OurNextLife.com // Privilege and Pride / Of Boosts and Bootstraps / Two Ways of Looking at My College Success

Of Boosts and Bootstraps // One Story, Two Ways

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…

OurNextLife.com // Of Boosts & Bootstraps / The story of my college education, told through the lenses of bootstraps and privilege // Privilege in education, privilege and financial independence

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.

OurNextLife.com // My role in my education and future vs. the role of lots of people and circumstances that helped me

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.

OurNextLife.com // My role in my education and future vs. the role of lots of people and circumstances that helped me

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.

OurNextLife.com // Privilege defines part of our story but we define the rest of it through our actions.

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!

Anon-in-snow

Subscribe to get our bimonthly newsletter with tons of top secret info we'll never share here on the blog. It's like a whole extra post or two a month!

No spam or slimy sales pitches ever. Unsubscribe any time -- no worries! Powered by ConvertKit

108 thoughts on “Of Boosts and Bootstraps // One Story, Two Ways

  1. We absolutely create our own narratives and sometimes we find ourselves challenging them later down the line when we look back. My story is of being financially independent from 17 and always working and hustling. But I also grew up in a financially savvy household that set me up well for adulthood.

    1. I love that you see both sides of your story! It’s so easy to focus on our own role and not acknowledge all the forces — seen and unseen — that benefit us along the way and make things possible that might not otherwise have been.

  2. Very, very nicely stated. Acknowledging our privileged starting positions doesn’t undermine our accomplishments. Both narratives are true and valid. Ideally, we would embrace a combined view of our histories, being grateful for when we’ve had advantages and still proud of our hard work and accomplishments — what we did with whatever starting point we were given.

    Like many topics of political discussion these days, this idea is too often characterized by an “either/or” mentality, from the context-blind bootstraps narratives to the cringe-worthy “you didn’t build that.” There’s a very reasonable middle ground. Thanks for sharing..

    1. Thanks, Matt! You know this was heavily inspired by your Our Frugality Is a Sham post. :-) I think about privilege a lot and realized that my own journey to recognizing my privilege could be a good frame for the discussion. I have a visceral reaction to both of those kinds of stories you mention — the bootstraps versions and the “you didn’t build that” ones (except I don’t mind when people point out that Donald Trump got a million bucks from daddy — haha). We all have *some* level of privilege, however minimal, so the idea that we could somehow exist without that context is ridiculous.

  3. Great story, and while I did not do nearly as much after school/extracurricular work as you I can relate to the support structure that put me where I am today.

    There are far to many people wasting their advantageous situation, it’s sad to watch.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks! I’m glad you can relate, and you appreciate the support that got you where you are now! So true — it IS sad to see people wasting their advantages, just as I think it’s sad to see people not acknowledging the support they received.

  4. This is one of my all-time favorite posts of yours–which is saying a lot! It drives me nuts when people take sides on privilege vs. accomplishment when both are obviously huge factors. Like you said, acknowledging one doesn’t diminish the other. And I LOVE the gratitude research–thanks for sharing it.

    For my own story, I could be proud that I got a scholarship via standardized test scores. Sure, I took a couple practice tests to prepare. But I have a natural aptitude for those type of tests, and I did nothing to earn that. I also had lots of support from my parents, teachers, coaches, and a guidance counselor (who gave me the practice tests).

    1. Thanks, Kalie! Not gonna lie — this post means a lot to me. :-D So I’m glad you think of it so highly. <3 I love how you put it, and I feel the same way — I didn't "earn" being good at standardized tests, just like you. And I didn't "earn" having free time to study for them to improve my scores even more. But I also put in the time and hard work. Both matter, both count, both should be acknowledged. Same with all the rest of the support. So glad that you have that perspective, along with gratitude for the support you received!

  5. I like both takes on it and you’re right, it’s not where you started or how you started, but what do you do with the opportunity/privilege you’re given.

    I was in both camps too in a way. My parents always pushed me academically to the point I felt it was unfair my siblings got praised for B’s and C’s and I’d get “punished” if I got a B, but that’s another topic. :) While that support was there during my formative years, when the divorce happened, I could let up on the gas, because noone was watching or pushing anymore. I didn’t take college prep courses, I finally got to enjoy an “easy” normal highschool schedule of regular classes, diving, multiple clubs I was in and an after school job. So much easier when there’s no pressure! :)

    I only planned on going to our local University, so I didn’t feel compelled to strive to do better per se. Financially I had no help from my parents for school expenses, except qualifying for Pell grants. That was squandered in that I just took “interesting” classes like Folk Studies, lots of Sociology, philosophy, ethics, journalism, etc… and I rarely put forth much effort, only a 2.2 my first year, haha! (lowered shameful headshake)

    Effectively, it wasn’t until I started paying out of pocket that I realized I was wasting my opportunity and had no clue why I was in college. I took some time, figured out I did want to be there, and ended up graduating with a 3.8 and was able to get into a top geology grad program which led to my current position in life.

