The “Chosen Ones” Choose Themselves

In 1994, a young woman asked for an order of restraint against her husband and filed for divorce. With no job and little money to live on, she signed up for welfare benefits so that she could afford to care for her baby daughter.

The woman’s mother had died a few years prior. She had a rocky relationship with her father and they hadn’t spoken in years. And now, as a single parent with a failed marriage and without a job, she was battling depression and on the verge of suicide.

Years later, she would refer to herself as “the biggest failure I knew.”

However, during the five years that followed her divorce, this woman would battle through fear and depression and go from living on welfare to becoming a multi-millionaire. And she was just getting started.

The woman’s name was Joanne, but the world would come to know her as J.K. Rowling.

The Rise of J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling is the author of the Harry Potter book series, which has sold more than 400 million copies, making it the best-selling book series of all-time. The story was later turned into a series of films, which quickly became the highest-grossing film series of all-time. According to Forbes, Rowling is the first author in history to earn more than $1 billion from writing books.

Rowling’s success is even more astounding when you consider her backstory. She was still living on welfare when she submitted the manuscript for her first book. How did she climb out of poverty and reach the top of the literary world?

There are many pieces of the puzzle, of course, but here is one factor that I believe made a huge impact on her success:

When bad things happened in her life, Rowling saw it as her responsibility to do something about it.

It’s Not Your Fault, It’s Your Responsibility

I doubt that J.K. Rowling asked to be in an abusive relationship. I don’t think she wanted to have her marriage end in divorce. And I’m sure that she didn’t dream of raising her daughter in poverty. And while it wasn’t necessarily her fault that any of those things happened, she chose to make it her responsibility to do something about it.

When her marriage went south, she took her daughter and moved to a new country. When she didn’t have a job, she started writing her book. When the first 12 publishers rejected Harry Potter, she went to a 13th. When life got rough, she gave herself permission to make it better.

Here’s how J.K. Rowling describes this process of dealing with the hardships of her life…

Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
— J.K. Rowling, 2008 Harvard Commencement Address

I haven’t dealt with a fraction of the hardships that Rowling has, but even in my limited battles I’ve noticed the power of personal responsibility. You might not control the circumstances that life hands you, but you can control the energy and enthusiasm that you bring to those situations.

The “Chosen Ones” Choose Themselves

We often assume that successful people got to where they are because they went to the right school or knew the right person or had the right genetics or stumbled into the right job at the right time. It’s easier to think about success this way because then you can say that these people were lucky to have certain advantages and you weren’t, and that’s what made the difference.

And the truth is, yes, luck does play a role in life. But luck is just an opportunity. It’s just an open door. You have to decide to walk through it and to make something of it.

Looking back now, you can probably point to hundreds of situations where luck played a role in Rowling’s success. But all of those open doors would have been worthless had she not chosen to walk through them. Before the world could bet on her, she had to bet on herself.

The people who end up looking like the “chosen ones” — the best-selling authors, the successful business owners, the elite athletes, the talented artists — are successful first and foremost because they chose themselves before they had any measure of success. And that’s the piece of success that isn’t as easy to accept because it often means betting on yourself when you feel like a failure.

Where to Go From Here

We love to tell stories of success and fame, to talk about money and riches, to praise the winners, the champions, and the best-sellers. This is especially true when it involves a rags-to-riches story like that of J.K. Rowling.

But there’s nothing glamourous about battling through failure and uncertainty. There’s nothing easy about choosing yourself when each day feels like a struggle to keep your head above water.

I can remember my first six months as an entrepreneur. It was brutal. I made a ton of mistakes and zero money. But looking back now, I’m grateful that I continued to bet on myself even when each day felt like a failure.

I think there are many goals in life that require this type of struggle. For J.K. Rowling, it meant choosing to be a writer when she was a poor, single mother without a job. For you, it might mean choosing yourself when…

  • you have no connections
  • you are inexperienced and unproven
  • you are poor and lack resources
  • you are out of shape and overweight

Successful people don’t wait to be tapped, chosen, appointed, or nominated. They start before they feel ready. They tell themselves, “It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s my fault that I’m here. This is who I am and it’s my responsibility to do something about it.”

