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.

Going to College

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).

Mitch and J.D. were (and are) nerds

Mitch and J.D., nerds in 1984, nerds in 2019

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.)

From Religion to Psychology

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.

The Flip of a Coin

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.

Chance or Choice?

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.

  • I could have asked my professor if he knew of any other practices in Salem that might be interested in an intern. He’d already told me he thought I did quality work. He would have been willing to help.
  • I could have asked him to write a personal recommendation, then used that recommendation to pursue graduate studies. Or other opportunities in the field.
  • I could have followed up to see whether or not Kari actually accepted the internship. From my memory, this was the last time I ever saw her. I’ve checked Facebook over the years, but haven’t been able to track her down. Did she do that internship? Is she a counselor today? I have no idea…and I wonder. But there’s a chance she didn’t take the opportunity, which means it would have been available to me.
  • Instead of passively accepting my “fate”, I could have taken action and applied (late, yes) to teaching and/or psychology graduate programs.

In 1991, because of my upbringing, I had an external locus of control.

[Circle of Concern vs. Circle 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.

32 Replies to “How the toss of a coin determined my fate”

  1. Anne says:

    Absolutely fantastic post today. Says it all.

  2. El Nerdo says:


    and these amends are good amends

  3. One Frugal Girl says:

    I finished this story with my mouth hanging wide open. I can’t believe that was it. You worked hard to pass college admissions tests, you found something you love (a lot of college kids don’t even really test out their majors) and then poof you just decided not to continue to pursue something you thought you might love. That’s one hell of a coin toss. When I look back at my life I often think about the paths I could have taken and somehow the path I’m on always seems right even when it might not have been the best choice. I’ve learned many valuable lessons on those ‘wrong’ paths. In fact, I often feel like I might ‘be’ someone else if I traveled along a different road. Thank you for sharing this story.

    • J.D. Roth says:

      I was a smart kid…but I was a dumb kid too. Sometimes all of that is still true.

    • Physician on FIRE says:

      I lost a very lucrative job to a coin toss. The partners were split down the middle on whether or not to hire me or another guy.

      If I had won the coin toss, I would have moved my family to suburbia surrounded by big spenders, nasty traffic, and a future that likely would have been very different to the one I’m living now.

      Cheers to the flip!

  4. Brandon Wise says:

    I can’t believe in all your time blogging you haven’t told this story. Do you think you have been reluctant to share it for some reason?

  5. Dave @ Accidental FIRE says:

    Wow, great to hear more of your story dude. That’s a crazy coin toss for sure, not sure I’d be comfortable with something so important being decided that way but I think it worked out well for you. But as you point out, we are in control of so much more than we think. It’s a great lesson that I personally need to hammer home to myself more often.

  6. HeadedWest says:

    Hey JD,

    I’m no psychiatrist, but I’ve often suspected that there was a connection between (1) the depression I dealt with (or didn’t deal with) as a teenager and young adult, and (2) all the opportunities I never even thought to take to reach out for help with my interests, career, etc. I just didn’t have a lot of motivation at times and it was easy enough to tell myself everything would work out eventually… You can guess how I feel about that approach now!

    With my own children, I’ve decided I’m OK with being a bit of a hand-holder for them into yound adulthood. Sure, there are downsides to this approach. But there are downsides to the alternatives as well, and from my perspective they seem worse.

    • StartingFIRE says:

      Some hand holding should be encouraged – young adulthood is still “young”, and inexperienced, and unintelligent sometimes! Loosen the reigns far enough for them to walk their own path but hold them to pull back if needed.

  7. Joe says:

    Wow, what a story. We all have something like that in our past, but not that dramatic. A coin toss doesn’t decide your fate. But a young inexperience kid let it. That’s why you need good mentors to help you through those patches.
    Life is full of these inflection points. Most of the time, you don’t recognize them when you’re going through them. I moved up to Oregon for work. If I looked harder, I probably could have found a job in Northern CA. Life would have turned out totally different. I’m with you, though. I can’t complain. Life is good now.

  8. Katherine says:

    This sounds so similar to my own life and how I basically fell into a job due to geography and no direction… Here I am 30 years later doing a job I don’t despise and making a decent living but often wondering why I didn’t follow a path I set for myself. I often dream of how to retire early and do the things I want to do… This blog has helped me immensely!!!

  9. dh says:

    This reminded me of that scene in No Country for Old Men — when the killer walks into the gas station and says to the innocent clerk, “What’s the most you’ve ever lost in a coin toss?” And then they start betting on the clerk’s life, zoinks!!!