    I made it a lot harder on myself than it needed to be because I didn’t take adavantage of my own privilege and just looked at it as a negative “my parents couldn’t help with college” instead of a positive, “I had my first two years paid for”.

    I think it’s all perspective and the two stories applies to everyone. There is always opportunity, it’s just what you do with it that counts.

    1. Ah, the double-edged sword of high expectations. :-) Having one parent who was the child upon whom high expectations were placed and one who witnessed that title going to a sibling, I feel pretty sure it’s better to have the high expectations. :-) Even though I’m sure it felt like a relief when you could slack off a bit, I’m sure that initial pressure had an impact on you wanting to figure things out for yourself and make more of the college you were paying for! It’s awesome you turned things around and excelled in college after that initial start (but don’t knock folklore classes! haha). I love that you now look back and see the privilege in it — which I’m sure you see more clearly now as a result of being a parent!

      1. I loved all of my folklore, journalism, sociology classes, but they did add a lot of time and cost. When I did finally graduate with my undergrad, I ended up with almost 220 hrs which is about 40 more than was required…
        but finding myself and finding what I liked and didn’t like, was to me, ultimately worth it. :)

        1. Oh yeah, they totally add to the time and cost! And I’m jealous you managed to cram in that many hours in undergrad! I can’t remember what mine came out to, but I would have happily stuck around for a fifth year if they’d extended my scholarship.. then I could have taken more of those fun classes! ;-) But they made it clear from day one that I had eight semesters and not a day more, and then I was getting kicked out of the nest!

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve always found the bootstraps narratives bothersome in their incompleteness. They leave out the support that we’ve received along the way and the benefits of winning the genetic lottery and being born into a place from which you could pull yourself up.

    “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.” Acknowledgement and understanding of this idea could go a long way towards easing some of the current tensions in the States. Or at least allowing a more civil conversation to start.

    1. I’m with you — no bootstraps story exists in isolation ever, and it’s definitely incomplete to tell only our own role in it. So true about the genetic lottery and where we happen to be born. And totally agree that acknowledging the “and” instead of focusing on the “either/or” could lead to a lot more understanding and a much more civil discourse — all of which we badly need right now!

  7. It is always nice to see people realize the support structures that helped them every step of the way. My family was actually poor. The type of poor where you are evicted constantly, electricity off, don’t have food, and strangers look at your bad clothes and wonder if you are going to commit a crime. However, I was academically gifted and the few good teachers at my crappy high school helped me. I already knew that I was going to Run Away to College, but I didn’t have anyone in my family to help me with the process. I began educating myself and talking to the two teachers I respected. They spent so much time with me, and so much money making sure I had food in me. They were my bootstraps to one of the best colleges in the nation. I showed up at the college with none of the things I needed, but I was there. Those teachers were just as casually racist as the rest of our high school, and they probably would not have been so helpful or seen themselves in me if I was not white.

    1. WOW, thank you for sharing the story of how you grew up. That is so far from my experience, and makes me respect everything you’ve achieved even more! I’m so glad those teachers were there to help mentor you and guide you when you weren’t getting that support at home. It still shocks me that we pay teachers so little when they are so important to our society!

  8. OMG THIS THOUGH. “Acknowledging the help we’ve gotten doesn’t diminish what we’ve achieved.”

    I love this so much. Kudos for being one of the only early retirement blogs I’ve found that can kindly acknowledge that privilege exists while still being inspiring for everyone out there that with hard work, you can achieve amazing things. I just… hugs. So many hugs. Are you a hugger? I am, but like, I can be cool about it if you aren’t.

    1. Um, YES I’M A HUGGER! I will take all the hugs. :-) I think it’s SO important to acknowledge both sides of this, both so we aren’t sanctimonious jerks telling people with major hardships that they are being idiots with their money, AND because life is just better and more beautiful when we approach it with gratitude. And looking at the help we got that enabled our success is a major place where most of us can draw some serious gratitude. Anyone who is actually in a position to pursue FI has gotten some support along the way whether we realize it or not.

  9. Great post – I like the “two sides” approach. In the end, it takes a lot of support, but someone still needs to DO the hard work. The fact is that much of the same support is available to many people, yet few really take advantage of all of the opportunities they are given.

  10. I can’t really think of anything in my life that I’ve done truly on my own. I mean, there are lots of things that I take credit and am given credit for having done on my own. But I didn’t put my foundation under me. Teachers, parents, neighbors, authors, musicians, actors, and all the other influencers did. It’s really curious to me how we want credit for having done everyone on our own. Society definitely pushes us that way, but we’re not very great at existing in isolation.

