The Role of Luck in Early Retirement

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving here in America in a few days, and that means two things: eating massive quantities of turkey and reflecting on all the beautifully awesome parts of life!  Last year I mentioned how thankful I was for cool affordable tech gadgets, the ease of growing wealth, and lastly, economic and political stability.

I’m still a big fan of all of those! But in this post, I want to express my gratitude for all the good luck experienced throughout my life.

First up, I’m glad I was born in the United States of America.  It’s one of the richest countries in the world as measured by per capita gross domestic product, consistently ranking in the top 10 or 15 countries of the world.  In the good ole US of A, we speak English which is the lingua franca of business and culture worldwide.  Speaking English as a first language boosts one’s career prospects and allows conversation with around a quarter of the world’s population.  That also translates to a huge marketplace if you’re in the idea biz (such as writing a blog).

Even the poorest Americans are almost guaranteed:

  • clean drinking water (the embarrassment of Flint notwithstanding)
  • some modicum of a safe environment (disregarding the worst pockets of gang warfare in some inner cities)
  • twelve or more years of free public education (we can quibble over the quality in some places)
  • and a basic social safety net (Social Security old age pension, survivors and disability benefits, Earned Income Tax Credit, Affordable Care Act/Medicaid at least through 2017 or 2018, TANF, Food Stamps/WIC, Unemployment Insurance, just to name a few)

This isn’t to say the US is without problems but I’ll posit that it’s still the land of opportunity for the vast majority of Americans.


My Lucky Start

In my case, I discerningly selected a good set of parents to be born to.  When I was born, my parents lived in a house trailer in rural Appalachia but several years and one valuable college degree later, we upgraded our standard of living and joined the ranks of the comfortable middle class (loosely defined as a house, a car, and plenty of food).

Coming from a somewhat humble background exposed me to others working hard at blue collar jobs.  It made me realize 40 hours per week in an air conditioned office wasn’t such a bad life after all.  At varying times in my childhood I enjoyed the pleasure of hanging out at my grandfather’s auto shop, collecting eggs in the chicken house with my other grandfather (he even let me drive the shit truck after we scraped the manure pits!).  Growing up with rural, working class roots has its advantages.  Not many other kids can say they helped dig up and move an outhouse while growing up (those things are HEAVY).

The one downside was having to learn to speak “city” once we moved to Raleigh.  You may know this “city” dialect as plain old, regular American English that doesn’t require subtitles in the way that Appalachian English does.

Being born a white male certainly helped me statistically since racism and sexism generally weren’t issues, and us white dudes tend to earn some of the highest salaries, playing second fiddle only to Asians.  But there’s at least one confounding variable at work – family wealth.  Those with family money do much better on average compared to those born in more austere circumstances.  The cultural inheritance of social networks and connections plus access to better educational opportunities give the children of the wealthy a big step up (regardless of race, I might add).

I’ll offer as an example my own experience in deciding on a college to attend.  Although I grew up a dozen miles away from Duke University, I had no clue it was a top ranked university and that I might want to consider dangling my near-perfect SAT scores in front of the admissions staff to see if any financial aid might be forthcoming.  My lackluster high school GPA (yeah, I was a slacker, but a smart slacker) probably would have precluded any meaningful merit based scholarships, but I didn’t even think about attending an elite university instead of a “good enough” state university regardless of financial considerations.  It just didn’t cross my mind to apply.  Things still turned out okay (guess I got lucky).

Though I didn’t grow up rich, I did observe first hand how to manage money responsibly.  We never had any houses foreclosed on nor cars repossessed.  We never suffered eviction for non-payment of rent.  No one blew all the grocery money on drugs or alcohol, nor did they fail to pay the utility bill due to an unlucky night at the poker table.  When I started college I knew it would be paid for somehow (and I was fortunate to actually make money during college).

Education was important.  Good grades meant good things.

My father was into computers back in the early 1980’s back when they were cumbersome and expensive.  I grew up in a household awash in the monochromatic green glow of those early computers (this was WAY before internet, kiddos).  This translated to familiarity and success using computers during high school, college, and in my career.  It also led to a lifelong love of computer and video games!

I noticed my parents invested routinely while growing up.  They contributed to 401k’s.  My dad watched the Nightly Business Report on PBS.  Though I didn’t fully grasp exactly what a stock or mutual fund was, I understood they were valuable and usually grew in value over time.  And wealthy people liked to buy them.  Sounds like something I might like to own, too.

