Updated on 03.24.08

Is Success a Choice?

Trent Hamm

Quite often, when I talk about opportunities to succeed on The Simple Dollar, I am accused of forgetting people who can’t help themselves – truly impoverished people, people with disabilities, and people with other strict disadvantages in life. I’m often told in no uncertain terms that for these people, success is not a choice – they’ve been dealt a bad hand in life.

Similarly, I’ll hear the hard-luck tale of someone who worked for forty years trying to build something successful and never quite made it. That person went out there, gave it their all, and success just never seemed to find them.

Because of situations like these, many people out there will shout from the rooftops that success is not a choice, that it’s merely a part of the hand that life deals you.

I flatly disagree, and here’s why.

Before I get going, let me say a bit about people who are disabled and those who are truly impoverished. People in those situations have indeed been dealt a bad hand, and it would be very trite of me to say that I could ever solve problems like disease or true poverty in a blog post. I don’t know the first thing about solving world hunger or curing Parkinson’s disease – those are problems for much wiser people than me to solve.

But I’m not talking about those people. I’m talking about people that are at least middle class (the upper 90% of income levels) and are of sound mind and body. That’s 80% or so of the American population.

For those people, a group that almost certainly includes you, success is largely a choice.

Every single minute, you have choices in life. You can sit there twiddling your thumbs and reading TMZ or you can bust your hump getting a great project done on time. You can burn $30 at the bookstore, or you can go to the library and get those same books for free. You can spend your evening watching television, or you can use it to educate yourself.

Each choice you make doesn’t guarantee success. You could make the “right” choice every single time for thirty years and still not succeed, or you could make just one right choice and have success fall right on your lap.

What these choices do over a period of time is open up more and more doors for success in life. Let’s say you’re interested in local politics so you choose to attend the city council meeting as an observer instead of watching television. That one choice might not mean much, but if you keep making choices like that, and then while at those meetings choose to ask questions and take notes, you might find yourself going where you want to go. On the other hand, if you go to one meeting, give up, and spend the next meeting watching television, you’re not choosing success at all.

I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve been trying to succeed on some level as a writer since I was fifteen years old. I’ve received a gigantic mountain of rejections over the last decade and a half. On the few occasions when I have sniffed success, that has faltered, too.

But I kept writing, and with each word and each moment of sustained effort, I became a better writer. I learned more about how the writing business works. I found new avenues that opened the door for success, tried them out, and failed at most of them. Right now, I’m finding some degree of success with the written word, but without that continuous effort, those constant choices that I made, I’d never be here.

You have a choice right now. You can go on doing things like you’ve always been doing. Or you can choose to try to do things better. You can keep shuffling through things, day in and day out. Or you can set a big audacious goal and choose to take the little steps that will move you towards it.

Your choice won’t guarantee you success, but it will open the door just a tiny bit wider, and each choice you make after that opens the door just a little bit more. Success may never walk in, or success may walk in tomorrow – but success will never walk in if you don’t put some effort into opening that door and putting out the welcome mat.

So, yes, I believe that for most people success is largely a choice – success can come to anyone at any time, but you steadily improve or worsen your chances with each choice you make. So go out there and start making choices to open the door a little wider – and have a little patience, too.

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  1. eaufraiche says:

    but for every obstacle, there’s an example of an individual who triumphed to achieve success in spite of that handicap…

    i personally love, love, love to listen to jack canfield’s success principles en route to work, and #1 is that we must assume responsibility for all of our actions in order to make progress towards success (as we define it)

    it really IS number one.

    great post, Trent.

  2. Alisha says:

    This reminds me of a time when I was an undergraduate, and I was given a huge opportunity within my academic department. Another student derided me, telling me that I was undeserving and “lucky.” I talked with a professor about my doubts and he said, “The one gift that is going to serve you for your whole life is that you put yourself in a position to be lucky. When this opportunity came up, you were in the right place to receive it–but it’s because you put yourself there.”

    Now, in my ordinary life, I constantly ask myself, “Am I putting myself in a position to be lucky?”

  3. Lurker Carl says:

    Success requires you to work hard, seek knowledge and take risks. These are all choices. Success is seldom achieved by slackers.

    Luck, good or bad, only requires your existance in the right place and at the right time. Even though luck is happenstance, luck is influenced by choices we make. For instance, finding a $20 bill is luck but wasting that money is kin to never finding it. Squandering opportunity is avoiding success.

    Even the most feeble have good luck but can not (or will not) act upon their good fortune to acheive success.

  4. Tyler says:

    I liked your foreword disarming those who are quick to say “but but but look at this guy!” For _most_ of us, success is indeed a choice (or series of choices).

  5. Andre K says:

    There’s no determinisic control over achieving a desired outcome (I personally avoid amoeba words like “success”), but we do have stochastic control — like a professional gambler. The more time we spend on activities that realize our goals, and the less time we spend on those that don’t, the more we stack the odds in our favor. Look for the critical path, determine the necessary actions, take them, review for mistakes and improvement opportunities, and the sense of victimhood will subside over time.

  6. Andy says:

    I largely agree with you, for most people it is a choice (as a disclaimer this is coming from someone with every advantage). I think one group of people though, maybe the group that causes most of the controversy, are those who grow up not knowing that they have a choice. If all they are taught is poverty and failure, why would they ever believe it could be changed. You have mentioned before that you had two loving parents who supported you, even when you’re family didn’t have money, and I think that makes all the difference. If someone has never seen success, they might never know there is another way to life. I think that is another group for whom it is sort of a choice, but maybe not. I mostly agree with you, but I don’t know.