    And you know this made my teacher heart go pitter patter :)

    1. I’m with Penny. I can’t think of anything I’ve done on my own. I’m lucky I went to a small elementary school with many supportive teachers. I’m lucky to have had a high school teacher and a coach who believed in me enough to help me get to college early. I’m lucky to have worked in the college advising office, which is likely the only reason why I continued my education. I’m forever grateful for the support I had along the way. :)

      1. I completely love how much you embrace the support you got! I’m sure to get to college early, you had to put in tons of hard work yourself, and that’s still worth celebrating, but I believe it’s much sweeter to celebrate it in the context of gratitude for the help we got that made it all possible. :-)

    2. There is something so pervasive in the American dream about the mythical Self Made Person, never mind that that is just a myth. And I think it pulls people to define their story in self-made terms. Or to criticize those who’ve had help. (Not that I have a problem with this, but it’s even happening with Donald Trump, with everyone reminding us that he got a million bucks from his dad.)

      I could have gone on and on and on about all the ways that teachers got me where I am — I had SO MANY amazing ones along the way, at every level. I am forever grateful for and indebted to your noble profession. :-)

  11. Great post, one of your very, very best!!

    This got me thinking back to my own happy childhood. Brought up in rural southern Scotland with working class parents (dad drove trucks for a living across UK + Europe; mum was a florist, school cafeteria assistant among numerous other things). The only thing they ever encouraged me to do was my best. Aside from fully supporting me (huge moral support as UK funding provide me a grant for my graduate and doctorate degrees in chemistry) to go to university, the one thing I always remember is the financial support and encouragement they provided to allow me to travel as a young kid.

    Despite relatively low incomes, they worked SUPER HARD to allow me to go on school trips (mainly parent funded with very small stipend provided by educational authority) to travel to Paris (twice), a 2-wk cruise to Sweden, Norway, Germany, Denmark at age 10 (!) and two ski trips in Italy. All before age 15. Looking back, I was very lucky. These experiences at a young age really shape you. Never forget the second ski trip – April 5, 1982. We were called together early by the teachers and assistants in the morning before breakfast at our hotel on the shores of Lago di Garda to be told that Britain had just declared war with Argentina – the Falklands war and were sending a naval force to the islands. We didn’t have our various social media feeds and iPhones then like 15yr old kids do now! Kinda scary at this age to be in a foreign land and told your home nation is at war. Yet the teachers were all calm, the hotel folks all cared about the kids they were hosting, we still had some fun skiing and doing the stuff teenage kids do despite the dramatic news back home.

    Anyway, I tell this little story only because the experience of travel for me at a young age, provided by my parents, allowed me a taste of how a life could be lived differently. It went a long way to fuel my decision to up and leave the UK and move to this great country I now call home – where, honestly, our family are living the dream. And travel experiences is something we instill in our children to allow them to open their eyes a bit more and well, just wonder at it all. That opportunity to travel at a young age has shaped a big part of my life including the next phase that awaits.

    The acknowledgement that my parents sacrificed quite a bit to provide that opportunity is something I am very grateful for. It was much more than travel, it provided an opportunity to shape a different life.

    1. Thanks, Mr. PIE. This post means a lot to me, so glad you enjoyed it so much! :-)

      Wow — your travel stories are amazing! I have always envied how much travel is ingrained in the culture on that side of the pond. Here, as you know, very few families with modest means would ever consider prioritizing international travel over other things, but I completely agree with you that it makes such an impact on a person to get to travel at an early age. I remember standing and looking over the Berlin Wall when I was 9, in 1988, thinking it would stand forever, and how sad that made me. Thinking about the kids my age on the other side of the wall who would never know freedom or hope. Then the wall came down the very next year, and I got to go back to that same spot at age 13 in 1992, right after reunification. What an important life lesson: that nothing is permanent, that bad ideas really can be swept aside with enough effort and persistence, and that culture generally moves toward more freedom of movement and ideas. I will always be grateful for those experiences and how they shaped me!

  12. Our story’s are very similar, except for the top tier college part (I had no interest in that). Thanks for sharing your complete story.

  13. So much this! I had a very similar trajectory, having been a hyper-involved teen and earning a full ride to university. My father once told me, “don’t let anyone tell you that you didn’t earn this.” Which, while true, diminishes all of the hard work and excellent parenting they did for 18 years of my life (and beyond), and all of the fantastic teachers and mentors I had as a young person. I find that many of my friends who are dissatisfied with their lot in life have an attitude of “I was an exceptional student and I DESERVE better.” I also have a lot of friends who look down on the poor & underprivileged and constantly talk about how these people need to work harder and hard work is the only thing that brings you success in life. Whereas I have always felt SO incredibly lucky to have been dealt this hand in life, and recognize the people who championed my path every step of the way. One of my goals for the last several years has been to establish a scholarship fund at my undergraduate university, and pusuing FI has definitely made the path to that goal more clear for me. While I cannot WAIT to help young people financially while they are in college, there is so much I can do now to mentor and encourage young people in my life.

