The Best Way To Get Ahead Is To Tell Yourself Hard Truths

Beautiful lake with reflectionIs it better to tell someone what they want to hear or tell them what they should hear? I choose the latter, because sooner or later the fairy tale will end. Between the ages of 10-16 I started reading a lot about Eastern philosophies, particularly the concept of karma. I used karma as an excuse for everything!


“If I’m meant to get into a good university, I will, so don’t worry about my studies mom and dad!”

“If I’m going to die young, I will, so let me buy the 600cc Honda CBR motorbike OK?”

“I cannot change whether I’m going to be rich or poor, so let me have some fun while I’m still alive.”

“I can’t do anything about this bully. Let fate handle him.”

“We’re either destined to be together, or not. I’m not going out of my way to woo her.”

Karma is a pretty neat way of rationalizing not having to study, be safe, work hard, fight back or go after what you want. My dad finally knocked some sense into me when I asked about the motorbike for the umpteenth time. He said, “Son, don’t be stupid. A colleague of mine just drove his motorbike into a wall and died. You want that to happen to you before your life even starts?”

“Oh, OK. Maybe I’ll stick with riding my bicycle to school then,” I remember saying. I actually did end up buying a mini-50cc replica racer motorbike without them knowing in high school. Its top speed was only about 45 mph so I figured if I did hit a wall I’d survive. Too bad it ended up getting stolen because it was sweet!

My father also said something that really deflated my enthusiasm for tennis during high school. When I didn’t win some difficult match sophomore year he consoled me by saying, “Well, I guess you’re just not good enough.” That was a zinger because I stayed after school every day during tennis season to practice for 2.5 hours. By the time I got home all I wanted to do was sleep, but I had another 3-4 hours of homework to complete. Even my hero at the time, Andre Agassi loses, so why can’t I? For about a month I didn’t do jack shit because I was depressed.

It was hard to hear “just not good enough” at the time, but the reality is I wasn’t good enough to take my game to a Division I school. It was better I spent that extra hour practicing for my SATs instead of on my backhand. I did end up getting a small scholarship to play for a Division III school, but I passed to go to a better institution.

The one thing about sports is that scores don’t lie. You are either a winner or a loser. I’d like to think I’d come to my senses on my own about not being good enough after losing one too many difficult matches, but who knows. Maybe I would have stayed in a long state of denial that would have been detrimental to my life.

At the end of the day, I think we need to know hard truths so we can focus on areas that will bring us happiness. Here are three truths I plan on reminding myself every so often to make sure I’m on track.

1) Your Business Model Is Flawed

My definition of being a successful entrepreneur is making at least the per capita income of your city, state or country within three years. If such a profitable income cannot be achieved in this time period, then we are just spinning our wheels as hobbyists. If we cannot recognize that we are failures after three years and get a job, then we will probably go down a financial path of destruction as we keep investing more time and money towards a lost cause.

Certainly there are many great businesses that took longer than three years to see tremendous revenue growth or profitability. Tim Westergren from Pandora is a famed example where he went through over 200 Venture Capital rejections before finally getting funding. Now Pandora is everywhere and Tim is a hundred millionaire. But for every Tim, there are thousands of failures who end up way poorer for joining a startup than if they had just worked for a traditional corporate.

A day job is so much easier than entrepreneurship. But the one thing that entrepreneurship has over a day job by a mile is excitement. I wake up by 6am every single morning because I’m so excited to see what happened to my business while I was sleeping. At midnight, I get another wind because that’s when potential clients in Europe get in at 8am. To be able to run my online properties from an iPhone in Europe for three weeks is exhilarating!

Unfortunately, the good times don’t last forever in business. We must keep adapting or else we will die due to competition or structural changes in the industry. Always reassessing the business model is a good way to stamp out flaws before they become all consuming.

2) Money Can Make You Happy

While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.” – Groucho Marx

Unfortunately, this is one of the rare occasions where Groucho was slightly off the mark. We all know that money can buy happiness up to a certain point. That income point is $200,000 a year based on my experience of making much less to much more. Don’t listen to researchers who say $75,000 is the magical income for maximum happiness when the most they’ve ever earned is $75,000! They don’t know.

While that’s not to say being rich doesn’t come with its own unique set of challenges, the champagne problems of the upper classes are infinitely preferable to the challenges faced by the impoverished who have no money to fall back on until their next payday. The only people who pretend wealth isn’t intrinsically linked to happiness are the super rich, who annoyingly have all the money in the world, and the impoverished who console themselves for not having much.

I sometimes tell myself money doesn’t buy happiness given my passive income is only 55% of where I want it to be. I’m progressing in my quest to build a $200,000 a year passive income stream, but damn does it take a while given low interest rates. The slow progress often times makes me want to quit.