  7. Heidi says:

    I agree that success is a choice as well (with the obvious exceptions you indicated).

    My family gives me a hard time because of my salary (they don’t understand why any employer would pay me what I make). I worked my tail off to get where I am, and I put a lot of effort into my after hours activies to continually cultivate my network. I choose to be involved in my community – I volunteer my time, talent, and resources to several non-profits and participate in young professional activities. I don’t get to watch Lost, but I’m not going to become successful by watching TV.

    The payoff for my efforts? Well, it makes my city a better place to live and makes me feel good to give back. The other benefit is that I’ve haven’t had to actively look for a job since starting my professional career – I have recruiters (internal and external) calling to recruit me. That’s how I got the job I start next week – and that’s what I call success.

  8. MossySF says:

    Success is all the in the mind. Back 10,000 years ago, success was a pretty simple bar. You either were killed by the sabertooth or you whacked the giant-toe sloth for dinner. Now, within a vast range of possibilities, you’re still a success because you are alive and you reproduced. The fact that you feel like a failure because you don’t own the latest flatscreen or drive a 10-year old car — it’s all temporal thoughts in your head.

  9. Joe says:

    Man – there is nothing wrong in watching tv, in and of itself – repeat after me! Reading this blog, one would think that tv is an acronym for something like cocaine. The point is that everything should be done in moderation, which obviously includes tv-watching. Also, there is a lot of social-capital/bonding to be gained while watching tv (Superbowl or March Madness anyone?), not to mention tons of useful and informative shows…

  10. Jayson says:

    I agree with everything you said. I’d also like to offer a little different perspective.

    Maybe we need to change our definition of success. If I spent all my life learning about a particular topic and didn’t get rich, or publish, or become famous, or (insert general description of success)…did I fail?

    I think it was Thomas Edison (could be wrong!) who was asked how he felt about failing 2,000 times while trying to create the light bulb. He responded that he merely suceeded 2,000 times in finding something that didn’t work.

    Maybe we should focus more on the small successes we have then on the bigger picture?

  11. Eric says:

    It is very odd to me that certain posts by Trent are so full of facts and references but others have none. In none of the posts about this subject that I have read have you put forth any facts. That is fine since it is your blog about what you want to say but when I do look at the facts it doesn’t seem to match your opinion.

    It does make me wonder about your fundamental beliefs that you maintain this one when the statistics are so much against that belief. It seems like an assumption you refuse to give up no matter what.

  12. Ms. Clear says:

    If success is a choice, why do so many people end up in the same socioeconomic circumstances as their parents?

    Of course, there are many exceptions and that’s great. But there’s more to personal success than bromides like this post. This is not why I read this website.

    And I say this as someone with upper middle class parents, who has had many advantages. Sure enough, I’m doing ok. That’s not to say that I haven’t worked hard and made good choices. But it’s not that simple.

  13. Rob says:

    Some people make things happen……some people let things happen

  14. Saving Freak says:

    Success stories are by and large people who faced failure and were not deterred from their goals. This should lead us all to believe that success is a choice even for those who are impoverished. The choice to not settle for mediocre. Moving your family from poverty to middle class is a success. It doesn’t look like a big accomplishment to some but it sets someone else up for even greater things. I would not be where I am today if my grandfather had not worked his butt off in a steel mill to put my dad through college. He set his family history on a different course by working hard and seeing a bigger goal. We can all do this we just have to choose that path.

  15. Johanna says:

    Certainly, everyone can make choices that increase their chance of success, but how much can they increase it? Success is quite obviously part skill and part luck, but how much is skill and how much is luck? I see no real attempt here to answer that question.

    What I do see is post after post with the message of “If you’re not successful, it must be because you don’t deserve to be successful.” It’s getting kind of annoying.

  16. Frugal Dad says:

    This post reminds me of the new Nike ad campaign, “Become a Legend.” It claims there are no “Cinderellas,” implying that those who find success do it through hard work, preparation, and dedication – not by chance.


  17. Jonathan says:

    Great post and some even better comments. Reminds of this article I saw about a kid who “started over” with nothing more than $25 and a gym bag.

  18. H-Bomb says:

    I think Eric forgets that for most a blog is all about someones opinion and if facts are thrown in that is just like an extra cherry thrown on top for fun. I think Trent does a great job in balancing facts and opinion.

  19. SJean says:

    Of the many posts on this topic, I think this one does the best job of getting your opinion out there in a way that is inspiring rather than likely to start fights. Nice work.

    I think success equals hard work + luck, with each having some sort of weighting factor. If you are extremely lucky, you don’t need much hard work. If you are extremely hard working, you may not need much luck.

    Also, I agree with whoever said TV isn’t evil! I don’t watch much, but I don’t like being made felt like my choice to watch (even horrible shows such as the Hills) is going to make me a bum. I’m a successful TV watcher! :)

  20. Sarah says:

    “I’m talking about people that are at least middle class (the upper 90% of income levels) and are of sound mind and body. That’s 80% or so of the American population.”

    80% of the American population is in the upper 90% of income levels? I’m a little confused by this statement.

