If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?

money © by 401(K) 2012

My daughter didn’t want to start a pissing match when she responded to a post called “There is no monopoly on being rich.” She knew it was a possibility, however, and turns out she was right.

The site’s author, Sam, responded with an oblivious chirp of a comment that stated, among other things, “I have set backs [sic] and disabilities too, but I’ve decided to always look on the bright side. Why does something optimistic on my blog insult and aggravate you? If this short and sweet post makes you angry, then I fear your life is going to be even more difficult than normal.”

And one reader growled, “Who would want to hang out with someone like you? No wonder why you are having such trouble! … Why not create a blog as big as (Sam’s) and generate online income, that way, you wouldn’t feel as financially constraint. [sic] I’m sure it takes a lot of work, but if Sam and what looks like many others can do it, why can’t you? Finger cramping?”

So Abby wrote a piece for her own site called “Flame war, party of two!” It asks readers to weigh in on her comment, which says there kind of is a monopoly on being rich.

Generally speaking, you need things like a good education, the talent and temperament to work in a lucrative field, and health that’s stable enough so that you can work. It also doesn’t hurt to be conventionally attractive, nicely dressed and well-spoken.

“So it can be hard to read posts that seem to say that attitude is everything. The deeper implication there is that, if you’re not rich, it’s because you’re not trying,” Abby wrote.

“For the record, I’m not disputing that optimism is important. It does make a difference. It just isn’t always enough to get you over obstacles. Not all circumstances can be overcome with hard work and optimism. I wish they could.”

Obviously I have a dog in this hunt, i.e., my daughter is the dissenting author. But there’s more to it than that. Some people would use my own example as “proof” that all you need is willpower and a strong work ethic.

They’d be mistaken.

It’s not what you know…

Sure, I worked hard. But lots of people work hard. It was a piece of sheer luck that changed my life.

While working at the Anchorage Daily News in Anchorage, Alaska, I sat next to a writer named Liz Pulliam (now Liz Weston, author and MSN Money columnist). She and I were friends and when she left Alaska we stayed in touch. When my divorce was finally settled she looked at my e-mail update and thought, “That sounds like a freelance piece.”

It was: “Surviving (and thriving) on $12,000 a year” was to have been a one-time payday, but it got more response than anything else MSN Money published that year. “Write another one,” the editor said, so I did. He then bought half a dozen other pieces from me and, when MSN Money decided to start the Smart Spending blog, I was hired to write it.

I’ve been writing for them ever since: first Smart Spending, then a personal finance column, then the daily Frugal Nation site; now I’m back writing for Smart Spending. [Edited to add: MSN Money stopped producing original work and fired all its writers in Sept. 2013.] Because of the “name” recognition I’ve been able to guest-post anywhere I like, and ultimately was convinced to join Get Rich Slowly as a staff writer. A few months ago an editor from Woman’s Day contacted me and we came up with a list of ideas for me to do.

None of that would have happened had I not sat next to Liz Weston.

Yet to apply Sam’s logic, there’s no monopoly on writing for MSN Money. Anyone who wants to do so and isn’t must not be trying hard enough.

The self-made man

Okay, now I’m being a little simplistic. But when that commenter told Abby she should stop complaining and start making money from her site, Sam agreed: “Blogging is an equal playing field because any blogger can decide to write more, build a brand, guest post, etc. to gain traffic and earn more money.”

Again: Anyone can do this. (Unspoken corollary: If you don’t succeed, you must be shiftless.)

Our country is in love with the idea of the self-made man, the self-starter who sees what needs to be done and does it in the face of tremendous odds. Sometimes that still happens.

But by and large these myths are just that: fairy tales. We applaud them the way we applaud to keep Tinkerbell from dying. We want to believe. If we acknowledged that Horatio Alger stories are fiction, then a little part of our nation’s self-reliant, can-do spirit might die, too.

We might have to acknowledge that maybe we didn’t do it all on our own, that Lady Liberty’s lamp has gone out and that the Golden Door actually remains stubbornly closed to a whole group of people.

Worse, we’d have to acknowledge that layoff, accident or illness could one day put us on the other side of that door.

What’s luck got to do with it?

People who do well tend to forget (if they ever recognize) the advantages they had, especially since some of those are “invisible” privileges.

Having been raised with good manners and decent dental care, knowing how to turn on the charm, having been told how to dress appropriately to the situation — all these things can help you get a job.

Not having one or more of those things can keep you from getting a job.

Having that strong work ethic modeled to you is a huge advantage. After I got pregnant at age 20, I could have ended up on welfare and living in a trailer in Fairton, NJ. But I’d grown up watching both my mom and my dad bust their butts to succeed. I was determined to succeed, too.

But there was more to it than that. Namely: luck.

I got a job typesetting and proofreading at a small printing company, where I heard about a similar job at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I met the guy I would marry and where I started freelancing. He got a job at an Alaska newspaper and so did I, despite my lack of a college degree. From there I freelanced even more – and sat next to Liz Weston.

A couple of decades later, while turning my life upside down, I decided to go for a degree. I lucked out there, too: My work-study job was right next door to the office where Phi Theta Kappa stored donated books. One day I helped a PTK volunteer – another older student – box up books for shipping. She told me about a three-year scholarship to the University of Washington and urged me to apply. I did, and I got it.

Again: Hard work was necessary to my success, but propinquity was just as important as perseverance.

Where you start

No doubt Sam intends for his words to inspire. What they do, however, is exclude. Not everyone starts out from the same place – and where you start too often determines where you stay.