In our household, frugality got the job done.  Don’t waste stuff.  Fix it instead of tossing and buying new.  You can’t always have the nicest stuff, and “good enough” is usually okay.  In a perverse way, modest living growing up benefited me as an adult.  Since I never experienced an upper middle class or upper class lifestyle, I never had inflated expectations of what I “deserved” when I graduated college.  “You can have it when you earn it” was the way things had always worked in my experience.

Contrast that with the expectations of some college graduates who expect to make a fat salary with cushy benefits right out of school just because they stumbled through four years of higher education and miraculously picked up a bachelor’s degree somehow.

All of these cultural inheritances proved to be a lucky acquisition on my part.

Another stroke of luck is being born able bodied.  My arms, legs, heart, and brain all work (on most days).  I’ve never experienced hospitalization or suffered from mental health issues (other than undiagnosed kid-induced temporary insanity).  I was able to go to school while young, get a good job right out of school, save, and invest to achieve financial independence and early retirement.

We were even more lucky that all three of our children were born perfectly able-bodied so that our child-related expenses have remained modest so far.


Separating Luck From Effort

It’s easy to start on third base and think you hit a triple (to borrow a baseball analogy).  Then when you score that home run, you take credit for your success without acknowledging how fortunate you were to start on third, or recognize the fact that you’re playing on a team that is also responsible for part of your success.  Your effort is still required because you still have to make the run from third to home plate, possibly making a hard slide home.

For those that don’t start on base and have to, you know, actually pick up a bat and hit the ball, there’s some help available.  Enter the social safety nets for food, housing, medical care, disability, and social security I mentioned earlier.  Not everyone can start on third base, but at least most of us get bats and balls and a flat field to take a shot at getting on base.  Some do well, others founder.  Those that start on base tend to get a lot farther in the game.

Mrs. Root of Good didn’t have the sagacity and good fortune to be born in the US.  In contrast, her family barely escaped from the genocidal dictatorship in one of the world’s least developed nations at the time, Cambodia.  After spending the first six years of her life in refugee camps in Asia, she arrived in the US with not much more than the shirt on her back and the flip flops on her feet.  Once settled in America, her family was able to take advantage of all the social goodies on offer to vastly improve their lot in life.

Instead of farming rice in Cambodia or hustling her way into a good “high paying” sweatshop job, here in the US she finished high school, then college, then graduate school and landed a reasonably high paying job that made us millionaires after ten years of working.  We had to do the heavy lifting of saving and investing, but on a scale unimaginable for the daughter of your average Cambodian laborer and rice farmer.

Mrs. Root of Good’s greatest stroke of luck manifested itself in a one way plane ticket to a developed nation with plenty of opportunity coupled with proper immigration status to make her official in the system.  There was a lot of luck involved in landing in Raleigh where the cost of living is relatively low, the economy is strong, and even the worst elementary, middle, and high schools are still pretty good.

Then came the hard part.  Catching up with her classmates by learning English.  Learning new social customs and traditions.  Making friends in a foreign land.  Knowing you didn’t have as much as many of your wealthier classmates, but succeeding in spite of that (because of that?).

Kristy, the blogger behind Millennial Revolution, shared a similar path when she immigrated from China to Canada as a kid.  She started with very little, made the most of her new life and created a lot of wealth and success which led to early retirement.


Keeping my Luck Making Machine in Perspective

In a piece I wrote several years ago, I poked fun at our Luck Making Machine that got us to where we are today.  The idea is that we have some magical device that catapulted us to the top of the socioeconomic ladder.  In reality, our relative success of retiring in our 30’s came from a combination of lucky starts in life, smart choices along the way, and persistent effort throughout.

I’m very thankful for all the luck I’ve had in the past and hope to keep that Luck Making Machine running for several more decades.



How much of your success today came from luck, and how much came from skill, hard work, and effort?  Does your starting point in life determine how you view luck and success?  



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  1. You’re speaking my language! 🙂 Thanks for this — I am a huge fan of acknowledging the boosts we’ve received along the way, and I love that you don’t view those as diminishing what you’ve accomplished. Everyone’s life — *especially* here in the U.S. — is highly influenced by the boosts and “subsidies” we receive along the way, and the myth of the “self-made man” is just that, a myth. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

    1. I still think the “self made man” concept is valid and an important goal for many. But not grasping how much those subsidies and help along the way benefited you along the way is the failure. Public schooling, for example, is something we all take for granted, yet operates as an immense benefit for most of the graduates.

