by J.D. Roth
Hello! I have returned from my final big trip of the year, and I’ve resumed working behind the scenes here at Get Rich Slowly. Soon, new articles will begin to appear on this site.
Oh, wait. Here’s a new article now!
On my most recent trip, I happened to tell the same story twice to two different groups. In doing so, I realized that it’s a story I’ve never told here. That’s unfortunate. It’s about an event that had a profound impact on the course of my life — and my finances.
To bide the time while I work on longer articles, today I’d like to share how my fate was decided by the literal toss of a coin.
My parents never pushed higher education on my brothers and me. Both my father and mother had attended church schools briefly — Goshen College for him, Brigham Young University for her — but neither one graduated. My uncle got a math degree from a local junior college, and my cousin Duane got a business degree from yet another church school.
Growing up, I can’t remember that college was ever discussed in depth. It came up in conversation now and then, but there was never any expectation that my brothers and I would go.
But: I was a nerd. I hung out with other nerds. I read and I wrote. I entered math contests for fun. My favorite movies were about college and about college professors. I romanticized college life (and still do today).
Because my parents were poor, I knew there was no way they’d be able to pay for my college education. It never entered my mind. If I wanted to attend school, I’d have to do it on my own. As a matter of fact, I thought that was how college worked for everyone.
I had no money saved of my own, so I took the only path available: Scholarships. I didn’t get great grades in high school — I had a 3.29 GPA — but I got great grades where it counted. I did well in advanced classes; my low grades came from electives and physical education. (And, ironically, from my personal-finance class, in which I earned a D!)
I was also very active in clubs and activities. I was in choir. I was in drama. I was in the Future Business Leaders of America. I wrote for the newspaper. I edited the school literary journal. I was a leader in my church youth group.
Most importantly, I realized that doing well on the PSAT and the SAT were the key to unlocking high-value scholarships. Since I’d always done well on standardized tests, I prepped hard for these entrance exams. I nailed the PSAT. My SAT scores were good enough to back up the first test, so I got a National Merit Scholarship. Bingo! Plus, I applied for a ton of scholarships and won a few.
In the end, I was able to attend Willamette University in Salem for free. (And that’s why I cannot write about student loans. I never had them.)
When I left for college, I was very religious. In fact, I intended to major in religion. My short-term goal — and I’m not joking — was to become a missionary to South America so that I could convert the “heathens”. My long-term goal was to become a youth pastor…and then a pastor.
I took a couple of religion courses during my freshman year. They made me an agnostic. (Something that would have dismayed my professors, if they’d known.) Comparative religion, especially, led me to question the beliefs I’d been so sure of just a year before.
Because I’d always been interested in psychology — and because psychology is somewhat similar to religion — I decided to study that instead. I found it fascinating.
At first, I wanted to focus on child psychology. Or maybe to teach elementary school. (I spent a semester doing an elementary ed “practicum”, meaning I was a teaching assistant in a first-grade classroom.) During my sophomore and junior years, I focused my attention on psychology and teaching. I decided to become a grade-school teacher.
Kris and I had begun dating by this time. She too decided she wanted to teach — but she wanted to teach high-school chemistry. Early in our senior year, we both took the NTE, the National Teacher Exam. I scored higher than she did, which remains one of my proudest achievements. But she followed through with teaching. I didn’t.
In the final semester of my senior year, I took my final psychology course: “Techniques of Counseling”. This class was taught by an actual clinical therapist with a practice in Salem, Oregon. I loved it. This felt like work that I was meant to do.
I loved it so much, in fact, that I did something very, very stupid. Instead of pursuing education, I put that possible career path on hold. While Kris applied to pursue a Master of Arts in teaching, I went “all in” on psychology and counseling. Except that I went “all in” without any idea what I needed to do to pursue the career. And without a backup plan.
I didn’t apply to graduate programs. I didn’t look for work in Salem. I didn’t do anything. Instead, I trusted to the Fates, as I always had. For once, the Fates were not kind.
Toward the end of my counseling course, the professor pulled two of us students aside. “J.D. and Kari”, he said — Kari was an ex-girlfriend who was also taking the class — “you are my two top students. I’d like to offer one of you an internship, but I can’t decide which. You would both make excellent counselors, but I only have room for one of you at my practice. What I’d like to do is flip a coin. The winner will get to work with me. Does that sound fair?”
We both said yes. I lost the coin toss. I didn’t go into counseling. I didn’t go into teaching. I went to work for my father, selling boxes for our family box business.
My destiny was decided by chance. Only it wasn’t. Yes, I lost that coin flip, which meant I didn’t get the gig as intern for my counseling professor. But what happened after that is wholly on me. I just didn’t realize it then…or for another 25 years.
In retrospect — and this is something I’ve only come to understand in the past five years — that coin toss decided very little. I was the one who decided my fate based on the result of that toss.
Think about it.
In 1991, because of my upbringing, I had an external locus of control.
I believed that outside people and events controlled my future. Today, nearly thirty years later, I have very much the opposite view. I believe that I control my future.
What would my life have been like if I’d taken action when I was 22 instead of remaining passive? I don’t know. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. I like who I am and what I’ve become. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without losing that coin toss, without selling boxes for seventeen years. I can’t regret my decision.
All the same…I wonder.
More to the point, part of my mission in life is to encourage young people to actively determine the course of their lives. Don’t be passive. Don’t let other people and events determine who you are and who you’ll become. To the extent that you are able, be the captain of your destiny.
Updated: 21 October 2019