A clerical error placed Michael Rose in the “voc-ed” track; his uneducated immigrant parents didn’t know they were supposed to be monitoring his schooling. That put him behind in his other classes once the mistake was fixed, and if not for serious mentoring by a dedicated teacher he would never have made it. Ultimately Rose gave up a fellowship to Stanford to become a teacher himself.

He describes his earlier experience in the book Lives on the Boundary:

“You’re defined by your school as ‘slow’; you’re placed in a curriculum that isn’t designed to liberate you but to occupy you, or, if you’re lucky, train you, though the training is for work society does not esteem; other students are picking up the cues from your school and your curriculum and interacting with you in particular ways.”

How many youths are still being given enough basic coursework to let society off the hook (all Americans are entitled to an education), but being groomed, overtly or subtly, to take on menial jobs? How many youths are being ignored entirely, and just pushed out into a world that has less and less room for the uneducated?

You don’t know what you don’t know – and if you don’t know that, then how can you move beyond it?

I’m not saying that hard work isn’t a good thing. What I’m saying is that hard work isn’t always enough. The playing field is actually a little hillier than it might seem when glimpsed from the goal line where you already stand.

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  1. I just wanted to say this was such a beautiful post it touched my heart.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Alane: Thanks, fellow Jersey Girl.

      • The one train of thought that no one seems to be pointing out is that getting rich is definitely not everyone’s major life goal.

        I really hate it when a successful life is only measured by a bank account.

        If that’s your goal, then you will measure by that standard, and I certainly don’t know Abby. But clearly, you, Donna, do not have that as a main goal or you wouldn’t have gotten into journalism.

        And even among journalists there are various life goals. The pursuit of riches is simply not universal.

  2. Some people will look at your example and focus on the fact that you have the writing talent to make it. Someone else might have gotten the same assignment (via Liz) and just not write something that resonated with many readers. I remember your early post actually and was struck by your honesty, and different viewpoint from most typical magazine money writers.

    However, I believe that success in life, is ALWAYS a combination of luck and hard work. I know many people who are smart and work hard — some have family/financial advantages that allow them to go farther or have an easier path; some are the right height or race; there are many factors that come into play. And some people truly seem to have worse luck. Health is also a huge issue and many healthy people dismiss the importance of serious and/or chronic health problems.

    • Donna Freedman

      @OilAndGarlic: Exactly my point. The trouble is, if you don’t have the right combination to succeed you might be judged as shiftless or stupid or somehow lacking in character.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

      • lynn chalepah

        wow you put forth an argument so well it will trick the hard nosed elitist into thinking that you might actually have something to say. keep it up cuz they wont listen to anybody else

    • Obviously I agree, as the aforementioned daughter in this post.

      I actually kind of love (in that rueful, ironic sort of way) that Sam and his commenter seem to honestly believe that making a bunch of money with a blog is something anyone can do by setting their mind to it. How many bloggers are out there trying to make it big? How many actually do?

      It certainly can be done. But it’s all I can do to work a full-time job and be CFO for my husband and myself. And I still put off far too many chores.

      Before I had this job, I did put a lot of time and effort into growing my blog. I spent HOURS a day reading, commenting and otherwise trying to get my name out. It was exhausting, and I’m always impressed with the people who somehow balance a full-time job, any family/free time, and still find time to grow their blogs. Even without the chronic fatigue, I am not sure I could do it.

      Then again, I’m probably just making excuses. I mean, I’m sure the commenter who suggested this has his own huge blog, right?

      • The Young House Life bloggers have posted a few “day in the life” type pieces, and anyone reading should quickly be able to recognize three things: (1) they aren’t just DIYers, they have specific writing, media, and graphics skills (with degrees and work/internship experiences) that they have used to make their blog incredibly beautiful and unconsciously catchy; (2) they work ALL THE TIME, like 6am to midnight type days; and (3) it was *luck* that landed them attention and recognition to be able to do this as a full-time job.

        • Donna Freedman

          @Liz: Skills + lucky break = success. And yeah, you do tend to work a lot on jobs like those. (Ask me how I know.)
          The bosses wouldn’t have kept me around if they didn’t like my work — but they would never have seen that work if not for my own lucky break.
          Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

        • YES THIS! I noticed that about Young House Love too — I love that blog. But I am not under the delusion that anything I blog about will take off like their blog took off. I’m not a graphic designer or an advertising guy and I don’t have an art degree, and so on. The idea that blog = income is so reductionist as to be absurd. It’s like a late night infomercial train of thought.

        • I thought of the Young House Life site, too. They’re both very marketing-savvy (they started out working for an advertising firm). They seem to generally enjoy working 18+ hour days, 6+ days a week. But even they have pointed to a little home-improvement blogging contest they won a few years ago which gave them some scratch and some publicity and got the whole ball rolling for them. Know How + Years of Hard Work + that Lucky Break.

          And sure, plenty of these people say you can make your own luck, blah, blah, and if they weren’t already working hard they wouldn’t have gotten that break (same for Donna with Liz Weston)… but there’s no guarantee of the break.

      • Shouldn’t you therefore respect Sam and other bloggers who can keep on writing since you know how much work it takes? I don’t get it.

        • Donna Freedman

          @Rachel: Not sure why you’re bringing up “respect.” Can you elaborate?

      • Susan

        Yeah, and some people actually do win the lottery….Hang in there. I enjoy your and your mom’s work.

    • What’s the saying? Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity?

