Humans love to place blame. We blame others. We blame ourselves. Usually, when we’re caught up in the blame game, we also resort to unhealthy black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. Recently, a friend and colleague shared a meme on social media that read, in part, “most of the problems in your life are still your fault.” The meme was also political in nature, and I don’t want to go into that here. But let’s explore the concept that our problems are to be blamed on someone or something. I don’t think assigning blame is a good idea, and I definitely think we should be careful about faulting ourselves for things. Let’s explore why:
Life Is a Game of Chance, Sort Of
My best friend from college and I play games together often. Usually we play Monopoly or a rummy-type card game called Phase 10® (with a few of our own rules added to keep things interesting). Over the years, we’ve played other games too, but both of us prefer these two games because of the combination of skill and luck required to win. She’s a computer programmer and mathematician. I’m a recreational therapist, artist, and English major. Games of skill and skill alone will inevitably play to only one of our strengths, and frankly, that’s boring.
Life is a lot like these games I play with my bestie. You don’t have much control over which cards you get dealt or how the dice rolls for or against you. You may have been born to the richest people in the world or to the poorest. The color of your skin and the culture in which you were raised were decided by forces beyond your control. You didn’t request your gender orientation, your country of birth, or your ancestry. Even if your religious tradition teaches that your soul chose these aspects of your life, your conscious mind had no control over them; and if your soul chose the challenge, that makes your life situation a challenge to meet, not a wrong for which to assign blame.
However, like any game of Monopoly, life provides us multiple opportunities to act and react to the situations we encounter. If you’re broke because your employer downsized your position, the fault is likely not yours. If you struggle for months or years to find another job with similar pay and good benefits, a look around you at others in similar positions will likely indicate that a measure of your circumstances is nothing more than a roll of the dice. However, on careful examination, you may also discover that, faced with similar circumstances, others have reinvented themselves and moved on to different careers with different jobs in different organizations. That flexibility, that ability to play the long game even when you’ve landed in jail three times before either Park Place or Boardwalk have been purchased is what separates a competitive player from someone who will undoubtedly lose the game.
You Don’t Know Until Somebody Tells You
Another reason that our life circumstances might not be “somebody’s fault” is that all of us are working with an incomplete set of information. For the most part, unless a person has a severe personality disorder or other rare mental health issue, humans do the best we can given the information we have available. Yes, we make mistakes. Yes, we indulge in impulse buys, fail to apply for the better job, or have difficulty balancing our bank accounts; but generally speaking, we’re all doing our best. It’s in our DNA. Evolution didn’t favor slackers, and if you’re reading this, your ancestors were neither stupid nor lazy. The problem comes when we have to make critical decisions with insufficient information. If you didn’t know there were more chances to roll a 10 on the dice than to roll snake eyes, you might miscalculate your chances of landing on Boardwalk. In life, it’s impossible to know and assess all the variables. Especially early in life, we often make less-than-ideal choices or completely awesome choices purely by accident.
An example from my own life explains this issue well: As a young adult, I was working 60 to 80 hours a week between a paraprofessional job at a public library and a volunteer position with a dance and pageantry organization. Money was tight. A move into a small rental house near the theater where I volunteered ended up costing more than expected, and the three financial counselors I consulted told me the only way I could improve my finances would be to earn more money or save about $35 a month by getting rid of my pet cat. While I was following their (non-cat-related) advice and applying to every higher-paying position I could find at the library (where I really enjoyed working), I began receiving call after call from bill collectors. Student loans went into default because of a paperwork error on my part. A modest amount of credit card debt went into chargeback because I simply couldn’t pay the amounts bill collectors were demanding. Then I got the windfall—a $7,000 settlement on a freak accident that occurred a few months before my move.
Being as responsible as I could with the information I had, I made calls to creditors. I paid off one of my student loans and one of the credit cards in full. I made a few necessary purchases with the leftovers and carried on with life as usual. Within two months, I was back to being broke. The creditors I hadn’t paid in full wanted their money. My boss hired someone else to take the higher-paid positions, and I kept limping along unsure how to fix my situation.
As I mentioned earlier, the human race is resilient. I found ways to survive. I eventually left the library, got a series of higher-paying jobs, and started charging for my theater gigs. About a decade later, my wife and I sat down with another financial counselor who explained that creditors will often accept deals—lower offers than the total amount owed in order to settle an account. If I had known this 10 years earlier, I could have gotten myself into a much better financial situation back then. Honestly, I would likely be in a better position even today (although I’ve made great strides since that time).
This example is one of many errors I’ve made through the years and one for which I have often been tempted to blame myself. Most people will experience a windfall of some sort at various times in their lives. It might come as an insurance settlement, a tax refund, an inheritance, or something else. When it comes, most of us do our best to manage it, but most of us have less-than-perfect insight concerning how to manage it. Otherwise, far more of us would have purchased bitcoin back when I was paying off creditors with my tidy little insurance settlement. The good news is we can learn and grow and do better next time. Making different decisions brings different results. For me, that meant using other windfalls differently a decade later and navigating economic downturns by reinventing myself in profitable ways. For you, it may look like any one of a near-infinite set of possibilities. Keep doing the best you can. Keep learning from the experts about stuff. You can make a better strategic move in the future.
You Can’t Lose This Game
As long as you are breathing (and not hooked up to life support), there’s still time to make good decisions. You can’t ruin your life—not entirely. Neither can anyone else. Perhaps this is what the creator of the clunky meme that inspired this blog post should have said. It’s certainly more true than the concept that most of our problems are self-created. Some of our problems are indeed self-created, but many of our problems are nothing more than challenges to overcome. Those challenges come to us throughout life, a combination of luck and personal decisions. We are affected by the actions of others. We are affected by our own actions. We are affected by circumstances that are or appear to be completely random. We would do far better focusing on how to step up and move ahead than focusing on who to blame for our current problems.