I definitely found myself struggling around writing the following phrase in my previous post on signing up for an advanced personal finance course:
And, I’ll be honest, I don’t know a lot of people who are in my situation. Which is to say: doing well, but not ridiculously well (yet).
Notice a fair amount of equivocation and handwringing there. And what it comes down to is that it is hard to talk about oneself being successful.
Table of Contents
Shame of success
When you’re struggling, it can be easy to get people to relate. “Yeah, work has been hell.” “Just trying to get by.” “One day at a time.” “Those bills just keep on coming.”
If someone in an elevator responds with “It’s almost Friday, you’ve got this,” and you respond, “Actually, I love my job, and don’t need to wait for the weekend to feel like I’m making a difference,” it would probably get awkward.
Financial success is like that too. When your friends talk about their student loans or their unmanageable student loan debt, and if you were to say, “Actually, I paid off my loans years ago, and have no credit card debt,” it would probably get awkward.
But here’s the thing: you are going to get to these places eventually, if you aren’t already there now. Working this plan of intentionality and focus means that you will eventually get traction, and make progress. You will keep more of the money you make. You will build wealth.
And you might actually have to reprogram how you think of yourself, from someone who “just can’t get by” to someone who is getting by quite well, thank you.
Talking about this can be hard. We all know about the feelings of shame around struggle: that there are things that you don’t feel like you deserve, and that you alone suffer from.
But there’s also, in an ironic twist, a shame in success.
When everyone is bonding over their shared struggle, and while you are not going through that struggle, you can feel very alone. You almost want to hide the fact that you’re doing well. When your turn comes in the conversation, you just nod and say, “yeah, it’s really hard,” and hope the conversation moves on from you.
This feeling is really about the desire to feel included. You want to feel like part of the group. And right now, the group is suffering.
When you realize that this is what the feeling is really about, it can help you understand how to respond. The goal is connection, not commiseration.
And the question of how to connect with people when they are going through something you’re not is the same as when you know someone who has a bad illness and you don’t. Just because you aren’t going through the same thing doesn’t mean you can’t have respect, empathy, and understanding. We all know what it’s like to suffer.
Now, granted, if the people I’m describing in your life are the kind that would rather complain than take action about their struggles, then at some point, you may need to make a choice as to how close these people are in your life. This isn’t meant to be heartless, but you have a finite amount of time in your day, and you want to surround yourself with the right people.
Is the success enough to be called “success”?
The other side of things is that you might be feeling shame for feeling successful because you know, deep down, that other people are much more successful than you.
So you have no debt? Who cares? That person over there retired at age 35 with $60 million in the bank after she sold the company she founded to Google.
So you’re contributing 15% to your retirement account? Who cares? That guy with a mustache put away 60% of his income toward retirement.
So you might be concerned that your success might be seen condescendingly by others. Maybe you really should keep quiet after all.
The problem with keeping quiet is that your success is your own, and it’s independent of everyone else’s success. Life isn’t a game with a high score board, and you aren’t playing against anyone (or if you are, stop right now). If you feel successful, then it is totally irrelevant whether others might downplay it. That is their measure not you.
The important gauge is: how do you feel? Do you feel secure, comfortable, and optimistic? Does this feeling come from a place of knolwedge and understanding? If so, screw everyone else. Get on your own scale, and don’t get on anyone else’s.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Life isn’t a game with a high score board, and you aren’t playing against anyone (or if you are, stop right now).[/perfectpullquote]
The title of this post comes from the famous poem “Desiderata“, the poem which adorned a thousand dorm room walls, mine included.
I think part of the poem’s appeal is in its clarity on what is important.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
While I don’t like the specific words “greater” and “lesser” to describe people, I think the meaning is clear enough. There are people who are struggling less and struggling more than you. There are people who have greater success and lesser success than you.
But your battle is your own.
So, on balance, I will say here that I feel like I’m doing really well right now. Certainly better than I ever thought I would. I’m seeing the results of over two decades of sustained financial work, and I feel like the future has never looked better.
Now, all I would like is for you to join me. No need to be excited for Friday. Today itself can be awesome.