I've come to believe that when it comes to opportunity and advancement, there are only two types of people in the world: those who whine, "Poor me! I have it so hard!" and those who say, "Fuck my disadvantages, I'm going to succeed anyhow."
When reading biographies of successful people, one comes to realize that while the trappings of "success" may vary from person to person, the path never varies. They set a goal, and go for it.
A few examples:
Alan Corey graduated from college with a degree in a subject he didn't really have any feeling for, and with no idea what he really wanted to do with his life, and an email address that had folks thinking he was a sex-happy bisexual woman. Not exactly hugely disadvantaged, but a lot of young men in his situation end up asking customers, "Do you want fries with that?"
He got a job in New York in a call center, and ended up sharing an apartment in the projects of Spanish Harlem. He wasn't making much money, and he wasn't spending much, either. He furnished his room with discards picked off the street.
This is where it gets interesting. Instead of saying, "Poor me! I'm living in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the entire country!" he revelled in the chance to learn a new language and enjoy a different culture. Instead of saying, "Poor me! I'm living in a dump with discarded furniture!" he thought, "Wow! I've got a really cheap apartment here, and I'm saving money by the fistful! I think... I think I'd like to be a millionaire! By the time I'm thirty!" He was twenty-two years old at the time, and by the time he turned thirty (actually by the time he turned twenty-nine), his net worth exceeded one million dollars. And his call center job was the only steady work he had.
You'll have to read his book, A Million Bucks by 30, in order to find out exactly how he did it, but I'm going to move on to another entrepreneur. (I've since found out that the real estate down-turn caused him to lose a lot of that net worth. Nothing loathe, he set out to rebuild his wealth, and succeeded yet again. Fuck the disadvantages indeed!)
Kevin O'Leary, entrepreneur, television star, investor. Dyslexic, alcoholic father, part of a broken family at a time when such a thing was rare and somewhat scandalous. His father died of a heart attack at 37, his grandfather died of the same condition at age 45.
Not really. If you read his book, Cold Hard Truth, or if you're a fan of Dragon's Den or Shark Tank (or even if you know what they are), you'll know that Kevin is far from poor, in any sense of the word. He makes a lot of money doing what he loves, and has (as far as I can tell from his book) a very wonderful, supportive family.
Because he said, "Fuck the disadvantages, I'm going to succeed!"
It isn't just "First World" folks who succeed, either. Kakenya Ntaiya is a Maasai woman from Kenya. She was engaged at age 5. At age 14, she underwent ritual gential mutilation, a rite of passage that in her culture usually leads to marriage and the end of education. She had put it off for as long as she could, and before she agreed to undergo the ritual, she bargained with her father that she would be allowed to finish high school after the ceremony. He agreed, because if he hadn't she would have run away.
She finished high school. She got a scholarship to a college in the US. She got her PhD in education, and went back to her village and opened a school for girls, which, after only four years, ranks among the top in its district. Fathers are starting to realize that daughters can do wonderful things in the world, too. And the girls who go to her school are fed three meals a day, have books, safe housing (they live at the school), and extracirricular activities. Perhaps most important of all, they are free from the terror of female circumcision and early marriage.
Fuck the disadvantages, she's going to succeed anyhow!
When reading about successful people, a single quality comes to the fore: persistance. The chutzpa to say, "Fuck the disadvantages! I'm going to do this, and I'm going to keep working at whatever it is that I need to do in order to succeed at it."
Passion's important, but lots of people have things they really love doing. I have a friend whose son is passionate about music. In fact, I know lots of people who are passionate about music. I know some folks who are not only passionate, but very talented. But unless they're persistant, unless they keep going in spite of difficulties, they usually end up doing something else.
I have a friend with an exceptionally good band. Nominated for a Juno award. A voice compared to Karen Carpenter. Scouted by EMI.
And that's as good as it got. Instead of pushing forward and doing whatever it takes to make it to the top, she's teaching music and directing the church choir, and he's a salesman. Other band members have other careers.
Now that's all good and fine, if their passion is not to be a top selling country band. (And in this case, I think the band members really are just out for fun.)
But if their passion really does lie that way, they'll have to start giving it a higher priority in their lives.
So I'd say to my friend's son, who at eighteen is now on his own and working at a part-time minimum job: You want a career in music? How many hours a day do you practice? How many days a week?
Or in the words of Kevin O'Leary's stepfather, George Kanawaty, "What are you willing to do in order to be?" Are you so passionate about having a net worth of one million dollars that you'll eat ramen noodles for six years solid, have cast-offs for furniture and clothing, spend date nights at home in front of the DVD player instead of out at the movie theatre? Do you want your music career so much that you'll put in an eight hour day at work, then come home and practice for hours, write your own songs even if you and others think they suck, and sell, sell, sell? Do you want to write that novel so badly that you'll give up playing video games every day for a month (November, co-incidentally), and get up a half hour or an hour early to get some words down on paper or on your screen?
Do you want what you want so much that when the inevitable roadblocks come, you'll say, "Fuck the disadvantages!" and bulldoze your way through, or will you sit down and cry, "Poor me!"
Because there are as many types of success as there are people (I wouldn't want Kevin O'Leary's life, and he wouldn't want mine), but there's only one path. You have to figure out what you want, and go out there and get it!