    1. I LOVE your dad’s line. Absolutely you earned it, even if you also got help. (In fact, we all need help to earn things! That is just part of the deal.) And it’s exactly that mindset you describe that I wrote this post for — it’s easy to take this egocentric or narcissistic view of our own story and think we are completely self-made, but that’s true for exactly no one. And it makes me a little crazy when people get preachy or call others stupid for not making the ideal choices in every situation — it’s SO important to recognize that not everyone is in the position to make the ideal choices all the time, and feel grateful if we ourselves are.

      I completely love your scholarship idea (you’re getting my wheels turning to think about this for my school!), and also love your thinking about what you can do to mentor and encourage young people now. :-)

      1. Dooo it! You can also establish scholarship funds through your hometown (in my area, a county community foundation manages scholarship funds). I felt very passionately about supporting students in one of the activities I participated in during college, and through our alumni association we established a fund for alumni of this group to contribute to a larger scholarship fund. I’d (vainly) love to have one in my name, but that’s probably a few years down the road! ;)

  14. I loved the way you separated your story. Whenever I read someone’s accomplishment story in The New York times or a PF blog, in the back of my mind is that story of privilege. How people are set up to win my multiple factors, not just their own hard work.

    Your story is one where you kind of did everything right from the beginning, gaining the advantages of early achievement and high grades along the way. For myself I always fought things along the way. I went against the grain in high school, didn’t get good grades and didn’t go to school much. It’s definitely something that set me back and has continued to reverberate in my life today.

    Although my path was different, I’m grateful for my life’s struggles. They’ve made me the strong, opinionated person I am today. Your college story is really the American Dream story of self-sufficiency but it’s also clearly true you were helped immensely by circumstances, social class, education, and family. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I’m with you! I almost get upset when I feel like people aren’t acknowledging all the boosts they got in those stories. Because it is literally impossible to have some massive achievement without having help along the way. So much better to acknowledge that and be grateful for it, rather than feeling like we have to live up to the myth of the Self Made (Wo)Man.

      How wonderful that you feel grateful for the path that’s brought you to today. There’s always a flipside — I know that other kids had more fun at times while I was focusing on school, or they were out doing more creative things. So we can all look back with regret if we choose to view things that way, or we can focus on the positive and what we do have as a result of our journey. :-)

  15. There are AT LEAST two sides to every story. Thanks for sharing yours.

    It’s a much-needed reminder to pay it forward, take the extra time to give a helping hand to the next generation, and not grumble so much about taxes that pay for public schools and student loans. *

    *It would be great if everyone could attend school debt-free, but I didn’t choose that route and I’m grateful the government took a chance on me by lending me money for tuition.

    1. So true! I’m sure there are even more sides to my story that I am unaware of — things that helped me that are invisible even now, with many years’ hindsight. And I’m totally with you on those taxes! I have read a few posts this week even by people grumbling about taxes and praising the free public schools in the same breath. Hmm. ;-) I would definitely not be where I am without those taxes paying for most of my college as well as subsidizing my small loans! Not to mention the 13 years of public school before college. Glad you feel grateful for that too! :-)

  16. Oh man. We’re going to have a LOT to talk about when we go to FinCon. Our stories are very similar, except I probably got less help in the transition to college. I ended up getting kicked out of the house shortly before college, so I worked a full time job and joined the military to help pay for school. I’m grateful for the experience though, because I learned what it was like to truly be on my own and flat broke.

    1. Looking forward to meeting you at FinCon! What a tough time in life to have to provide fully for yourself — and how amazing that you came away from that experience grateful for it!

  17. I’ve always been proud of my own bootstrap story, but now I’m afraid that I’ve not given full credit where it’s due.

    As a parent, I know full well what goes into clearing a path for your children to succeed, yet I probably haven’t shown my parents and in-laws the gratitude they deserve.

    I’ve got some thinking to do and phone calls to make.

    1. Oh, I love this comment! I do hope you’ll reflect on it and give some thanks to folks who’ve helped you! I can only imagine how much being a parent helps you see all the things you never noticed when you were the kid and others were supporting you.

  18. This is beautiful and the perfect example of privilege. I think often about how just having a safety net makes me save more. We’re cutting it close every month with our automatic investments. But we can be risky, because I’ve never worried about what would happen if a large financial emergency would happen. We’d ideally cover ourselves, but the fact that our parents would be willing to help changes our entire mindset. If we didn’t have that, everything might be different.