  10. Steveark says:

    You just write so well. I can trace most of the success I’ve had in life to one event much like that coin toss. Who would have ever thought I‘d be asked to be the lead in a high school play, me being one of the shyest nerds in the school. Who knew I could act and who knew that doing something that I feared and had thought impossible, and doing it well would completely revise my image of who I was and who I could be. Taking on that huge fear taught me to never back down again from something worthwhile. Sure it led to some embarrassing failures but many more big wins in life. Oh and like dh I immediately thought of that movie!

    • J.D. Roth says:

      Do you remember my “power of yes” post from 2007 or 2008? That’s become a centerpiece of my talks and presentations because it’s an example like the one you’re citing, an example of me deciding to do something that led to wholesale changes in my life. I decided to say “yes” to the things that scared me, and by doing so I became a better version of me. Not sure if I’ve done any kind of update on that concept here at GRS. I should.

  11. JB says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve checked out GRS, but man, I’m glad I did today. This story punched a hole right through me. When I got out of grad school (where I had done really really well), I got a meeting with a potential employer. The guy stared at me for 10 minutes, then told me (in the most condescending way possible) that he couldn’t work with me and I had no future in the business. It didn’t even occur to me at the time to challenge him, that he might have even been expecting me to challenge him; or to just get up and walk out because there was no way I was going to work for a jerk like that. But I didn’t. I sat there and took it. And let it rule my life ever since. Now, things have turned out pretty well, but I often wonder what might have happened if I’d had the courage in the moment to speak up and defend myself, or to recognize that I had choices, or to realize that his crappy attitude was more about him than me. The comment above about ‘having good mentors’ to help us through these patches rang really true. I had them at the time, and still have them now, but I’m astonished how rarely I reach out to them.

  12. Bruce says:

    “My destiny was decided by chance. Only it wasn’t”

    I understand the point of your article. But in the grand scheme of things the above statement is disingenuous. Your destiny was and is largley decided by chance. Much like one’s retirement withdrawal rate will largely be determined by sequence of returns based on the year when one was born, your life has largely been dictated by the circumstances of your birth. Your nationality, parents, gender, health, ability/disability, etc were entirely out of your control.

    Look, most of us reading this started life on third base and it’s certainly up to us to find our way to home plate. But let’s not pretend we hit a home run to get there.

    • El Nerdo says:

      Indeed—otherwise actuarial science would not be viable.

      As for social biases—imagine if the professor had offered a rigged game instead, as it often happens in real life (e.g., institutions advertising positions already promised to internal candidates- which would be sort of like a double-headed coin the participants don’t know about).

      While the coin toss might have been “fair,” life rarely is… Some people get to take endless mulligans, some people can’t afford a single misstep.

      But yes, doing what one can is important, even when doomed.

  13. Allison says:

    Very interesting article. So intriguing to hear your back story. Sometimes a missed opportunity is exactly the opposite. I just wanted to share a saving tip for anyone looking for a deal on transportation. I was complaining about how much money I’ve been spending on Uber’s and a friend recommended saferides.org; it’s a non-profit and very affordable. You can book rides in advance and it’s great for large groups. Just in case anyone else is tired of draining their funds with ride-sharing apps!

    • El Nerdo says:

      I looked at this advertisement (is this a spam post?) and it costs 10-30 times what an Uber ride does, at least in my area, and it requires 24 hours notice, and there’s a charge PLUS a donation

      No thanks…

  14. Janette says:

    Your youth was determined by a flip of the coin. Your adulthood is made up of controlled and uncontrolled choices.. I contend you are a type of psychologist. Instead of mentoring to health one on one, you have mentored hundreds at a time. Your coin toss just set you up to have practical knowledge to help direct people instead of book knowledge to pretend you know what people need. I, personally, feel you were destined to be a writer. You needed “story” and now have it.
    In the end, there are many roads we can travel. What you make of the road is what you will reflect on the most when you are 90. You seem to be on a pretty great road now.

  15. Greenbacks Magnet says:

    Being a psychology major myself I can understand being drawn to it. It interest me. That is why I did it.

    In this one brief post, I have learned more about you than I have reading tons of other folks posts! This really just tugs at the heart strings here. It could have been in a hallmark movie.

    I have always been a very active person. Passive has never been my thing. I like action. But I am glad you took action and decided to apply to scholarships as you did make a choice where I notice so many young folks today seem to be a little too indecisive. Seriously, good post.