    One thing that you consistently overlook, Trent, is the way that one bad choice can completely undo any number of other good choices–or it might not. Guess what determines that? It’s not your awesome willpower or determination. Get involved in criminal activity as a stupid teenager doing what your friends are diong, say involvement with drugs. White and rich? Slap on the wrist at best. Black and poor? Conviction, inability for the future to find decent employment, loss of voting rights…good luck, once-dumb-sixteen-year-old!

  21. Maggie says:

    While I agree that making good choices contributes to the kinds of doors that open, I also think the chances of these efforts still *not* turning into success (depending on exactly what you mean – it’s such a vague term) are more common than your post seems to indicate. Sometimes things just don’t work out the way we hope and plan (and sweat to get). In fact, sometimes it’s the opposite, and not for lack of trying. In those cases, instead of being inspiring, posts like this can come across as almost irritating.

  22. junkcafe says:

    As a child of immigrant parents who came to the US in the 1960’s, I learned the meaning of success from a different perspective. For my parents, the US wasn’t just a place to plant family roots but represented freedom to succeed. Where else in the world can a person — to borrow a famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence — pursue happiness as a right? So, success is indeed a choice that we can freely exercise in this country. We are also blessed with the freedom to define success. [Trent – This would make a great forum topic]

  23. Eric C says:


    We do to a certain level control our destinies, you are absolutely right.

    Neither of my parents have a college degree…my three younger brothers all have criminal records of varying lengths…and I have a master’s degree and have escaped a rather toxic situation and made a life for myself. By all rights I should be in jail, but instead I am teaching college.

    Sarah – you are absolutely right that there are choices that can condemn you, to a certain extent. The inner strength Trent talks about leading to success is the same inner strength that would lead people to move away from these decisions.

    I suppose it’s like poker. Yes, I am using a card analogy. You are dealt certain cards, but there is always the chance for that hand to get better. You don’t have to stick with the cards you are dealt.

  24. Marcus Murphy says:

    A couple books that largely expand on this post:

    “The Slight Edge” by Jeff Olson http://www.amazon.com/Slight-Edge-Secret-Successful-Life/dp/0967285550

    This book was given to me from someone in a MLM company but I have to say that it isn’t a pitch for a product or service. There is a lot of genuine stuff in there on making those right choices every day. There are really only a couple of points to take home and the rest of it is just there to indoctrinate you in this belief that it is the little choice’s every day that make you a success or failure. His best analogy is, if you eat a Mcdonald’s hamburger today, will you become obese, or ill today? No. If you eat a salad will you lose weight, or your cholesterol drop today? No. If you keep doing those things repetitively over time will those things eventually happen? The answer is a resounding yes. The same applies to your success. It really is those little things every day that make a difference.

    The other book is “Success is a Choice” by Rick Pitino
    This book coming from the perspective of college basketball coach Rick Pitino is really a nice fresh read. Like your post title it really does justify for most of us, success is a choice.

  25. Brent says:

    You’ll probably be called arrogant for writing the post but you are right on. For the most part, it is almost comical to watch the rebuttles come in. As Americans we enjoy an level of wealth and disposable income that was last seen at the height of the Roman Empire, and we have managed to have many more wealthly than just a few. If things were as bad as some let on, I would just go shoot myself.

  26. Marcus Murphy says:

    Also to comment on the fact that 80% of the American population is middle class, this is not true.

    Everyone above the lower percentile amounts to 48.6%

    If you include everyone above the poverty line of about $11,000 per year that number jumps to 69.6% Still a ways off from 80%

  27. michael says:

    ““If you’re not successful, it must be because you don’t deserve to be successful.””

    I haven’t seen that message here at all. I consider myself and my life an overwhelming success, because I grew up on welfare and am now a middle-class homeowner and small businessman. Others might consider me a total failure, because my first attempt at business failed, and because I still make under $100K.

    In other words — to make your words more accurately reflect what I see here — if you’re not successful, it’s either because your idea of success is not realistic (in which case, you’ll likely never consider yourself a success), or because you haven’t created a situation in which you can succeed.

    You seem to think that someone who doesn’t succeed (by whatever standard) is a failure. I say that success and failure in any given situation often go hand in hand, and how you handle your failure is what makes you a success.

  28. Ro says:

    I don’t agree with everything in this post. It’s nice and inspirational and all, but not necessarily true.

  29. jared says:

    Hey, i grew up in a trailer house and using food stamps.
    i’m graduating from a very, very, expensive and prestigious college in just a few weeks.
    i got here with scholarships i earned, loans i took out, and a lot of hard work. I didn’t have to see success in my family to know that it existed. (my family, half of it at least, is successful now, btw.)
    i’m not sure what “facts” eric complains you left out (he seemed to leave them out too…) But if he’s implying that my ability to succeed is not ability, but pure luck–i certainly resent that. i worked hard. i’m still working hard.

  30. Ryan says:

    I agree that for the majority of the population success is a choice or more accurately a group of choices. I think that was the point of the post. Many people believe they are “poor”, but in reality very well off in contrast to individuals in true poverty.

    On the other hand, some choices simply might require too much of a sacrifice depending on the situation.

    Take me- a 16 year old high school student that gets almost straight A’s with parents that are highly supportive and make almost 6 figures combined. (Living in the Midwest helps). I’m obviously in a much better position to make choices that will lead to success.

