No One Owes You Anything

I recently ran across a letter written by the writer, investment advisor, and politician Harry Browne. It was a letter intended for his nine-year-old daughter and was published as part of his syndicated newspaper column. I want to share it in its entirety:

* * *

It’s Christmas and I have the usual problem of deciding what to give you. I know you might enjoy many things — books, games, clothes.

But I’m very selfish. I want to give you something that will stay with you for more than a few months or years. I want to give you a gift that might remind you of me every Christmas.

If I could give you just one thing, I’d want it to be a simple truth that took me many years to learn. If you learn it now, it may enrich your life in hundreds of ways. And it may prevent you from facing many problems that have hurt people who have never learned it.

The truth is simply this:

No one owes you anything.

How could such a simple statement be important? It may not seem so, but understanding it can bless your entire life.

No one owes you anything.

It means that no one else is living for you, my child. Because no one is you. Each person is living for himself; his own happiness is all he can ever personally feel.

When you realize that no one owes you happiness or anything else, you’ll be freed from expecting what isn’t likely to be.

It means no one has to love you. If someone loves you, it’s because there’s something special about you that gives him happiness. Find out what that something special is and try to make it stronger in you, so that you’ll be loved even more.

When people do things for you, it’s because they want to — because you, in some way, give them something meaningful that makes them want to please you, not because anyone owes you anything.

No one has to like you. If your friends want to be with you, it’s not out of duty. Find out what makes others happy so they’ll want to be near you.

No one has to respect you. Some people may even be unkind to you. But once you realize that people don’t have to be good to you, and may not be good to you, you’ll learn to avoid those who would harm you. For you don’t owe them anything either.

No one owes you anything.

You owe it to yourself to be the best person possible. Because if you are, others will want to be with you, want to provide you with the things you want in exchange for what you’re giving to them.

Some people will choose not to be with you for reasons that have nothing to do with you. When that happens, look elsewhere for the relationships you want. Don’t make someone else’s problem your problem.

Once you learn that you must earn the love and respect of others, you’ll never expect the impossible and you won’t be disappointed. Others don’t have to share their property with you, nor their feelings or thoughts.

If they do, it’s because you’ve earned these things. And you have every reason to be proud of the love you receive, your friends’ respect, the property you’ve earned. But don’t ever take them for granted. If you do, you could lose them. They’re not yours by right; you must always earn them.

A great burden was lifted from my shoulders the day I realized that no one owes me anything. For so long as I’d thought there were things I was entitled to, I’d been wearing myself out — physically and emotionally — trying to collect them.

No one owes me moral conduct, respect, friendship, love, courtesy, or intelligence. And once I recognized that, all my relationships became far more satisfying. I’ve focused on being with people who want to do the things I want them to do.

That understanding has served me well with friends, business associates, lovers, sales prospects, and strangers. It constantly reminds me that I can get what I want only if I can enter the other person’s world. I must try to understand how he thinks, what he believes to be important, what he wants. Only then can I appeal to someone in ways that will bring me what I want.

And only then can I tell whether I really want to be involved with someone. And I can save the important relationships for those with whom I have the most in common.

It’s not easy to sum up in a few words what has taken me years to learn. But maybe if you re-read this gift each Christmas, the meaning will become a little clearer every year.

I hope so, for I want more than anything else for you to understand this simple truth that can set you free: no one owes you anything.

* * *

There is a lot of very wise financial truth contained in that letter, principles that apply brilliantly to the personal finance journey (and life journey) that we all find ourselves on.

No one owes you anything.

No one owes you the money to retire on. Yes, you’re due some money from Social Security, but only if you’ve paid into it. If you’re lucky, your organization might have some kind of pension plan for you, but that’s part of your compensation for working there.

Everything else is up to you. It’s up to you to save for your retirement if you want to have a comfortable retirement. You need to be putting money aside in a 401(k) or a Roth IRA or a similar plan.

No one owes you great treatment. People are free to treat you however they like.

