The other day, I received a note from a reader who informed me that the only reason that my story of financial recovery was even possible was due to my own “privileges.”
So, let’s talk about those.
I am a white male. I was born to a family that didn’t have very much money at all.
I was born blind in one eye. I was born deaf in one ear. I was born without a functional thyroid gland. I spent more than a year of my childhood in the hospital.
I grew up outside of a tiny, tiny town in Illinois in a school district where my graduating class had 29 people in it. We didn’t have AP classes or any sort of college prep classes.
No one in my family had ever attended college – no grandparents or parents or siblings. My parents kept food on the table, but the concept of college savings wasn’t something they even thought about, and their income was insanely variable from year to year. Some years they would earn so little that we would have easily qualified for food stamps, while other years they earned somewhat more (and usually dug themselves out of the hole of previous years).
In the end, college really didn’t seem like a realistic choice for me during my high school years, so much so that I was planning to work at a factory after I graduated from high school. I mostly applied for scholarships at the incessant request of a few teachers at my high school along with the guidance counselor and unexpectedly cobbled together enough to go to a four-year state school.
I went to college without a clue of what I should do there or what it would even be like outside of what I had read in a few books. I managed to stick around, complete two degrees, and make some great connections that led straight into a post-graduation job thanks heavily to one of the professors in my area of study.
Starting in 2006, in my spare time in my own living room, I launched The Simple Dollar. I basically worked two full-time jobs for two years as I got the site going – my main full-time job and The Simple Dollar. Eventually, The Simple Dollar’s audience grew to the point that I was able to work on it full time, then I was able to hire a few assistants to work on some aspects of the site as it continued to grow. Eventually, it kept growing to the point where I was essentially going to have to become more of a manager than a writer to keep it going, so I sold the site and stayed on solely as a writer – the part I really loved.
So, sure, you can pull several elements of privilege out of that story.
At the same time, you can pull a lot of challenges out of that story, too. I’m half blind and half deaf. If I don’t take my Synthroid each and every morning, I’m a mess. I went to school in a tiny district that didn’t do very much to prepare me for college. My biggest success was something that anyone willing to devote absurd hours to could have built.
Here’s the real truth of life: Some people have privileges you don’t have. My ethnic birth was an advantage in the area where I grew up and has been an advantage many times in my life, whether I’ve seen it or not.
At the same time, others have disadvantages that you don’t have. My awful hearing has caused me to completely botch more conversations than I can ever count, has alienated potential friends and professional associates, and made some aspects of day to day life far more difficult than they are for others.
I could go on for hours listing privileges and advantages (like my work ethic, my ability to write reasonably good content fairly quickly, etc.) as well as disadvantages (my rural background in many situations, my Synthroid requirement, etc.).
There have been times in my life when I felt that the advantages others had over me – good hearing, good vision, better background, more powerful families, more opportunities growing up, etc. – were simply unfair.
I knew people who came to college from good preparatory schools and good backgrounds, with good vision and good hearing and good health. They walked in the door with big advantages over me and, if they used those advantages at all, would likely maintain a lead over me for the rest of my life.
I was tempted to buy into using them as an excuse to not work, to not trust others, to not do my best to make a good future for myself. I believed that the deck of life was already stacked against me, that the “winners” and “losers” had already been decided.
But, instead, I learned some things.
No One Else Decides For Me How I Use My Time
Every single day, I have the choice of working hard for a better future for myself and my family. I can choose to do that work, or I can choose to take it easy.
Taking it easy is tempting and, sure, sometimes I do that. Sometimes I goof off when I should be working, doing things like reading uninformative websites or playing computer games. Sometimes I don’t even work at all.
The vast majority of the time, though, I choose to work. I choose to take on the hard tasks, whether I really want to or not.
I decide how I use my own time. I can use it to channel surf and watch mindless television, or I can use it to build a better career path. I can goof off or I can try to get useful work done. I can build my skills or I can browse websites.
Those choices are mine. They come up many times every single day, and each one plays a part in determining what my future is like.
College was a spectacular place to see this phenomenon at work. During the times when I didn’t work hard on my classes, I saw poor grades. During the times where I did work hard, I saw good grades.
The same thing repeated in my professional life. During the times where I chose not to put in my full effort, things just seemed to jog in place or even go downhill a little. During the times where I chose to use my time to put out the best effort I could in my professional life, I basically built a job for myself in a research field and then, later on, I built a business for myself out of whole cloth.
The ways I chose to use my time made all of the difference.
I Chose to Interact Positively with Others
You choose how your interactions with others go. You can choose to be negative. You can choose to be angry. You can choose to backstab. You can choose to act like you assume that the other person has it out for you.
Or, you can choose to be positive. You can choose to be pleasant and funny. You can choose to speak good things about others when they’re not around. You can choose to act like others are on your side.
The vast majority of the time, the second route is the one that pays off, while the first route leads nowhere.
Sure, there are times where someone will try to take advantage of your positivity. That’s going to happen every once in a while.
Yet, time and time again, I’ve witnessed people speaking positively of the nice people and the helpful people when they’re not around. I’ve seen others step up to help good people when those good people are going through a challenge.
I’ve never really seen that with people who choose the negative path of interacting.
You choose, with every interaction, whether it’s going to be a positive one and whether that’s going to build into a positive relationship. You choose whether to smile and whether to find something worthwhile to say. That’s your choice.
