“Deserve” Has Nothing To Do With It

Sebastian Marshall, who is certainly not as well-known as he deserves, has a very, very good post outlining why “deserving” has nothing whatsoever to do with your success. I strongly suggest you read it.

We would like to believe that there’s some kind of divine meritocracy going on, that the cream rises, build a better mousetrap, etc, etc. 

That’s only true within very narrow parameters. Kind of like the way that Newtonian physics don’t apply on a subatomic level. In the same way, within small, tightly defined situations, better people tend to succeed more than less-skilled people, but in the grand scheme of things, skill alone gets you diddly squat. 

Now, I apologize if this is news to you, but you simply don’t control things to the extent that sheer betterness is going to ultimately see you through.  Whether the betterness is in skill, perseverance, networking, “showing up”, there’s always an element of chance. A pretty big element, really. Anyone who tells you differently is deluded or selling something. 

Two things about that, though.

1. Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Since you can’t change a lot of stuff, there’s no use talking about it, no use thinking about it, and definitely no use bitching about it. Que sera, sera.

2. The MOST you can do is to put yourself in a position that when the dice roll your way, you can take advantage of it. “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” This means preparation, staying out of debt, planning for contingencies and keeping your eyes open. It’s not that hard, by itself. But getting discouraged makes it damn near impossible, so be upbeat. People who believe they’re lucky really do get lucky more often, and if 90% of people can believe they’re “above average”, you can damn well force yourself to believe you’re lucky. 


Coming to terms with the idea that you can’t control things, through merit or anything else, can be incredibly freeing. There’s NOTHING more terrible than striving after something, but never achieving it. So if you let yourself off the hook, “Hey, I didn’t make my sales targets this month. But that doesn’t mean I’m lazy and incompetent!” you can do something really, really different with your focus. 

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Once you’ve let go of the idea that any particular thing you ‘do’ is responsible for your success (fundamental attribution error), you realize that the goals you chased were proxies for other things you really wanted.

Sometimes, we don’t want to admit to them: “I want to make 200K a year so that I will be admired.” 

Sometimes, we don’t know how to articulate them: “I want to be a real man.”

Sometimes, actually getting what we want is too hard, so we pick something else. “I want to make a real difference in the world… maybe one of my kids will invent a cure for cancer!” 

But I think that beneath all of those goals is a single, unifying purpose: 


There’s an unsurpassable feeling that comes with facing the world knowing that you. are. excellent. 

I don’t mean in a Wayne’s World kind of way. I mean that, regardless of what things look like, what others think of you, or what you’re personally experiencing in your day-to-day life, you are exceptional, and getting better all the time. 

It frees you from all the things you can’t control and it puts one, single, solitary thing in your purview: Your own attitudes and actions.

And if you can go to bed every night, satisfied with your effort, and determined to put in the same effort tomorrow, I can promise— your life will be vivid and fulfilling.

Deserve’s got nothing to do with your success or failure. You can choose to play by rules that mean you can’t help but win.

If you can go to bed every night, satisfied with your effort, and determined to put in the same effort tomorrow, I can promise— your life will be vivid and fulfilling.

Where are you struggling with the concept of ‘deserving’  and how can you let go of it?


25 thoughts on ““Deserve” Has Nothing To Do With It”

  1. I have a number of thoughts after reading this:
    1) Newtonian physics don’t apply on a subatomic level? I’ve gotta let my buddy Stew know about this!
    2) I SO agree with the statement, “you can damn well force yourself to believe you’re lucky.” I’ve forced myself to believe all sorts of positives things about me and I’ve stopped questioning if they’re even true. This might seem like self-delusion to others, but it’s a wonderful things from my perspective.
    3) Braveheart references get me every time. Best. Movie. Ever.
    Shanna, I read Sebastian’s article and I can see the inspiration in this post. I don’t know if I deserve all the amazing things that have happened to me over 33 years, but I don’t care. I just feel grateful and do what I can to keep this wonderful life going.
    P.S. Why do I sometimes feel the need to crack a stupid joke when adding a blog comment? Perhaps that’s one of the 10,000 questions that shouldn’t even be asked.

