The following is an excerpt, Chapter 2, from my new book — Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement
“In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States the year I was born. The Berlin Wall fell when I was 2 years old. As I grew older, world affairs continued as did the news cycle. It all ran on a consistent theme: The sky is falling, but don’t worry, we’re here to save you.
After Reagan, we had Clinton. Then we had the Clinton scandal. Next came Bush and the Iraq War. After that was the “hope” campaign by Barack Obama. And this book was published in January 2020, so you know who the president is now.
Why am I bringing all of this up? The experiences of my life were mostly colored by my upbringing, circumstances, decisions, relationships, and important moments, not geopolitics and the events on the news.
The media, politicians, advertisers, basically all the institutions that pull your psychological puppet strings, want you to feel like you have no responsibility for your life. The end goal is to make sure that you have no autonomy and falsely believe your fate belongs to someone other than yourself. And we’ve taken the bait.
Look at our current discourse. Is it about upward mobility, personal responsibility, self-education, and agency over our own lives?
No. It’s about social justice taken to the extreme, choosing the right politician to save us, railing against the institutions of our society, and placing the blame everywhere else except ourselves. I saw a picture of a park filled with a bunch of littered picket signs. They were from youth protestors who came to “combat climate change.” It’s gotten to the point where simply acting like you care suffices. You don’t have to practice what you preach at all.
This isn’t to say social justice isn’t important. There are plenty of political movements that have succeeded in improving the lives of everyday citizens, like the suffrage and civil rights movements. Yet at some point, the playing field should be level enough for us to have a chance at success.
The key words there are level enough. There is no such thing as a perfectly equal society, and there never will be. Utopia doesn’t exist.
Are you going to wait until the scales tip, or are you going to do what you can with what you have right now to improve your life? It is, after all, your life. Even if everything you wanted from a political perspective came true, would that provide the type of life you want, without any of your own involvement in the process? Probably not.
If the world is unfair, and success is the exception instead of the rule, which would you rather be: the exception or the rule?
I wrote this book to create exceptional people. To be exceptional, you must understand this next sentence (no, really, take it to heart and embrace it):
No one is coming to save you.
I wouldn’t mind if there were some benevolent entity that could come in and double your income, fix your relationships, get you to perfect health, and inject a sense of gratitude and contentment into your soul.
But that’s not how it works.
Each of us comes with our own unique set of circumstances. From DNA to surroundings, and other forces outside of your control, a certain part of your life story is not your fault. There’s no doubt about that.
Part of living a successful life involves tackling challenges.
Look at the political movements that have been successful. What if the leaders of those movements had thrown up their hands and said “we’re all screwed” instead of fighting an unfair battle and winning? We wouldn’t have the opportunities we have now.
Why not stand on the shoulders of these giants instead of squandering it by complaining? Well, because complaining is much easier than making a real impact. It gives you an out because you don’t believe your current life is your fault.
I could’ve felt this way when I got arrested for selling drugs. I got arrested in a small town populated with 98% white people. One could surmise that institutional racism played a part with me getting targeted by the policy. Or … maybe I shouldn’t have been selling drugs!
I could’ve proclaimed the man was out to get me when, in fact, my decisions created the problems, not society. Instead, I chose to take responsibility for myself and become successful in spite of the fact I’m a black male with a checkered past.
I come from a family that relied on itself before asking for handouts. My mom grew up in the ghetto. Like, the ghetto ghetto. My grandmother couldn’t read and didn’t have a job. Still, my grandfather worked and saved money to give to my mom for school, which she didn’t even need because she got good grades and received a full scholarship. All of this happened in a time when the landscape was much less favorable for minorities than it is now.
My dad is from Nigeria, a poor country for most of its inhabitants. Yet he came to America, graduated with a degree in finance, and has worked extremely hard almost every day of his life.
Who am I to look at their sacrifices and take the attitude of being helpless?
There are enough examples of people thriving in situations that aren’t ideal for you to understand it’s possible for you, too. To boot, these circumstantial forces aren’t nearly as powerful as you think they are. If they were, success stories like mine wouldn’t exist.