    However, a student that suffers from a learning disorder and barely manages D’s. The disorder is never diagnosed because he’s parents are living in poverty and don’t have the means for him to see a doctor. Perhaps his parents are abusive or cocaine addicts. He simply can’t make the decision to go to college like I can. Plus, his social circle probably includes teens from the same background so college or getting ahead in life is rarely going to occur to him.

    The above example might be a bit extreme, but there’s surely somebody out there with a very similar life. Sure, it’s possible for him to turn his life around, but the choices that he would have to make for that to happen are completely foreign and unlikely to occur.

  31. lorax says:

    Why do I feel like I’ve already read this post?

    Anyway, you forgot to factor in luck.

    And you forgot survivor bias. We haven’t yet heard from the perhaps thousands of wannabee writers that haven’t made the cut – and probably never will.

  32. Well, 95% of the population is outside of the United States, does this apply to them also? As much as Americans refuse to acknowledge, simply being a middle class American puts you in about the top 10% of wealth worldwide. Does the average Indian have the same opportunity and choice as the average American? Nationality is not a choice and is perhaps the single greatest determinant of an individual’s success. Therefore success is not a choice. QED.

    Having said that, it is probably true that most people born into privilege (and in this group I include essentially every American) squander opportunity. I put myself at the top of that list.

  33. Johanna says:

    @michael: What are you talking about? Nowhere did I call anyone a failure. However, the opposite of “succeed” is indeed “fail.” Don’t blame me for that. Blame the dictionary.

    Sure, you can succeed at some things, but not at others. And you can be successful by some measures but not by others. But I didn’t say anything about that either.

    Personally, I think that the measure of success that matters most is your own. Me, I consider myself successful: I have a job that I really like, that I’m good at, and that pays decently well. Others may consider me a failure, because I also make considerably less than six figures, I don’t own a home, I haven’t overcome any serious obstacles to get where I am, I haven’t changed my social class for the better, and it took me until the age of 28 to figure out what I want to do with my life. But what do I care what they think?

  34. Greg says:

    “but you steadily improve or worsen your chances with each choice you make”

    Good advice. This reminds me of a book I once read about playing poker. He talked all about odds of winning hands, bets, and position at the table–all things that can help a good player make money. Yes, it may be luck to draw a royal flush, but the people who make a living playing poker aren’t out for that hand every night. They work on making good choices about bidding or folding that put them in a better position to be successful. If you’ve squandered your money throughout the night, you won’t have the chips left to bet when you finally do get a good hand.

  35. Jesse says:

    This one strikes a nerve with me – Success IS a choice. I remember Wyclef Jean telling a bunch of kids that he came from no where and almost no one has an excuse not to succeed – that there are even librarys in the ‘hood’

  36. michael says:

    I was quoting your quote, not saying that you actually thought that way! (haha)

    What you said was that the message you got from Trent & the comments (“post after post”) was that OTHER people were saying “If you’re not successful, it must be because you don’t deserve to be successful.”

    I was simply observing that I didn’t get that message at all.

    But I appreciate you using your second post to contribute to the conversation.

  37. Sabrina says:

    This nearly entirely embodies my attitude and take on life. I had it far from easy the way I came up, BUT I made a conscious choice a long time ago that I would not be in the same boat as my mother. Education can do a lot for you, common sense and learned knowledge.

    It is a choice indeed, you have to be willing to take risks, even set yourself up for rejection for experience, knowledge of business, etc. It’s not easy, but the easy road doesn’t tend to be the successful one. The dirt road is the one where you see new things.

  38. Philip says:

    This is inspirational…I am on the verge of resigning from my company that I have worked with for 27 years…I am only 43 years old …I need to know that I have a chance of being successful…but I will never know that if I do not take the chance…I am interviewing in two days at a company that fits my needs emotionally and financially for the 2nd round ….I am hoping and inspired that success “could” be waiting to come in….

    Thanks…to all !

  39. !wanda says:

    @Sarah: 80% = 90% (at least “middle class”) – 10% (Trent’s estimate for those who are at least “middle class” and are not of sound mind and body)

    I think it’s that 20%, whose choices are limited, that cause a lot of societal trouble and handwringing. Recently, my city’s paper profiled a few inhabitants of the city’s most notoriously violent public housing complex. The readers in the comments kept scolding these people, saying, “Get a job!” But, several people interviewed said that if they left their homes for even a few minutes, local hoodlums would break in and steal what little stuff they had- how were they supposed to leave their homes for a whole day to work? Besides, what sane employer is going to hire a 40yr old unskilled, undereducated single mom who’s never held a job before? Success compounds on itself, but so does failure.

  40. SmBizMan says:

    interesting thoughts, but truly controversial.

    Define “success”.

  41. I disagree with people saying it’s the cards life has handed them. Remember the movie “Catch Me If You Can”? True story about a kid who started counterfeiting, eventually went to jail for years, got out, became a successful and wealthy consultant on preventing identify theft. Going to jail and making crap choices as a kid actually helped him become wildly successful. I’m not in any way saying that approach would work for everyone who made mistakes as a kid, but to claim that you don’t have control of your life… I just don’t agree.

    Taking control of your life, owning it, creating the life you and you alone want is success in my opinion. I’m the most unsuccessful and unhappy in life when I choose to point fingers and lay blame on everyone but myself on why I’m not where I want to be.

  42. Buffalo says:

    This may be rather simplistic but for me, the choice that makes biggest difference in how successful you are is choosing what the definition of success is for yourself. I have been blessed with good health, a beautiful, loving wife and three great kids. I’ll continue to be a success as long as I make choices that keeps my family the center of my life.

