Many works of fiction are showing protagonist arriving in a new world with nothing but the clothes on his back, and quickly advancing to a remarkably high position. I am trying to understand what is really possible, and how long it would take for a person, without any additional luck, to get to at least an average level in a society.

For the purpose of this question, assume that the world is very similar to modern day USA. Our protagonist arrives without a penny or anything that is valuable, but he is fluent in local language, healthy and his "papers" are in good order (i.e. he won't be deported to this world's equivalent of Mexico right away).


  • There are no educational records or records of previous employment;
  • At the beginning, there is not even a place for him to sleep;
  • There is no friend or acquaintance that can help him;
  • He has no special talent or professional job experience (but can learn anything just like anyone else), he doesn't have an invention in mind that is unknown in this world;
  • His look and accent may mark him as an outsider, but there would be no real prejudice against him;
  • He can't do anything criminal or morally ambiguous, like selling his body or parts of it. Can't take high-risk jobs or engage in risky behavior (ex. sleep on the street in a high crime area);
  • There is no luck that can help him to advance;

How quickly this person get to make an average income (currently in US average household income is about $60K/year)?

EDIT: He is intelligent (just above the average), but not super smart. He can easily finish college, but he can't get his tuition paid just by his smarts, like Kvothe. He is motivated and hard-working, but not to the extreme. Let's assume that he needs to sleep 8 hours on most nights, but would be willing to spend his free hours working or studying.


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    $\begingroup$ I wanted to answer, but my primary example might be considered "luck" by some. Joseph, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, was sold into slavery. He ended up working for an Egyptian man whose wife lied about Joseph, so he was put in prison. The pharaoh found out that Joseph could interpret dreams, so he summoned Joseph who interpreted pharaoh's dream about 7 years of famine approaching. He put Joseph in charge of Egypt to prepare, so Joseph was second to none but pharaoh himself. That is lower than your protagonist to a higher position than you mentioned. I'll make this an answer if it counts. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Nov 14 '18 at 20:16
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't this essentially the question that nine-tenths of the people in the US (and probably other countries too) are already asking every day and are trying to do? On thinking about this more, it sounds like you are asking for something which is constantly under active research and has another failed experiment every few seconds every day on Earth and which people argue about and give motivational speeches about (usually by people who got lucky, against your question's criteria). $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Nov 14 '18 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ Is he intelligent? Hard-working? Motivated to succeed? Quick-witted? Personable? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Nov 14 '18 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ In other fictions that you mention, the one who does well as you suggest usually does so by luck, which you wanted to avoid. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Nov 14 '18 at 20:38

Modern : Jan Koum

Jan was born in the Ukraine in 1976. He emigrated to California in 1992, at age 16. He worked at a grocery store at first, then got a security testing job at Ernst & Young at age 18. By age 21, he was hired at Yahoo where he sayed for nine years. Presumably, by this time he was making a suitably upper middle class salary.

His claim to fame is starting WhatsApp at age 33, which turned him into a billionaire by upon its sale to Facebook in 2014, when he was 38.

Near Modern : Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835 in Scotland. He moved to the US (Pittsburgh) at age 13, and got a job as a bobbin boy at a cloth mill at \$1.20 per week (something like \$25 in modern terms). He moved to railroads as year later, working his way up in the Pennsylvania Railroad Company until he became a superintendant in 1859, age 24, making \$1500 a year (roughly $40k in modern terms, and a very healthy salary).

He later got into building sleeper cars for railroads, then bridges, then steel, and became the richest man in the world by the time he died.

  • $\begingroup$ Does working your way up to a high position in a company count as luck per OP's terms? People can say all they want that all you need is to do well and/or do a better job than those around you and you'll get promoted, but practical experience (by many, not just me) suggests it is more random than that. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Nov 14 '18 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ Becoming CEO is luck. Becoming a middle manager or skilled worker is entirely about understanding what your current manager really wants, and doing it (so he gets promoted, and you take his place). That does require social and observational skills, though. $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Nov 14 '18 at 20:36

Disclaimer: I personally consider this to be against the intention of OP's criteria, but then I believe the other answers are too (for the same reasons) but they are being well received, so I'll answer in the same fashion they have.

