General Question

zen_'s avatar

Historically, have most of the people who have made a significant difference come from modest origins?

Asked by zen_ (6268points) September 8th, 2010

Watching the Bio channel, it seems that for every “Camelotian” there are countless other rags to riches, “My father was a factory worker, I’m the President” stories.

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34 Answers

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

It would be nearly impossible to collect exact data on this, but I suspect it is the case. Since we no longer believe that the rich are an elite breed there will be equal proportions of brilliant children born to rich and poor parents. The poor have always outnumbered the rich, so successful people are probably more likely to have come from a poor family.

talljasperman's avatar

possibly… getting everything handed to you kills motivation and ambition…its like being able to cheat on a game…it gets boring quickly

Jeruba's avatar

Can you tell us what you mean by “people who have made a significant difference”? I would have thought it would mean a good deal more than just becoming successful, which might mean no more than rising to the upper levels in some hierarchy, having influence, and making a lot of money. There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who have done that, but few whom I would describe as having made a significant difference

zen_'s avatar

@Jeruba In my details I included the gamut; rags to riches, factory worker to President. What does it mean to you?

Jeruba's avatar

Oh—was that “President” as in U.S.? I thought it just meant president (CEO) of the company where Dad was a worker. I don’t rate “made a significant difference” in dollars. Horace Mann made a significant difference. Jonas Salk made a significant difference. Who knows or cares how much money they had?

zen_'s avatar

It had the big P.

iphigeneia's avatar

Do you mean ‘made a significant difference to society’ or ‘made a significant difference in their own life’? Simply becoming President from a factory worker’s son won’t necessarily have an impact on the way the rest of the world lives their lives.

zen_'s avatar

President of the United States of America.
President of whatever country you are from.
President and C.E.O of the company you emptied ashtrays for 15 years earlier.

Is this Jewish Day? Is everyone going to question my question with a question instead of answering?

weeveeship's avatar

A list of famous people from humble origins:

Some examples from that list:
Ben Franklin
Andrew Carnegie

iphigeneia's avatar

You haven’t answered my question, but I will go with the idea that ‘made a difference’ refers to influencing society-wide change.

In my opinion, no. In recent times it’s becoming more common I believe, but throughout history the privileged position of the rich has made it easier for them to make changes. Regardless of intelligence and conscientiousness, the upper classes were the driving forces behind cultural evolution. They set the fashions, they set the laws: they set the bar. They also had the time to dedicate themselves to making their mark. When you’re poor and have to work all day to survive, it’s difficult to dedicate energy to anything other than survival.

@weeveeship I have no idea what Napoleon Bonaparte is doing on that list, he came from nobility.

zen_'s avatar

^ influencing society-wide change = Presidents, not? Or should I list every type of politician/leader?

iphigeneia's avatar

Well, just being President doesn’t mean you will make a big difference to society. Many political leaders did little more than continue the work of their predecessors, for a variety of reasons.

zen_'s avatar

I sincerely doubt that is true. You cannot make it all the way to the top without having made some kind of change/diference along the way. I believe that way of cynical thinking is for people who will forever be on the sidelines. For good and for bad. To each his own. I, too, am not interested in politics – but I don’t mock those who are.

LostInParadise's avatar

I think you are correct. Part of it is statistical. There are just not that many in the upper classes. More than that though, those of lower or middle class origin have an incentive for doing something that will make them stand out in a way that those from wealthy families are born with.

Seek's avatar

“Most” is such a vague term. All we could really do in response is list the princes alongside the paupers and see which list comes up longer.

Who has influenced the greatest “change” in the world?

Alexander the Great is certainly no rags to riches story. Same with Constantine, and those present at the Council of Nicea. One could argue Ghengis Khan was a poor person who influenced change, unless we’re taking cultural differences into account (obviously a tribe of nomadic barbarians has different ideas of wealth and nobility than the Roman empire). Charles Darwin was the child of wealthy parents. Copernicus’ family was also a wealthy merchant family.

crazyivan's avatar

Wow… I’m gonna take the new tack of not leaping into a semantic death-match with the poor dude asking the question. It made perfect sense to me and I don’t feel the need to feel superior to the person asking so…

While I think that Firemadeflesh got it right (there are more poor people therefore more significant contributions to human society must have come from the poor), I think there’s another factor to consider. Those from wealthy backgrounds have more means to establish change. Think about the dude that invented velcro and then spent the rest of his life trying (largely unsuccesfully) to peddle his product. A wealthy person stepped in, ripped off his idea and promoted it with greater means. Bam, the world has velcro. The point is that there are probably a number of velcro-like inventions that none of us have ever heard of or benefited from because the inventor (of modest means) was not able to promote them.