      1. I came to this post though Our Next Life. It’s so interesting to see ONL’s comment here has well. I also feel fortunate for what my family has done for me. But sometimes I feel that there’s a stigma who inherit a certain amount of money or get financial help from their parents/family. When people hear that someone’s not a self-made millionaire, they tend to think less of that person success. That’s the vibe I got from talking to people and listening to the Dave Ramsey show.

  2. This is something I have thought about a lot. While I have worked and saved hard to become FI, it was only possible because of the circumstances I was presented. My family may not have been rich but brought me up in one of the richest countries with so many opportunities. In many ways I had a head start on most of the world.

    Luck certainly played a part in all my success as well. Thanks for the great post 🙂

  3. What a great story….Your wife’s story reminds me of a guy I used to work with at a dredge manufacturer in the 70’s. His name was “Dau” and he swears he was one of those guys clinging to the helicopters that we saw on TV when Viet Nam fell. He arrived here with “less than nothing” as he used to say. He got here, found a place to live, got a job as a laborer, married, put his wife thru medical school and bought a “fixer upper” home in an up and coming neighborhood. I remember he was always happy, curious, always seeking knowledge, took nothing for granted AND couldn’t believe how wasteful Americans were. Happy Thanksgiving….

    1. Sounds a lot like my family, and Mrs. ROG’s story is fairly similar to my family’s story, too. I may have grown up middle-class in America, but my parents fought really hard to get there.

    2. His life in the US was probably 100x better than it would have been in Vietnam. Soooo much easier to make a living, save a ton, and retire early (or at least at a regular age) even while enjoying a life filled with stability, happiness and basic material comforts.

  4. Great baseball analogies! I’m adding those to my vernacular, although I live in Europe and most people won’t get it.

    1. That was the best way of illustrating the point. Maybe “you started a football match mid-game with a 3-0 score and thought you scored all three goals yourself”? Kind of wordy 🙂

  5. Thank you for this uplifting post, Mr. RoG! My grandparents immigrated to the USA; I’ve immigrated back to the ‘homeland.’ Free movement is definitely a right many Americans take for granted–for themselves. What a great gift it is to go to almost any country and be welcome.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you in the States! Thanks for your great blog!

    1. It’s certainly a privilege we take for granted, and one that many never take advantage of (a surprisingly large proportion of Americans have never left the country).

  6. Right on, RoG! It is important to reflect and remember all the great help and luck we received on our journeys. In some ways, we really are just dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. Lot’s to be thankful for!

    Thanks for the positive message. Have a great holiday!

  7. Outstandly well written and thoughtful post RoG!

    While I’ve never been terribly lucky in life, I’m quite thankful for having a decent starting position.

    Life has been full of stops, and starts, and reversals…but I always trudged forward. I always hoped for something better than what I started with, and found myself disappointed much of the time… But I just kept inching forward. Eventually I got to where I am today.

    It’s important to highlight the struggles of immigrants, but it’s also important to recognize that many non-immigrant families still struggle here in America despite “the social benefits package”.

    As you correctly said, the economic benefits of this American system are not always equitably distributed.

    1. Good point, and there is definitely a wide gap between the lower classes and the upper-middle and upper classes. Most of the income/wealth gains over the past decade have gone to the top third or top fifth of the social ladder. During my own career, I experienced stagnant wages and didn’t quite jump into that upper portion of the income ladder where most of the gains occurred. But I did a good job of saving and investing so still hit FI (and joined that upper 20% of wealthy that did experience nice wealth gains!).

      I personally feel it’s still possible to get there, it just takes hard work and a dash of luck. 🙂

  8. The hardest part of life is learning to recognize random opportunities (luck), take advantage of them, and not piss them away.

    1. Well said and very true. There really are more opportunities out there than people realize. You just have to pay attention and not be lazy.

      1. People always talk about laziness as if it’s a bad thing. Some of the mankind’s greatest inventions are due to someone being “lazy” and looking for an easier/faster/cheaper way to do something. Personally, I think the best employees are very smart and very lazy because they will find the most efficient way to do something. Less intelligent “hard working” people will usually just brute-force their way through.

  9. Like most in the U.S., I have been blessed with good fortune. Being born in a first-world country and having two loving parents gave me a huge leg up in life. My parents ran their own business, so I learned early the importance of hard work and persistence. I now realize that my parents did an excellent job inculcating the belief that if you want something in life, you have to go get it. I am eternally grateful for that message.