The chosen ones choose themselves.

Hat tip to James Altucher for sparking the idea of “choosing yourself.”

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42 Comments

  1. This is an amazing post, James. The chosen ones also have fear and battles that they fight with themselves and overcome! As a leader myself, I have self-doubt and all that fun stuff that others have, but I work through it..I do not crumble. It is tough sometimes, but it is the right way to go so that we can bust through and be great. Thanks for the inspiration today!

  2. James, this is a jump out of your seat and jump up and down screaming post! Of course everyone over the age of four had heard of JK, but I hadn’t really heard much about her story. I really like how you told it in a concise way and used it as fuel to get us to stop thinking of some people as lucky and some as unlucky. Yes, it might appear that some people get a break, but usually behind every “successful” person (and we can all be successful!) is someone who has just pushed through and decided what they want and took the steps necessary to get there. When I have a goal or dream, I head toward it and tweak it as I go along. I’m rarely exactly where I thought I’d be at a certain time. Sometimes I’m ahead of where I thought I’d be; sometimes I’m behind. Sometimes I find that the twists and turns can actually be the best part! Thank you for writing!

    • Tammy, you have made some great points about the surprising twists and turns of success with hard work after tweaking it. Sometimes ahead, sometimes behind–but always where we need to be. Thanks!

  3. Once again you entered into my head and spoke to a conversation I was having with myself. I was feeling overwhelmed and fatalistic about something stupid. I think I need a life coach because I see very clearly that the only one getting in the way of my own success is me and yet I can’t seem to talk myself over those little mental obstacles.

    Thanks.

  4. Statistically we won’t ALL be huge successes. But we can still take responsibility to improve our lot. addiction is an on-going journey & one never arrives at wellness. abstinence is elusive . It takes a LOT of therapy to pinpoint our tendencies to self-sabotage. It takes a good therapist too….to believe in & communicate with. Most of us & I do mean 80% of us will NEVER reach Rowlings level of success so be real. Pie in the sky & magical thinking that one day we will be rich & famous is not the goal. …surely? Most of us addicts just want to be well & cope with life…& not hide from it….which all addicts do either with food or drink or drugs. These issues are what 85% of us struggle with. Addiction isnt glamorous. Accepting responsibility to change oneself is nOT an overnight discion. It is a long difficult process with many detours & deadends & intersections that can be very confusing to recognize & yet persevere….

    • Just wanted to mention that I understand your post. My life is so much better since I quit drinking years ago. Once I got past thinking about how I was depriving myself, I began to realize that I was FREEING myself. I understand at a deep level all those who try to escape from the horrors of this world through drink, drugs, sex, food, work, etc…. When you remove the means of escape that actually keeps you trapped, you will wrestle with acceptance of the pain in your life and ultimately, with perseverance, it won’t weigh you down anymore. You can learn how to hold it, while also holding the joy that you deserve. And one of the greatest gifts is simply not having to try to MANAGE the unmanageable anymore! Ahhhhh. :)

      • “When you remove the means of escape that actually keeps you trapped, you will wrestle with acceptance of the pain in your life and ultimately, with perseverance, it won’t weigh you down anymore.”

        really insightful, thanks. =)

  5. Excellent post, James. This encompassed what I’ve been feeling recently, and I’m inspired to do more.

    As Susan Gunn stated, we won’t all necessarily be hugely successful. But taking responsibility to change your life is the key.

  6. Very inspirational AND responsible to remember the personal power and responsibility we have to choose ourselves. Life is a series of choices, in which we are too often more concerned with failing than experiencing.

    Often the choices we make today, rob us of future freedom – narrowing the future options we have to choose from [think debt, breaking the law, poor relationships].