I still think if someone were to somehow collect all the data you would find that the meek did more than the mighty, but I’m sure it would also fall disproportionate to their representation in the total populace.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Soon, very soon, you will all be my slaves, and all because my Great Gramps was a lowly starving farmer in the dust bowl.

zen_'s avatar

Actually, @Seek_Kolinahr – if we’re in a hair-splitting mood – most is an exact term meaning more than 50%.

Edited: @crazy TY. Welcome to fluther.

Seek's avatar


Answering the question still depends on the definition of “significant difference”.

I would call inventing the locomotive “significant”. I probably wouldn’t call being one of the literally thousands of people who have taken the US Senate oath “significant”, unless they had other achievements that greatly affected human life as a whole.

BoBo1946's avatar

My college roommate has his own jet. He was very poor growing up. Believe it not, he started off cooking eggs for Waffle House as a manger trainee. A few years later, he owned them all.

But, making a significant difference, that would be hard to say. He did give one million dollars to his school. So, that could certainly have been an impact on the lives of others and could be classified as making a significant difference, depending on one’s definition of “significant difference!”

A difference perspective, there are lots of people, in my eyes, that have modest means, that made a significant difference in the lives of others. There is a lady in my state that has dedicated her life to changing the diet and exercise habits of others by talking to high school students. She is making a significant difference.

Also, Brad Pitt has spent lots of his money in New Orleans helping the people of the 9th ward. That is a significant difference, in my eyes.

Al Capone was a poor person growing up, but in my eyes, he did not make a significant difference. Well, if you count decreasing the population, yes…

zen_'s avatar

^ There you go.

Seek's avatar

Giving a monetary donation to a school, that wouldn’t even cover a semester’s payroll, is a significant difference to humanity?

BoBo1946's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr depends on the amount and how it’s set up. Scholarships based on need would make a difference.

Seek's avatar

I suppose therein lies my issue with this question.

I mean, you could claim that Hitler’s grandmother made a significant difference to humanity by giving birth to Hitler’s mother, in much the same way as your friend donated the money that may have been transferred to the scholarship fund that provided the education for the person who will find the cure for diabetes.

With a definition that open, there’s no way to answer it.

crazyivan's avatar

But honestly, if you delve far enough into the semantics of something, it’s impossible to answer any question. Even a question like “What’s your name?” could be picked to the bone and rendered unanswerable if we had to subdefine every word…

Jeruba's avatar

Oooh, goody, that sounds like fun. Let’s do that.

Seek's avatar

I think there’s a considerable difference between asking someone to define “significant difference” and asking them to define “name”.

But that does sound like fun!

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@crazyivan In order to properly answer a question, you must first understand what is being asked. Often the person asking the question does not understand the implications of their terminology.

One of my favourite movie lines ever:
“Evey Hammond: Who are you?
V: Who? Who is but the form following the function of what, and what I am is a man in a mask.
Evey Hammond: Well I can see that.
V: Of course you can. I’m not questioning your powers of observation, I’m merely remarking upon the paradox of asking a masked man who he is.
Evey Hammond: Oh. Right.”

shpadoinkle_sue's avatar

I think so becasue I think that there is a different level of respect for those people who’ve come from nothing.

crazyivan's avatar

Yes, of course, but that concession being made, I think it’s perfectly clear what Zen was asking. Where does one draw the line between clarification and deep-water semantic drilling? Clearly, I’m under the impression that this demarcation has been crossed.

Seek's avatar

@crazyivan Perhaps you could enlighten me. I seem to have left my crystal ball in my other jeans.

crazyivan's avatar

Sorry, not enough time. Perhaps you could ask firemadeflesh, talijasperman, weeveeship, lostinparadise or bobo1946 who were (like me) nowhere near as baffled by this question as you were.

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