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Mailbag: Escaping and Success

I knew that my Escaping the Circumstances of Your Birth post would draw out a few comments, and likely some dissenters. This isn’t so much dissent as an interesting comment that was sent by email.

Anonymous writes:

“It seems that you are advocating being successful so you can live in a big house with a fancy car and a power watch because that’s what success looks like. In your post you say living below your means is ok so again perhaps I’m misinterpreting your words. There is more to success than wealth. There is success in being comfortable in your own skin, success in achieving your goals, success in doing the right thing – like putting your family ahead of your career so you can be with your children. We are not all cut from the same cloth and the definition of success will vary with each of us.”

I find this comment interesting mostly because it’s a sign of the times we live in. Success, individual achievement, and wealth are under constant assault. People are made to feel guilty for wanting money, security, and the trappings. I couldn’t disagree with this sentiment any more. You have a duty and an obligation to create wealth, to take care of your family, and to give back in whatever way makes the most sense to you.

I teach undergraduates at a university. They tell me they don’t ever have a single person speak to them about money, success, or achievement (other than me, that is). When I ask them what they want to do when they leave college, many say they want to work for a non-profit of some kind. They believe that’s a more honorable answer than, say, being an entrepreneur.

Make as much money as you possibly can. There isn’t a damn thing wrong with becoming as wealthy as you are able. And if you can really afford it, by all means get the big house, the fancy car, and the power watch (even though Anonymous is right, it won’t really make you happy–and it might make you miserable).

I lived a big part of my life without any money. I’ve lived another part of my life with some money (and resources for producing more). There isn’t any doubt in my mind that having money is better than not having money. Even though I was happy when I was poor, it’s a Hell of a lot better not being poor.

There is no shame in poverty, but there isn’t any shame in wealth either.

Here’s how I see it, Anon. If there are sins, then surely the greatest among them must be squandering your gifts. I don’t for a minute believe that inside each of the shanty towns I passed last week was genius of all varieties sitting stagnant and wasting.

Or maybe it is a greater sin to believe that others aren’t capable of doing more, of being more, and of having more because of the circumstances of their birth. I have no doubt that many of the people that drive past these shanty towns believe that there is nothing in them worth saving. And some who live in the shanty towns may believe the same.

My point is this: Without a vision, nothing changes. The preacher in the story I wrote could have provided that vision for some kid. Maybe many of the kids. So could the gentleman in the BMW in Charlie Green’s comment on that post.

I agree that success is different for different people. I agree that it’s more than just wealth. In fact, I believe that at the end of your life, you are going to judge your success solely by the relationships of your life. Who you loved and who loved you. Who you were there for and who was there for you.

But I can’t imagine any definition of success that includes squandering your gifts or being so arrogant as to believe other people aren’t blessed with extraordinary gifts of their own—especially due to the circumstances of their birth. That is my view of what I saw last week and the story I shared.

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  • VO

    I agree with you Anthony that Anon is
    right in the statement that success means different things to different people.
    However, leaving the mindset/environment of scarcity is the right thing to do.
    I too started out in a financially challenged environment and thru hard work, perseverance
    and tenacity I am no longer in that environment. I wouldn’t trade my new
    life for my old one for nothing in the world and I don’t have fancy cars and
    tons and tons of cash, but I do have a great middle class life that I cherish,
    it sucks to be poor and live in the worse neighborhoods and constantly worry
    about how you are going to feed your children or provide for their future.
    Thank God there were many before me (including my own mother) who desired
    more and wanted a better life for themselves and future generations, as a
    result, today I have accomplished more and had incredible opportunities because
    of her vision and I can only wish and hope the same for my kids and my
    grandson. In the end “without vision people perish”!

    • S. Anthony Iannarino


  • John

    Well written Anthony!

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks, John!