    1. Thanks, Maggie! That means a lot. :-) And I have been pondering a safety net post, too (no surprise! it’s the mind meld), because I agree that there is HUGE power in being free to fail. Like you, I’ve never had to contemplate losing everything or becoming homeless or any of the very real consequences that many people face. Even just knowing that I could move back in with either parent if things got majorly bad lets me make different choices than I otherwise could. It doesn’t surprise me at all that you see that too!

  19. I love, love, love this post! I have a love/hate relationship with bootstrap stories. So often they do cut out the support and focus on the individual. I’m guilty of it myself. Your two takes are spot on way of showing the complete tale. Thanks for putting this out there!

    1. Thanks, Kara! You know we think a lot about privilege, and I thought sharing my story would be a good way to frame part of the discussion. I agree with you — bootstraps stories can be SO compelling, but they are rarely the whole story. :-)

  20. Lovely post! I have always felt that privilege/help and bootstrapping were two sides of the same coin. It’s something people often forget, thinking they must be mutually exclusive, but how many of us got to where we are without public education, paved roads, postal mail, libraries? And how many people are growing up without those? And how much more challenging is life for them not to have the invisible privileges of knowing people who know what YOU need to know to succeed? Those of us who have teachers and mentors who looked out for us, or gave us a bit of extra time or attention to help us through the rough parts, do we remember what impact that had on us? (Which reminds me of this post: http://agaishanlife.com/2016/07/who-are-your-unsung-heroes)

    To avoid rambling on in a wall of text, if links are cool to share with you, here they are! :)
    Bootstrapping: http://agaishanlife.com/2012/01/ill-take-bootstrapping-for-400-please-alex/
    Privilege: http://agaishanlife.com/2013/03/where-theres-a-will-theres-a-way/

    There’s a better one on privilege and a good one on the help I’ve gotten over the years but for the life of me I can’t figure out where they are. This is what happens when you blog for too long ;)

    1. So well put! There are so many advantages we all have just for being born in or moving to certain developed nations. Or for knowing people who know what you have to do. Or being exposed to paths we might aspire to. There’s so much, and the bootstraps stories rarely account for any of it!

  21. I tend to like the bootstrap version of stories b/c in our current culture many people love to play the victim. I think the best example of this from my life is the horrible experience we had with a financial adviser. It would have been easy to feel victimized and consider ways to get revenge such as filing complaints or lawsuits. At the end of the day, I felt it was better to channel that negative energy into something positive by accepting ful responsibility for not educating myself in the first place, educating myself so that I wouldn’t put myself in that position again and then trying to spread the word to help as many other people as possible.

    All that said, I do strongly agree that a bit of humility is good for everyone b/c the truth is that the story of everyone’s success or failure is a combo of personal effort and achievement mixed with luck and circumstance. Not acknowledging that would make every failure make us feel hopeless and depressed and every success would make us all little egomaniac Donald Trumps!

    1. I love how you guys have turned your bad situation with that financial advisor into an opportunity to educate others and take more control of your own finances. Playing the victim just makes us bitter and resentful, which is a real shame, because there’s so much gratitude and happiness to be had by looking at the exact same situations from a different perspective. And amen, brother — we do NOT need more egomaniac Donald Trumps! So let’s all try to recognize both sides of the coin. :-)

  22. I remember camping, long long ago, waking up, sitting at the campsite, and thinking–what if I totally had to create, do, everything completely on my own? It’s mind-boggling and the thinking process lasted for only a minute.

    Matches to light a fire, pan to cook the food, clothes I’m wearing. Ad infinitum. Think about it, even the air I breathe, the light and warmth of the sun. The atmosphere.

    We should be rolling on the ground, shouting from the mountain tops gratitude. We’re so incredibly rich, language, health, our senses, family, it goes on.

    As you say, there’s no downside to gratitude. Gratitude and happiness are intertwined. Hell, it makes me happy just to write this. Thanks ONL, wonderful post.

    1. Wow, what a humbling thought! When we’re camping, we often think, “Gosh, we really don’t need all that stuff back at home! We need so little to be happy.” But if we had to create all of that stuff with no help? Gulp. :-) You’re so right that we should all be grateful every moment of every day for so many blessings we can’t even see. Thanks for the lovely comment!