  3. Hit the nail right on the head. Again.

  4. Another general THANK YOU. Money ain’t everything – it’s the people you’ve met and experiences you’ve had that shape your thinking on everything, whether it’s to choose to “not” (like to not mimic an alcoholic abusive person) or to choose “to” (like to work hard because that’s what your parents did). Not trying to get too biblical, but there was a sermon a few weeks ago that really applies here: man can do nothing on his own, and everything with God. The emphasis is that man can accomplish nothing without help.

  5. Suzanne in VA

    Yep, that $12000 surviving and thriving article on msn is what got me into your blog. I like Liz’s column too. You are both inspiring. I like the fact that you are frugal Donna but still have a life~ I want to travel (probably too much) and like you I cut back in other areas like food and clothing so I can do what I want. I guess that makes me smart and rich in a loving life way 🙂

  6. Reta Davis

    Yep, I have to agree with you (and Abigail) again–but then I am your devoted fan who thinks you are awfully wise, talented, hard-working and yes, even lucky. If getting rich with a blog was that easy, there wouldn’t be so much literature available on the subject, not to mention all the online gurus offering to teach “how to” (and for a pretty price). Personally I think that the positive thinking people CAN BE bullies. A positive outlook is a nice thing–even something to aspire to– but not sustainable day-to-day for most people with real lives. It certainly does not bake any bread for anyone. I work very hard, I am smart, I can write, need the money, but I admit that I lack the self-discipline needed to be a full-time blogger. Speaking for myself only, my breadwinning includes work that requires me to be a “cheerleader” and it takes up considerable amounts of time. I get tired at the end of the day. (I’m with you on that, Abigail) I do not consider myself a loser because I don’t always feel Positive or Energetic. I read many blogs and I do notice a lot of judgment and what can only be called raspy comments from people who must not have a lot to do or have a very narrow focus. I gotta ask ya: What are “haters” doing commenting on positive attitude? It would be nice if people could just make comments, have them considered thoughfully–with no rebuttal required. No rudeness necessary. EH?

  7. Exceptional post! I like that your writings always make me think and/or smile. I checked out the blog post that started this whole thing. I found it & a lot (not all) of the comments a tad smug for my tastes. I’ll stick with you & Liz, thank you.

  8. I’ve been keeping an eye on the posts and comments on both blogs, and I’m glad to see you mention it, Donna. Naturally a mother wants to defend her daughter, but beyond that, more needs to be said about this topic.

    Last year I was berated by a few bloggers after writing a post about poverty. There were lots of comments about how if people would just “try harder” they could have anything they wanted. And while that’s a nice thought, it simply isn’t reality. At least not for most of us.

    As you already know, I quit my job last December and now work from home doing a combination of freelance writing and web/graphic design. Was that because of all my hard work? Nope. It was because I grew up in a home with an engineer father who taught me to write code and disassemble my computer. And because I was given several opportunities through chance/luck that propelled my work forward. And because, when I got pregnant in high school, my mom babysat my son during the day so I could finish school and attend college. I didn’t get here on my own; I walked a tightrope that happened to have a few wide spots where I could catch my breath.

    The idea that people aren’t wealthy because they don’t try hard enough is absurd. If effort made you rich, I should be a millionaire after nearly a year of working 70+ hours a week. But, as you mentioned, I think everything in life comes down to a combination of hard work and being in the right place at the right time. However, even those factors can be thwarted by a number of circumstances – a health problem, a job loss, a divorce, the death of a loved one.

    People who discount the impact of environment truly piss me off, especially since they’re usually the ones whose environments have been the most optimal. Must be nice to live in lala land!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Andrea: Even those whose upbringings weren’t optimal, the ones who really did overcome a lot to get to where they are, forget any advantages they had.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  9. Great post, plus you hit my hot button when you mentioned work-study.

    I did not qualify for financial aid due to a dysfunctional family (I lived in NYC with lower middle class relatives who claimed me as a dependent and earned ‘too much’ for me to qualify, although they were not providing my support), so I (mostly) worked my way through college working low-wage jobs (like janitor).

    Then during my final semester, I interviewed for an entry-level IT job and didn’t get the job when they hired another applicant who had had a ‘related’ work-study job. And I’ve been working low-wage menial jobs ever since.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Terry: My work-study job was in the student activities department. I moved a lot of tables and chairs, put up posters, ran movies, set up speakers, and just generally did whatever needed to be done.
      One day I had to take a new door out of its frame, remove the hinges and knob, paint the door pink, reinstall the hardware and set it up in the courtyard for National Coming-Out Day. My boss gave me some coveralls to wear. As I walked across the campus carrying a paintbrush and screwdriver, I became acutely aware that people looked right through me. A couple of hours later, when I was wearing street clothes and carrying a textbook, students met my eye and nodded or smiled.
      Menial labor gets zero respect. It doesn’t matter that what you’re doing helps keep the world running smoothly. It’s work no one wants to do. That would be more acceptable if the people who did the jobs no one wants were paid commensurate with the aggravation/tedium of the work. But unless we’re talking about plumbers or garbage collectors, that’s unlikely.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  10. Welp, I’m in your camp on this issue.

    However, I guess I wouldn’t give a person whose response to his readers is so nasty and who encourages flaming in his comment section the “air space,” as it were, on a site with a PR of 5. Even those of us who don’t read Mr. Samurai’s blog are likely to go there out of curiosity, and all that does is improve the guy’s traffic.

    Hm. Interesting that despite the fact that the site has been around since the memory of person runneth not to the contrary, its PageRank is still lower than yours. Maybe you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar?