  16. Wanda says:

    You were like so many that grew up without the appropriate coaching. This is an awesome story and I thank you for sharing it.

  17. mary w says:

    Hmmm…many of the details of my adult life were determined by which line I chose to stand in when I was 17.

    When I was graduating from HS I needed a summer job before college so I went to a summer job fair for poor kids. I was faced with (at least) two booths: one for a local department store and one for a Federal agency. The department store was close by and had the opportunity for part-time work when school started. The Federal agency was further away and I wasn’t completely sure how I would get there. Plus it was only for the summer. OTOH the department store was interviewing and selecting only a few candidates while the Federal agency was pretty much hiring anyone who wanted a job. With my then non-existent self-confidence of course I chose the Federal agency.

    That two month summer job led returning a second summer, taking the civil service test at the urging of a car pool driver, meeting my husband on the job, getting a professional job with the Fed upon college graduation and eventually retiring 35+ years later.

    I’m quite sure if I gotten another summer job after high school I’d still have graduated college, gotten a good career and found a loving husband. But it would have been a different career and a different husband.

  18. Papa Foxtrot says:

    This is an amazing story, but at the same time I cannot believe you had a personal finance course. Schools do not teach that, the closest I had was 2 weeks focusing on personal finance in an economics class you should write about the lack of personal finance education in the future.

  19. olga says:

    What a story, and it’s great for us readers that you shared that part of your past. Mostly what I gained is an understanding of why you write the best the pieces that you write the best – ones coming from your core, action-oriented towards personal responsibility. Also, you would have been a damn good psychologist, delivering thoughts the way you do. So in the end, in a twisted longer way, you’re preaching to us, in the best way, by making us think. 🙂

  20. Laura says:

    LOVED this post, thanks for sharing! As one of the “heathens” you would have tried to convert, lol, I would say that if you’d been raised in a religion that encouraged proselytizing, it’s likely to have been a religion that taught you to have an external locus of control. How could you have done differently at a young age? So okay, it took time to come around; internal change is often slow. But you did it.

    How would life have been different if you had already known the lesson you needed to learn? Who knows, but that wasn’t what you were here to work on at that point, it was to learn what you did, and to help us to learn through teaching. You can’t teach what you don’t know. If you didn’t know what it was like to struggle and be poor, how could you relate? If you’d achieved 3rd base and a home run easily, then you’d just be arrogant, lack empathy, and assume everyone should be able to do it regardless of outliers. Instead, you had the life experiences you really needed, learned from them, and grew, not just financially but in compassion.

  21. Neel Kumar says:

    Wow! Once, I was talking with the team of engineers that reports to me and I was telling them all about the career mistakes I have made that they should learn from. One of the lines that I said was “I can see at least a dozen forks in my life where, if I had taken the other one, my life would have been wildly different.” I too looked at people ahead of me as all-knowing smart people when, in reality, they were almost as clueless as I was. Only now can I see just how much of an idiot I was. 🙂

  22. Gregory says:

    Thank you for this post and blog. Cheers from east-side of Europe.

  23. Cindy Brick says:

    Your story was intriguing, all right, but it had the opposite effect on me. I couldn’t help but think that if you’d taken that internship (and become a psychologist yada yada), you would not have founded Get Rich Slowly. And you very probably would not be retired today, at your age.

    So in a way, that toss of a coin was a good one, because you did eventually turn inaction into action. It just took longer, that’s all.

  24. Jennifer says:

    I am trying to raise my 18-yo son and 15-yo daughter to think for themselves with a broad view of possibilities before them and the understanding that there are multiple ways to reach a goal, most mistakes are recoverable (on the list of not: babies, addictions, or crimes), and opportunities come by multiple times, when we’re ready and when we’re not, and we need to be able to identify them and say YES.

    I have avoided teaching them the “one true path” plan to adulthood that most of their friends are following: extra-curriculars and coursework and grades chosen to get into the right schools for college, then the right job, nice house, nice partner, nice kids, work until 67, . . .

    Sometimes my son has a hard time with all the options available to him and the lack of external direction/pushing, because he doesn’t feel the certainty and confidence that his peers seem to feel as they get into the college of their (parents’?) choice and decide on their majors. (Full disclosure: this was totally me.)

    I hope that by starting to wrestle with their lives on their own terms (with lots of coaching and support from us, their family) while they’re still in high school, they’ll be better prepared to actively and deliberately pursue their goals as they leave our sphere of influence. Meanwhile, their friends, with less influence from their parents, will go through all that later on, or maybe not at all?

    We’ll see . . .

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