  23. Brilliant post, which definitely strikes a chord with all of us in the FIRE community. Our own effort and hard work are necessary but never sufficient to achieve all those milestones.
    Our parents made made sacrifices to give opportunities to us that they never had themselves. Teachers and professors did their share too. My advisor in graduate school once said that “at some point it’s no longer important *what* you produce [own research output] but *who* you produce”
    Thanks to all professors along the way who went the extra mile to support their students. That includes time, advice and free beer at Happy Hour. Not sure the latter is still legal these days, though :)

    1. Thank you for saying that! :-) I love that saying from your grad school advisor: focusing on WHO we produce instead of what. That’s definitely what I’ve been focusing on as my career winds down, but it’s an important reminder or all of life, I think! Let’s all pay a little more attention to the help we all got along the way and pay that forward by supporting those coming up behind and alongside us, even if we can’t give out free happy hour beer anymore. ;-)

  24. I love EVERYTHING about this post!!!! I just absolutely agree with everything you said here and I love the different takes you had on the path your life has taken with regards to your education. I went to a state university (back in the late 90’s, it was the less expensive option and I didn’t have to take out any student loans). I stayed at home and lived with my dad who helped pay for my tuition. My mom chipped in when she could and I got a full time job and paid for everything else (car, car payment, gas, books, etc…) It was tough but it made me a stronger person balancing so many things but I am super grateful that both of my parents were in a financial position at the time to be able to afford the in-state tuition. I am still proud of the fact that I have a bachelor’s degree :)

    1. Thanks, Mackenzie! :-) That’s so awesome that you worked your way through college — I’m sure that was stressful to work full-time and do your classes. But how wonderful that you got so much help from your parents, too, and that you are grateful for it. :-)

  25. I too am very proud of what I have accomplished in life and in my career but I certainly have an abundance of gratitude for those who helped me along the way. I was the first person in my family to go earn a Bachelor’s degree (and then a Master’s and Doctoral degree) but my parents instilled the importance of an education and supported me throughout my journey. They helped me financially through most of my first degree and that left me in a position to buy a house and an investment property when I was very young. But I picked up the “reins” so to speak and made things happen with their support. I have two siblings and one is in a similar (well, better!) financial position as me and the other is in a terrible position, yet we all had the same level of support. Beautifully written post!

    1. Thanks so much, Vicki! :-) I’m glad you’re proud of what you accomplished through your hard work and focus, and I’m glad that you acknowledge how much your parents’ love and support helped you get there. It’s a great point that your siblings achieved different things than you did — that’s great proof that YOU are an important actor in your own story, just not the only actor. :-)

  26. I normally hate corporate jargon, but one phrase that I came to love was “people synergy”

    You don’t exist in a bubble, and plenty of people have worked to make you a better person, a better employee, a better daughter, etc.

    Likewise, other people aren’t bubbles either.

    The important thing is never who gets the credit for X or Y outcome, but the interactions between people that made X or Y possible. Friendships, siblinghood, parents, coworkers, and more matter so much. They make you, you, and they make you a better you.

    1. Hi Hannah! Nice to see you back here. :-) I love how you put it — it’s not about who gets credit for what outcome, it’s what was made possible by the interactions. If that’s what “people synergy” means, then that’s a rare bit of corporate jargon that I can get behind! Haha.

  27. Very nice post!

    I can identify extremely strongly with both points. My parents did a lot to try to give me a great start in life, but I didn’t go to college/university. They started me in the same profession as my Dad, which I’m still in and just starting further education. I felt somewhat resentful about this, as I don’t want to do what they want me to do (marrying my wife was not in their plans!). Doing further education was what they WANTED me to do, so I didn’t start it for 2 years. But to progress in my career, I have to, and I’m doing it for myself. So mentally I’ve created a big divide in what they did to prepare me for life (thank you, parents) and what I want to do for myself (go me).

    I’m extremely thankful you recognise both the help you were given and how hard you worked. Some people are given an even better start to life, and don’t use it. Some people aren’t given any help at all and they make a great life for themselves. It is a fairly continuous cycle though sadly, of less well-off people not achieving what they might have if given the same opportunities.

    I think we can all be grateful for the start to life we have. We’re very fortunate and owe it to ourselves to do well :)

    Tristan

    1. Thanks, Tristan! I can definitely see how it would be tough to be caught like that between what your parents want for you and what you want for yourself. I’m so glad you’re ultimately doing what feels right to you, while acknowledging how your parents supported you growing up. And you’re so right — lots of people squander the opportunity presented to them, while others make something out of nearly nothing (which is for sure much harder to do for a million reasons).

  28. Lovely post! I feel like the idea of acknowledging that you’ve received support from others is important, yet it’s looked down upon in this culture. I think this is what leads a lot of people to feel like a fraud/impostors. The fact that they didn’t do it all themselves lessens their achievements somehow when really they should view it as something that boosts it. If we put more emphasis on the the whole story behind the success I think a lot of people will feel more emboldened to take steps towards their dream whether it’s being FI or starting a business. It’s okay to have help! It’s like the overnight successes – most of them spent years failing on projects but no one shows all the failures.