  11. For a lot of things in life, I think there are mulitple factors at play. Luck, hardwork, looks, attitude, degrees, and on and on. When it comes to some things, there’s not much you can do (luck, looks, background) but for other things there is something you can do.And that’s where I think optimism, hardwork, and attitude come in. Sure, sometimes you do all this stuff right and still don’t get rich or whatever, and that’s becaues there’s other stuff at play. Know what I’m saying? More people could probably use optimism and hardwork in their lives, but if you’re already there, then there’s not much more to do with those factors!

    • Donna Freedman

      @TB: An optimistic (some would say Pollyannish) core has kept me going more times than I can count. If it weren’t for optimism, Abby would probably have thrown in the towel by now. Life keeps hitting her with a two-by-four but she keeps getting up and slugging back. I’m proud of her persistence even as I wish to GOD that her life weren’t so hard.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

      • I hope my daughters stay persistent and don’t give up, like yours. They’re young yet, but man, life can really throw a lot of cr*p at ya, and it’s great if you can slap on a smile and trudge through it!

  12. You tell ’em, Donna! Love your writing!

  13. Very good article. Well said. I love your writing.

  14. BRILLIANT! Once again, Donna, your article points out that not everyone has had the same opportunities and luck, seen or unseen, that others do in their lives. More importantly, being proud and supportive of your daughter is worth more than any amount of money and success she will ever obtain. It forms the core of who we are, how we feel about ourselves, and what we do with our lives more than any amount of education, mondey, luck, etc. can ever do….thank you for your wonderful articles.

  15. Elisabeth

    I really enjoyed this blog. It is a timely reminder that we don’t always have equal opportunities.

  16. Wow. I don’t read that blog because it’s just never resonated with me, and this is absolute proof. There are so many thoughts this stirs up. You’ve hit on many of them in your usual well-phrased way, Donna, but I have to challenge one of the primary assumptions of the guy’s attitude: why does he think that everyone WANTS to be rich?

    Or maybe we all do want to be rich, but we define it differently than him. I do NOT want a bunch of money. I have defined for myself what a “rich” and comfortable life is, and I work to maintain it now and when I get to a point that I can’t work like this anymore. For me, part of having a “rich” live means that I have healthy relationships with a partner, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family members. Encouraging (or at least not discouraging) poor manners and lack of compassion doesn’t fit with my model of being “rich.”

    Then I thought about the concept the I read about on another blog (probably the ) about the . He’s clearly clueless about the privileges he has enjoyed all his life that helped him be successful and on the path to being “rich.”

    Maybe he has to feel validated that all the stuff he does to make as much money as possible is the best approach to life, so he finds it threatening when someone points out that all his hard work could *poof* mean nothing if he becomes disabled somehow, or that he has benefited from more than “just plain hard work.” That’s no excuse for bullying behavior, though.

  17. I very much agree with your viewpoint!

  18. Lenes Stoute

    How about this major fact that being ill or disabled is just damn hard and takes a major toll on one’s finances and state of mind. My husband is again a kidney dialysis patient after nearly 23 years of having a kidney transplant from his sister. We have health insurance through our jobs, but it is during a chronic illness that you find out exactly what insurance does or does not cover.

    My husband is a wonderful man who rarely complains about his condition. But I see the toll that constantly not feeling well has taken on his body and his spirit. No matter what the doctor’s say all medications have some side effects and sometimes the only way to cope is just to lay down and let the bad moment pass.

    Sorry this post didn’t come out as poetic as I wanted it to be at all. I just think think the blogger should have a little empathy for someone who has a different life than his is at the moment.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Lenes: I’m sorry your husband is again undergoing the ordeal of dialysis. Yes, it is lifesaving — and yes, it takes a toll.
      People who have fairly good health or at least have their conditions under control (e.g., my life improved significantly because of a tiny thyroid pill) may not know or have forgotten the challenge that illness places on the simplest tasks.
      Have you ever read the “spoon theory” essay, from a site called ButYouDontLookSick.com? It’s a good one to show people who don’t get it. Download the PDF here:

      • spiralingsnails

        Thanks for posting this link. I’ve always tried to be compassionate (and have a few minor health issues of my own to keep me humble) but The Spoon Theory helps illustrate the challenges involved more clearly than anything I’ve read before.

        • Donna Freedman

          @Spiralingsnails: I agree. It’s a useful metaphor for someone who is totally healthy or who doesn’t know anyone who’s sick.

      • Lenes Stoute

        Thanks for the link. The essay said it a lot better than I did. I am exremely healthy and my husband isn’t, so I truly have come to understand that health is indeed a gift that most take for granted.

  19. Ro in San Diego

    I agree with this post and as many of your posts do it spoke to me. When things weren’t going my way as an unmarried, 25 year old woman I joined the Navy to see the world. I’ll try not to sound like a recruiting poster when I say it changed my life in a good way. As a veteran I was afforded more job opportunites and ended up in a job I never imagined I could be suitable in Engineering.
    I had no luck so I decided to change my luck which ended up being lucky since I met my future husband and have the benefit of his wonderful family.

    However, I also agree with Abby. My parents were disabled with cerebral palsy. A lot of advantages most kids take for granted were absent in my home. My parents did not value education. I struggled to get through a vocational degree.

    I will never forget hearing when I complained “I can’t” that my mother would remind me that “You have 2 good arms and 2 good legs”. She didn’t; my dad didn’t.

    I have 2 friends dealing with serious medical conditions and chronic pain, and my husband is a 10 month survivor of cancer. The baseline is changed for these people. My husband used to work longer hours but can only manage 8 hours per day now. Things around the house he used to help me with he can no longer help me with. We had to hire a gardener because mowing the lawn is too hard for him now. He’s still weak.

