Any person is a product of his or her environment to a significant extent. And because so much of our personality is formed when we are under the age of ten, there’s something to be said for the benefits of being a child within a family situation that has a positive approach to money management — and life beyond just money, but money is the focus of this article.
I benefited from parents who put a priority on education. As I progressed through high school, I was encouraged to explore my various passions, as well, even though that contributed to less of a focus on the educational system that was providing my grades. Nevertheless, I was lucky. I didn’t choose my parents. I didn’t choose to be born in a first-world country to an educated couple. My family wasn’t rich, but I was privileged by not being within an obvious minority. Religiously, I was and am a part of a minority, but because it wasn’t necessarily visible, I benefited from at least some privilege of the majority.
It’s impossible to know if and how my life would be different today if these variables, all of which are beyond my control, were different. Chances are, some things would be different.
I’ve written on Consumerism Commentary often about taking control of your finances. That is exactly what I needed to do at the turn of the millennium. I was in debt, ignoring things like speeding tickets because I couldn’t afford the fines, spending all of my money on commuting expenses and basic necessities for living. I considered myself a victim of circumstances. Yes, I was a victim, even though I knew I had many advantages in life that would never be afforded to a lot of other people throughout the world and even my country of the United States.
My boss at a non-profit organization tried to impart his wisdom about life, but I wasn’t interested in hearing it. To me, it was empty words from a CEO who refused to offer important benefits to his employees, someone who was able to let the company pay for his expenses without any concern for the struggling financial condition of those who worked for him. Being able to afford a reliable vehicle for transportation was something he didn’t have to worry about, and from that position, it’s easy to say that all aspects of your life are a direct result of your choices.
This is a refrain common among motivational speakers. If there’s something about your life that you want to change, it is within your control to do so. And I eventually learned to accept most of this philosophy when pertaining to money management and financial independence. I still challenge any motivational speaker to go to country run by terrorists and say, “It’s easy. Just leave. Start a business. You’ll become rich.” It’s an extreme example, but there are people out there who really do believe any challenge can be overcome with a little hard work.
For most of us, that’s true. If you’re able to read this article, it’s probably true for you. But there are millions of people in the world who don’t have the luck to be born under your circumstances. Some of those millions of people will eventually escape their oppressive regimes, but the vast majority won’t, and it won’t be due to a lack of effort.
I’ve been very fortunately in my life, particularly these last few years if you look at life from a financial angle. The entrepreneur in me wants credit for that. In fact, the marketer in me finds it very important for me to advertise the fact that I’ve built an unexpected business out of nothing and reached financial independence at the age of 35. For many people, this is a dream come true. Anyone can have an idea, work hard for a decade, more or less, and change his or her life in an amazing way. This is the motivational story that people want to hear. Some who hear it will go on and do great things. Others will not be effected, and even if a motivational story changes one person’s life, doesn’t that make it worthwhile?
The human in me takes a different approach. The success story is such a powerful motivator that sometimes it drowns out the reality. The marketer doesn’t want to admit that factors other than perseverance played a role in success. The entrepreneur doesn’t want to believe that other people were involved in making the impossible possible. If you start to accept that there is more to your success than you, it makes it more difficult to sell books and products or to book yourself on national television.
We want life’s stories to be perfect and simple. We want them to be understood, from start to finish, within a 42-minute hour. A success story isn’t simple, though. Had I faced social obstacles like racism, I may have had a different outlook on life that led me in a different direction. If I had been born in 1776 instead of 1976, I might have died from bronchitis as a child. Had I been born in the Middle East instead of Brooklyn, I might have died in war. It would have been very unlikely for me to come out of a family without an education with a love for learning, a desire to live up to high expectations, and the tools necessary to succeed.
An entrepreneur will never credit “luck” when asked for the reason for one’s success (though many certainly will blame “bad luck” when they fail). To admit that circumstances, or anything beyond personal choices and effort, played a major role in success makes all the hard work seem less valuable. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the advantages I was born with and the smart people I’ve surrounded myself with. Yes, I worked at my passion of building online communities since I was a teenager. That helped me prepare myself for the perfect storm that arrived with my business, where my passions coincided with a huge public interest and a large marketable field.
If I hadn’t done the work, I would have been behind, trying to catch up, if I had tried at all. But if the circumstances of my life that led to that instance were different, if I had been discouraged from using the internet, from spending my time learning programming languages, or from rewriting and writing code that allowed people to communicate online, I might not have followed my passions. If my parents encouraged me to worry more about my future earning potential than my hobbies, my life would have been much more boring and probably much less successful.
I can’t forget about all of these aspects of life just to sell a story about hard work and success. I can’t ignore my human side and neglect gratitude for others around me.
If you find yourself blaming your financial problems on aspects of your life that you can’t control while attributing your success to hard work, you might be able to motivate people to succeed. But you’d be missing, or perhaps willfully ignoring, the full picture. Your choices and your circumstances both help to form who you are today. The more you ask yourself, “Why?” the more you’ll be able to truly understand your circumstances today and a possible path for improvement.
No one sees success in the world without external influence. At the same time, all the hard work in the world can’t save everybody from the bad circumstances into which they were born. There are exceptions to every rule, but they are few and far between, and despite the use of exceptions as motivational tools, they’re not likely to help the majority of people.
Take a moment and thing about your failures and your successes. Who do you blame for your failures? Is it always someone other than yourself? If so, take some time and think about the choices you’ve made that may have led you to that result.
Who do you credit for your successes? If you only see the hard work you’ve done, take some time to think about whether your situation would have been possible had you lived in another time or another part of the world. Think about the obstacles you’d need to overcome.
Published or updated September 2, 2014.