Like a lot of us on the path to financial independence and early retirement, I went to college. Having that four-year degree enabled me to get into the career path I’m in now, which has resulted in steadily increasing pay and responsibility, all of which contribute to our ability to save at a high rate for FIRE. (All of this is true for Mr. ONL as well.)
And college is usually talked about a certain way, often in the I put myself through school frame. For a long time, that’s how I thought about my own college experience. But recently I’ve started to see it all very differently. Let’s take a look…
My College Story, One Way
The story of how I earned my degree is one of hard work.
I grew up in a middle class household that didn’t have money to spend extravagantly. I never got fancy tutors, expensive test prep courses or the benefit of private school. Yet thanks to my hard work and focus in high school — earning excellent grades and high test scores and devoting countless hours to extracurricular activities and leadership roles — I earned a generous scholarship to an excellent university.
I got very little financial support from my parents to get through college, mostly just plane tickets home for school breaks, and the rest I covered by hustling — working multiple jobs while in college, and always looking out for more scholarship money.
In addition to working hard in class and working multiple jobs, I also took on leadership roles in numerous student organizations, took on multiple unpaid internships during summers and the school year, worked my way into graduate-level courses as an undergrad, and found other ways to distinguish myself, all so that by the time I graduated, I would be a desirable job candidate for great employers.
And that hard work paid off. I graduated with a high GPA, recommendations from noted professors and alumni, and I quickly secured a job that led to an even better one a few years later. By working hard in my career, I’ve proven myself worthy of a steady stream of promotions and pay increases, which are now enabling me to save for FI.
I’m proud of what I achieved in college and since then.
That’s how I saw my story for a long time. The story of what *I* did, what *I* achieved. More recently, though, I’ve come to realize that there’s actually a bigger story surrounding it all.
My College Story, A Different Way
The story of how I earned my degree is one of support and encouragement.
From the day I was born, it was expected that I would go not just to college, but to a top-notch university. And my parents made sure I had lots of opportunities to thrive academically — encouraging my curiosity and interests through frequent trips to museums and other nerd bastions, putting me on an accelerated academic track in school, and enrolling me in “college Saturday” programs.
Many teachers and principals helped me along the way, too — giving me extra projects outside of class time to help me learn more and hone my interests, inviting me to join academic competition teams and coaching me in those subjects, and always reminding me that girls could achieve just as much as boys.
By the time I got to high school and my friends started working afterschool jobs, it was made clear to me that “my job was school.” I got a big enough allowance to ensure that I wouldn’t be tempted to work, and my afterschool time was devoted to studying and joining as many extracurricular clubs as I could pack into my schedule. Because I never had jobs that got in the way of afterschool activities, by the time I hit senior year, I was the most tenured member of virtually every club I was in, and was elected president of almost all of them, something that made my college applications sparkle.
When it came time to choose a college, I got into a number of top-tier schools, most of whom offered some scholarship money, and one of whom offered a full ride thanks to all the time I’d had to devote to my studies and activities, and thanks to my parents and teachers encouraging me to aim high.
By the time I left for college, I needed very little financial support from my parents, because they had already done so much for me and put me into a strong position. They helped me get set up at school — bought me things for my dorm room, bought me a computer and provided a little money to get me through the initial transition — but then I knew that I could unload that financial burden off of them and provide for myself from my scholarship funds and on-campus jobs that I enjoyed doing, plus a small loan.
And while I did work multiple jobs in college that helped cover my living expenses, all of my tuition, fees, books and rent — the bulk of my expenses — were covered by the taxpayers of the state of my university, which gave me the luxury of time to get involved on campus, to take grad-level courses and to take unpaid internships during the summers and school year so that I’d have a strong resume by graduation.
Just as I got lots of encouragement from teachers during my K-12 education, the same was true in college. One professor in particular become a true champion of mine, and wrote many letters to get my foot in the door at sought-after employers, including one I later worked for as a result of his support.
I’m thankful for all the support I received getting to college, and getting through it. That support put me in a position to make the most of the opportunities in front of me, and ultimately thrive in my career.
Both Stories Are True
Both the first version and the second version of the story are equally accurate. One just looks solely at my role, while the other acknowledges the not-always-visible-to-me support system that surrounded me and lifted me up, making a lot of things possible for me that wouldn’t otherwise have been through my own hard work and talent alone.