    You can’t be a go-getter if it takes you six hours to get your pain under control so you can get dressed and feed yourself. I totally get it.

  20. Thank you for presenting the other side and all of the “hidden” factors that go into career success. I worked with someone years ago who worked very hard, but he came from the wrong side of town and left school with an elementary school reading and writing level. No matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t get ahead, but he still tried, every day.

  21. I was going to write a post of my own after reading Abby’s and commenting, I was so incensed! But I’ve written multiple on the subject by now, so thought I’d sit around on my (shiftless?) butt and wait for yours instead since I’m on month two of trying to recover from a recent pain flare-up. 😉

    Obviously, I agree and the idea that success simply comes to those who will or want it – whether it be a financial boom or a satisfactory standard of living – is beyond simplistic.

    Those of us who live with chronic conditions and make something of our lives rather than living in despair and squalor have an entirely different sense of what to appreciate, frankly, because you roll bigger boulders up steeper hills just to get started most, if not every, day and damn if I’m not grateful, personally, that I even have the opportunity to try.

    I’ll disagree a little bit with Ro in San Diego here: you can still be a go-getter even if it takes you ten hours out of the day to get up from bed. It just looks different from the outside. But even on those days when I can’t ever get out of bed, I’ll be getting them. One way or another. And if not today, then tomorrow.

    My luck broke the right ways for me, as it didn’t for so many others, and it’s my responsibility and my duty to do the best I can with what I have. Whatever I can leave behind, however I can help, if I can make things better for people, and yes, financial security, all these things define success. And there’s just no place for FS’s for simplistic flippancy in this game plan.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Revanche: As someone with a chronic health condition, you get it — life isn’t black-and-white. It’s not even gray. It’s just…fog. We do
      the best we can to navigate. But some people just get more spoons than others, and often don’t recognize that.
      Thanks for your comments, both here and at Abby’s site.

  22. I’m in a unique position to have read all your sites for the past several months now and I wanted to share some points.

    1) I think people read what they want and ignore the rest. Sam writes “If you believe you will always be poor, then that is what you will be. If you believe you deserve to be wealthy, you have an infinitely higher chance of succeeding.” I don’t think that means “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” or “you must not be trying if you’re not rich.” I take it to mean exactly what he says, if you think you deserve, you have a higher chance of being rich! It’s easy to put words into other people’s mouths.

    2) Abigail went to Financial Samurai to start her “flame war” not the other way around. Abigail and Sam are clearly at opposite ends of the financial spectrum. I’ve read posts on Abigail’s site that boasts she only spends $50 on food, but then spends $150 on playing cards. She also complains a lot about her inlaws. He site is very entertaining because of all the head scratchers and complaints. I don’t like my in-laws too, so i can relate! But I go to Abigail’s site just for entertainment. I go to Sam’s site to actually learn.

    3) Donna, your post basically supports Sam’s philosophy of hard work. It’s a great spin on trying to support your daughter’s point and trying to then say how successful you are. Of course luck has a lot to do with things, and I don’t think Sam says otherwise.

    I don’t know how Sam does it, but he has the ability to write posts that get so many people fired up. I for one am inspired by his post, and posts. He’s done more to help me build wealth than any other blog. His optimism is great, and perhaps it’s because I’m also an optimist.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Rachel: Again, I have nothing against optimism. Obliviousness, on the other hand, gets my goat.

      • Hi Donna, thanks for the response. I don’t see how Sam is oblivious at all. He’s just encouraging people to get in a better mindset to believe, because if we don’t believe in ourselves, nobody else will.

        I’m tying to be objective here, b/c I admire everybody who can open themselves up online and write. What I’ve noticed is that responses by readers show more about their predispositions more than anything else.

        Do you and Abigail really think he’s saying poor people, or people who have not reached “success” don’t work hard, are lazy, or dumb etc? You guys are the one who is saying that, and not him. I have no relationship to any of you.

        Take a look at a comment by another commenter in response to Abigail:

        “I agree with the first part of your phrase, but am INSULTED by your last part.
        “The readers with the special conditions are some of the MOST committed to finding ways to become financially stable. That doesn’t mean it happens. And they’re sure as hell not going to get rich.”

        I have a severe speech impediment ever since I can remember speaking. It was embarrassing, debilitating, demoralizing. I practiced night and day to get better. I visited therapists and when i got the courage, I joined a Toastmasters group.

        25 years later, I am financially independent. It is insulting you think that just bc someone has a disability, they “sure as hell are not going to be rich.”

        I think that’s awesome! But you and Abigail make it sound like if you are lazy or unlucky o have disabilities there’s nothing you can do. This is very far from the truth!

        The oblivious is Americans who think they have it so bad, yet eat until they are obese while the world starves. The oblivious are people who think they’ve got it so bad, but have never had their limbs blown off during war, or traveled to the post poverty stricken place.

        • Donna Freedman

          @Rachel: Abby apologized for her poor wording of the last part of her comment (guess she hit “send” before proofing) and explained what she actually meant.
          Neither of us said that people with disabilities or without luck cannot affect their circumstances. We know (boy, do we know!) that this is not the case.
          And while I agree with a couple of your examples, let me add this: The oblivious can also be people who believe that “anyone” can be wealthy. It’s not as simple as that.

  23. Hi Donna,

    I have to agree with Rachel above. I didn’t see any nastiness out of Sam’s post. However, having said that, everyone has certain issues that press their buttons. This obviously pressed yours and Abigal’s. I think the best case scenario here is to agree to disagree and don’t waste another minute on it.