Money continues to be around 70% of the reason why marriages fail. A lack of money is stressful. Having enough money reduces this stress. Reduced stress leads to greater happiness. It’s pretty simple logic.

Obviously, there are some caveats. Happy, frugal, not so wealthy people are everywhere out of choice or out of necessity. In addition, there are plenty of other (arguably more tangible) things that make us can make us happy, and money isn’t the be all and end all of life, but it’s a pretty huge factor.

Finally, the pursuit of money itself can lead to a greater net stress than the acquisition of money can reduce – i.e. it’s inadvisable to chase a pay rise so hard you end up having a heart attack before you’re forty. So once you get to $200,000 a year, take a load off for a bit. You’ll live longer as a result. The government is watching.

3) You’re Not Working Hard Enough

Although it might not be apparent with the amount of content that is produced here every week, I suffer from laziness. The Lazy Devil is always sitting on my left shoulder telling me why the hell would I bring a laptop on vacation, so I don’t even though my business is content. The Lazy Devil tells me to take naps after lunch every day, so I do. The Lazy Devil tells me that life is good so why bother trying so hard, so I don’t anymore. Damn you Devil!

We’ve discussed previously but it bears repeating: if you’re only working 40 hours a week (or less), it’s not enough if you want to outperform. Try adding another ten or twenty hours, and then you’ll start getting somewhere. Single digit workdays are for folks who are happy with the status quo. And those who complain about not being able to get ahead while only working single digit work days can never be saved.

If you’re happy with your current work life balance and the trajectory you are on, certainly don’t ever let yourself feel guilty about working 40 hours a week or less – you’re not a slacker, and it’s not that your dreams aren’t big enough. All it means is that you’re one of the very few people to have reached a Zen state, and you should embrace that for all its worth.

For many of us, we’ve got places we want to be, and understand that we’re not going to get there solely on safe, salaried hours. Obviously it’s counterproductive to burn one’s self out, but realizing that you only get out what you put in is one of the key underpinnings to a successful business mindset. It shouldn’t be something you hate doing, either, otherwise you might be better off sticking to the ol’ nine-to-five after all.

Every day can be a Friday or a Monday when you work for yourself. Whenever my lazy meter stays on a Friday for too long, I tell myself to get going. After all, Fridays are great because of painful Mondays through Thursdays are they not?

Recommended Actions For Getting Ahead

Manage Your Finances In One Place: The best thing you can do to grow your net worth is to get a handle on your finances by signing up with Personal Capital. They are a free online platform which aggregates all your financial accounts in one place so you can see where you can optimize. Before Personal Capital, I had to log into eight different systems to track 28 different accounts (brokerage, multiple banks, 401K, etc) to track my finances. Now, I can just log into Personal Capital to see how my stock accounts are doing, how my net worth is progressing, and where my spending is going. Their 401K Fee Analyzer tool is saving me over $1,000 a year in fees I had no idea I was paying. There is no better free platform out there that is helping me manage my money. The entire sign-up process takes less than a minute.

Start your own online business: It’s been around six years since I started Financial Samurai and I’m actually earning a good passive and active income stream online now. I never thought I’d be able to quit my job in 2012 just three years after starting Financial Samurai. But by starting one financial crisis day in 2009, Financial Samurai actually makes more than my entire passive income total that took 15 years to build. If you enjoy writing, creating, connecting with people online, and enjoying more freedom, see how you can set up a WordPress blog in 15 minutes with BluehostYou never know where the journey will take you!

Photo: Fishing in Westchester, NY. Updated for 2015 and beyond.



Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship. Sam focuses on helping readers build more income in real estate, investing, entrepreneurship, and alternative investments in order to achieve financial independence sooner, rather than later.

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  1. Alex says

    1. You get what you give.
    2. Don’t compare yourself to others.
    3. It’s never too late to start doing the right thing.

  2. Joe says

    I definitely want to hear the truth, 100% of the time. I’m human, though, and that truth can hurt. But, in order to be the person I want to be to live the life I want to live, I want to hear it. To go back to the first line of your post, though, do you tell others the truth? Or do you lie. I think there is a third, more effective choice. You SHOW them the truth. One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite literary series is “words are wind”. People can twist whatever you tell them back into their own reality to deny it. However, if you live the truth you want to tell someone, well, they can’t deny that in a thousand years.

  3. says

    I always want the truth as long as it is constructive, Some misuse the truth to put others down or to make themselves feel better. I grew up learn right from wrong, but my guiding principle is to do the right thing. This includes making my best effort every day. I try to meet my own standards of excellence which sometimes conflicts with others.