    1. @joeyjoejoe 1) Newtonian physics actually apply to relatively little, but all of it is within our daily experience. So it seems universal.
      2) If self-delusion works for you, I’m not going to argue. I try not to argue with efficacy 🙂
      3) I feel myself wanting to charge down a hill waving a sword now 😉

  2. I bet the issue of deserving is buried deep down somewhere for me. It’s not one I feel like I’ve dealt with directly much. I’ve dealt with feeling like I’ve earned something and with expecting certain things, which are probably related, but I don’t think “deserving” has ever been the word I’ve used. Hmm.
    This is something that I want: “And if you can go to bed every night, satisfied with your effort, and determined to put in the same effort tomorrow, I can promise— your life will be vivid and fulfilling.” I get in my own way a lot, preventing myself from putting forth the kind of effort I intend to.

    1. @remadebyhand If you want to access the deserving issue, try flipping it: “What good things do I feel I can/should EARN?” It’s easy for people to say to themselves “Of course I deserve love” but when they flip the issue, realize they’re trying to EARN love (or whatever.)

  3. You’re completely right, but I have to admit the first time I figured this one out, it was tremendously disorienting since I’m pretty sure the message that I was brought up with was the “work hard, get good grades, and you’ll succeed” one. Realizing that no matter how good you are, nobody is going to hand anything to you is a huge eye opener. I notice that pattern underlying everything I do… particularly whenever I have to ask for money, as a new business owner. Shouldn’t people just offer to pay me a lot because I’m good at what I do and I got good grades and I deserve it? Apparently not. 🙂

  4. Love this post.
    It’s so true that society teaches us there’s a direct equation between hard work and success.  If you do THIS then THIS with be the result.  But it’s so much more complex, messy and random than this!
    Shanna – I know you’ve read the book ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell – that’s all about how YOU are just an infinitesimally small part of your ultimate success, the rest of the equation comes from random factors like when, where and to whom you were born etc.
    Having said that I think we can up the ante on our own success by sheer, dogged determination.  Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness gives the best example I can think of this.  He is desperate and has no option but to be successful.  His boss tells him to make a certain number of sales calls a day and he realizes that if he doesn’t put the phone down between calls then he can increase his call rate.  He goes at it and repeats it day after day after day.  (For anyone who’s not seen the movie – basically there’s a happy ending 😉
    I think with focus and discipline like this you can really change the course of your future, but how many of us have got the balls to go at something with this kind of all-in commitment?!  Most of us expect a equal return of pain to reward, effort to success.  I’m starting to realize though that life ain’t fair and I need to stop expecting stuff and instead get off my ass, pick up that phone and get dialing! 

    1. @VickiChilds I love Malcolm Gladwell– and Bill Gates is such a good example– sure, maybe only 5 or 6 kids in the world had the same opportunities available to them as he did, but he definitely made the most of his opportunities. 
      When you look at it that way, you can think to yourself “The set of circumstances surrounding my life is actually pretty unique. Very few people will have the same opportunity as I have now. I better make the most of it!”

  5. Great topic. In line with the quote on the end there.. My focus each day is effort rather than results. I’ve always been that way – I mean, not thinking a whole lot about end results or reaching goals. When I look at my life or simply my day/week and feel unhappy, I notice that it doesn’t have much to do with results and more about – did I make an effort or was I slacking or afraid, etc? Fear is a big one for me with feeling “satisfied every night”. If I go to bed knowing I didn’t do something because of fear, I’m disappointed with myself. I’d feel better failing or looking stupid trying than not trying at all.

  6. As always, I want to comment on every little thing, but in my effort to create focus in my life…
    I first want to thank Shanna for a truly motivating post.  As I read, I kept feeling that yyyyyYYYES! rising up inside me. 
    I am very lucky in that my hard work has led to a successful tutoring business.  Lately I have been getting emails asking how I did it.  While part of me just wants to say, It’s easy.  Anyone can do it.  You can do it.  All you have to do is want it!  The more I think about it, there are a million little circumstances that led to this moment.  Moving to Texas where they have alternative certification. Working my butt off to outdo certified teachers to prove I deserved the job.  Climbing the ladder – which in education equates to lots more work and little compensation.  Opening the business with CJ has led to sharing students.  How do I tell someone all of that?  Move, marry a guitar player whose students’ brother will need reading support, work hard, focus on a subject area…etc. 
     @VickiChilds @joeyjoejoe I will add those movies to the list of all the TEDx talks I want to watch.  Sure beats local news.