    Later in life as I stumbled into the FIRE community, I watched my good fortune grow exponentially as I applied a few basic concepts. The more I saved, the more I invested, the more I reduced my expenses, the luckier I got. The good fortune I was born into coupled with my “created luck” has resulted in an incredible life…for that I am thankful. Happy Thanksgiving! Ed

  10. It’s been a mix for myself. While I haven’t been fantastically lucky, simply by being born in the US and being encouraged to get an education I started out at least on second. However getting from second to home was effort. It can’t be discounted either when so many people that start with luck even exceeding others end up failing. It’s kind of like nature versus nurture, there is no right answer because the answer is both.

    1. Definitely true, and something you can observe on a micro level within a single family. Some siblings do really well, others okay, and others don’t do much at all. The nature AND nurture element is typically very similar in that situation, yet there are disparate outcomes.

  11. I definitely am the product of good fortune, luck, persistence and good decisions. My father came to the US from Germany in his mid-20’s. He met my mom and they bought the shell of a burned out house as their first “home”. My father worked a full-time blue collar job at a flour mill all day and then worked on the house at night. When our house was done (a duplex where they rented the other half out) – he bought another apartment house to fix (and my mom did all the paperwork & stayed at home with the kids until we were in school). My brothers and I have followed their lead in many ways. Could we have done it without their modeling? Maybe – with a lot more luck. Happy Thanksgiving to the “Root of Good” family!

  12. So do you reckon one can be successful in a place like Cambodia, or if you aspire for a better life, should you always “take the bet” and move to a richer country?

    1. It’ll take a lot more luck to reach US-level of comfort and success in Cambodia (or starting 2 inches from the Cambodian home plate 🙂 ).

      I think success would be defined differently over there because the standard of living for most is lower in a material sense. So it might be a motor bike and a simple home plus plenty of rice and whatever animals and produce you can raise plus a little extra you buy for luxuries. And the problem there is that if you start out poor there aren’t a lot of social safety nets to help bootstrap you up to a higher socioeconomic level. It’s like the wild wild west.

      1. I’ve been wondering lately if the government could provide another safety net–the gift of moving–in the form of a voucher or tax credit. Many people are trapped in areas of the country that experienced its best years decades ago. They languish in the hope that the old ways will return. They really need to have the flexibility to go where the jobs are but it seems moving is more expensive than it used to be. As you related in your story, my parent parents also got out of Appalachia. They left for the steel mills of Michigan with nothing but a car and a couple suitcases to their names. They had to crash with other families until my dad earned enough to rent their own place. Ours wasn’t a family life filled with love but it was rich in food, shelter and examples of hard work and persistence. The steel boom ran out of steam eventually. Fortunately, I was able to get an education and move to another boomtown at the right time–San Francisco. My luck was having a high-paying job during the Great Recession, although I had to suffer through unemployment during the Dot Com bust. The example of my parents taught me to pack away the savings. While they would never “risk” their savings in the stock market, I did. And I got lucky again. I just can’t imagine how my circumstances would be different if I, and those who came before me, didn’t have the good fortune of being mobile.
        This is one of your finest posts. Thanks for sharing.

        1. There’s the moving expense deduction (Form 3903 which populates line 26 on the Form 1040). It’s above the line so it reduces AGI and could lower taxes significantly. Unfortunately, if you’re close to broke and have very little income (and therefore owe no taxes) you won’t receive any real benefit.

          And to provide a counterpoint to the “moving is more expensive now”, I think technology is making it easier to move. Sell/give away everything, hope on a bus or train or plane (or in your car) and get to your new place. Find a room to rent and a mattress on Craigslist. Bootstrap your way to a nicer place with more possessions. And use craigslist/facebook to find odd jobs in your new city if you can’t land steady W-2 work. Or develop enough skills to do online freelancing (I know – many suffering economically aren’t computer savvy). All you really need is a high speed internet connection, a laptop, a smartphone, and some transportation.

          That said, we tend to own more stuff these days, and transporting (or storing) all that stuff costs more.

      2. Ha…..I have just got back from a month traveling around Cambodia and that is exactly how I have been describing the place….like the wild west. It was fascinating to watch all the people out on in the street in the cities all doing their hustle to make a living. The country side was absolutely beautiful and of course there is Angkor Wat and a lot more stone temples remaining from the Khmer Empire to explore. A wonderful country to go to for an adventure on a budget. Hopefully your family will get there one day. My tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap told me that him taking a class in English had really helped him in his life so that he could now make good money in tourism.