    Just my two cents. I admire you, Donna, and I believe you turned a bad situation into a great one. You are an inspiration.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sharon: I didn’t say the writing contained nastiness. I simply think he’s oblivious.
      And thank you for your kind words.

  24. Donna, I believe that since you’ve made a name for yourself, I actually stumbled across this site. But I knew your name and have read articles by you for years.

    I totally agree that luck played a large role in my “making it.” The first instance was, I had lunch with a friend and he wanted to go to the university’s employment office before lunch, so I tagged along because I had a rather long lunch break. He didn’t find anything but I did. The job required me to move out of the country; I went to Japan. After a couple of years, I got a call from a head hunter, she told me about another job in the same industry. I asked her to find me an opening in an investment bank. At that time, the economy was booming in Japan and investment banks were hiring like crazy and if you applied, you generally get accepted. After moving to investment banking, I met the woman who became my wife. I also had a good friend who started his own company and between contracts, he did some head hunting of his own. He got me into a company that I would spend 14 years of my life. The pay was astronomical, as you hear about Wall Street’s excesses, I was lucky to get a piece of that. My wife and I bought properties around the world instead of buying a bigger, nicer, better neighborhood house, we looked at growth potential. This is not without hard work, I generally worked from 7:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M. mainly due to time zone differences, but I often got called on weekends as well. I did have some hard times, where you transfer knowledge to someone else, and they get a better job somewhere else. After 20 years of working in Japan, I moved my family to the US (for me it was moving back – wife and kids were born in Japan).

    But everything started with that visit to the university’s employment office. If I had or my friend had cancelled lunch, or if he decided to look after lunch, I would have never found the job that got me to Japan, because I had a stable job (albeit low paying), so I wasn’t actively looking, I was just killing time while my friend looked for a job. Serendipity.

    • Donna Freedman

      @ManoaHi: Serendipity rocks! When it works.
      Thanks for sharing your story.

  25. I’ve been reading Knowing your Value by Mika Brzezinski, and it seems like there’s generally a gender difference in the ability to see luck as a factor in ones success.

    And I wonder if that may be related to this post from Scalzi about gender and life difficulty settings. http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/

  26. Donna, check out this post I just saw Sam tweet out on being an optimist and someone who is clearly not oblivious.


    The writer grew up poor, in a bad neighborhood, with a single mother who lost her money due to a divorce. Yet, despite everything, or because of everything, he’s stayed optimistic and did things to improve his situation.

    Bloggers don’t usually have big name media companies to leverage their success like you do. They do so much themselves. Do you think a pessimist could succeed in blogging?

    Of course you should support your daughter who started this whole flame war. But, you’re clearly biased and twisting words. You can’t help Abigail by continuing to coddle her.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Rachel: I don’t equate support with “coddling.” As for bias/word-twisting, I could just as easily say “You’re a fan of Financial Samurai so you’re biased against anyone who doesn’t agree.”
      And for the last time: I have nothing against optimism. If it weren’t for optimism I probably would have jumped off a bridge long before now. (Believe me: I am not saying that flippantly.) We need optimism to get over hurdles and even over the small bumps we encounter from day to day.
      But optimism isn’t necessarily enough. That’s all I’m saying.

    • I’m a pessimist of the first calibre, and FaM is pretty successful. It doesn’t earn enough for me to live on, but then I’m not trying to make it do so. It forms part of a set of income streams that, taken together, relieve me from penury and, at the same time, from wage slavery.

      And y’know, it’s not hard to get big-name media companies to notice your talents. It’s called “networking and public relations.”

  27. Thank you for this post, Donna, and thank you also to Abigail for the original response. Optimism, motivation, hard work – all of those are wonderful, and good luck to Financial Samurai and his readers who use these to maintain their vision of a better future and help them achieve it. But these are in no way sufficient for success. Why are they so bothered by someone pointing this out?

    This is why I’ve stopped reading most PF blogs. My feeling is that there are far too many people commenting and posting out there who, well, the best phrasing I heard was they were born on third base and think they hit a triple. To me, many seem to be unfamiliar with just how hard it is to even manage to survive when you have a life that leaves no room for financial error or an episode of bad luck. Which is surprising given what happened to the economy in 2008 – I would have thought more people would now realize that you can do everything right and still end up in a very bad way, even with a positive attitude. This is even more true if you have to battle against things you can’t control every.single.minute.of.every.day.

    I’ve been lucky – I’m not disabled and have had help and support in getting further ahead in life than my parents ever managed to. And if it makes me a negative nancy to bring people down by admitting it’s not all down to a positive attitude, well, so be it. The reason why I read your blog, Donna, is because you acknowledge just how hard it is to get beyond surviving, and that sometimes we make mistakes (and boy have I made a them), and you offer strategies for helping us deal with it. As well as some empathy and heart.

  28. I don’t normally comment on blog posts, but I felt compelled to respond to yours because I agree with your (and your daughter’s) stance on this issue and I am increasingly aggravated by people with such overly simplistic views of society. You are absolutely right that we live in a country that likes to refer to its tradition of bootstrapping – we also live in a country where many people ride their families’ coattails all the way to the top. I teach college students in Camden, NJ (yes, a fellow Jersey girl for sure) – it has officially been named both the poorest and the most violent city in the country (I can’t even recall for how many years the city has held those dual titles, it’s been so long…). THAT affects people. My students are for the most part very diligent workers who are focused on improvement for themselves and their communities – however, as much as it breaks my heart to admit it, there are plenty of reasons many of them will not make it where they hope to go. It’s not for lack of work, it’s for a sheer and total lack of resources. Yes, it does matter where you start – and no, sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you work. That’s not an excuse for failure, it’s a factual observation that some people in our society will never admit.


