Over the last few days, several people asked me for my thoughts on the recent college admissions cheating scandal, where a number of people were charged with various forms of fraud as a result of paying large amounts of money to secure their children’s admission to prestigious universities often through fraudulent means. Many people interpreted this story as an example of people with financial wealth buying opportunities for their children that others do not have, thus ensuring that the wealthy gobble up most of the opportunities and making the path to success harder for less wealthy Americans.
This question from Heather was pretty clear:
What are your thoughts on the college cheating scandal? I find it deeply upsetting and frustrating. I tried very hard to get into a top school when I was in college and exceeded their standards for test scores and GPA but my family was middle class and couldn’t buy my way in so I didn’t get in to any of the schools I wanted. Now I have three kids and although my husband and I do well I can’t just come up with $500K to buy their way into a good school. It just feels hopeless, like the entire deck is stacked against us. Why should I even save much for their college when I know my kids are very likely to just go to the local state school unless they get really really lucky? It’s all just a scam to keep us working.
Anger. Frustration. Hopelessness. A sense that no matter how many good financial moves you make, if you don’t have a wealthy “guardian angel” grabbing opportunities for you and pushing obstacles out of the way for you, you’re going to be left trying to overcome lots of obstacles for ever fewer opportunities. Those are the feelings I’ve read from several readers and, to an extent, I’ve felt myself upon reading news like this. Wealth means that some people play by different rules, and if you don’t have wealth, it can seem pretty hard to compete.
How does a person of average income not feel like the deck is stacked against them? How does a person of average income not feel hopeless?
Sarah and I are probably a little above average in terms of national income, but not exorbitantly so. We’re definitely in the “ordinary income level” side of the equation.
My feeling on this cheating scandal is this: what exactly is it that I can do to make it better? If I were a financial regulator or an FBI agent, I may have a role to play; aside from that, it’s largely in the hands of society’s mechanisms, and they did catch these people.
Thus, if there’s nothing I can directly do to impact such misuse of wealth and power, it does not benefit me to worry about it or let it impact what I’m doing in my own life going forward. Rather, the best thing I can do is maximize my own opportunities. If I waste my energy worrying about the unfairness of it all, that’s energy that I didn’t use opening other doors in life.
Here are some of the things we do and some of the beliefs we hold that help us overcome a sense of hopelessness in the face of enormous financial advantages of others.
Unless You’re Jeff Bezos, There’s Always Someone Higher on the Mountain
Virtually everyone on earth lives their life with the understanding that there are people wealthier than they are. That’s simply a fact of life. As long as someone has more than someone else, there will always be someone out there with more than you unless you happen to be the wealthiest person on earth.
Like it or not, that higher level of wealth confers some advantages. It enables people with more wealth to achieve things and open doors that you simply cannot. Again, this is simply a fact of life. You can’t change it.
You should never let a fact of life that’s outside of your control cause you to despair or alter your own plans. Do not devote energy or time to things you cannot control.
Instead, devote energy and time to the things you can control, such as the actions you take each day and how you choose to express your feelings to the world.
You – not some rich person – get to decide how you spend your days. You and you alone get to decide how you’re going to spend your time and your money. Don’t let anyone take that from you. Your freedom of choice and freedom of thought and freedom of action are always yours. This is a key idea that we’re going to return to throughout this article.
Abundance, Not Scarcity
One view that often leads to hopelessness in situations like this is the idea that there are only so many slots to go around and that if one slot is gobbled up by a cheater, then there’s one less slot for everyone else.
This relies on a scarcity mindset, that there are a set number of chances for success in life and once that fixed number is taken up, there’s no chance of success for anyone else.
I consider that kind of thinking to be utterly self-defeating, and it also doesn’t match with what I’ve seen in the real world. The world is actually an abundant place. Opportunities appear and multiply all the time. Twenty years ago, I could have never dreamed that I could start a publishing platform from my own home and raise it to the point where I could be completely self-employed by it, but the opportunity came about. I didn’t take anyone else’s “spot.” At my taekwondo school, you earn a black belt through personal effort; there’s not some fixed cap on how many black belts exist in the world. I can list many, many stories like this.
The truth is that focused effort creates opportunities. There aren’t a fixed number of opportunities out there. When someone works hard at something, they often make new opportunities for themselves and for others.
If you busted your tail to get into your perfect school and then you didn’t get in, that doesn’t mean the time was wasted. What you’ve actually done with all that effort is create a ton of opportunities for yourself. You now have access to tons of schools and, even more, you’re prepared for the next set of challenges life will give you.
