“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” — JK Rowling
Two babies are born the same night in a hospital – twins, the first sons of a wealthy couple who proceed to give both boys all the benefits that money and a stable family situation can provide. The brothers are bright and talented, potentially capable of doing almost anything they wish. One ends up a business tycoon with more money than he can spend; the other ends up homeless in a seedy part of the city with more addictions than he can satisfy. The only difference between them is the choices they made – one to dedicate himself to education and effort, the other to enslave himself to alcohol and drugs. Given identical circumstances, the success or failure of two people is going to turn almost entirely on their decisions about how to live their lives.
To be sure, circumstances and chance can play roles in the outcomes of people’s lives. Being born rich obviously presents a better environment than being born poor. Winning the lottery can produce success overnight, at least the financial kind. Neither, however, is the final factor that determines success or failure. Circumstances and chance clearly affect where a person starts – but it is choice that governs which way and how far he or she goes.
A child in the poorest part of town faces, at a very early age, a decision about the path he or she will take: surrender to despair, skip school, live and die on the streets; or study, ignore the taunts of other kids, graduate and become somebody, perhaps somebody great. The conditions of that child’s birth will affect how hard the struggle is, but not his or her ability to accept the challenge; that’s solely a matter of choice.
When declining sales forced some American automakers to close factories, some older workers appeared in television news interviews saying that fate had dealt them a bad hand. They had worked hard, been loyal to the company, and now circumstances had brought them down. Is that true? In fact, the trends in the auto industry had been obvious for many years; barring a miracle, it was certain that factories would be closed. If those workers had decided to go to night school and learn a new trade, they could have gotten out when they were still young enough to start over in a growing industry. Instead they simply sat where they were, waiting for the inevitable ax to fall. William James wrote knowingly about this tendency to let inertia rule: “When you have to make a choice and don't make it, that is in itself a choice.”
The circumstances facing a young person in China or Japan – the system in which he or she exists – offer just one opportunity to get into the “right” university, which is the sole path to great success. That young person could submit to the system, then be resigned to a miserable life if he or she falls short. But students who are not confident of surmounting that bar could follow the thousands who go to study in the United States or elsewhere, places where everyone gets a second chance, and a third, and even more. When circumstances could have a negative impact, it may be possible to change those circumstances, rather than changing oneself. That is a decision one could make.
Choice is not an omnipotent force, of course. The person who starts far back in the pack may not get the gold medal, but he or she can still accomplish a great deal. Being CEO of a company is certainly one kind of success, but being a vice president or even a department manager is also an achievement to be proud of and satisfied with. Success has many definitions, failure just one; nonetheless, it is choice that will determine which is the outcome for nearly all.
Choice does not simply mean perseverance. A high-school student who “chooses” to be a professional basketball player may not reach his goal no matter how hard he tries, because there are only a precious few positions available and many talented youngsters seeking them. This does not mean that circumstances or chance controlled that student’s destiny, and led him to fail in his whole life, not just in terms of basketball. It means only that he made a terribly risky choice, and not a wise one.
Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief – all come from different backgrounds with different skills, talents, advantages and disadvantages. All of those factors will affect, to some degree, the position they find themselves in when the time comes for great decisions. The position they end up in, however, will depend to a much greater degree on the choices they make at that moment, and at many more along the way. Albert Camus put it simply: “Life is a sum of all your choices.”