Consider Joseph, son of Isaac, son of Abraham.

Joseph started lower than what you suggest: his brothers sold him into slavery because they were jealous of him.

Joseph ended up higher than what you suggest: he ended up second in command of a world superpower of the time, possibly the single dominant superpower at least at this specific time.

As a slave, the wife of Joseph's master falsely accused him of a crime, so his master had him jailed. So not only was Joseph a slave, but he was a slave in prison - it does not get much lower than that.

While in prison, Joseph successfully interpreted the dreams of some of the other prisoners, dreams which were prophetic, came true, and was witness to Joseph's ability. When pharaoh found out about Joseph's ability after having had some special dreams, he summoned Joseph and had Joseph interpret the dreams. The dreams were prophetic and foretold 7 years of bumper crop followed by 7 years of famine, so pharaoh put Joseph in charge of preparing for the famine. Pharaoh put Joseph in command over all of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.

We can see that Joseph still had favor with Pharaoh and had power even after the famine came, as Joseph forgave his brothers and wanted to move his family to Egypt and feed them, and Pharaoh was happy to give Joseph's family their own land.

This is probably the most drastic, epic "rags to riches" story ever, as it goes from the very lowest status that a person can ever have to being the second most powerful person on the planet, wielding the power of the first most powerful person in their place.

And fortunately for your question, this is an actual historical example believed by a significant percentage of modern people. Non-religious people who still believe that it happened might count it as luck, but most believers will not.

Similarly to other answers here, this is a tale of a man who had a skill, got noticed, and after years of honest hard work and determination was promoted to a position that was appropriate for his skills.

So the answer in general might be "make sure you are educated with a skill whose profession accomplishes your goals and then apply it while working hard," and in the specific case of Joseph "have the skill to interpret prophetic dreams and apply it while working hard."


Probably in about 5 years by signing up with the armed forces, given he applies for some technical specialty. He'll get training, room and board and after his contract is over he can get a job doing the same thing as a civilian.


I assume he has documents proving that he is US Citizen, or at least permanent resident (so he can work legally). I further assume he has average intelligence and techical skills comparable to US college grad.

Then he can Get a low-skill job at McDonalds or Walmart or similar business. He might not have a proof of completing high school, but I doubt that will be a problem.

Then he can work his way up from cleaner to checkout then to manager, and so on. I'd say at least 5 years to manager, and 10 is more likely.

A slightly faster path is mail-room or similar clerk at a bank or any corporation. If he has business or computer skills, he will advance fairly quickly.

If he cannot work legally (e.g. visitor's visa), he will have to start with under-the-table jobs in construction or agriculture, and then fastest path to legal status is to marry a citizen.

He could use his out-of-this world experiences to start a career in entertainment (books, movies, design), but that requires a lot of luck, and some time to create his art.

PS In works of fiction, the new arrival is often from a more advanced civilization, and has better technology with him, or can create it. Your dude has none of that.

  • $\begingroup$ While good, I would suggest that even this is still luck based. There are many, many people working the kinds of jobs you suggest, or equivalent level (eg: flipping burgers, pouring coffee, etc.) who have been doing it for more than 10 years and are still nowhere close to what OP asks for despite them doing an awesome job. It must be that way since managers must be heavily outnumbered by their workers. If you have 20 workers and 4 of them do an awesome job, 2 or 3 of them are still not going to become managers since you only need 1 or 2. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Nov 14 '18 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ Also, I have found that at a very lot of places being liked by management is more important than either doing a good job or doing what management wants. I did both of the latter most of my life, and all it got me was managers who fought over my time and raved about how awesome I was to upper management, some of whom have told me to work as much overtime as I am willing to, but that has not led to the kind of promotions you mention, and I've seen the same from some other hard working people. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Nov 14 '18 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ By "manager" you mean a "general manager", with high enough salary? Because regular managers (like "shift managers") at McDonalds don't make much money (but don't need 5-10 years either to get promoted to their jobs). $\endgroup$ – Alexander Nov 14 '18 at 21:08

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