  43. Karen says:

    I agree SmBizMan. Would the Trent of three years ago have considered himself successful at the time? In retrospect does Trent now consider that he was successful three years ago?

  44. Sharon says:

    Innovative Traveler said: “Taking control of your life, owning it, creating the life you and you alone want is success in my opinion”

    I think the idea of taking control of your life is the basis of personal finance. To me personal finance isn’t about having or owning a material item or arriving at a certain net worth. It is learning a set of skills to put my money as much as possible under my thoughtful care rather than letting things run amok. Yes, outside crap will happen and there will be a bit of financial running amok, but I, as a responsible adult, need to take control and be aware of what is going on.
    Almost certainly, a side benefit of this will be a better net worth. But that magic seven or eight or nine digit net worth is not guaranteed. A little less insanity with the issues in my life is…

  45. Jess says:

    I have a great example that relates exactly with what I think Trent’s message is.

    I work what some would consider (including my boss) a temporary, dead end customer service job. However I LOVE my job.

    One day I stayed after work to help a new employee go over common questions that we get. I actually went on another computer and pretended to be a customer (since most of our work is done by help chat). She went to my boss and told her how much it had helped her out. My boss sat down with me and suggested that I work on a set of different level questions to test people’s knowledge.

    I came up with a technical question that ended up turning into a technical training manual.

    After going over my questions with another set of new employees, I got the idea about talking to my boss about becoming the company trainor. We ended up agreeing that I could teach the technical training that I had developped.

    As well, I was sitting down going over the training manual so that I could look at it from a training perspective. I mentioned to my boss that I found it very overwhelming, a lot of text to read over. She asked me if I would like to add pictures to it. I agreed that it was a great idea and spent a few days compling screenshots.

    So basically one opportunity led to another, which lead to another, which lead to another.

    Just wanted to share.

  46. This advice couldn’t be coming at a better time! I’ve made some wrong choices over the course of the past two, three years and the time has finally come that I’ve decided to put these bad decisions behind me and start all over again. I could choose to despair about these wrong choices, but then again, I truly feel that I’ve actually learned sometings good out of them although the results didn’t turn out quite like what I wanted. But definitely, if we continue to make the choice to be successful, success will eventually come our way!

  47. Tony says:

    I have worked 45 years in my live. Was unemployed twice. First time for two weeks the second time for 3 months because I was evacuated and had to start over again. I never had a big financial success but most of the time lived comfortably and happy. Yes I had a choise many times. Many times things went wrong because of my choise. Many times they went fine. I feel rich without a lot of Money.

  48. Ned says:

    @ Ms Clear (comment #12)

    You are right, success is not that simple. But the steps to take to give yourself the best CHANCE at success are simple.

    I recall the classic reply my class teacher gave at the beginning of the year when asked how to prepare for our finals. She said, “I cannot guarantee you will get A’s if you work hard, but I CAN guarantee you will never get A’s if you don’t work hard.”

  49. Amanda says:

    I believe that success is indeed a choice, but it is defined differently by nearly everyone. My definition of success is being a loving, kind, devoted mother to my child and a productive member of my community and has nothing at all to do with my bank account balance or anything I do at work.

  50. Mark says:

    I’m not sure of the sound mind part.In fact I lost my mind years ago. I do know about being disabled though.I now have joined those ranks from a work injury over a year ago. I refuse to use that as an excuse. Many people have it far worse than I do.Right now for me “the World is an Oyster” Thanks for a great post Trent. I’m Justa saying!

  51. CHB says:

    One thing Trent overlooked writing out in the post, but that he does on a daily basis, helps define success for me: once you feel you’ve achieved success for yourself, help others see that they can achieve it too. Be a role model and help improve the lives of those around you, once you’ve improved your own.

    On the other hand, by writing this post, Trent may have possibly offended those people that need his help. As others have said, achieving success is largely a mindset, and if I already feel like a failure, reading this post is not going to help me see that there could be light at the end of the tunnel. But, I’m the type who takes things really personally, so this might not be true of everyone – some people love this kind of “kick in the pants” motivation.

  52. Kathy says:

    Ecclesiastes 9:11

    “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

  53. Norman MIller says:

    Chance favors the prepared mind.
    -Louis Pasteur

  54. In many ways I’m in total agreement. Sucess is something that can be obtained through hard work and motivation. In fact, only a couple years ago I woud have tottaly agreed with your post. After living in the inner city of Washington DC for a year, I have noticed a large group of people who do work very hard and do not believe they have the same chance as say, you from Iowa.

    I encourage you to read the book “The Working Poor: Invisible in America”
    by David K. Shipler


  55. KarenFLA says:

    My grandfather was born in the 19th century in NYC and was the eldest child. His father was a waiter who was a drunk and spent his money on other women. My grandfather had to quit school at 13 to work to support his mother, and 5 brothers and sisters. When he was 18 after years of working and studying at night, he took the entrance exam for Cooper Union College, which still offers free tuition, and scored high enough to get into their engineering program at night. He worked and went to college, put all his brothers and sisters through Cooper Union and CCNY and deferred marriage until the youngest graduated in engineering. They all got good jobs and were successful. The women got civil service jobs as there were no other jobs for women with college. Almost no one went to college back then, let alone women. He didn’t have the family support, didn’t have money, had a dysfunctional drunk of a father for a role model, supported 6 other people and made it. There was no welfare or food stamps then. Most people would say that someone in his situation didn’t stand a chance, but he decided what he wanted and he acted as a surrogate father to let his siblings know they were going to make it. He never took a drink in his life after seeing the example of his father.