  29. Now that’s a huge question (sort of a slap) that would take me awhile to answer. Good article, its got me reflecting on my former self and all the screw ups i had before.

  30. jestjack

    Good article Donna! I too read the “pissing contest” on your DD’s Blog as it went down. And as a Dad to two DD’s I’m not a fan of “Sam”… especially his delivery of “his message”.Long ago when I used to comment about “just being lucky” in business to a DF, he used to go crazy when I made the comment. His thought was that I “made my luck every day” working harder and longer than most. And the same could be said for yourself.Sure you were seated next to Liz BUT she saw something in you to call on you in the future for work in your field. This was an opportunity… not a gift…It was up to you to deliver…and obviously you did. Your DD handled herself quite well…IMHO. She too was not handed the “best hand” but rather than cry about it she decided to “play the hand she was dealt” and do her best. As a parent that’s all you can hope for….that your children do their best…

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jestjack: I agree that we have to play the hands we are dealt and never stop trying to improve the luck of the draw. And as parents we want to be supportive, not enabling. From what I know of you and your business, you have given your daughters a great gift by modeling hard work and perseverance.
      Thanks for reading, and for continuing to comment.

  31. I really enjoyed Sam’s short post. It felt it was the pep talk I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself for a recent setback I had. I’m not sure if you’ve spent time reading Financial Samurai Donna, but it is an incredible site with a lot of diverse thoughts and subject matters.

    As for your subject of this post, which I think there are two, I agree that being smart or hard working is not enough. A lot of things have to go right. I didn’t come away with anything negative on Sam’s post to say people who aren’t rich aren’t trying. It sounds like you and your daughter are reading too much into it. Maybe it’s because you haven’t read more of his posts and the context?

    I do love a nice fight though! 🙂

  32. I couldn’t agree more with Michael Rose’s comments. We have a daughter-soon to be 26-who was diagnosed with a severe language-related learning disability in kindergarten. By the time she graduated from high school, she had been labeled as slightly mentally disabled as well, and in our town, that was the nail in the coffin. She was treated horribly all through school-both by educators and students-and received a watered-down education, just to get her out of the system. Education in this country for the less-than-gifted student is a disgrace.

  33. WWII Kid

    Talk about luck. My boss is a shining example. She won the financial lottery by marrying VERY rich. I know, I know, it could all disappear tomorrow. But what a ride.

  34. Thanks for this article. I am 43 yrs young and a single divorced mom of a 15 yr old. I own 2 somewhat fledgling businesses while I pay for a house that has a mortgage that is more than it is worth, an over-priced private school for my son, help my 73 yr old widowed mother financially and I am constantly trying to grow my businesses. I already have a Masters degree, but I feel this overwhelming desire to work for myself. I know I should be more successful and I work soooo hard. This article has made me feel a little better, knowing that my luck may still be around the corner. I am committed to helping my son achieve whatever educational goals he has and to carving out a comfortable (semi-rich) retirement for myself. I believe in GOD, the power of prayer, hard work, perserverance and now, a little LUCK too. Thanks!!!

  35. ImJuniperNow

    Can I still join the fun? A co-worker has a Master’s degree. I have a high school diploma and some college. We’re both working as secretaries.

    There’s nothing wrong with either one. I think I just got lucky, tho.

  36. The sad fact is that some of these folks who berate those who are not rich and who think anyone can do it because they did it have to think that way–they cannot handle the realization that life is full of vagaries and bad things can happen to good, hard working people. To open themselves to that realization would mean an awareness of their own vulnerabilites and they just can’t handle that. It’s bit like folks who blame crime victims for being in the wrong place at the wrong time–it’s the lie they tell themselves so they can believe the world is a safe place. But such people are only fooling themselves and some day, they will come smack up against reality with no way to handle it. Don’t be too frustrated with their self-righteousness; they are only kidding themselves.

  37. Yeah I read Abigail’s piece. I had never read Sam’s blog before that article. I kinda have to say that I thought she had to look really really hard to be insulted by what he had written. I dont know, maybe he has other pieces that actually are pretty offensive and that one was the poverbial straw to camel’s back. I did not read other pieces just the linked one. I did not comment on Abigail’s site since I did not think she really wanted to hear my dissenting opinion. But since you joined in too, I thought I would offer my two cents. Yes, luck is a part of being successful. But really lucky folks who dont work hard dont get far either. They get more breaks and more opportunities to waste but they generally dont succeed. So I think you have to have hard work and some luck. Sam’s piece was focusing on the work and not the luck. I didnt feel he insinuated that anyone who wasnt successful simply wasnt trying hard enough. I think Abigail read into it what she is most worried that other people think about her.

    • Donna Freedman

      @CandiO: Certainly hard work is essential, unless your “luck” means “dad owns the company and I can goof off as much as I want.” Most of the time that’s not the case and people who catch breaks must work to keep them.
      I’m going to have to agree to disagree on the rest of it. “There is no monopoly on being rich” is not insulting on the face of it, but I believe it’s exclusionary because of the implication that anyone can be wealthy and the subtext of “if you’re not succeeding, it’s your own fault.”
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

      • Donna, you and Abigail need to learn to STOP playing the victim and thinking everybody else out there who might have it better than you is out to get you.

        Until you guys can get your heads on straight, you’ll forever be in debilitating place.