I Try to Take on Challenges Rather Than Shy Away from Them
Not every challenge in life is going to be an easy one. There are things in life that are attainable, but they’re hard to reach.
I’ll give you an example. I’d love to have one of my novels reach the bestseller lists. I know it’s possible, but it’s hard. Not only do I have to write something great and get it published, it requires a ton of media work to promote that book, too. None of those steps are remotely easy.
It would be really easy to simply tell myself that such a thing is unattainable for me. It’s clearly not. There are no true obstacles standing between myself and a bestseller. It’s just hard to get there, with real challenges to overcome.
There are lots of personal goals that fall into that category. Things like running a marathon, for example, or learning a new skill. They’re possible, but they’re hard work, and that hard work makes people want to convince themselves that the possible is impossible.
I make a conscious effort to try to take on challenges like this. They force me to work hard and to test my limits.
Sure, sometimes I fall on my face. I find that I’m not up to the challenge, or that the peak is just so high that my current life doesn’t make it realistic.
At the same time, there are times where the big mountain actually turns out to be attainable. I manage to build a business or make something simple and amazing that I never would have thought possible.
Don’t back down from big scary challenges. You may just find that they’re attainable.
Most of the people in my life are oriented toward the things I describe here. They’re positive people with positive goals and moving in positive directions in life. They’re willing to help each other when the chips are down and lift each other up when it’s needed.
My social network is a source of useful advice, of people who come through when I need them, and sometimes open doors for me.
What do I do for them? I give them useful advice when they ask. I come through for them when they need me. I sometimes open doors for them, too.
I usually offer these things without asking to people who might become friends. In fact, not long after I write this, I’m going to go spend several hours moving boxes around for someone I’ve only met a few times. Why? He (and his wife) might become this kind of friend. (If they don’t, it’s honestly not a big loss – just a few hours of doing something that constitutes exercise, too.)
Try doing this in your own life. Look for the people in the periphery of your social circle who might become a good, solid friend and then put forth effort to help that person, whether in the form of advice or opportunity or something else.
At the same time, I actively prune people who don’t do this from my social network. People who are mostly interested in taking for themselves don’t stick around. People who don’t help others don’t stick around. I just quietly minimize those friendships.
Over the last decade, all of that adds together into a social circle of people who I can rely on, who open doors for me professionally and personally, and who are continually positive about the life choices I make. They strive to help and build up, rather than hurt or take down.
Look at the friendships in your own life and strive to build up the positive ones and perhaps let the more negative relationships diminish a bit. You may quickly find yourself in a far more positive position, much more able to take on the challenges of life and overcome the privilege of others.
I Don’t Blame My Disadvantages for My Mistakes
Sometimes I mess up. I choose to be lazy. I choose to be negative. I choose to be afraid of big goals. I choose to not rely on my friends.
When I make those choices, others take advantage, whether I see it or not. Someone else might work really hard and get the contract that I wanted. Someone else might build a better set of relationships. Someone else might step up to the challenges before them.
However, it’s easy to not see it that way. It’s easy to try to find reasons why the deck is stacked against me because of disadvantages.
Other people have powerful families. They have perfect senses. They have this. They have that. And I don’t.
The second I start believing in those things as a reason for the lack of my own success, I do nothing more than guarantee my own failure. Period.
My mistakes are my own. When I choose not to work hard, it’s not because of my hearing. When I choose to present a negative self in public, it’s not because of my upbringing.
It’s because of me and the choices I made today.
There Are Some Mountains I Can’t Climb, But There Are Many That I Can
When I was little, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I loved baseball. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t all that good at baseball and no amount of practice would make me good enough to make a career out of simply playing the game.
As I grew older, I wanted to be an astronaut. I loved space. Then I read about the basic requirements to be an astronaut and how I fell short.
I am never going to be a professional baseball player or an astronaut. I am never going to be a four-star general or a race-car driver. Those doors are closed to me.
Rather than worrying about those mountains, I look for the mountains that I can climb. What can I do with the skills and abilities and attributes that I do have? What can I achieve if I put a good work ethic out there and a good attitude?
Here’s the truth: I do not accept that a door is truly closed to me unless I see a true skill gap that I can’t realistically cross or I see a basic requirement that I cannot meet.
Almost every mountain that I face in life can be climbed with work ethic, with good attitudes, with good relationships, and with a desire to improve myself.
Yes, there are some I cannot climb, but I don’t worry about those. I look instead at the ones that I can climb.
Yes, I have some privileges in life that give me an advantage over others in some respects. That’s true for almost everyone reading this, whether they see it or not.
In other areas, I have some disadvantages. That’s also true for almost everyone reading this, whether they see it or not.
The truth of the matter is that it’s up to me and my choices in life to determine how I make the most of my privileges and am affected the least by my disadvantages.
Every day is loaded with choices about how I use my time, how I use my energy, how I interact with others, and countless other things. Those choices determine how things turn out for me. The better the choices, the better the outcome.
Sure, everything in life won’t be laid out on a silver platter for me. I will never get to do some of the things I dream of doing.
However, the better the choices I make, the more doors are available to me and the higher I can climb on the mountains of life.
In the end, life deals you a hand of cards. Sometimes that hand of cards is good and sometimes it isn’t, but the game isn’t over after the deal. You choose how to play your hand and make the most of it.