You have your life, and you have a starting point. Then you have the decisions you make after that, all of which are on you.
A lot of self-help gurus like to say “Every decision you make is a choice only you have control over!” They make it seem like choices are always 50/50, that it’s easy to make the best decision possible. This just isn’t true.
In theory, after all of the robots come in and take away manufacturing jobs, it would be wise for former factory workers to take up computer programming and become software engineers. But how realistic is that?
I want to make it clear here that I know that making a decision to improve your life isn’t always as easy as it appears on the surface.
If you’re a single mom with two kids and working retail, it’s not so simple for you to take night classes after work. First, who’s going to watch your kids? Second, you’re a single mother with two kids, and you’re probably very, very tired, like, all of the time. Last, you have a lot of emotions and responsibility to deal with on a daily basis. Adding something like school on top of that is asking a lot.
Or maybe you’re doing OK. Upper middle-class. You want to become an artist, so you should just quit your job and paint, right? Well, no. You still have to take care of your family — Jane’s starting university next year, and Joe wants a used car for his 16th birthday. You could do your art on the side. Yet the prospect of building a side business for anyone with a 9-to-5, regardless of money, is still time-consuming and difficult.
Whatever your current situation is, I know the tips I’m going to give you are a lot to ask. But I’m going to ask anyway.
Why? Because real self-improvement involves facing challenges that are going to ask a lot from you. As the saying goes, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” Going through pain to do something worthwhile and meaningful makes the results themselves that much sweeter. The difficulty of following through with good choices provides the meaning. Deep down, you don’t want a free ride, because the feeling of “earning your keep” provides the confidence and contentment you’re seeking.
You are where you are. I can’t change that. Neither can the government or your employer, at least not in a way that’s going to have a profound impact.
Nope. It’s just you and your potential future, all of which will be shaped by what you decide to do next. And not just this one time, but every single moment for the rest of your life.
That’s a lot of weight, huh? Well, I’m trying to pack it dense and give it all to you up front. Straight, no chaser. Sound good?
OK, let’s talk about what you can do about the fact that nobody is coming to save you.
Imagine I asked you to build a robot.
Your next question might be “What resources are you going to give me?”
My answer would be “None. You just have to figure it out.”
No guidelines. No factory or team of scientists to use at your discretion. Just your mind and whatever materials you can find.
Seems like a pretty insurmountable task, right? Building a robot out of thin air is probably harder than reaching some of the goals you might have right now, like switching careers, starting a business, or becoming a writer.
Enter Mpho Mkatu, a 20-year-old South African man who builds robots out of … trash. As a child, Mpho was always tinkering and trying to build creations out of whatever spare parts he could find. As a young adult, he learned to build battery-powered robots out of what most would consider garbage, such as spare parts from junk yards, scrap metal, even cardboard boxes. He also studied traditionally, attending an engineering school to further his knowledge.
His resourcefulness, fueled by his lack of materials, makes him even more valuable. A kid who builds a robot in a lab doesn’t make the national news. Who would you rather hire, a prep school engineering grad with no experience or a young man who built robots out of trash while scraping to get by in school?
The latter without question. Why? Because resourceful people tend to make things happen regardless of the circumstances you give them, and that’s exactly the type of person you’d want to work for you.
In one of my favorite books, Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!, the author Robert Kiyosaki wrote a line that has stuck with me to this day. “Instead of saying ‘I can’t afford it,’ say ‘How can I afford it?’”9
Now, even though this mental exercise might not lead to an outcome you want, it’s a great way to develop the type of attitude you need in a world where handouts are few and far in between.
When faced with a challenge, our first instinct is to say “I can’t.” To be fair, often saying I can’t is justifiable. In fact, much of the version of self-improvement I’m advising you follow involves dealing with unfair truths, justifiable obstacles, and very real forces acting against your success.
But focusing on becoming more resourceful can help you make up for a lack of resources.