  56. Michael says:

    At least everyone agrees that success is having money.

  57. CyanSquirrel says:

    The folks who think people who are poor or disabled are incapable of leading successful lives seriously need to re-evaluate what success means. I agree with you, Trent, that success is a choice. I am living proof. I am deaf, a handicap that makes it downright hard to find a job, despite the rest of my body performing optimally. I have an IQ of over 140, yet as soon as a potential employer finds out I will need a sign language interpreter for an interview, I’m never called back; their loss, for sure! I graduated summa cum laude and have a BS degree in economics, a minor in French (you read that right!) and a career in the nonprofit sector in a job that allows for life balance, which is far more valuable to me than money. This is all because I refused to believe what society tries to tell me: that I have no worth because of my disability.

    I am also active in local politics, having served on a city commission for people with disabilities for two years. I have scaled this back, however, due to the birth of my first child and my desire to spend time with him and my husband (neither of whom are disabled). I am very happy.

    I am successful in spite of society’s efforts to classify me and push me off to the side and satiate me with sympathy payments (SSI and SSDI) in lieu of a productive and meaningful job. My ultimate goal is to become a financial planner catering to the deaf and hard of hearing people in my region. It is a goal I will achieve one day because I choose to.

  58. LC says:

    In addition to the Cooper Union, Stanford and several other ivy league schools are tuition-free.

  59. Carla says:

    I’ve been an avid reader of this blog and have sat quietly by. But I had to comment on this post because I believe in it’s message wholeheartedly. Success most definitely is a choice. I was brought up to believe that if I want something, I can make it happen. If I fall down in trying to reach that goal, then I have to brush myself off and keep going. Success is a choice and an attitude. You have to believe you’re headed in the right direction. You also have to believe in yourself and trust yourself. Following this philosophy means that you’re really and truly living life, deliberately. Life’s too short and precious to just let it happen to you.

    I also have to say that I find it sad that people believe that if you are born to not so great circumstances, then you’re destined to live a not so great life. I mean that just sucks and would mean that a lot of really successful people would never have gotten to where they are now. A lot of success stories are from people who started with nothing and in really bad circumstances (the classic rags to riches). What would these people say to a homeless child with a drug addict parent? Sorry, kid, you’re stuck in your crappy circumstances? Life is filled with opportunity and as humnan beings we should encourage, positively, that each and ever person seek out those opportunities.

    Thanks for the great post, Trent!

  60. KellyKelly says:

    I wasn’t going to post but I can’t help myself.

    I come from a large family. I am the only one I would consider “successful” in most spheres — financial, social, etc.

    IMO, My siblings and I have worked equally hard over the years. The difference I am very very very very very very very very LUCKY. I was born with a very bold personality and a high IQ and a very high energy level. Almost manic when I am passionate about something. (Sound like anyone we know?) I also had someone outside of my dysfunctional family who mentored me from an early age.

    This whole “destiny vs. choice” argument makes me insane because it is so often oversimplified. “Success” is not a choice, it’s an outcome. As Trent said, choosing to do X, Y and Z behavior to GET to possible sucess is a choice, yes, but for many people there are TONS of roadblocks that people like me — smart, supported, energetic, wired for cheer — don’t usually acknowledge unless they really know the people with the roadblocks intimately (as I do, since I was raised in the same home with them).

    Separate but related point, there is only so much “hustling” I think it healthy. If I want to sit and watch TV instead of starting yet another project or business or book, so be it. Even trees slow down in the winter.

    I am a recovering workaholic — not kidding — and there is a price to pay for 1) not really clearly defining what “success” means and 2) therefore getting sucked into the hustle=work yourself to death=”sitting still equals asking for failure” mindset.

    Sorry if this sounds aggressive. It really hits a nerve.

  61. Canadian says:

    A lot of it is up to you and the choices you make. But not all. I agree with Kathy’s quote from Ecclesiastes.

    Some people have a lot of advantages that others don’t have. A stable family background, loving parents, a healthy body, are just a few. Some people have many strikes against them. Some people, as mentioned above, don’t even recognize the choices that they have because of the kind of environment they come from. There is no level playing field. Not everything is in your control. But definitely, there is almost always a lot that is in your control that you can do to improve your situation.

    Ultimately, however, I believe that true success is not measured by money or career achievement but by what kind of character you have. If someone is a loving, generous person then they are a success even if they work at McDonald’s.

  62. sylrayj says:

    I have not chosen success, and I know it.

    I have chosen mediocrity. I’m disabled, with fibromyalgia and social anxiety and so forth, and if I pushed harder to find more therapy, and to push it, I would have more success. Right now, I’m hanging onto my husband and my kids, knowing that I’m in a tenuous situation because I depend upon them so much.

    Instead of a job and knowing that everything will be okay if I were alone, I fight exhaustion and do my best to learn how to help my kids, who both have their own disabilities. In some ways, I am a success, because I am striving for a better future for all of us and because I make it more possible for my husband’s success, but I know that right now I’m not ready to be employable.

    There *is* a trade-off, between personal success and success for a family; some can manage both, while I have to choose. Slowly, I improve myself, and perhaps when my family doesn’t need me as much I’ll be ready and willing and able to grasp success for myself. :) I think about it, often, to prepare for that day – and it just might happen.

