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Seeking opportunity in the face of inequality

Published Oct. 9, 2005

I'm recalling the gold rush movies of my childhood and pondering a question that never occurred to me before: Why is it that while thousands of men left farm and family to seek their fortunes in the gold fields of California or the Klondike, hundreds of others contented themselves merely to attend these adventurers? What was there about the blacksmiths, cooks and handymen that kept them from joining the gold rush?

Was it their knowledge that relatively few of the prospectors really struck it rich, or that many died (or were killed) in the effort? Was it physical frailty? Complacency? Pessimism?

Christel Dehaan would say it was "encumbrances."

No, Dehaan and I haven't been discussing old Westerns. I recently heard her commencement speech at the University of Indianapolis (her alma mater and mine), and I'm intrigued by her notions of what leads some people down entrepreneurial paths while others live out their humdrum existences.

"Encumbrances," says this German-born chief executive of the Indianapolis-based Resort Condominiums International, Inc. The risk-takers among us, she says, are not encumbered by material possessions, envy, longings for safety or even too much distracting knowledge.

"I'm often asked why it is that people from foreign lands can come to America, often penniless, sometimes not even speaking the language, and end up millionaires, corporate executives, great teachers, doctors, philanthropists," she said. "The reason, I think, is because they were not encumbered. Their ideas were great in their utter simplicity. All they knew of America was that it was the land of opportunity, a place where, if you worked hard, you could be anything. With that solitary golden nugget of knowledge, they came here and realized the dream."

There is more to it than that, of course. Maybe Dehaan, self-confident and strikingly attractive, had an easier time finding financial backing than other less attractive but equally bright entrepreneurs. Maybe being from Central Europe helped, or not being a member of some resistance-raising minority. Maybe this particular risk-taker (who just gave the University of Indianapolis $3.5-million toward a new fine arts building) just got luckier than most. America, undoubtedly the land of opportunity, is still not the land of equal opportunity.

No matter, says Dehaan. Indeed, she told me later, too keen an eye for inequality and other impediments can become just another encumbrance, because it can blind you to the underlying opportunity.

Foreigners _ and not just white foreigners _ define America in terms of its opportunities, she said. "The men and women who have come to this country and achieved success weren't intimidated by industry regulations or giant competitors, because they didn't know about them. They never considered government-subsidized living, because no one told them it was an option. They never feared failure because in their dreams they always succeeded. . . . They refused to grow encumbered."

Dehaan, speaking to a largely white and middle-class audience, was cautioning against the encumbrances of comfort and limited dreams. I'd supplement that message by cautioning against the encumbrance of despair. Dehaan invoked the psychological principle that "a satisfied need no longer motivates." But neither, I would add, does an unrecognized opportunity.

If those Old West men who toiled in the chuckwagons and blacksmith shops were doing what they wanted to do, following their own dreams, I would not criticize them. I worry only about those who dream of gold but are intimidated, by fear of unfairness, from going after it. I'd remind them that the existence of unfairness is not necessarily the elimination of opportunity.

One more caution. To speak of opportunity that exists in spite of unfairness is neither to underestimate the unfairness nor to justify it. Indeed, working to reduce injustice is itself a noble calling.

But there's a difference between fighting injustice and merely complaining about injustice. The former has produced countless heroes. The latter is a distraction from opportunity, an excuse for not trying: an encumbrance.

Washington Post Writers Group