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Privilege and Luck Drive Success: Toxic Financial Attitudes

This article was written by in Personal Development. 13 comments.


Let’s forget that most motivational stories are designed to get readers to purchase something or otherwise spend money. Gurus who consider themselves motivational speakers know this well. In a room full or listeners or an internet full of readers, a story with a positive message followed by a “call for action” is an effective sales technique.

This is why, for almost ten years writing on Consumerism Commentary, I’ve stayed far away from a style of writing that focuses on hollow motivational encouragement. I had no desire or intention to build a cult, as I find the groupthink mentality to be a threat to intelligence. What I love about the regular readers is that there are many opposing viewpoints, all welcome here. Readers disagree with me frequently, and I have no problem engaging thoughtful discussions about whatever the topic of the day happens to be. I would be in trouble if the only people reading were those who agreed with me with such passion they would shut down any expression of an opposing perspective.

I tread the field of personal motivation carefully. Motivation is very important in the quest towards building financial independence, reaching the long-term goals you’ve set, and designing your life in such a way finances are not a primary concern or an obstacle.

I’m not here to be an agent of motivation, though. If it works out that way, then I’m fine with it, but that’s not why I’ve tracked my finances publicly since 2003.

You can see someone’s success in the way they live their life, or you can relate to a story, whether written or told aloud. There are a number of emotional responses when confronted with evidence of someone else’s success, but only two ways to use those emotional responses. One is detrimental to your own situation while the other can help you achieve better results.

In a dramatic experiment, picture yourself at your high school reunion. Like the world at large, the chances are good that your class produced some successful people, either moving up the ranks in corporations or building their own businesses. Your class also generated some who are less successful from a financial perspective. Perhaps they chose career paths with less of an outward appearance of success or maybe they’re truly struggling beneath the surface. The more happy someone is about their own success, whether real or imagined, the more likely she is to talk about it.

What is your reaction to the kid whose family was already wealthy inherited his parents’ company?

How do you feel when the kid who was anti-social and disliked built himself a fortune?

In the first situation, the outcome was expected. Wealthy families generally stay wealthy. This could invite feelings of jealousy, but more significantly, it might make the observer frustrated. There is inequity in the world when someone works hard to build a future for his family while there are others who are handed their success on a silver platter. The challenge is turning a situation like, where one might think, “Why bother working so hard when financial success is just a dream for someone not lucky to be born into a privileged family?” into motivation.

The second situation could also produce jealously, particularly if you think your successful classmate was not particularly intelligent or skilled. You might attribute his success to luck rather his own hard work, and walk away from the encounter thinking that financial success is only achievable by chance. Perhaps he happened to be discovered by an influential mentor, he invested in a company or real estate at the right time, or he made the right friends.

If you are serious about your path that includes financial independence, you’ll need to let go of these negative feelings. Realize that the consequences that you see are the results of series of decisions made every day.

Get past privilege

Success may seem like a foregone conclusion for someone who has several generations of wealth behind him. You may think there’s no question that your friend, Thurston Howell IV, will be next in line to receive his family’s fortune (if they ever get off that island). Passing generational wealth to children isn’t a guarantee, though it’s no surprise when it happens. There are many things that can stand in the way, and even after receiving an inheritance of some kind, there’s no guarantee that the heir will have any idea of how to handle it.

Although it’s always advertised to be more flexible than it is, citizens of the United States have economic mobility. This is the case in other developed countries as well, though it wasn’t always true in Europe of previous centuries where many of our ancestors lived. You couldn’t cross social strata in certain societies, and persecution was common if you didn’t happen to follow the prevailing religion of the times. There’s no argument that modern society is better from a personal opportunity perspective, yet this vestige of generational wealth sours the promise of equal opportunity.

It may seem like success is only possible for “the one percent,” but even if that were true, it’s not an exclusive club.

Turn the negativity into positive motivation. Today, you can set out to begin your own multi-generational system of wealth. Success today can result in a better positioning for your family for generations to come. If children are not in your future, and generational wealth is not a goal, you’d be in an even better situation. Children are expensive.

Get past luck

Luck doesn’t exist, yet I often attribute my own success with luck. I happened to start a website about personal finance with a certain perspective before there were any other similar sites. I got in on the ground floor of what turned into an industry with a relatively free flow of cash from advertisers. It’s much more comfortable in public situations to downplay the role of hard work, long hours, years of engaging in an experience that gave no indication that it would ever be profitable considering the time spent, and ability to make connections with others who are interested in success. It’s good to be humble and attribute success to something external.

Learn how to predict the future. When you are successful at understanding what products people are going to want to use, it looks like predicting the future. Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan invented a tool called Blogger, eventually purchased by Google, and it set in motion a new way for people to communicate online. It may seem from the outside that they were able to develop something both unique and uniquely suited to the future, but they were building on the work of others in web publishing and were able to see the value in creating a tool that was even easier than what already existed. Evan went on to be the co-founder of Twitter. He’s not prescient, just incredibly aware of his environment.