What you do control, however, is who you choose to associate with. You can choose to associate with people who treat you well in return for you treating them well. You can choose to associate with people who are doing great things and can inspire you to make better choices in your own life. You can choose to associate with people who are sources of great advice and wisdom and insight and knowledge.

You can also choose not to associate with people who don’t treat you well. You can choose to avoid people who offer paths full of poor decisions.

You decide who you spend your time with. No one else decides that but you.

No one owes you a job. A job means that someone is giving you money in exchange for your efforts. If you don’t want to put forth the effort, no one is required to put forth the money.

Remember, no one is going to give you a job unless the person paying you is going to, at some point, bring in more money than they’re paying you (and the cost of the items you’re using). Jobs aren’t charities. A job is a situation someone else has set up where you can both make some money – you invest your time and effort for some of that money, while the person who bought the location and all of the equipment and figured out all the job protocols for you is making some of that money. If you’re not an efficient part of that, you won’t have a job.

You decide whether you want a job or not, and you show whether you want that job with your efforts.

The same thing is true for a promotion. No one owes you a promotion. It’s up to you to make the case that you’re more deserving of that promotion than anyone. If you can’t make that case, then that promotion shouldn’t be yours anyway.

Yeah, sometimes people get promotions that don’t “deserve” them. Again, whatever the reason was for that other person getting the promotion, it comes down to the fact that you didn’t make a good enough case to earn that promotion for yourself. It wasn’t owed to you.

The same thing is true for business. No one owes you business success. You earn it by working your tail off and proving you have the knowledge and the talent to produce a product that people want and are willing to pay for in some fashion or another.

This is true for everyone from Bill Gates to a person making YouTube videos. They all make money from their business by making – or having made – things that people want. If you can’t put together some system for doing that, you aren’t going to have success in business. It is not owed to you.

No one owes you courtesy or friendship or respect. Those things are earned, not given. You choose for yourself whether or not you want to behave in a way that earns courtesy or friendship or respect. Even then, you might not necessarily receive it, though the odds go up greatly.

These statements may seem like negative things. They might seem like a list of hard truths about life.

However, the opposite is true.

For starters, things that you haven’t earned in some fashion are relatively valueless. Think about friendship, for starters. When someone that you barely know begins acting like your best friend, it feels completely unnatural. On the other hand, when you’ve known someone for years and they act like your best friend, it feels completely natural.

What’s the difference? Your real best friend earned that status. They have shown you friendship and kindness for a long time. This new person? They may have shown you friendship and kindness really recently, but the idea that you’ve got a long-term friendship feels hollow because it is hollow. That friendship – that thing that really means something and has real value in your life – has to be built up. It has to be earned. Things that have real value are things that you’ve actually earned.

That false friendship isn’t going to feel like a major loss to you if it disappears. However, if that close friend you’ve had for years disappeared, you’d know it. It would hurt. Why? Because that close friendship has value. That value isn’t owed to you. That value is built over a long period with a lot of little efforts that add up to something big.

Another truth: You are largely in control of your own destiny. Yes, outside events can and do happen, but you decide whether or not you have a good shot at that promotion or whether you’re never going to get it. You make that choice through your regular actions. Have you earned that promotion? Undoubtedly, decisions are made outside of your control that are sometimes completely unfair, but that still doesn’t make it okay for you to not make the best case for yourself.

You decide what you think about. You decide what you do with your time. You decide what you do with your money. You decide how much effort to put in. You decide whether to keep bearing down on that task or to get distracted by social media or to get into a conversation at the water cooler.

Those are your decisions. No one else makes them but you. Over the course of a lot of those decisions, you shape what kind of a life that you have.

A person with a great career has done things to build that great career. They’ve gone the extra mile to get their foot in the door. They’ve done their homework to keep their skills sharp. They’ve leapt at every opportunity to step forward and succeed.

Can you say the same about yourself?