        1. I figure knowing English and possibly some basic computer/internet skills will get you ahead in pretty much any part of the world. Whether you’re catering to English speaking tourists locally or selling your services internationally, it’s much easier work than manual labor or farming.

  13. I grew up poor, but there were so many positive helps. I had great teachers and coaches. I had a smart, successful peer group. Our town was safe. And we never moved around. From 2nd grade till I graduated highschool I only lived in 2 houses. If all those things had been taken away, my trajectory might have been much different. It’s always a good idea to be grateful for the good things in our life. My 3 adopted kids had a really rough start. But when they landed in our home, the tides were set to turn. Their CASA worked told me on the day we adopted them, “I had been on the kids case for a while, and things just kept getting worse. But as soon as they were placed with you, and I talked with you on the phone that first time, I knew things were going to get better for these kids.” The first few years will always affect them, but it won’t be the whole story.

  14. Great fortune on my end, stable family, food on the table, no alcohol/drug issues. Consistent, above average paying job (effort once I got it but it all started with knowing the right person – funny how that works out).

    Enjoy the holiday weekend!

    1. Funny how knowing the right person helps immensely. Mrs. Root of Good got her first “real” job through her sister’s client at the nail salon where the sister worked.

  15. You, and most of our friends reading and commenting here, have a lot to be thankful for. We were born with a lot of options and opportunity.

    You deserve some credit for accomplishing what you have with that opportunity. How many people start at third base and somehow end up tagged out by the shortstop somewhere between 2nd and 3rd?

    I wouldn’t sweat choosing State University over Duke (not that I think you do). Things turned out alright for you. I actually did show them my scores, and they were happy to take me on for some $20,000+ a year. I chose my State University.


    1. I ended up applying to Duke for law school and got wait listed but didn’t pursue it once I got into UNC down the street. Tuition was $5k per year at UNC when I applied while it was probably $40,000 at Duke (it’s $58,700/yr there now!). And you’re right – in hindsight I did okay. No regrets!

      1. Both of you are smarter than I was…I was recruited to the institution in question and even given 75% off tuition, so I took the bait! 😀 No regrets either, although I racked up quite a bill there that I only started repaying 10 years later.

        Back to the point of the article, I grew up on the other side of Appalachia from you Justin. I thank my lucky stars that I was fortunate to get all of the opportunities I did.

        1. 75% off is better than full price but probably still more than in state tuition at UNC 🙂

          Kind of sad to see the people that never escaped from the poverty of Appalachia. Sadder are those that don’t realize they are mired in a land lacking opportunity, and that other locales have a lot more to offer.

          1. If you haven’t read “Hillbilly Elegy”, it’s a good read. By a law student who made it out of my neck of the woods. I’ve alway felt that most people don’t make it out of the area from fear of the unknown, lack of desire, or even fear of success.

  16. I definitely had a lot of luck to give me a start in life, but when you think about society at large, I also had some degree of effort involved in order to not piss it all away. I probably don’t give myself enough credit, just because I’ve never experienced any actual poverty and I know there are plenty of people who have.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  17. My husband and I were just talking about this last night. My sister posted on social media about ‘waiting for that big break everyone talks about.’ I jokingly mentioned to husband that much earlier on in life I had gotten tired of waiting for that big break so I went to find it. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to where we are at in life. But that said, I do think I grew up with an enormous amount of privilege (much related to your list above) and certainly started “on base” so to speak. It’s hard to separate privilege from what been achieved through effort and/or other luck, but I do think past a certain point that hard work and luck go hand in hand. I’ve gotten lucky breaks over the years but I also worked hard to put myself in a position where those lucky breaks could find me and where I could actually recognize/take advantage of them.

    My sister… well, not so much. Because of her innate privilege, she is still on base, but without any effort on her part she isn’t going to steal second anytime soon or advance even with the help of others.

  18. I definitely got very lucky with my starting point in life. As you pointed out, being a white male in America is a pretty lucky place to start.
    I have worked hard to guarantee my long-term success, but I recognize I have had it pretty easy compared to a lot of people out there. I have a great deal of respect for people who I know have had to overcome great odds to become successful, because climbing the socioeconomic ladder isn’t easy, especially when you can’t even see it from where you’re starting.

  19. I have been lucky to be able to immigrate to Canada with my parents and get all these social benefits that Canada offers. Certainly gave me a good start and I am really appreciative of this.

  20. Thanks for the mention, pal! And you are right, we should all be grateful for everything we have. Even though I grew up poor, I was still very fortunately to be able to immigrate to Canada as a result of my Dad’s hard work. So the rule of thumb for succeeding in life is “have grit, but always be grateful”.