Nothing Is Guaranteed – Your Efforts Just Improve the Odds
Everything you do in life serves mostly to improve the odds of an outcome that you want. If you want a good job, you try to get into a good school (which improves your odds of getting a good job) and then to do well in the classes at whatever school you get into.
Some with all of the opportunity in the world can utterly fail. At the same time, someone with almost no opportunity at all can succeed.
What’s the difference between the two? Pure chance plays a role, but hard work plays a big role, as does smart work – not just effort for effort’s sake, but effort towards achieving a goal.
If you want something, put it in your sights and work towards it. You’re never going to guarantee that you get what it is that you want, but every step is going to increase your chances of getting there.
Yes, some people start off with better chances than you and some people start off with worse chances. That has very little to do with your own chances. If you take the right actions, your chances of the outcome you want go up. If you do nothing or take the wrong actions, your chances of the outcome you want go down.
Any sufficiently big ambition you have in life has some chance of succeeding and some chance of failing. Even doing your absolute best is not a guarantee of success – it’s merely a higher likelihood than doing nothing at all. Almost always, when you don’t succeed, you can look back at your own missteps along the way and hopefully learn from that to try again or to help others.
That’s it. It doesn’t matter what some rich person is doing. It doesn’t matter what obstacles have been moved out of the way of someone else. That’s a given. That’s something you can’t control. What matters is what you do to improve your own odds of achieving the success you want.
A rich person buying their way into an elite school is pretty unfair, but does that excuse you not doing your absolute best to get in there? No. It has nothing to do with it. If you do your absolute best, then you’ve maximized your chances, and that’s all you can do. It’s very rare that any of us do our absolute best, though, and we can always look at ways to improve.
This is why my best advice to everyone is to just do your absolute best at whatever it is you’re doing. Don’t slack off. Don’t waste your efforts. When you do that, all you’re doing is reducing your own chances of success. Above all else, don’t worry about the situation that others have, because it has no bearing on whether you put in the maximum effort to succeed or not.
If You Want To Make Money and Succeed, Be Valuable To Others in Ways Not Easily Replicated
That’s the recipe for success for most people. It’s not about having doors unlocked for you. It’s not about having obstacles moved out of the way for you. That might get you in the door, but what’s going to keep you there and help you move up is being valuable in ways that aren’t easy to replicate.
What can you offer that’s not easily replicated? Honestly, at many jobs, the things you can offer that are often not replicated is a cheery and friendly demeanor and a good work ethic. That is often the difference maker at many jobs.
The thing to remember is this: the more replaceable you are at a job, the less incentive anyone has to reward you for just doing the minimum. If anyone off the street could do the minimum at your job, then they’re probably not going to pay you well. If there are tens of thousands of people with the skills needed for your job, you’re probably not going to get paid well.
What are you doing to set yourself apart? What are you doing that you can point at and say, “This brings value to my employer and it’s not something they could easily replace”?
Again, those things come back to effort above all else. The only advantage that wealth and opportunity really confer is that initial foot in the door. Beyond that, it’s about who can produce genuine value.
You should be asking yourself this question every day if you’re in the job market or you’re in a situation where you want to succeed. Furthermore, you should be encouraging your children to think the same way.
Your Job as a Parent Is to Equip Your Child with the Tools To Succeed
So, there are two basic lessons here that are worth teaching your child. First, you can’t worry about what other people are doing, because it just takes away from what you’re doing. Yes, there are always going to be people with advantages. That changes nothing about whether or not you can put in the effort to create your own advantages. Second, the more smart effort you put into something, the better your chances of success. This is about you and not about anyone else. The flip side is also true – you maximize your chances of failure by doing nothing (or, in some cases, working against your goal).
Baked into those two ideas are a lot of good tactics for parenting.
Encourage your child’s work ethic and effort above all else. Don’t talk about the result (grades, getting into a good school, winning awards) nearly as much as the effort (studying, self-learning, being a positive force in the community). Why? The rewards – good grades, etc. – are the likely outcome of the effort – studying, etc. You want to laud the effort – let the rewards be their own reward. If you simply further reward the reward, the skills they need to achieve things will atrophy – they’ll just aim for the shortest path to whatever that reward is, and that won’t build any sort of skills they need for the future.
Encourage them to take on challenges. Nudge your child toward taking on the challenging option when they’re faced with a choice. Should they take an AP class? If it seems like they have a chance of being successful, sure. Should they try out for the musical? Absolutely.
