will also look at these anti-role models soon. However, let’s not fall for the “survivorship bias”: Just because there’s a movie about them it doesn’t mean they’re representative of all up-and-comers.

We can achieve our goals just as well with highest ethical standards and respecting everyone’s dignity (as outlined in this handy guide). One doesn’t necessarily need to lose something for someone else to grow. There is really enough for everyone out there; the cake is big enough, just ridiculously unevenly distributed.

Furthermore, well-studied concepts like “Level 5 Leadership” show integrity goes a long way in achieving long-term success. And we’re in for the long haul, aren’t we? Soon enough we will discuss how power is merely a neutral tool which can be used for good or bad: Choose the former.

Myth #2: Upward mobility is only for the already powerful.

I admit, wealth attracts wealth like a snowball running downhill. And yes, the game is rigged and your starting point in the game of life matters. However, it’s also true that “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard” and, like Bane said to Batman, times of prosperity can make one weak. Against this backdrop, and that not trying is no option too, you may give it a shot anyway.

Why? Because with fierce determination, hard work and the right attitude a lot is possible, and you can control these factors unlike your starting conditions. So don’t be discouraged by what you don’t have but focus on what you do have and develop your skills, network, and personal brand. A shockingly sizeable share of the super-rich achieved their status through entrepreneurship – a topic we will also cover in depth.

Myth #3: Upward mobility only works till a certain age.

Yes, the sooner you start the better (duh). However, this belief is the incarnation of a narrow “fixed mindset” of resignation which we’ll soon blog about and contrast with the “growth mindset” of self-efficacy which, again, you can control and should adopt. This myth is unfounded: In the realm of startups, the average age of successful founders is over forty. Proactively leveraging the mentioned factors (ambition, strategic planning, networking, solving problems etc.) is THE growth engine in entrepreneurship and beyond – not age.

I dropped out of school and uni and my first jobs repeatedly and fell through all the system’s cracks. But by learning about these levers and pulling them hard and consistently I could kick-start myself (repeatedly) and blaze my way forward, e.g., graduating top of class at a Public Ivy and landing an amazing job in corporate development at a global corporation. If you take only one thing with you from this blog, then please that it’s never too late to strive for a good life!

Exploring Two Mentalities of Upward Mobility: What are You Playing For?

There are two basic mentalities when in social mobility: those who “play not to lose” and those who “play to win”; and in reality, of course, it’s a mix of both. However, let’s look a bit deeper into these attitudes, their implications, and why it matters to be mindful of that.

Some strive to “compensate” for their (presumably) disadvantageous starting point in life or injustices they faced. This can mean a (perceived) lack of access to material (food, shelter etc.) or immaterial (education, respect etc.) opportunities, i.e., anything aloft Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Their journey is aimed at “leveling the playing field” which is understandable: Who wants to feel left behind and why should anyone settle with less than they need?

However, there is a fine line which I implied with “presumably” and “perceived”. Yes, these “disadvantageous conditions” may be real, but this conclusion can also come from a “victim attitude” or distorted perceptions. In these cases, the first problem to fix is the mindset. Being “hyper-realistic” – like Ray Dalio preaches – is crucial for us up-and-comers to avoid “fighting windmills”.

Our upward journey can also be motivated by growth aspirations, i.e., we “play to win”. We want more (knowledge, experiences, glory etc.). We want to summit Maslow’s pyramid. This attitude comes naturally by adopting a growth mindset and seeing what’s possible and getting a taste of it. I think the biggest risk here is to not fall for the “hedonistic treadmill” or become mindlessly greedy: Principles like the “law of diminishing returns” can provide guidance because “more is not always more” (more on that topic in another article).

The “playing to win” stance is psychologically calmer and more desirable: For example, Kahneman’s prospect theory shows us that there is a significant risk of irrationally risk-seeking behavior (i.e. too bold, potentially fatal moves) whenever we act from this fearful stance of “having to compensate”.

Again, it’s key to understand that we have both operating modes in our brain and sometimes we play for one, sometimes for another reason. We should stay mindful of this, so, when such destructive patterns emerge, we can intervene and “think better”.

Overcoming Typical Barriers to Social Mobility

Now that we discussed what social mobility is all about, let’s make a first deep dive into some typical roadblocks in upward mobility. The existence of these roadblocks is, in fact, the sole reason we even need to talk about this topic. If there were no roadblocks, everyone would just jump to the top, right? This obviously doesn’t happen. So, let’s look at (a selection of) the reasons, i.e., “mobility barriers”, standing between you and whatever you are after:

  • Navigating office politics can be intimidating for (up-and-coming) up-and-comers. There are many misconceptions about what office politics really are and how to deal with them. That’s why we will demystify this and explore strategies like creating a reliable network of allies, using empathy to understand other’s intention, and staying on top of the political landscape, too.
  • Getting access to opportunities is a big one because they are not “free for all”. There are many structural problems in societies globally, especially relating to connections (“old-boy networks”) and resource distribution (#pareto). No worries, while I cannot change the world for you, I will at least dive into strategies in upcoming articles that help you pave your way against the odds, e.g., strategic networking or exploring alternative paths (“Many roads lead to Rome”).
  • Balancing your career ambitions with your personal life won’t be a cakewalk: I preached hard work and having a balanced view on all your life areas. However, these things take their toll on your time and energy. That’s why I’ll put a special emphasis on articles around topics like setting boundaries, prioritizing tasks rigorously, and self-care and mental/physical health.

I want to emphasize this list is not exhaustive, and in the future, I will introduce more barriers (and strategies). I structured the main categories of the blog (personal development, social skills etc.) to capture all major types of barriers, so I can gradually introduce them.

This blog follows a “barrier-based” approach: I want to provide real solutions for real problems to create the type of value for you that young John wished someone had created for him. I had to look in many places as there was no “single source of truth” or “guide”. Now, I will bring everything useful I gathered into this one “travel guide” and create this resource for all you other “Johns” (regardless of age, sex, or location) out there.

In that spirit, stay tuned for more and please share your own experiences and insights in the comments section. I want this to become a vibrant community where we can all learn from each other and “pull each other up” in our upward journey!

Cheers, John.

Recommended Resources for the Go-Getters

Here are some resources for the hungry ones to dive deeper into today’s topics:

  • “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman: This book explores heuristics and biases and can empower us up-and-comers to improve our general decision-making skills, i.e., to “think better”.
  • “Level 5 Leadership” by Jim Collins: This book analyzes the qualities of effective leaders, particularly their remarkable work ethic and integrity, and is a resource for anyone who wants to choose the righteous path on the corporate ladder.
  • “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”: This theory provides a solid overview of our various needs and their interdependencies: In a way, the journey up Maslow’s pyramid has some parallels to ours: It’s all about understanding and prioritizing needs.
  • “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald: This classic tells the story of a young man obsessed with climbing the social ladder: he explores many of the themes we’ve discussed, such as love, power, and greed, and can offer insights – in inspiring and cautionary ways.

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