A person with a lot of friends has done things to earn those friendships. They’ve put themselves in social situations. They’ve reached out to others with common interests and values. They’ve coordinated countless social events for themselves and others. They’re there when their close friends need them.

Can you say the same about yourself?

A person with sustainable wealth has done things to preserve that wealth and often to earn that wealth. They’ve spent less than they’ve earned over many years. They’ve made smart financial choices year after year after year.

Can you say the same about yourself?

A person with great fitness and a healthy looking body has done things to preserve that health and look. They’re careful about almost everything they eat – you might see them eating treats sometimes, but it’s likely that most of their other meals are extremely healthy. They devote time to exercise and getting in better shape.

Can you say the same about yourself?

A person who is considered wise has done things to cultivate that wisdom. They have spent a lot of time observing people and situations and then counterbalancing that with the teachings of great teachers and readings from great books. They’ve thought carefully about their own experiences and what they’ve learned and can combine all of that together into sage advice.

Can you say the same about yourself?

You see, the truth is that the big picture of your life is made up of how you use each day, each hour, each minute.

You decide whether you’re building a valuable career with nearly every workplace choice.

You decide whether you’re building a healthy financial portfolio with every dime you spend.

You decide whether you’re building a strong family with every single choice you make to spend time with them or to do other things.

You decide whether you’re building a strong social network with every single choice regarding whether you choose to be social or curl up in a safe ball in a comfortable chair.

You decide whether you’re building wisdom with every single choice regarding whether you reflect on life and face challenging materials and ideas or whether you watch a reality television marathon.

Those are choices that you make. No one else makes those choices but you. You decide whether you want to find success in the areas of your life that you want. That success is not owed to you. It is the outcome of all of your little choices about how you live your life, how you act toward others, how you use your time.

If you want to succeed at finances – or at anything else in your life – that success is going to be borne solely out of a long series of positive choices. That doesn’t guarantee success, of course, but it is a required ingredient. If you aren’t making positive choice after positive choice, if you aren’t taking positive action after positive action, the success you want isn’t going to happen. Success is not owed to you.

Whenever you feel unhappy about the state of things in some aspect of your life, remember that no one owes you anything. Instead, the things you want are largely earned. Yes, unfortunate events happen, but it is entirely in your court as to whether that cloud has a silver lining or not. Yes, great events happen, but it is entirely in your court as to whether that advantage does to waste.

The ingredient that matters is you. What are you going to choose to do?

Are you going to buy that silly thing at the gas station? Are you going to whip out your plastic at that big clothing sale? Or are you going to keep your wallet in your pocket? Making the right choice again and again is the foundation of financial success.

Are you going to sit there and browse social media for a while? Are you going to spend an hour pretending to work so that your boss will leave you alone? Or are you going to knuckle down and do the work? Are you going to spend some focused time sharpening your skills? Are you going to build some great workplace relationships or connections to people in your field? Making the right choice again and again is the foundation of career success.

Are you going to just toss the first idea you have out there and expect customers to come to your door? Are you going to instead hone that idea over and over again until it’s rock-solid? Are you going to research every single cost and write an effective business plan for your idea? Are you going to get feedback on your plans and revise them and get more feedback until you feel ready to launch? Making the right choice again and again is the foundation of a successful side gig.

Are you going to sit on your couch and wonder why your phone isn’t dinging constantly with texts? Are you going to go out to some kind of community event tonight? Are you going to make it your goal to connect with at least five people in the room well enough that you exchange contact info? Making the right choice again and again is the foundation of a great social network.

Even if bad events happen, you’ll overcome them with these steady good choices. If great fortune happens, then these little choices will just accelerate it.

On the other hand, if you make a steady flood of bad choices, unfortunate events will just accelerate the collapse. Even good fortune will eventually be devoured by lots of little bad decisions.

You are not owed financial success. You are not owed career success. You are not owed business success. You are not owed social success. You are not owed success. You make it with a flood of these little choices.

No one owes you anything. It’s up to you to make the things you want.

What are you going to do today?

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.