Why are some people who are given everything can't get their life together while others with next to nothing manage to become successful?
- Anonymous in California
Different people succeed or fail for a number of different reasons. There isn't a single formula for success, and more is up to chance than we want to admit. What success even means is also subjective.
It's also worth pointing out that many people with next to nothing aren't successful, and many people who have it all are. Decades of sociological research tells us that you're more likely to become successful if you are born into a family of higher socioeconomic status, suggesting that the more you start out with, the more you're likely to get.
But like your question says, some people are outliers. Some people who have it all can't pull it together to make something of themselves, and others who have nothing can make it big.
Why? Here are a couple of possibilities.
We make decisions within constraints.
We don't make choices in a vacuum. We're always constrained to some degree in what we can decide. For example, when we choose what to wear, we're limited to what's available to buy, or what we can afford. When we choose what movie to watch, we're selecting among options that are provided to us.
But we're also constrained by what others think about us. We'll buy girl scout cookies or donate to a cause so others know we're good people, even when we don't really want to fork over the money.
In other words, understanding why people make decisions has to do with more than what's in their heads. It also has to do with the situations they're in. It has to do with their circumstances.
Constraints can sometimes be freeing.
The word "constraint" sounds negative. It makes us feel like we're tied down, like our actions are controlled. And in a way, they are, but this isn't always a bad thing. Limitations can free us up from being overwhelmed by too many possibilities. Research in behavioral science has shown that too many choices can lead to indecision. Too many options can be paralyzing.
Imagine deciding what to have for dinner, and having to choose between a burger and spaghetti. You might like them both. You might hate them both. But if you had to choose one, I bet it would be easier than if you were given a menu with a million dishes on it. (This is why I never like going to the Cheesecake factory: their menus are like novels.)
Now imagine the stakes being higher, like they are when you're trying to decide what to do with your life. If anything is possible - and I mean anything - it's much harder to choose than if you only have a couple of options.
Having it all could mean being overwhelmed. Too many possibilities could get you stuck. Meanwhile, those with limited choices may find it easier to make a decision and move forward. Their options may not be great, but if they're easier to process, the decision maker is more likely to take action.
And sometimes, all we need to be successful is to act.
What we have can hold us back.
What we have can constrain us in another way. If you have a lot, you also have a lot to lose, and people hate losing what they have more than they like getting something more. Behavioral scientists call this loss aversion, and it might explain why some people who have a lot are reluctant to take risks (in careers, relationships, etc.).
Sure, the more you've got, the more risks you're able to take because you have the funds, the talent, the skills to bounce back. But our brains don't always think rationally. Sometimes our fear of losing it all can cause us to hang on too tight, at the expense of moving forward.
People who don't have much may not have much to lose, so they may be more likely to take chances. And you can't succeed if you don't try in the first place.
You can have more if you have less.
I've known a few people in my life who've attributed having nothing to starting out with nothing. One guy I knew was raised in a lower middle class family, physically beaten throughout his childhood, explicitly told he was worthless, and made to believe he would never amount to anything. As an adult, he internalized these messages and didn't strive to have all the things he could have had. Now he goes back and forth between blaming his parents for abusing him and beating himself up for being a failure.
It breaks my heart. Because he's not a failure. He's not a failure because that using that word doesn't work. It doesn't really help anyone out in a real way. It breaks my heart that my old friend never got what he could have because he believed that starting out with little means ending up with little.
This is usually true, but it doesn't have to be.
Like I said, there are no hard and fast rules that dictate how to be successful. And the more you have when you start out, the better your chances.
But if you don't have much, you've still got a shot. You just have to take it.
And if you have a lot but find yourself stuck, then realize that being human is probably why. The human brain can't process a ton of options effectively, and it wants you to hang on tight to what you've already got, and not let go. But if you know that what makes your natural human tendencies what they are, you have the power to override them. You can use decision science tricks to force yourself out of indecision. You can compensate for loss aversion by choosing to be a little more risky.
There's no reason why we all can't have it all.