I’ve especially realized that just the fact that I didn’t work in high school made a world of difference in my trajectory — giving me lots of time to study, prepare for standardized tests (at the library, not at a test prep center) and fill my college application with tons of extracurriculars like editing the school newspaper and winning model UN. Sure, I earned those awards and accolades — I put in the time and did the hard work — but they were enabled by parents who valued my education above everything and made sure I had the time to excel in school. Other equally smart kids who had to work instead didn’t have those same opportunities, and their college applications wouldn’t have looked quite as impressive.
So both things are true: I worked hard in high school, in college and ever since then in my career, AND lots of people and circumstances helped me get where I am today.
There’s the me part of the story, but that’s only a narrow part. The full story acknowledges how much help I got from people who cared and from circumstance.
It’s Not an Either/Or Proposition
At first when I realized that my memory of how I got my education wasn’t the complete story, I wondered if that meant that what I had done was somehow less worthy, or less to be proud of. Especially in America, we love this bootstraps narrative of the rugged individual pulling him or herself up from unremarkable beginnings to beat the odds or do something amazing. It’s a tale we tell again and again, and its appeal is obvious. But what if my bootstraps narrative was now a lie? What if all bootstraps stories leave out important details?
What I quickly realized, though, is that acknowledging my full story made everything that much better and richer — my story is now a bigger, fuller story. It’s a sad misconception that we can’t be proud of what we’ve accomplished if we also acknowledge the help we got getting to where we are.
Acknowledging the help we’ve gotten doesn’t diminish what we’ve achieved.
I got a pretty amazing start in life, but I’ve still made lots of choices and put in lots of hard work, all of which contribute hugely to where I am today. That’s something I can always own, even while acknowledging that I certainly did not do it alone.
Being Proud… and Thankful
The best part of realizing that my story is bigger and richer than just me doing all this hard work all by myself is the huge amount of gratitude I’ve gained in the process. Just as acknowledging help and being proud isn’t an either/or, neither is being proud of achievements and being thankful for those who helped along the way. And I’ve learned:
There’s no downside to gratitude.
Being thankful for the conditions that made my hard work and good choices possible has absolutely given me greater happiness, because gratitude and happiness are closely linked. (In fact, gratitude is as closely linked to positive health and well-being outcomes as maintaining strong social circles. Research even shows that gratitude improves self-esteem.)
And, honestly, applying this lesson more broadly, to the many stages of my life, has given me more faith in humanity, because it’s a powerful reminder of how much we all help each other at every stage — something we all prove here in the PF blog community every day. I may not have liked that cranky biology teacher back in high school, but realizing that he helped me get where I am today helps reframe an unpleasant part of high school in a much more positive light. That’s a lesson that I know applies to many more memories.
Privilege Doesn’t Diminish Accomplishments
I didn’t have every advantage in life, but I sure had some big and important ones that mattered a lot more than whether I had nice clothes (I didn’t, but I had perfectly adequate clothes) or whether we took nice vacations (we didn’t, but I had left the country several times before college, which helped shape me in important ways). And I believe those played a huge role in putting me in a position to make the most of opportunities that others weren’t in a position to grab. That’s what privilege is: circumstances that put you in a more advantageous position than others might be in. It’s not an absolute statement — some people have more privilege than me, many have less.
But what matters most in life is what we do with the situation we’re handed — the situation is the privilege, what we do with it is all us.
College isn’t an option or an expectation for everyone. And not everyone can pursue FI, at least not while we have a minimum wage that still puts full-time workers below the poverty line, and while we have an economic system based fundamentally on the fallacy that everyone starts out on an equal footing. That doesn’t mean, though, that reaching FI is any less of an achievement for those who do it.
Acknowledging the circumstances that set us up to succeed along with our own hard work and perseverance doesn’t make us less worthy FIers. It simply makes us more grateful humans. And more grateful = more happy.
I feel super proud of what I’ve accomplished in my life at all stages — of how hard I worked in high school, how that paid off with a full ride to college, and how hard I’ve worked and the successes I’ve achieved in my career since then. I know that someone else placed in my same position, with all the same advantages, may not be able to say the same thing. That’s the “me” part of that story.
But that doesn’t make me any less grateful for the people and circumstances that allowed me to do all those things in the first place. I am both proud of my accomplishments and thankful for the privilege of having been able to pursue them in the first place.
Share Your Take!
What are you both proud of and grateful for in your life? Any tales you’d care to share that could be told as both a bootstraps story and as an acknowledgment of things you have to be grateful for? We all have those stories! Share, share away in the comments. :-)
Want extra Our Next Life content? Get the e-newsletter!
Subscribe to get our periodic newsletter with tons of top secret, behind-the-scenes info we'll never share here on the blog.
Categories: the process