  • Douglas E Rice

    Spot on, Anthony. I think people fear the desire for greater wealth, because they have a zero-sum mentality. They assume that they are getting richer at someone else’s expense. That doesn’t have to be–and often isn’t–the case. Becoming a greater success (financially and in other ways) enables you to spur others toward greater success, which I think is the exact point you’ve been making.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Right on, Doug! It’s scarcity vs. abundance.

  • Mike

    Well written, I come from a country (New Zealand) while being hugely successful at many things, still get shy if that is the right word about success.
    Its often driven by left wing politicians. Your article has inspired me to write about it again on my blog.

    thanks mate


    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Send me a link, Mike. I’d like to read your take.

  • marc zazeela


    Certainly success is subjective. Being successful is not a black and white issue. However, as I think you have pointed out, when people rant on about those whose success can be measured in tangible ways, are they REALLY understanding what makes them successful or are they simply saying that they are too lazy to try?

    It is so easy to use a dissenting opinion as a way to cover one’s insecurity or discomfort. If I consider living in a cave and cooking by campfire, my measure of success, that’s fine so long as it is what I truly want and is not simply my way of withdrawing and giving up. At the same time, who am I to tell you that your pursuit of a bigger house, a nicer car, more money, etc., is wrong?

    if measuring success is subjective, as your commenter has indicated, then it must be subjective by all measures and not one’s own myopia.


    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Interesting take, Marc. You normally don’t get the outer signs of success without doing the right things.

      • marc zazeela

        I can understand why people might object to the “look at me” attitude that can be misconstrued as someone who has become successful.

        What they are missing is that there just as many unsuccessful egomaniacs as there are successful ones.

  • Joe McGonigal

    “You have a duty and an obligation to create wealth.” I’m not sure anyone has a duty or obligation to create wealth. Regardless, success, it’s definition, and how to achieve it is an interesting, and as is demonstrated here, a sometimes polarizing topic.

    Part of the challenge for everyone is to make sure you are pursuing your own vision of success. One of the most common “trappings” is chasing someone else’s picture of success. The proverbial “climbing the ladder and finding out you were climbing the wrong ladder.”

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Joe.

      If you don’t create wealth, how then will you survive?

      I’m not really sure that in the end there is more than one real definition of success. The Grant Study seems to indicate that, regardless of the circumstances of your birth, you end up measuring the quality of your life by the quality of your relationships. I’m not sure that climbing a ladder that isn’t leaning firmly against that wall is the right answer.

      But I also don’t believe that this precludes being “successful” in the more common definition; I do believe you are obligated to capitalize on your gifts.


  • Jim

    The issue, as I understand it, is not whether the preacher was a success – he was. His popularity had grown and he could have moved up and on if he had chosen to. But he chose to stay, and that seems to be what rubbed you wrong – that he had succeeded but then chose to not capitalize on his success in some of the ways that you described.
    I think you even assert or imply that, as a result of his decision to stay, he had wasted the opportunity that he had created for himself, effectively turning his back on what he could have become.

    Could I be among those to encourage you to seek out the preacher and interview him directly on this ? (I assume if he’s popular you either know of or can find him). I’d be very interested to hear how he responds to your questions about this. Your passion on this and his deliberations would make for a great post.

    It may help clarify some of the things that we are assuming about him, and we may be the richer for having had the dialogue.

    Cheers to you if you decide to pursue the matter to the source on this one, and thanks for your many quality posts.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Hey Joe,

      It wasn’t that he didn’t take advantage of his success with the “trappings” that I found troublesome. It’s that he wasn’t a beacon for others to follow. Someone needs to provide a vision. Cut a path for others to follow. From what I experienced, the vision is missing.

      I had a delightful time in South Africa. The driver who told me the story showed me the shanty town from which this story originated. He also told me that if I entered the shanty town, it’s likely that I would never leave.

      As much as I’d enjoy that interview, and as open as I am to being schooled by the preacher on how he best serves his community, I’m fairly confident that the follow up interview won’t be forthcoming anytime soon! (Although I do look forward to visiting South Africa again)