My father has the most innate, natural grasp of mathematics of anyone I’ve ever known. He can’t tell an equation from Greek, but when you back away from explaining things in terms of equations and instead talk about it conceptually, he understands intuitively a great deal of mathematics. Conceptually, he understands it as well as I do, and I took quite a bit of advanced math in college.
Not only that, he’s incredibly quick to pick up anything. He can fix a radio, dress and skin a rabbit, read a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, run a trot line, entertain a dozen people, and conduct a very interesting debate about politics, often all in the same day.
The kicker is that my father never had the opportunity to even complete high school. He quit because he had a sick father who was unable to work and three siblings who needed food on the table.
Every so often, I try to imagine him as a teenager. He made the choice to do what he needed to do for his family without skipping a beat, and he likely never knew or saw that he had the opportunity to do great things with his life. He had all of the tools he needed right between his ears, but fate dealt him a different hand.
Bad Luck That Changes a Life
Quite often, the only difference between the people we look up to and the people we look down upon are a handful of little events. A parent that cared a little more. An unexpected death. A bad test result with no positive reaffirmation to get up and give it another shot. A lost promotion. A hurtful comment at an emotionally weak moment. A flash of anger, by them or by someone else. A bit of peer pressure. The opportunity to make a connection with someone who can open a door.
Our lives are full of these little events, most of which are out of our control. It’s those events – and how we react to them – that determine much of what we have in life, and what we work for.
Hard for Some, Easy for Others
Some people are “lucky” in that they wound up on the right side of most of the coin flips in their life. Others are “unlucky” in that some events in their lives led them down a path away from where their dreams might have taken them.
Take my father, for example. What might have happened to his life if he had completed school? Might he have met a teacher that inspired him or recognized his natural talents? That one moment in time – the sickness of his father and his caring for his family – changed his entire life. He wound up never really leaving the town he grew up in and before he knew it, he was married, working in a factory and as a commercial fisherman for his “side hustle.”
What would have happened if he had stayed in school long enough for the math to click into place for him? What if a teacher sees that natural skill and pushes him to pursue it, making a few phone calls and getting him some scholarships that get him into the nearby university? His life follows a completely different path.
But his life – and his moral character – didn’t lead him down that path. Instead of being a “lion of the community” and living in a nice house, he lives in the same small old house that I grew up in, one in sore need of repair in places. Instead of going to the Lion’s Club, he has a beer with his friends at a picnic table. All because he had a hardship hit his life, and he made the courageous choice to give up his path and do what needed to be done.
Take another situation that pops into my mind. One of the most bright and cheerful and wonderful women I know, the third child of five, contracted polio as a child and, by early adulthood, was confined to a wheelchair and eventually required a great deal of equipment and medicine to even go through life. Through all of this, she’s maintained a sunny disposition. Her dream as a child was to have a house full of children, but life didn’t allow her to play that card. She has three beautiful sisters, all of whom had multiple children, and when you look back at their childhood and high school pictures, you see four equal young women, all with great opportunity in front of them. Three of them got to live their dreams, the fourth wound up with polio.
It’s so easy to look around and see those who wound up with lower-paying jobs and a different social outcome and draw some negative conclusions about them. They didn’t work as hard, or they didn’t apply themselves, right? Only rarely is that actually the full picture.
Never Give Up
Most of you reading this site – and me included – are among the lucky ones. We’ve either not had many hardships in life or we’ve had enough positive luck to counteract the hardships.
But for those of you who have been knocked down by life, here are some lessons I’ve learned from the people in my life who have faced terrible luck and rolled through it to find whatever may come.
Don’t blame others. If something devastating has happened to you personally, don’t spend your time blaming others for it. Your problems and challenges in life are not their fault. I happen to be deaf in one ear, which means that in some situations I simply can’t hear people speaking on my left side. This is not their fault, and blaming them for me not hearing their comment is foolish.
Get back up and try again. If you fail at what you’re trying to accomplish or if life knocks you down, don’t curl up into a ball and give up. Get right back up and give life another swing. I’ve watched many people give up on life because they hit a rocky patch – even after they came out the other side of it, they wallowed in self-pity and refused to get back up again. The mistakes and bad breaks of your past have nothing to do with your present.
Don’t be too proud to ask for help. When something disastrous befalls you and you’re having a hard time picking up the pieces, ask for help. Ask your family for help. Ask your true friends for help. They will be there for you when you need them, and they want to help you when the chips are down.
Make your mind up about others based on who they are and how they act, not by how they look or what they own. This is true for everyone. I’m reminded of a small company I’m familiar with. At one of them, the most naturally gifted person in the building is the janitor. He’ll often trudge by a group working on a project together and, off the top of his head, suggest an amazing solution for it. He does it so often that many of the workers there actually seek out the janitor for input on what they’re working on. But the company can’t promote this man, oh no, they can’t. He’s a lowly janitor who doesn’t have a degree. Even the people who ask him for help sneer about him behind his back.
As for me? If I were to start a competing business, that janitor would be the first person I’d want to hire. He wears shabby clothes, talks slowly, and pushes a broom all day, but underneath that he has tremendous gifts, ones that are often ignored because people can’t get past their first impression.
Jealousy does nothing more than drag you down. It’s easy to feel jealous of the successful person. We envy them and try to find explanations for how they found success while we did not. Doing that is a waste of time. Focusing on the fact that someone else had better luck than you did is time spent not focusing on the aspects of your life that you can control. Don’t worry about the guy who just got promoted – worry instead about what you can do to snag the next one.
One left a sweater sitting on the train
And the other lost three fingers at the cannery
Everything’s so easy for Pauline
- Neko Case, Margaret vs. Pauline, from Fox Confessor Brings the Flood