  63. Michelle says:

    This is some great discussion going! Fascinating post.

    While I do agree that your own success falls on you for the most part, (though luck does have something to do with it) the very process of our economy (and any economy for that matter) may deter *financial success.* Firstly, personal success and financial stability can be mutually exclusive. For example, some of the most notorious artists in the world can die penniless.

    In capitalism, everyone has a role. SOMEONE has to be poor in order for capitalism to even really exist. Capitalism is a class-based economy and while we’re all free to work hard to move up, there still has to be a consumer and a producer. One feeds off the other.

  64. Lenore says:

    If all people were truly equal, success would indeed be a choice. That’s not the way it works in this world, though, at least not yet. U.S. women have struggled to attain the greatest career options of any women in the world, yet they still earn 25 percent less than men for doing the same work. Culturally biased IQ tests determine educational and employment opportunities and routinely screen out non-whites. Some companies use psychological tests to weed out “undesirables” too, and salary statistics repeatedly affirm that taller, younger and more attractive people have advantages in the workplace. While I don’t think these sad facts are an excuse for anyone to quit trying, some factors affecting earning potential are beyond individual control. It’s admirable to spur oneself to succeed, but not to judge those who cannot.

  65. Vanessa says:

    I really like this post… everyone though may have a different definition of success… I feel I have been very fortunate and successful in that when my daughter was born I decided that I would find a way to make a living working from home.. and I did! I was very lucky though that I had a degree in a field that allowed me to create my own business to achieve this. It wasn’t the norm in my field but I made it work… It all seemed to fall together.. However, that doesn’t take away the challenges that came from starting the venture and then succeeding in spite of making only 10k the first year out. I do not make over 100k per year but I have succeeded in this business for 9 years and have been able to be home for my daughter as well. Not missing out on her childhood while bringing in a steady paycheck has been priceless… Oh and being able to have a flexible work schedule has been amazing as well!

    All that and no credit card debt at all :) maybe it is a simplistic notion but I think its true that our choices largely determine our outcome :) that and positive outlook go a long way… many days in the beginning I thought I would have to pack it in but I kept going and worked hard and it all worked out :)
    Good luck to everyone and I wish you all much success!
    ps. Trent, I read your blog everyday! Love it :)

  66. Amanda says:

    I absolutely agree with you, Trent: success IS a choice. Anyone with enough drive and ambition and dedication to making a better life for themselves can succeed, especially in America.

    Success is what you make it. It’s not necessarily having the newest car or the biggest house. It’s liking what you do and who you are, and having the confidence and spirits to continue on, even when you fail.

    I came from a horrendous family situation (poverty, drunkenness, shiftlessness) and am now working as a consultant and obtaining my degree at an Ivy League university. It’s possible to do what I did (crawling out of the ghetto by my fingernails) if you really want to.

    You just have to really want to, and make absolutely no excuses why you can’t.

  67. partgypsy says:

    I agree with comment #56, “success” is an outcome, not a choice. Overall I agree with Trent’s point. In general, I find these “success” posts annoying for the following reasons.

    1) They remind me of all those motivational books that are full of rah rah but little substance.

    2) Second, there is this thing called “learned helplessness”. If you put a rat in a situation where it gets shocked uncontrollably and cannot escape, after awhile it will learn that it’s behavior has no control over outcomes. What happens if that rat is placed in a situation where it can escape the shock (such as removing a barrier to a safe location)? The rat will continue to get shocked because it has learned it cannot do anything to escape. Now if we see people in a similar situation, we would think they are crazy, why aren’t they escaping the shocks? But to those people, who have had negative experiences and learned that they do not have control over their destinies, those mental barriers are just as real as any physical barrier. Trent, if you directing this blog to them, words are not going to do any good (Retraining CAN help where they relearn that their actions have consequences does help, but that requires behavior modification, not words).

    3) Maybe I’ve read too many books on Taoism or something, but what is all this deal about being a success? I know, success can mean many things to different people, but I guess I don’t define my life in terms of success. Don’t get me wrong, I have many things that could be considered “successful”, a PhD, first authored papers, a good job, positive net worth, loving and healthy family. To me, my concern is that my life be full of meaning. I don’t give a damn whether other people consider me a success or not.

  68. Lauren says:


    I think this is one of your best pieces ever! Very inspiring. I think it would be great to add a lit of people who succeeded against insurmountable odds. Off the top of my head I can think of Oprah and Lance Armstrong. But there are so many lesser know examples. FOr instance, the first man to boat the Grand Canyon only had one arm.

    ALso, last night I saw an amazing documentary on the little known Joe Hammond, considered by some to be one of the greatest basketball players to ever live. He annihilated Dr. J and Wilt Chamberlain in pick-up games, but turned down a contract with the Lakers because he could make more money hustling and dealing drugs on the street. He was eventually incarcerated. Towards the end of the movie some guy says he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he had the type of talent that Joe Hammond had and just wasted it.

  69. Todd says:

    I consider anyone who works all day and finds some satisfaction in doing a good job a success. It seems very self-congratulatory for people with college degrees to consider themselves to be automatically “more successful” than others.

    Sure, I worked hard for 6 years to get a college degree and a master’s degree, but does that mean that someone who spent those same 6 years working in a factory didn’t work just as hard as I did? Is my work automatically more useful to society than that of a hard-working laborer? Why can’t we both be seen as equally successful?