Be in the right place at the right time. The only way to be in the right place at the right time — a primary signal of “luck” — is to be everywhere at all times. This is physically impossible, but to create your own luck, you need to get as close to this as possible. When you know what you want to do, you can narrow “everywhere” and “all times” to just the most significant places at the most significant times. I don’t go to every industry conference, but I go where I am needed, I’d be most effective, I have something valuable to gain, or I’ll have the most fun. I don’t incessantly network with other people, but I make a lot of connections and I look for all to be meaningful.

Open yourself to others. Say yes to everything. it’s true this eventually gets you in trouble. Saying yes to everything means you accept more opportunities than you can handle in one lifetime. Sometimes it means you’ll let someone down because you can’t live up to a commitment you made. You’ll never make the most out of the possibilities presented to you if you get in the habit of turning people down.

The appearance of privilege and luck can prevent you from being motivated to succeed. If success is due to these external forces, there would be no point in trying to build a future for yourself or your family or in setting and striving to reach long-term goals for your life. Use whatever feelings of negativity you might have for those who appear to have succeeded through no hard work of their own as motivation to work even harder. Turn jealousy into inspiration. Turn envy into confidence.

And be aware of the other toxic financial attitudes: Relying on someone else to take care of you, using the fact that life is short as an excuse, believing there’s enough time to work later, and not taking responsibility for your circumstances.

Photo: Flickr

Published or updated December 10, 2012. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jacob @ iheartbudgets

This is a very relevant post, as I have my high school reunion in like 6 months or something. i haven’t been a huge financial success, and by external accounts, could be perceived as “boring”. But my life has been anything but “boring”! My attitude isn’t one of jealousy of others, it’s more of interest, wondering how some succeeded, how others didn’t. Not attributing to “luck”, but just looking at common ffactors successful people have in common. When I have a mentor or someone I’m looking to be like, I try to find a common thread and see if it’s something I am able to replicate, whether it be an attitude, routine, or whatever.

Thanks for this post, great thoughts here!

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,371 (Platinum)

Thanks, Jake! Enjoy your high school reunion if you go. I haven’t been to any of mine… and my class doesn’t seem to be proactive about organizing these things. My 20 year high school reunion is coming up in less than two years.

I still see a few friends from high school fairly regularly, and things like Facebook have allowed me to (at least superficially) connect with others.

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avatar Jacob @ iheartbudgets

I’m hoping to go, but we’ll see. I hear that most people haven’t changed, and it’s really just a competition. Plus, I haven’t talked to ANYONE from hig school in like 5 years….

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avatar SteveDH

We’ve all heard about the deaf, blind, three legged dog named “Lucky” but sometimes things just can’t be explained with logic and must be chalked up to being a “co-ink-e-dink”. (Sometimes referred to as a coincidence) In example, we decided to retire in January of 2008. We made that decision in early 2007. I rolled over my company 401(k) – capturing a significant amount of unrealized gain – and reinvested it into a more retirement-like investment portfolio with more bonds, less equities, and a significantly smaller risk profile. We had no idea what lay ahead for us and everybody else in 2008, but we estimate we avoided at least $75,000 in losses. No brains, no insight, no seeing into the future – just a co-ink-e-dink. (Also sometimes referred to as luck)

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,371 (Platinum)

That’s a great point. But the decision to roll over the 401(k) into a less volatile portfolio doesn’t seem like luck at all… just good thinking. You *might* have done the same through re-allocating your assets in the 401(k) had you had another year before retirement if you started to see the signals of the recession during a sensitive time relative to your investing horizon.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

This is what we did too. With no knowledge of what was to come. It was the right time for us and kept our money in our hands. I don’t know why we chose to make the changes when we did. I was being lazy and kept having a mental prod to do it, now. So glad I listened. I do know quite a few seniors who lost close to everything, though.

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avatar krantcents

All those things require action on the part of the individual. You need motivation and encouragement to do them too. In this online society where many young people isolate themselves, a little encouragement may be necessary. More often than not, it is lack of experience and knowledge that prevents success.

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avatar qixx ♦1,814 (Half-Dollar)

For anyone that has not yet read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers i recommend it. It talks about these factors and what really drives success.

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avatar Jonas

“Luck doesn’t exist”?? So what would you call winning the lottery, divine provenance?

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,371 (Platinum)

It’s a metaphor. Luck doesn’t exist as a method for success. I call winning the lottery a statistic unlikelyhood. If you’re waiting to win the lottery to solve your financial problems or get rich, you can forget about it, it — the lottery, luck, etc. — might as well not exist. You need to look at the long term view. Play blackjack once, and you might win if the cards are dealt in your favor. Play blackjack a thousand times, and the luck you thought you observed no longer exists.

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avatar Jonas

“Luck” in and of itself certainly exists in almost all facets of life. If you want to say that relying on luck is not a way to achieve financial success, I would agree. But that’s not what you wrote.

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avatar Kathleen, Frugal Portland

Very well said — you should reconsider excluding this kind of dialog from Consumerism Commentary. You write beautifully (and don’t look old enough to be going to a 20-year HS reunion in two years!).

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avatar Ceecee ♦796 (Dime)

Having just been to a reunion last Summer, I have to say that high school is NO predictor of success. Our class druggie is now an engineer, our valedictorian has disappeared off the map, but most people are just ordinary middle class folks. No one seemed to be there to show off, either. They danced, laughed and had a great time…..a lot of the old “mess” was absent, it was a positive experience.

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