    1. @tammyrenzi  It’s so tempting to create a neat little narrative, right? And far from being frowned upon, everyone is practically begging for one. Only the people who *really* want to emulate you want the details– everyone else just wants a good bedtime story.

      1. @Shanna Mann
         Oooh, agree!  I have had people who know me “in the flesh” ask about my business, get really stoked, and later avoid the topic like the plague because it is no longer in their plan (which I can totally respect but still question).  Recently, I have had someone follow me back from a blog comment, and we have created a great dialogue around starting a business.  I’m interested to see how our dialogue differs from those who might just want a good bedtime story.

    2. @tammyrenzi  Funny that I find this comment today (almost a month later)! 
      I was just wondering yesterday (really!) what some of the relevant details around your success at creating a tutoring biz were. 🙂 I think you’ve pretty much answered that wonder. Thanks. K

  7. Freakin’ smashing, SM! The word “deserves” has such powerful antonyms like NOT deserve and disqualify. And they imply, just like the original, that someone or something else is doling out rewards and punishment while we wallow around trying to do what is “right” to deserve this or that. This ought to be repugnant to thinking beings. But working toward a personal ideal of excellence seems always to be in style. The guitar has taught me endless lessons on this subject. Many pieces come with metronome markings, fingerings, a myriad of interpretation suggestions and you can go straight to YouTube to see what it’s “supposed” to sound like. When one knows enough about music, and has an idea about what excellence sounds like, you ought to simply begin playing the music and interpret for yourself, and for cripe sake, skip the YouTube videos at least until you’ve made your own rendition.

    1. @cjrenzi I myself always like to see how other people do things so I can template and discard what doesn’t work for me. But that’s tough with creative renditions. I still sing Blue Christmas like I first heard Elvis do…

      1. Elvis is a fine example and I am sure you sing it beautifully. I consider myself one who should should try never to sing if it can be helped. Better if I stick to the strings for everyone involved. I’ll remember this post and your wise words when those blue memories start calling.

      2. @Shanna Mann  Interesting thoughts around that last comment, Shanna…
        I *do* often feel a real need to know what the step-by-step looks like, but at the same time, I don’t want “the answers” handed to me ~ especially if it’s about digging into my own heart or psyche.

        1. @Karen J I liken it to giving a shape to your knowledge. If you don’t know what the whole process is supposed to look like, then you have to learn it twice– once to figure out how the steps work together, then again to actually learn *how* to do them. So seeing how someone else does it is like being given a template. You’ll pick it up fast, and if you’re attentive, more thoroughly.
          Then, of course, you evolve on your own, but it’s surprising how many people never think to do that last step. 🙂

        2. @Shanna Mann
          Yes! Yes!
          Sometimes, even 3 times – the very first one is “What ARE the steps (all of them, in order please)??”
          Sort of like paragraph- or speech-construction: 
          First, tell what you’re going to do; then do it; and then recap what you just did.
          This is going to help – I don’t have to feel “thick” or “slow” – *I* can frame the “This is how I learn best” conversation!

        3. @Karen J I think a lot of people learn like that — you must MUST have a mental sense of ‘how things go’. And before you do, you have to figure it out. That, I’m convinced, is why people freeze up and have an aversion to learning– after you reach a certain age, people stop taking the time to support learning, by making sure people understand the outline of what they’re supposed to do, before they learn the specifics. (Bad pedagogy!)
          And that’s why article structure is the way it is (tell em what you’re gonna tell em, tell em, then tell em what you told em) because that’s the most effective way to get your point across– so why shouldn’t we use that common sense structure everywhere?

        4. @Karen J  KJ, this comment is masterfully worded and trenchant. @Shanna Mann and so is its reply. How many templates have I borrowed from Bach, Bartok and Beethoven? This is absolutely key.

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