This is another tired self-help trope, right? Let’s dive into this idea a little bit more to make it sink in.
Imagine you have no money. Literally zero. How could you find a way to make an income with no resources, connections, or equipment? Well, there’s this insanely useful place you can go to that gives you access to all the knowledge you’d ever need. Even better, you can go there and use these resources for free.
This magical place is called the library. Most libraries provide computers with internet access. You could start an online business, for free, using library computers and knowledge you find from free books.
Why’d I choose this story? Because it’s my story. I wrote blog posts and draft pages of books and researched online marketing using free books and computers at the local library. You see, I was broke. I couldn’t afford to buy a bunch of books for research or take fancy online courses to learn business and marketing. In fact, there was a point where I was so broke the electric company shut off my lights, which meant I literally had no resources to build my writing career from my own home.
I could’ve justifiably made the excuse that writing wouldn’t work out because I was a broke college dropout, but instead, I did what I could with what I had.
I’m OK with people asking for help. We need social safety nets for those who truly can’t help themselves in the moment. Before you ask for help, ask yourself whether you’ve really, really exhausted your resources. Then and only then would I suggest asking for assistance or quitting.
Resources mean more than just money. Time is a huge one. Unfortunately for the single mother of two I mentioned before, she might have to wake up at 5 a.m. or stay up late after her kids are asleep to build a career that creates a better life for all three of them. It’s totally unfair for her to have to go through those challenges.
But if she wants a better life, that’s what she’s going to have to do. Maybe she can work out a new daycare arrangement that helps. She can ask her friends and family for assistance, but she’s the one who’s going to have to do that tedious work while she’s tired as hell. Nobody can take over that part for her.
I personally know a single mother who went from working a $10/hr job to becoming a top writer on the website Medium.com, which currently helps her earn $8k-10k each month, and allowed her to quit her job. She did the work without making excuses for herself and got results.
Now she can spend more time and resources on her child. She could’ve easily given up before she started, but she didn’t because she understood the power of resourcefulness.
I don’t know you. I don’t know your “station” in life. I don’t know if you’re happy, sad, content, ambitious, lazy, or a mixture of all the above. I do know this: The burden of being you is yours alone.
Whatever happened in the past has happened, it’s done, and now you’re here. If you learn to spot opportunities and exhaust the resources you have available, odds are you can make a dramatic improvement in your life.
Once you learn to look, the opportunities are everywhere.
Nobody is coming to save you; you don’t need anyone to save you.
The internet has democratized authority and created more room for upward mobility than at any other time in human history. I personally know a woman who runs pottery classes and sells her work on Etsy for a living. I’m a self-published author, and I make a full-time living writing. I know dozens of other self-published writers who do, too. I know people who create little websites about random topics and make money by recommending products with affiliate marketing.
There’s a coding boot camp called Lamba School, where they teach you how to code for free and then take a portion of your earnings for two years, but only if you get a job that pays $50k+. If you don’t get a job, you owe them nothing.
As I’m sitting here writing, I have Yale’s website pulled up on another computer tab where you can take their entire curriculum for free.
The routes to career success aren’t well-defined anymore, but there are a ton of them. I made a promise not to talk about making millions in this book, but there’s no reason why you can’t make, say, $70,000 while doing something you enjoy. That’s the real American dream to me. It’s available to everyone, but most people are either too set in their ways or lack the confidence to see it.
The barrier to entry for many careers and businesses is low. You can carve out your own lane in life these days, with little to no money, and with no major institution backing you.
Isn’t that what you want, anyway? Not to get filthy rich but to be able to do what you want? To be able to avoid doing what you hate?
No one is coming to save you … so you gotta save yourself, and here’s how.
Intuitively, you know that no one is coming to save you, but you still rely on that belief because that rationalization keeps you sane. It gives you a false sense of hope. Lying to yourself is a great coping mechanism, but if you want to change, you have to tell yourself the truth.