        • Donna Freedman

          @Rachel: Neither she nor I claim to be victims. Neither she nor I believe that everybody is out to get us. I’m not sure why you’re reading that into what either of us wrote.

          • Because you feel “excluded” when someone says there is no monopoly on being rich.

            That is a victim attitude. Like CandiO says, you and Abigail are reading way too much into a simple motivating post.

            It’s as if you two are man haters or something who cary baggage for what men did to you in your younger years. It’s kind of scary.

          • Donna Freedman

            @Rachel: “Man haters”? Where in the world do you get that?
            As noted, I am grateful for lucky breaks + hard work. I don’t feel excluded, but I believe others are.

          • Umm…who’s really reading into what is written here? I’m scratching my head on this since I didn’t read anything in Donna or her daughter’s posts that had them “playing the victim and thinking everybody else out there who might have it better than you is out to get you.” Really? What I read was that they didn’t think it productive to paint success with such a broad brush. I guess we all have our internal biases, eh?

          • Donna Freedman

            @Linda: Yes. What you said.

          • Just ask yourself what prompted you to write this post? You wouldn’t write it if you didn’t feel attacked.

            Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Millions of people around the world are suffering. You’re being way too sensitive, and Abigail has learned about self-pity from you.

          • Donna Freedman

            Perhaps I haven’t made myself clear in the other responses to your comments: In no way do I feel sorry for myself. I don’t understand why you think I do.

            “You wouldn’t write if you didn’t feel attacked.”
            This may come as a surprise to you, Rachel, but sometimes people write on topics that aren’t about them.

            “Millions of people around the world are suffering.”
            And some of them are the reason that I wrote the piece.

            “…Abigail has learned about self-pity from you.”
            You do not know my daughter. If you did, you would know that self-pity is not part of her toolkit. She is the strongest person I know, and among the kindest.

  38. it was amazing to read that you were from the Fairton area of NJ. I am from Bridgeton. I love your articles!! You talk from a position that I can identify with. Thank you!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Dina: Yep. I graduated from Bridgeton High School. I go back to visit once or twice a year because I have family there. My next trip is close to Christmas. Do you still live in the area?
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  39. Wow Donna, you man-hating victim you LOL

    I’m sick of the whole hard work will get you anywhere attitude. Know what hard work gets you? Exhaustion. Illness. Stress. Discontent.

    Hard work only produces results when it’s combined with other factors AND when it’s not drawn over extended periods of time. I work as hard if not harder than a lot of people I know. Some are on a much better path than I am financially speaking, some are worse off, and some are on the same level. Some of the hardest working people I know earn very little.

    There’s no monopoly on being rich? Yeah right. Let me guess- he’s a white guy?

    • Donna Freedman

      @Mutant Supermodel: Actually Sam is an Asian guy. … But I know how hard you work, and with several kids the stakes are ramped up considerably. Advice like “take a second job” or “go back to school and get a degree” are a little more complicated in these circumstances.
      (Although aren’t you taking classes? I don’t know how you find the time to breathe.)

      • Yes, back to school for a second degree. I think hard work rewards you generally speaking but not in the huge payoff kind of way. I think that’s mostly fantasy.

    • Let me guess, you’re a divorcee with children and your ex was white?

      Seriously, you women have to start stereotyping men, and hating them. Who knows why your husband left you after you had children. The fact of the matter is, he did. Move on with your life and don’t think every person is out to get you.

      • Rachel- I threw my alcoholic black Hispanic husband out. I have moved on, don’t receive any support from him and don’t really care. 🙂 I actually don’t think anyone in the world is out to get me, I’m not important. None of us are. I just keep my head up and keep smiling and keep working my butt off never for a second deluding myself all my hard work’s going to pay off in a big way one day. I just want it to be enough to support my kids cause no one else should have to.

  40. Ro in San Diego

    Your article got me thinking about something said to me in intermediate school. I applied to a new high school that sounded interesting. It turns out it was a “magnet” school. I was discouraged from applying. I suspect because it was known that I lived in “the projects” (a phrase that still makes me shudder). I ignored that “helpful” teacher and blossomed intellectually because of the education I received there. I am still friends with people I met there and my magnet school education opened my eyes to the possibilities I didn’t know were out there. I didn’t know what I didn’t know until I started to read: lots and lots and lots of books. I went to college. I attended a trade school for two years and got my 4 year degree almost 20 years later. After joining the Navy and seing parts of the world. Instead of going to the crappy local high school and being discouraged from college and encouraged to take crappy jobs and live a crappy life. After all I was a kid from the projects. We weren’t expected to succeed.

    • Donna Freedman

      Get yourself a copy of “Lives On The Boundary” and you’ll see your story (or, as we CHID majors called it, your “lived experience”) within its covers. You really weren’t expected to succeed. A mechanism exists to keep people in place, and only sometimes do people like you and Michael Rose transgress those unwritten boundaries.

      If your library doesn’t have the book, ask for an inter-library loan.

  41. I think there is almost a form of arrogance out there, that “if I made it, you should be able to also”. I know a number of seriously hard-working people who, due to unexpected circumstances (aging parent needing help, illness or disability of a child, loss of a good job) were “smart” enough to succeed, but their problems postponed their ability to go after that brass ring of true financial success. Instead of looking down their noses, they should acknowledge that they’ve enjoyed a certain amount of blessings, or just the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.

    • Donna Freedman

      Some people call that “invisible privilege” — advantages we have that are so ingrained we no longer see them. It’s been my experience that very few people want to be told that they have had any kind of privilege. Many of us really want to believe that we did it all on our own.

      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.


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