  70. clevelis says:

    Largely true. Success is a choice. However, success means different things to different people, as there are also multiple levels/aspects of success.

  71. H-Bomb says:

    This was an amazing quote!

    “Success” is not a choice, it’s an outcome.

  72. K12Linux says:

    My father’s definition of success. “When you are able to make a living doing something you enjoy without sacrificing your family life.” And the 2nd part, “If you can make a lot of money at it, even better.”

  73. Tom says:

    What an amazing post. I’ve been trying to tell this to my friends for years. Success can come to ANYONE. IT’s what you do to achieve it. Are you sittin on your butt all day or are you out there education yourself?

    There’s one word people can’t act on and it’s action. People love to dream about thier goals but they never even take the first important step to do so. Instead, they get into that comfort zone and stick there making a decent salary.

  74. Duff says:

    Success for whom? In what context? What is the desired outcome? A choice between what and what?

    “Success” is not a choice or an outcome–it is a nominalization. So is “choice.”

    Who is choosing to do what successfully?

  75. Financialgal says:

    Great post. Deciding to be successful is absolutely a choice. You can choose to hide in your house and decide not to go after what you want because you are afraid. Or you decide to have an open mind, set goals, and stay focused. The definition of success is different for everyone, but if you pursue your goals with determination, you will realize success.

  76. kenttuckyliz says:

    What do you want?
    What are you doing to get it?
    How is that working out for you?
    What are you going to do differently for better results?

    Answer those four questions and you’re well on your way to success as you define it for yourself.

    Fave quote:
    “Luck is preparation meeting opportunity.”

    The losers and the slackers always “blame” the success of others on luck…totally ignoring the hard work that went into it…because then they aren’t faced with the cold hard fact of their own lack of said hard work.

    Re the poor, a great book about learned helplessness is Ruby Payne’s Understanding the Framework of Poverty. A lot of the thought patterns and habits of the poor keep them poor. Even if they had all the lucky breaks in the world, if they don’t start thinking differently, they’ll not be successful.

    Part of my work involves helping poor people become successful, and we talk about the thought patterns and habits that hold them back and what needs to change to bring about success. Instead of just writing them off as hopeless and stuck and unlucky, I’m actually doing something about it.

    That being said, there are some poor people who are successful at being poor and working the system and being proud of that. They work hard at not having to work and feel sorry for the sell-outs who have to kowtow to The Man. If life ever dealt me an unending string of bad luck and I ended up destitute, I’d seek these people as my coaches and mentors about how to be poor successfully because they’re really good at it.

    Caveat: poor is not the same as broke. I’ve been broke but I’ve never been poor.

  77. Jim Lippard says:

    “If success is a choice, why do so many people end up in the same socioeconomic circumstances as their parents?”

    Define “so many.” There is actually huge income mobility within the U.S. economy. Note that the Gini coefficient is a measure of inequality at a point in time, not of mobility. I think it’s reasonable to tolerate a fairly high Gini measure, if in return you get a booming economy and a high degree of economic mobility.

  78. Sandoz76 says:

    It is starkly naive to think that some people don’t have more choices than others. A lot of success happens through informal networks. A golfing buddy refers another golfing buddy for a VP-ship. Many golf courses segregate female and male playing times, nice. Therefore, women have fewer choices. The same is true for minorities.
    That said, I am a successful woman with a position of power in the technology industry. I did that by working twice as hard as the people around me. That was a choice, it led to success, but I also see the free passes completely incompetent men get around me, while other women and minorities are judged very harshly for the smallest upsets, or for merely asserting themselves. Before you congratulate yourself on your successful choices too much, get over yourself and realize that some of us are presented with more choices than others.

  79. Leslie M-B says:

    I agree with Sandoz76. Trent, where do systemic racism and sexism figure into your post?

    I’ve worked hard over the years and certainly made some good choices, but the fact that I started life middle-class and white definitely has given me many privileges that others do not have. Similarly, I have met people who seek to limit my choices because I am a woman.

  80. Shane says:

    Just reading this post and the comments for the first time. I’m a little late to join the fray, but this discussion really moved me to say something.
    I’m often conflicted about defining success as a choice, given that clearly there are cases where no matter how hard someone tries, how positive and motivated they are, there is a limit to how successful they can be.
    I grew up poor, by US standards at least. Compared to the opportunities available to others in my generation, I lacked for a lot. I caught a few lucky breaks along the way, and got help at key moments from a few generous people. I don’t take credit for these things – I didn’t choose them or earn them. But I do take credit for making the most of them.
    I’m more successful now, in terms of earning potential and in so many other ways, than I ever thought possible. And I know that a lot of that success is directly attributable to my choices and my efforts.
    Yes, if I’d been born into more propitious circumstances, I might be even more successful now. Yes, the bad hand I was dealt did set me back some. But the bottom line is, it was not the ultimate factor, nor even one of the most important factors, determining what I’ve been able to achieve.
    I don’t see the use in bemoaning circumstances that are not likely to change. That’s not to say that I don’t think we should do something about the inequitable distribution of resources. But I definitely don’t think we should disavow the possibility of personal agency to the point that it rules out productive action.

  81. E.D. Gordon says:

    If you haven’t read it yet, Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers” has some very interesting perspectives on success and how it happens.. and doesn’t.

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