  4. says

    The truth is where it’s at. Nicely told, and without any trace of happiness in putting another person down, the truth is where personal growth can happen. It also takes recpetiveness to what’s real, and the ability to question prior assumptions.

  5. says

    Taking a hard look at yourself in the mirror is really hard. When I finished college I really struggled to find the right job for me. It wasn’t until I realized that an ego was a luxury that I couldn’t afford that I actually found a job.

  6. says

    When I’m feeling tired, I try to remind myself about the hardest days in my career when I was working 14 hour days in a position I didn’t like. That helps me appreciate that the present isn’t as hard or as tiring as it seems.

    • says

      Reminding ourselves of the worst hardships is a great way to reduce the pain of current struggles. Thanks for the reminder. I sometimes forget how bloody hard it was during one stage of my life after HS and before college when I got into all sorts of trouble.

  7. says

    No thanks on the Murdercycle. Riders always tell me how great they are. Well, sure they are, but it’s not their skill I’m concerned about, it’s the fact that car drivers have their noses buried in smartphones and could KILL you with one accidental lane change.

    On money and happiness? I would personally alter that to say that money can keep you from being too miserable. $200,000/yr with no one to share it with? No thanks.

    Slam dunk on not working hard enough. If you want to make more than most, you need to do more than most.

    • says

      It is true that the risk is from the car driver who will mow a motorcyclist down which I’m afraid of now. Even if it’s their fault, it could be too late for you.

      When you have $200k/yr in passive income, I have no doubt you’ll be able to find someone to share it with. Not to worry!

      • Amy says

        Couldn’t help but comment on this – I know someone who made about $30 million from his stint at AOL back in their heyday, he’s now living off the interest, but is miserable because he’s lost his purpose in life. His life revolves around watching sports, drinking, and his dogs. He wants to meet a woman, but can’t seem to find one. It’s sad.

        • says

          Hmmmm… Is he really that miserable though? $30 mil can buy a lot of happiness and companionship!

          Do you think we say rich people are miserable to make us feel better about our financial status?

        • mysticaltyger says

          I also know someone like this. Doesn’t have 30M….but does have a paid off house in Silicon Valley, a decent pension plus Social Security…and a 7 figure 401K that he doesn’t even touch because he doesn’t need it. Yet he suffers from depression and no purpose in life.

  8. says

    You’re not working hard enough can be the toughest thing to hear, but also the most helpful. Once I came to grips with the fact that I wasn’t going to get to where I wanted doing just enough to keep everyone happy it was the wakeup call I needed to get my career going.

    • says

      It’s kinda crazy real right? If the majority of people are working 40 hours a week, it’s harder to get ahead if you too are working 40 hours a week. There are 168 hours in a week to do something! Spending only 23% of your time working is hardly backbreaking.

  9. JayCeezy says

    Great subject and column, reminds me of a quote from Robert J. Ringer…
    “People say they love truth, but in reality they want to believe that which they love is true.”

    The story of your father consoling you sounds like it might have been a tough message to hear so soon after your effort. Congrats on taking that moment and appreciating what could be taken from it. It is quite easy to avoid ‘reality’ by avoiding competition, confrontation, or any metric (like a sports score). And there are some truths that are known but don’t need to constantly be reinforced. It was pointed out to me, after a similar situation you experienced, that even after all the qualifying to play at Wimbledon, at the end of two weeks there will be one winner and 127 losers. And that winner will have to do it all over again the next week in the next city. Thanks for sharing this, FS, continued success to you!

  10. mysticaltyger says

    Ehhh. In your first paragraph, I think you meant “I choose the former” (not latter), didn’t you?

  11. says

    Tis true, which is why all the huge recent entrepreneurs all seem to be in their mid to early 20s. Less distractions, more hardcore focus on their business.

    It’s a tough balance for those who want family and other things.

  12. Jacob S. says

    First time commenting but I have been reading quite a few articles of yours and thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    The one about doing more to get ahead really speaks to me and is a good indicator that I’m on the right path. I think a lot of us are in search of that because we want to be certain of a better future, especially if we are striving for it.

    But this is really helpful coming from you and can definitley tell that you’re being honest. Thank you for sharing how you feel about your business as well and keep up the great work!


  1. […] Elementary school kids are already being pushed by their parents to be superhuman with after school activities and weekend schooling. Elite universities have acceptance rates under 10% now thanks to population growth and the common app. Jobs are being outsourced due to cheaper labor and the internet, which makes the transfer of skills much easier. Costs for real estate, tuition, food, and gas are rising much faster than wage growth. What is a young person supposed to do to get ahead except tell themselves hard truths? […]

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