Your Life is (Largely) out of Your Control

Our entire existence is often a result of circumstances and luck

While we may not want to admit it, we are all products of circumstance. No one — not one single person in the history of the universe — has ever made the decision of the time and place in which they were born. A slave from Antebellum Georgia didn’t choose to start his life that way. Neither did the Rich Kids of Instagram. Even Warren Buffett agrees:

Just being born in the United States…I didn’t have anything to do with picking the United States as I emerged.

As Americans, we love the idea of a person that was born with nothing becoming — through sheer determination and hard work, with no outside assistance or good fortune — a multimillionaire. It’s a story that has become folklore, something for all of us non-one-percenters to point to and say, “They did it, why can’t I?”

The short answer? Because it’s more than just working hard.

My parents were born into poverty. Forty years ago, as a young married couple, they were able to use a plot of land as collateral to build a large, five bedroom home and then could raise three children on a single salary with nothing more than a high school education. Yes, they worked hard, skipped vacations, and lived frugally, but there were still a myriad of things that came together to make it happen. That story is much less likely to happen now and in the future. Banks no longer accept collateral and it’s much more difficult to raise a family — let alone in the plush comfort in which I was brought up — on one salary today, especially as America slips behind China as the world’s largest economy.

To get almost any great job today, you need to have been supremely educated and, by and large, many top universities are filled with kids from top tier boarding or private schools. (Yes, there are kids that are outside that funnel system, but they still need something extraordinary to make them stand out, even if they have perfect grades and great SAT scores.) Even then, nothing is guaranteed. Imagine you graduated from an Ivy League school in May, 2008 and began working at Bear Stearns. You were on the fast track for a high-paying, high-profile career. Then, through no fault or doing of your own, you’re out of a job and your seemingly-amazing employer ceases to exist.

It’s not just the corporate structure. Even in the arts, luck and opportunity play major roles. And sometimes bad luck turns out better than good luck.

The current poster child for the rags-to-riches fairy tale is Shawn Carter, otherwise known as Jay-Z. At a glance, it appears that he is completely self-made, to the point that he “went from the street corner to the corner office,” even co-owning the record label on which he released his first album. However, many people forget that Jay-Z’s first album achieved only gold status (500,000 units) and his second topped out at platinum (one million) at a time when his contemporaries were selling anywhere from two- to five-times that much. His third album, Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, was the one that catapulted him to superstar status, but even that was largely a result of circumstances out of his control. The previous two years had seen the killing of the genre’s two biggest stars, creating an opportunity at the top for him that had been closed previously, and the album was driven by the strength of its hugely successful title track, a song that was only released after Jay lied to the composer of “Annie” so that the sample would be cleared. Had either of those — or many other — things not happened or happened differently, Jay-Z would probably not be as revered as he is today.

In the end, it’s important to be aware of this, because it not only allows you to capitalize on opportunities when they arise, but also to stop you from blaming yourself for things out of your control. As one of my favorite writers Ryan Holiday has said over and over again:

There is no good or bad to the practicing Stoic. There is only perception. You control perception. You can choose to extrapolate past your first impression. If you tie your first response to dispassion, you’ll find that everything is simply an opportunity.

What’s more American than that?

Christopher Pierznik is the author of six books, all of which can be purchased in Paperback, Kindle, and Nook. A former feature contributor and managing editor of I Hate JJ Redick, he has also written for XXL, Please Don’t Stare, Amusing My Bouche, Reading & Writing is for Dumb People, A Series of Very Bad Decisions, and others. He works in finance and spends his evenings changing diapers and drinking craft beer. He once applied to be a cast member on The Real World, but was rejected. You can like his Facebook page here, follow him on Twitter here, and read his monthly reading recommendations here.