    1. Thanks, Jasmine! I do think you’re right that there’s a certain stigma to acknowledging the help you’ve received, which is so backwards! I think you’re right that changing the culture around that will embolden a lot more people — not only is it okay to have help, it’s *necessary* to have help!

  29. Can I just say that I love this? So many soon-to-be university and college students should read this and understand the importance of spreading your wings in more ways than one. Post-secondary is the time to learn, develop, and definitely appreciate all of those who love and support your experiences.

  30. Most excellent post. Thanks for sharing.

    You did a great job of highlighting the role you played in your success – working hard, focusing on academics and extracurricular activities – and the role the people around played – providing support, opportunities, and removing road blocks.

    Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, explores the role of support structures (e.g. encouraging parents, teachers, and mentors, educational opportunities, etc.) in individual success. His conclusion is that individuals (even geniuses) need external support to be successful. I agree that this is mostly correct.

    I have led a fortunate life that began with winning the birth lottery. I was born to loving and financially stellar parents (from a global perspective) in a stable rich country who took care of all of my needs and many of my wants. This enabled me to be successful academically that led to high paying employment. The fact that I graduated higher education with little debt to my parents (they did not charge interest and offered a flexible payment plan) was a significant factor in my ability to grow my net worth in my 20s.

    I do not feel guilty of my privilege, but very cognizant of it. I have found several ways to use my advantages to help others, and looking for more.

    A wonderful cartoon highlighting this privilege can be found here http://digitalsynopsis.com/inspiration/privileged-kids-on-a-plate-pencilsword-toby-morris/

    1. Thank you! :-) I completely agree with Malcolm Gladwell — all the talent in the world still won’t take you far without some other external supports. It’s great you’re so aware of the privileges you were born with and have continued to benefit from — that’s more than a lot of people can say! And I love that you’re working to help others. :-) And I agree with every bit of that cartoon — Maggie at Northern Expenditure posted it last year some time, and I have shared it with quite a few people. Let’s keep passing it around!

    1. Thanks, Liz! :-) And so well said — there is an incredible amount of invisible privilege just to live in certain countries in the world. The fact that we can dream of something different than what we were born into is not something everyone around the world can say!

  31. You’ve provided an awesome and comprehensive analysis of the relation between privilege and drive. My own parents brought me up with expectation that I go to college and graduate school. They instilled a belief that with a good education, I would be set for life. This is somewhat true, because I have many more opportunities because of my education. However, I wish there had been some more practical guidance along the way, with respect to money and the day-to-day life that would come after obtaining those magical degrees.

    Although I am thankful for the help received to get to this point, it’s really up to me to execute a plan for the future.

    1. Thanks, Harmony! And oh yes, I can relate to wanting more practical guidance along the way! I got some schooling in money, but definitely made some bad decisions as a young adult. :-)

  32. I love that there is always room for gratitude! It’s so easy to see what we lacked, and overcame. But to have eyes to see all the blessings is a more joyful way to live.

    My brother and I grew up well below the poverty line with an abusive step father. But that isn’t the whole story. We had so many amazing teachers, mentors, and great grandparents who provided guidance and love. My mom worked so hard. My childhood was my greatest inspiration for becoming FI.

    For me generosity is closely linked to gratitude. It’s about saying, “we have more than enough, we are so blessed.” I started giving when I was still in high school. It’s hard to feel poor or sorry for yourself when you can give generously and make a difference in others lives.

    1. Gratitude… it’s like jello! There’s always room for it! Haha. And wow, you’re my hero of the day for being able to see past a horrible situation in your upbringing to those outside your home who loved and supported you. It’s so admirable, too, that you started giving at such a young age! You were definitely wise beyond your years to be able to find generosity within yourself that early on. But I love that idea of generosity and gratitude being linked, and wholeheartedly agree. I’d love to see more generosity in the FI community, and I definitely believe it starts with gratitude, which starts from recognizing your blessings, which starts with looking past the bootstraps narrative. :-)

  33. I respect this story a lot. I respect anybody who has worked their *** off in college to get to where they are today. I’ve had a lot of friends who were well off and hadn’t worked a day in their life and will never pay a dime in interest for their loans.

    I worked multiple jobs while pursuing 2 majors and 3 minors in college and received a job offer that I am happy with. One thing that I’m trying to do is never forget that mindset and to keep it up while I continue working because it’s easy to let it slip. I graduated with a 5 figure net worth after graduating college and hoping to increase my net worth while working.

    Forward and upwards!