  21. Luck has played some part in my wife and I becoming self made multi-millionaires in our 40’s. I would say self-confidence, accepting larger risks to get larger rewards, hard work and attention to detail were bigger factors. Being debt adverse and living beneath our means also very important.

    Good read, thanks.

  22. Your wife’s story reminds me of my Sicilian great-grandparents. My grandfather came here in 1905 at age 16 with a nickel in his pocket and the most basic peasant boy’s education. He started working on the railroads and was an interpreter for the laborers, as his extroverted personality made him friends everywhere. His nickname was “Smiling Charley”. He saved his money and started a tavern, a small grocery store, and a catering company, and was one of the wealthiest men in his small town when he died in the 50s.

  23. As a member of a lower class family with four other siblings, I suppose I had a ready excuse for why I might not have amounted to anything (like many today seem to be fond of doing). Instead we all took our stable, albeit poor, family structure, went to college, and most/all of us are currently FIRE. None received special treatment; in fact I would argue the opposite. When we were in college in the 70s we paid our own way at the state colleges we attended, while every minority seemed to be receiving a free ride, including book and clothing allowances. Can you guess which group largely succeeded, and which group p-ssed away their opportunity?

    I will give you that being born in the US is something we are thankful for, as well as a two-parent household that helped us all learn a work ethic. And regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my assessment, I wish everyone a very happy and very safe Thanksgiving. Now that I have said that, it reminds me that stuffing ourselves so that we resemble a helium birthday balloon is one more thing we can all be thankful for that we live in this great country.

  24. I found it interesting that you found your less than wealthy childhood a kind of good fortune. I share this sentiment as it taught me work ethic, grit, and allows me to continue to appreciate simple things as an adult. I’m curious how/if this influences what you do or do not give your kids. When I talk to people about retiring with a 4 y/o child, they instantly warn me about how expensive kids are with education, clothing, sports gear and fees, etc. We actually want to teach her many of the lessons we learned including having to figure out how to get the things she wants, understanding the trade-offs between options, etc. I personally think it is more valuable than having everything given on a silver platter.

    1. I’m raising my own kids in much the same way (with way more international travel however). Let them make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. And make sure they know they are responsible for themselves.

  25. I follow your blog not much for financial wisdom, rather for your writing style. You have a nice free flowing writing style with amazing sense of humor!

    You should write more, Lazy boy 🙂

  26. Nice Thanksgiving post…I think I understand why a lot of successful people feel pangs of guilt around the holidays…I guess I am one of those people as well. While I check often my privileges as you did here, I also let myself accept that I chose the path to success when so many others choose other paths. The opportunity to choose this path is what makes America still today the greatest country on earth. Who leaves the USA? No one. Why? Freedom and opportunity. No guarantees here… opportunities yes…but no guarantees.
    I think you’re selling yourself short when you say u started on 3rd base…maybe u got picked to be on the team sooner or your bat was a little newer or someone showed you how to throw a knuckle ball, but you busted your butt to get to 3rd base and u deserve every reward that comes w your hard work, sacrifice and education.

    Thanks for another great year of financial inspiration!

    1. By global measures I’d say we all start on 3rd base in the USA. By US standards, I’m not as certain I started on base at all. Definitely had a bat and a ball and got to play along with the best of them though. Lots of hard work and correct choices along the way got me where I am today.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  27. Really wonderfully post. Certainly many of us benefit from some straight up luck being born in this country, but luck is also where hard work and preparation meet opportunity. Also reminds me of a favorite saying – “The harder I work, the luckier I get”

  28. So, Justin, was this your “Privilege Privilege” post you once mentioned to me? If so, that was fast!

    As much as I detest the notion of privilege when used as an excuse, there is certainly something to be said about the starting place that we don’t get to choose. (Well, most of us…some of us “discerningly selected a good set of parents to be born to!”)

    I feel incredibly lucky, for instance, to have been born in the wealthiest country on Earth at the most prosperous, technologically advanced time in history, where I can buy quickly appreciating assets at a whim without leaving the comfort of my elegant queen-size bed. A bed where, of course, MMM has inspired me to keep a bedpan and catheter on hand (or other body part) at all times. I feel incredibly lucky, as well, to have a brain that functions well enough to recognize that opportunity which is available to me.

    But therein lies the distinction between “privilege” used as an analytical device and “privilege” used as an excuse. As Freedom 40 Guy JUST beat me to saying, unfortunately: Luck is where hard work and preparation meet opportunity.

