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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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