    1. That’s incredible that you had 2 majors and 3 minors AND graduated with a five-figure net worth. Kudos to you! I don’t know what you did to make all that happen, but for me to do that, I’d have to have the foot on the gas the whole time — and I definitely believe you need to let it off sometimes so you don’t burn out or get resentful. So I hope you’re making time for relaxation and self care — but sounds like you have plenty of things figured out!

  34. The post makes me think that indeed we need to be more grateful and thankful about the start we had in life. It is easy to complain that others had a better start. It is harder to see that our start was way better than some other. And agreed with you: What matters most is what we do with our privileges…

    A quote I like, and very similar to some of the points you make: we are where we ar. What matters is what we do next!

    in the FIRE context: the things I would be most grateful for: Being able to work to earn while not yet in a real job (understanding what working is about), having basic budget lessons from my mom by getting a monthly allowance, being able to go back to school after 1 year of work and get an extra degree. These are the basics of who I am today and where I am today.

    1. That’s wonderful that you’re grateful for elements of your upbringing that helped you get where you are today. You’re right that it’s always easy to complain, but complaining gets us nowhere. I really believe that starting in a place of gratitude helps spring us forward to bigger and better things. :-)

  35. I love this! A similar story for me of my hard work AND the work of a ‘village’ that got me there (and through it). My proudest moment is getting a full athletic scholarship at a prestigious university, despite having skipped highschool (I taught myself while I was traveling the world competing in my sport). Sure, I spent HOURS training and preparing myself since I was 8-9 years old, but my parents, teachers, coaches, they all sacrificed and gave me back so much in order to put me in that position.

    I am so thankful that I graduated with no student loans because of this, but when I look back at how much money my parents spent on me to get me there, I think they got the raw side of that ROI deal! :).

    I then went on to get my graduate degree with my husband (abroad) and we managed to pay for all of it ourselves after being frugal with our money for the first few years of our working careers. We also later worked some more and took a few years off to be both stay at home parents when kids were so little.

    I am so very grateful that a) my parents showed me always to live my life my own way, not what was expected of me and b) that I found an amazing husband to share my crazy and c) all the people in every step of the process that prepared me to whatever it was that I had to face next as I go through life.

    1. Wow, what an interesting life story you have! That’s pretty amazing. And how great that you see both sides of it — both how hard you worked and how much you legitimately earned, but also all the people who put you in the position to seize opportunities. So awesome. And even better that you’re putting those lessons your parents taught you into practice now, in how you raise your kids — especially taking time away from your careers to be home with them while they were little. Priceless. :-)

  36. Love this post and totally agree. I think more people need to acknowledge what boosts they’ve had in life and be grateful for them.
    I’ve worked relatively hard compared to others and had a pretty decent life outcome so far (I’m shooting for FI so that is a privilege in itself for a start) but there are some people I know who complain about how this or that is not going so well in their life, how other people have had it easier, and so on. This is annoying because they would never acknowledge any advantages that they might have had that others may have not, it is all just a one sided point of view.

    I’m not really sure how you can challenge these sorts of people without creating a potential argument or falling out, I’m sure there is a way to do it but I’ve not come across it yet or had the guts to actually call people out on it in person. If you have any ideas on this, a blog post about it would be fantastic ;)

    1. Thanks! This post means a lot to me, so glad you enjoyed it. :-) I do think the challenge you see is extremely common, and I think some people simply refuse to acknowledge that their circumstances have put them in a better position to succeed than others might have had (there was one memorable comment to that effect regarding this post on last week’s MarketWatch piece!). But I think sharing your story this way — traditional bootstraps version first, then layering in the ways you got help — has a better chance of getting through than leading with privilege. (There are even some comments on this post to that effect, saying they were rethinking things!)

      1. That’s awesome the post has made such a big impact on people! (sorry I didn’t get time to read all the comments, there is a lot of them :))

        I agree that there isn’t much of this sort of introspection going on in the world, unfortunately, and this is a big reason why the rich stay rich, sign up to dodgy tax evasion schemes, don’t give as much as they probably should to charities and the unfortunate, and inequality is so bad IMHO. People think they earned every penny through their own hard work and deserve it all, they’re “worth it”. Of course even at a basic level successful businesses and business people are getting a boost from infrastructure such as roads and the Internet which have been paid for with taxes, and possibly from the work of badly paid employees either here or some far flung and poor party of the world. People need to zoom out and see the bigger picture sometimes.

        I’m almost certain someone has already posted this above but just in case not this cartoon strip really hits the nail on the head for me :

        http://thewireless.co.nz/articles/the-pencilsword-on-a-plate

        1. You’re speaking my language. :-) I agree with all of this! There is so much denial out there, though I suppose this fact shouldn’t shock any of us. And I love that cartoon — wish everyone could see it!

Comments are where the magic happens! Let's chat!