    We are lucky to be alive for these things, but it’s not luck that we act on it. There are millions – literally hundreds of millions – of Americans who were born into better circumstances than you and I, and yet they squander it. I don’t worry about them or disrespect them for their starting position; rather, I just go about making the best of what I have, and see where it lands me. That means taking advantage of all the luck/privilege I have, like internet access to buy index funds. But at the same time, I witness too many peers from similar starting positions who belittle others’ successes due to “privilege”…and it is incredibly difficult to not roll my eyes, because these peers often have the same opportunity but squander it on the latest iPhone instead of using the brains and internet they were lucky enough to be born with!

    Anyway, I don’t really know where I’m going with this comment, so I’m just gonna wrap it up by saying Happy Thanksgiving, and Bulliet bourbon is delicious. Highly recommend.

  29. Good point. On this holiday I do give thanks for where I was born and raised, and my family. Growing up my elementary school teacher parents seemed to struggle compared to our neighbors, but were able to afford a modest house in a good neighborhood. They worked hard, and I think herein lies the secret. To gain this FI, someone needs to work hard and succeed. We have friends that are trust fund babies that supposedly drop $5000 a month on food, for a family of 3. Shocking right? I budget $400 for my family of 4. Both of them have advanced degrees and work, but really don’t need to. And they live in a modest house. But someone in their family worked hard to provide that freedom to them. I think the greatest lift I found out of poverty was in joining the military after high school. It was tough, and combat was no cakewalk, but the GI bill paid most of my bachelor degree not to mention a heavy dose of maturity. Another stint with the military paid most of my masters and the experience set me up for a high paying career that will provide FI in 11 years as well as a pension later at age 60 from military reserve service with low cost medical. My hope is to grow the investment nest egg so our children won’t have to worry about retirement and this will be passed to their children. My wife by the way, is also from a less privledged asian country, which I love and lived in for a few years and would move back in a heartbeat. Although I eternally struggle to get back there, she is adamant our children are much better off here in the US for education and opportunity.

  30. Great post RoG and Happy Thanksgiving. UNC is as good a school as Duke in my view, available for a fraction of the cost for NC residents. I realize I am lucky as well both in education and financial success, but I got a great start in school. One area took persistent effort to master, but it was a labor of love. Speaking and writing English and eventually creating a blog with (or some say better than) the fluency of native English speakers took years of hard work and effort at school and reading literature in my spare time.

    1. I think UNC and Duke are both in that tier where it’s good enough to get you in the door most places. Definitely not regretting the choice in hindsight, and my wallet doesn’t regret it either!

  31. I completely agree.

    On our road trip today we discussed how lucky we were to have several days off plus the weekend together over the holiday. (Plus every weekend off work together.) That really is a luxury, and I consider us very lucky too.

  32. I love posts like these! None of us exist in a vacuum, and although we are all born into certain sets of circumstances, it’s up to each one of us to make the most of what we have.

    And you seem to have done pretty well!

  33. I am greatfult to have been born in the USA. I grew up in a family where my parents didn’t earn more than 16k per year for a time. We lost a house to foreclosure due to some bad decisions, mainly moving without a plan to sell. Drugs were a priority for my parents, but we never went hungry. I can remember not having clothes that fit and how good it felt to finally be able to afford clothes once i got out of college. I think my FI drive comes from past experiences and knowing that I want better for my kids.

    1. “Drugs were a priority for my parents… I can remember not having clothes that fit…” That’ll certainly motivate you toward FIRE. I’ve seen enough people struggling through life to know that having the finances taken care of eliminates a huge stressor from daily concerns.

  34. Neither of my parents even graduated from HS because they were in Europe as children during WWII, and they survived in hiding. They both were very lucky to come to NYC as teenagers with no HS education and began working upon arrival. I am first generation American and my son, their grandchild, only one generation away, is now getting his PhD – 100% fully funded (no debt). America is Great. From zero to PhD in one generation. My dad would be so amazed if he had lived to know that.

    I can’t say all was rosy 100%. War immigrants carry a lot of baggage that is hidden in emotional damage, and no amount of material success overcomes a historical trauma of being persecuted and may take a few generations to recover from. Fear of “it happening again” never really goes away, and as they know from their own personal history, any wealth can be taken from you in a second when war arrives. Survival does happen. Skills that came during survival may result in perseverance and success, but also may harbor a deep seated hidden anxiety during peace, and often there is never really true peace for them. The sense of fleeing is almost always a constant, as is the sense of homelessness. And this gets passed down, like it or not.