Sure, sometimes they’re going to fail, but quite often, if you encourage their effort, they’ll figure out how to succeed. Both are valuable – failure often teaches more than success, and success is often the reward for hard work.
Don’t cover up for their mistakes. When your child messes up, they need to be held accountable for those mistakes. You should not step in and clean up those mistakes. If your child doesn’t get an A on their report card, don’t badger the teacher until they have an A. Rather, figure out what they need to do to move themselves into an A. If your child skips class, let them suffer the consequences for that. You might work with a teacher or administrator to prevent permanent damage to their future, but they should absolutely face real consequences now.
This needs to start small. If your child doesn’t do a household chore, what is the consequence for that? Here, it’s simple: they don’t get their preferred electronic device. They stay in a basket that they can’t touch until certain things are done.
Clearing the Path Doesn’t Help Your Child Become a Problem Solver
So, let’s roll back to the issue that launched this article: the whole college admissions cheating scandal. In that scandal, the parents were using their wealth to remove obstacles from their child’s path.
Those children didn’t have to build any work ethic.
Those children were not challenged in any way.
Those children did not have to face any problems or overcome them.
They might get their foot in the door, but are they equipped to succeed? Can they handle the obstacles life throws at them? Are they prepared to face actual challenges? If parents have been constantly removing obstacles, then they’re not ready for those challenges.
Removing obstacles for your child can help them get their foot in the door, but when they start facing real challenges that you can’t just buy their way out of, they’re going to be woefully unprepared.
Who is going to be prepared? The person who knows how to handle challenges. The person who knows how to solve problems.
It might be a little harder to get your foot in the door, but when you do, you’re ready.
For most of this article, I’ve tried to focus on the fact that this is about your path, not theirs. The advantages that other people have might feel unfair, but those advantages have no real bearing on the path ahead of you. The harder and smarter you work, the more advantages you open for yourself.
That doesn’t mean that it won’t feel unfair sometimes, that you won’t feel disheartened sometimes. I think everyone does, sometimes.
There are two things I always keep in mind for those disheartened moments.
First, those other people are not my story. Someone cheating to get into a college might be unfortunate, but it really honestly has no bearing on whether or not I succeed at the challenge set before me. There are always going to be reasons why people gobble up an opportunity that might have been mine. All I can do is make sure I’m as ready as possible to snag those opportunities.
Second, the only person that really decides my own success or failure is me. Yes, obstacles can come flying in from out of nowhere and knock you off your path, but those obstacles would have flown in anyway. If you work hard to stay on that path, then you have a good chance of getting to where you want to go. If you don’t, you’re probably not getting there. It’s the only thing you can really control, so start controlling it and stop worrying about what you can’t control.
Taking One Step Forward Is Better Than Taking No Steps Forward
So, what do you do today about all of this? You put one foot in front of the other one.
What is the big thing you want out of life? What can you do today to move yourself in the direction of that big thing? Ask yourself that and take action on that every single day and you will move in that direction.
Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Don’t worry about what other people are thinking. Let the mechanisms of society work to fix those problems (unless you’re part of those mechanisms, in which case you should get cracking).
Worry about what you’re doing, make today a genuine step toward where you want to go, stop worrying about what others are doing unless it directly impacts you, and the rest will take care of itself.
Some Additional Reading
This article is a distillation of a bunch of ideas I’ve collected over the years that have helped me overcome a lot of sense of feeling jealous and upset and hopeless over the success of others and helped me to focus on where I can actually make change happen in my own life. If you found these thoughts useful, here are three books I highly recommend reading.
The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday focuses on the idea that the very things that demoralize and frustrate you are the things that are often the foundation of the success you want to build.
How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci is a book-length description of how to live by the philosophy of stoicism in the modern world. Stoicism taught me to separate the things I can control – my internal emotions and thoughts and, to an extent, my actions – from the things I cannot control – the rest of the world.
Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall similarly takes a school of thought and directly applies it to modern life, something I wrote about a few months ago. The idea behind this book is that, to paraphrase Hall, the good life is found by aiming to maximise happiness by living virtuously, fulfilling your own potential as a human, and engaging with others – family, friends and fellow citizens – in mutually beneficial activities. The financial advantages of others play no role in any of this.
These three books take different approaches to the same core idea, that someone else’s advantages really play no role in whether you have a successful or joyous life or not; that success and joy is up to you and the things you already control.