So how do you analyze yourself when your subconscious wants to do nothing but lie to you? You’re not going to like this answer. Sorry in advance. You have to repeatedly analyze yourself, constantly, often in vain, every day until you die.
Are you feeling inspired yet?
I use journaling to get to the root of my problems. If I want to get deep, I write morning pages; three pages of unfiltered thought. This process usually helps me discover what’s really going on. “I haven’t been doing enough for my career.” “I was wallowing in self-pity instead of doing something about ‘x’ (there’s always an x).” “Maybe gratitude and self-love aren’t what I need today. Maybe I do need to suck it up.” These are little phrases I’ve told myself over time that have helped me face the truth and shift my perspective. Try it.
You have a lot of different lies to unravel. The process of unraveling them will set you free. Do this long enough and consistently enough, and you’ll develop real self-awareness. When you have a more accurate sense of self, you’ll play games you can win, make decisions that suit your specific needs, and stop worrying about things outside of your control.
Let’s look at some of the most common lies you tell yourself.
X = More money, status, love, acceptance, opportunity, and all the other things humans desire.
Drill down into that belief. Why do you deserve anything? No, really. Ask yourself that exact question, and think deeply about it.
Because you’re a good person? Not good enough. Have you really exhausted both your resources and resourcefulness before wishing something fell into your lap? No? Oh, OK.
Look, I suffer from this as much as you do. Sometimes people get things they don’t deserve, and that can make us feel like we deserve those strokes of luck ourselves, which causes us to sink into envy when that doesn’t happen. Luck plays a role in life.
But if you don’t get lucky, shouting at the sky about what the universe owes you won’t work. If you’ve really put your all into something, and it doesn’t pan out, I’m sorry. That sucks, and I don’t know what to tell you. But, it’s often the case that people don’t fully commit to the process of whatever it is they’re trying to achieve and then blame “bad luck” instead of blaming themselves. So, yes, there are cases where you can try really really hard and not get the results you want, but it’s up to you to decide whether or not that’s the case when it’s all said and done.
The idea of waiting for a savior to change your life requires you to believe you have no agency. People sink into this idea that their default state of living equals reality, which is why they think they need such monumental changes to happen to society itself.
If you have no control over your future, of course you need the government to fix it. If the future is written in stone without the help of these higher institutions, you might as well sit around and wait.
I hear people make these cringingly sad statements about life all the time. “You know, a guy/gal just can’t get ahead, not in this economy.” “There are no good jobs out there.” “Once automation takes over my industry, I’m done for.”
It’s easy to trick yourself into believing you can’t pivot the direction of your life. This is an extremely sad way to look at your life. You’re better than that. You’re strong enough to fight for yourself. You don’t have to fold. So don’t.
Did your income suddenly go down after the 2016 election? Is somebody putting a gun to your head telling you that you need to work at your current job? Who’s at fault for the majority of your problems aside from you? I’ve been putting a lot of thought into the unfairness of the world, structural inequality, cultural biases, and all the rest. My verdict? These forces are very real. I mean, I’m a black male. I would know.
If you are born to a single mother in poverty, your odds of a successful life are much worse than those of a child born into an affluent family. This is irrefutable. We all have circumstantial forces that mess with our lives in one way or another.
I’m black, but I grew up middle-class and have a college education. There’s nuance here. In the meantime, I’m trying to do everything within my power to make my life better, adjusted for the advantages and disadvantages I have. And I’m here to help you do the same.
While you can justifiably lay blame at the feet of society or your circumstances, you still have to live your life. There doesn’t seem any better way to live it than taking as much personal responsibility as you can.
Creating your own path in life is not easy at all. But is that what you want for your life, ease? How is the ease of your life working for you right now? The ease that comes not only with a lack of challenging problems, but also a lack of either the material or spiritual means you need to thrive.
See, the ease of life path comes with the unease of regret.
There’s a saying for this, “Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.” I’m well aware I’m asking you to make a hard choice but speaking from experience, I can tell you it’s more than worth it.
I simply paint the picture and present the options. What happens next is on you.