How much control over our success do we have? If you work hard, are you guaranteed to be successful?
These are the types of questions that have entered my mind. I’m not trying to be the definitive resource on this subject, because I have a lot to learn. But this article is my lame attempt to add to this conversation.
Over the last few months, I’ve become more integrated into the personal finance space on Twitter. It is a thriving community, with many different perspectives and opinions. I enjoy seeing people debate this topic. I love seeing my views challenged, and they have changed over time.
If you don’t agree with my opinion, I would love to hear what you think in the comments.
Success is Not a Destination
We like to think that success is the finish line. That if only we can cross a certain point, we will have become “successful”.
The problem with this idea is it is very relative. How do you know if you are setting your sights too high or too low? If you are trying to reach a certain point, how can you be confident that you’ve reached that spot?
For me, success has become more of a state of mind. Am I moving things in a positive direction, or am I headed backwards?
And more importantly, how am I defining “success”? Is it a certain amount of money that I think will make me happy? Or maybe it is social status? The problem with these things is that there is always going to be someone with more money. And even if I make it to the top, chances are I probably won’t stay there. And how much more will being at the “top” make me happier?
Instead of comparing myself to others, I’m trying to redirect the focus on what I want out of life:
- Redirecting the attention from money to freeing up my time
- There is nothing more valuable to me than my relationship with Andrea and my girls
- Thinking about what I can do that I will be proud of on my death bed
- Focusing on what energizes me and gives me life
If a pursuit is not moving me towards the above things, it isn’t worth pursuing.
Acknowledging Different Starting Points and Luck
In a perfect world, all of us would have an equal opportunity to be successful. But this isn’t the case.
If we take the same person and change the following, each of them will reach a different level of success:
- The color of their skin
- Economic status of their family (poor, middle-class, rich)
- Unique hardships
And if we are honest, if we take the same person and re-run their exact life multiple times, each one will most likely turn out different.
I only mention this because I do think it is worth it for us to try to make the playing field as even as possible. But there is a point where we have to acknowledge a few things:
- We don’t have control over the circumstances we are born into
- There is an aspect of luck that can make success easier
- Each of us has unique strengths and weaknesses
- We might be born into situations that give us a leg up or a leg down compared to others
We can’t choose our parents and where we are born. No one picked the color of their skin. I think we can acknowledge that unfortunately, these things can change the options we have, but we can only work with what we have.
I could use the excuse that my negative childhood experiences prevented me from being successful. But that would be a copout.
From my perspective, we need to separate these things:
- Fighting to make everyone have equal opportunities for success
- Working hard to increase our chances for success
The Power of Grit
The choice to work hard and improve our lives can only come from ourselves. We can talk about the biases our culture has, and I think these are good discussions. But there is a point where we have to put in the work to accomplish our goals.
If someone was to come up to me and “make me successful” with some magical wand, I miss out on all of the knowledge and experience I would have gained if I accomplished this on my own. And chances are I wouldn’t be able to maintain the success without that experience.
What I’m not saying is that hard work guarantees anything. But it increases our chances to move the needle forward. Do we think we are better off by not trying as hard? Or taking the lazy road? How has this worked out for others?
At least not habitual laziness that affects our work. I’m looking forward to having some lazy evenings watching the new GOT season. 🙂 The key is learning when to turn on the grit machine and when to hold back.
My focus is not to fail from lack of effort.
Luck’s Role in Our Success
We also have to acknowledge that luck and chance can play a role in our success.
The exciting thing about grit is that it increases our chances of getting lucky. You have to be in the right place at the right time for that fortunate occurrence to happen. Chances are, it won’t happen to you if you don’t show up.
But I think we need to be careful in not overemphasizing luck’s role. Sure, there are scenarios where 100% of someone’s success was luck. But I think these are exceptions. It seems like the people who work the hardest seem to be the luckiest.
In other words, we can increase the chance that we become “lucky” from sheer grit. It’s the one thing we all have control over.
Not Giving Up
We have two options when faced with adversity: 1) give up and admit defeat or 2) try again or figure out how to use this failure to our advantage.
It’s incredible how much we can learn by just showing up. The more we try, and the harder we work, the more we can learn.
Each time we fail, we learn something new. We figure out what doesn’t work. In my job, I have to approach new problems like this all the time. When I don’t understand how something works, I have to continually try different options until I find something that sticks. The next time I encounter that same problem, I can resolve it faster based on the knowledge I’ve accumulated.
It’s like most of the challenge is not letting our failures persuade us to give up. The easy thing would be to admit defeat and move on. And sometimes that is the best move. But when we set our sites on our goals with an idea in how to make it work, we shouldn’t be quick to abandon the plan when things get tough.
Use failure to propel yourself towards what you want to accomplish.
Learning from Your Mistakes
We can’t just throw our effort into the wind blindly. The more strategic we can be in what we try, the more likely the knowledge is going to be useful going forward.
Making mistakes provides us the quickest path in finding success.
It’s rare for anyone to try something for the first time and get it 100% right. In most cases, it takes a tremendous amount of effort and discipline to get it to an excellent spot.
It is almost like each failure is a stepping stone towards success.
The more mistakes we recover from, the easier it is to learn from them in the future. And we will make fewer mistakes as we progress.
Asking for Help
Being a master of everything is impossible. Sometimes spinning our wheels wastes time that is better spent elsewhere. The secret is to figure out what you should focus on.
For example, I could probably learn enough about the tax code to file taxes for our business and other income. But by paying a professional, I know I can count on them to do it right, and this frees up my time to focus on other things.
There is no shame in asking for help. We can tap into the strengths of others, which means they probably can do it better and faster than we can.
Getting to a point where we feel there is nothing more we can learn is probably a sign we are blinded by arrogance. There is a difference between confidence and grit, versus thinking we know it all.
When we think we are the top dog, we are less likely in noticing and learning from our mistakes.
Even if we are the “best,” we probably got there from a lot of effort and progress. If we stop doing those things, chances are someone else will end up taking our place.
This idea relates to success not being a destination, but a state of mind.
By making success about how we look at our time, and focusing on what we can do to increase the chances we will reach our financial goals, the more likely we will hit our targets.
There are some things in our lives that we don’t have control over. Grit is not one of them. It is one thing we can all tap into that can increase our chance in improving our financial future.
Chris is a financial blogger who loves to be transparent about money-related issues. He’s paid off massive amounts of credit card debt and is the blog author of Money Stir. His main focus on Money Stir is talking about how money relates to our relationships, personal development, and how to plan for the future we want. He’s been quoted on Market Watch, The Ladders, and other publications.