    I shouldn’t really feel insecure one bit, but knowing how humanity has acted and betrayed my parents in the past, made me uh, yeah, slightly less sure or trusting even in America, than my peers. Has it kept me from finding success? Maybe not. But will I ever feel secure? Maybe not.

    1. My in-laws carry a bit of that “war baggage” in terms of mindset toward money and savings. Never 100% trusting of institutions managing money since their experience of being uprooted from their country while on the run from the army taught them you have to be able to get out of town quickly sometimes.

  35. Thanks for sharing your story.
    I also think it’s 80% luck, 20% hard work.
    I’ve been pretty lucky with everything in life. I was born in Thailand which wasn’t that great 40 years ago, but my parents were educated. That’s a huge leg up on a huge percentage of the population in Thailand back then.
    Luck is a big part of it, but you can’t sit back and ride it forever. You have to be an active participant and steer your life in the right direction.

    1. Absolutely. Having that head start in life got you to America and provided even more opportunities once here! Your college education didn’t happen by luck (it was hard work, I’m sure), so there’s definitely something to be said for effort too.

  36. I think back in the 50s through 80 the immigrants who were once welcomed got lucky to be able to earn a higher income compared to native countries per captia. Besides that, no other luck is usually involved as you make the right choices and decisions to increase your standard of living. Granted you might hit a few bumps in the road, like in any society, things are sometimes rigged in favor for others. But for the most part you hold your own destiny.

  37. What a perfectly humble article.

    This is a topic I’ve beginning to become very cognizant of over the last year or so. It reminds you to be considerate of how you discuss success and ambition with others, and really give thanks to the people who put you on.

    Looking forward to more articles

  38. This is dixiedownunder from reddit. I think you’ve made a pretty accurate assessment. After reading this, I realize we have a lot in common. My grandfather owned a tire business and farm and I am also a highland southerner married to a woman from SE Asia.
    I’ve worked with people who came from Cambodia to Australia, just like your wife. They all took full advantage of the opportunities too.
    You may have read it already, but if you haven’t, pick-up Malcolm Gladwell’s book David & Goliath. It’s really interesting, it reminded me of the book Freakonomics. Disadvantages are mostly just that, disadvantages, but sometimes, what appears to be a disadvantage is actually an advantage.
    Gladwell uses the example of David & Goliath. Everyone thinks little David with his slingshot was at a disadvantage against the giant, but Gladwell assesses that the giant was probably suffering from a disease and was mostly blind while David had superior weapons technology. He was always going to win.
    An example from my own life that I can only see in hindsight was my decision to study computer science. I studied computer science because I heard it was the most marketable degree. I didn’t even own a computer. My dad was in prison. My family made zero income that year that I started college. I was the only computer science major who didn’t have a computer of my own. I didn’t get my own computer until after I had a computer science degree and a job. You’d think that was a disadvantage, but low and behold, I had the highest GPA within my major for 7 out of 8 semesters and was ranked #1 in Computer Science at my school when I began my job search (I fell to 2nd on graduation day, but I was already employed). I should not have been the top ranked computer science major, but it turns out that computers are really more of a distraction for most computer science majors. Everyone else was emailing their girlfriend and playing video games while I was out in the computer lab writing code or doing Calculus homework.
    The 3rd world is mostly a disadvantage, mostly, but not everything in America is better. Look at the obesity problem for an easy example. Look at the apathy among school students for another one (free school and people hate school). And we can’t forget that we’re descended from men who traveled the world subjugating weaker cultures so we could pretty much demand that they all learn English so it’s easier for us, but is that really to our benefit? My wife speaks 3 languages and reads a 4th. We tease about who’s the dumb one and she always goes straight to that point. The pressure of poverty crushes most people, so yeah, it’s mostly a disadvantage, but then the experience makes some people better.
    I don’t disagree with your post, I just don’t think it’s so black and white. There’s shades of gray.

    1. Glad you escaped the poverty trap of the southern mountains! Definitely a different vibe than Indonesia, huh? I’ll have to put that Malcolm Gladwell book on my reading list. I’ve read most of his other books but not this one.

  39. This article is right on point. It is an outstanding proof of the expression “80% efforts and 20% luck”. Sometimes being frugal doesn’t help. Everything in financial dealings can fall apart in a jiffy if we do not have the support of luck. Thus with well-managed finances, we also need a stroke of luck in order to success. So, never undermine its power and put it at too much stake.

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