In the United States, we love a good Horatio Alger story, in which a person who starts out with very little applies hard work and ambition and becomes a success — but only in the abstract. In real life, American elites abhor a try-hard as much as any European aristocrat might.
In our national mythology, class doesn’t matter, but in practice, our widely held belief in the myth of meritocracy reinforces inequality. Americans tend to overestimate the nation’s economic mobility, as research from Harvard University has shown, and they have great faith in the fairness of their economic system, despite ample evidence of racial and other bias. In certain circles at least, coming from a modest background and nakedly wanting more is a moral deficiency, a form of greed.
The classism of this attitude isn’t always apparent because there’s plenty to legitimately criticize about America’s hustle culture, in which overwork is valorized and we’re all expected to rise and grind. The Covid pandemic and rethinking of work culture that it forced has spawned a backlash and a slew of think pieces about the end of ambition and whether careers really matter when people are dying and the planet is burning.
But that’s not a critique of striving itself; it’s a critique of a corporate culture that still relies upon unsustainably long work hours, cutthroat competitiveness, and exploitative labor practices.
The real question, then, is what is worth striving for? There is a difference between pointlessly toiling away for a company and working hard because you enjoy it, or you care about what you do, or most crucially, you are trying to economically advance. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do better than your parents did. Making an effort — even an over-the-top effort like Mr. Strong’s — should not be embarrassing. We strivers understand this because we’ve never been able to achieve great successes without that effort.
Elites are often socialized into affecting “ease” and eschewing displays of effort. But it’s a mistake to see the disconnect in terms of personal style or etiquette. We strivers cannot behave as if things come easily because pretending that they do often requires resources we lack. We are “unchill” because we have neither the time nor the money to assemble the accouterments of chill, or to perform it.
It’s worth noting that “Succession,” the show where Mr. Strong’s remarkable performance has made him a star worthy of a New Yorker profile, centers on a striver, Logan Roy, who grew up without wealth in Scotland and built a media empire. His children, on the other hand, inhabit a world of wealthy people who disdain striving in just the way that Mr. Strong’s Yale classmates quoted in The New Yorker appear to.