    Well done James. And yes, I recognized the tie into @jAltucher ‘s work, proving you not only create well, but you read well too.

  7. I am new to your blog and this is the first article from you that I read. It resonates so perfectly with the angst and confusion of modern people (including me!). It inspires and gives hope with the perfect choice of words and a convincing example of success. It stimulates intelligent curiosity and allows access to more reflexion referencing James Altucher.

    I am not disappointed.

    Thank you!

  8. Inspiring article.

    From 0 to 1,000,000,000!!!

    But she still knew how to write and put ideas together.

    It’s funny, but I grew up a block down the street from James Altucher.

  9. James, I buy all your points and views wholeheartedly. But can all of what you say in your blog and not necessarily this specific article work for a person employed in a job? For instance, I run a small business and of late or rather over the years have come to think or realize (depends which I prefer) that maybe I must go back to a job now because with three kids, spiralling costs even new business opportunities however rosy they might look, seem far fetched and riskier. Maybe, my sense of purpose is to provide for my kids and that alone provides me all the happiness I need.

    • Hi Sandeep,

      Although I don’t have kids, I agree with your situation. Establishing yourself in the business world can take time and be quite difficult. As a father/husband/son, it’s your duty to take care of your family and provide them a stable income stream they can rely on.

      So if your business is NOT currently producing the income that you want, the smartest thing would be to do is to get a job. (I started out freelancing, and have a good position with one of my former clients that helps me build the skills that I’m going to need for my business as well in the future).

      Many people when they begin their business they aren’t smart. They think of the rosy dream of succeeding without thinking about the thorns and the struggles that come with it. I’ve made that mistake myself.

      But building a business requires a lot of smart decisions and effective thinking.

      Have a look at the article here: http://www.italoconsulting.com/articles/solo.htm

      THis speaks to lawyers working with a firm who’d like to go out on their own. But the same ideas can be applied by an individual that’s looking to start his own business.

  10. Thanks, again, James, for some great inspiration to someone who wants so desperately to be relevant, successful and respected – yet feels so utterly lost, indecisive and full of self-doubt. For now, I am taking advice from my support system, which includes you btw, and allowing it to sit with me as I take one step each day to at least move in some direction with the opportunities I have at hand. It is very comforting to me to feel somewhat connected with others through your blog who seem to be at the same point in their journey as me. And, of course, to feel connected to a mentor like yourself, who has some wisdom about this journey and generosity to share. Have a great week!

  11. Great article. There is nothing that leads to defeat faster than not taking responsibility for your situation and doing something about it. It is so easy to point the finger and blame “them” for you situation, but it gets you nowhere.

  12. Thanks for an incredible article James which, by the way, speaks to a spiritual truth (I´m a pastor). The bible says that many are called, but few are chosen (Matthew 22:14). We might be called children by God but God still chooses to add himself only to those who choose to believe that we are people of destiny and design even when everything to the five senses tells us that we are failures. When we step out in faith and choose what He has said about us, we allow God to “choose” us and bring his blessing into our lives.

  13. Fantastic post! Inspiring and insightful. Personal responsibility, when taken, can really help solve many problems. plus, when you start an action plan toward your goal, you take the attention off yourself,put it on the task at hand, and things move forward. so cool. Thanks, again, James. Keep it coming…

  14. Very cool story. I didn’t know all of that about JK. It’s very cool hearing about the stories of successful people. Makes me think that MAYBE, just maybe, that could also be me if I follow your advice :). Ok, maybe not like JK. But successful nonetheless. Thanks for sharing this!

  15. I have always had somewhat of an allergic reaction to the word “luck.” It had been said to me more often than I would like to and I feel like it strips away effort, dedication and resilience.

    However, I do like how you use it in this article: an open door that one chooses to walk through. I will think of this definition next time the word gets my blood boiling again.

  16. I’ve been enjoying your articles for a few weeks now, and always find something inspiring.

    I really liked Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘don’t break the chain’ rule you shared a few days ago; I adapted it for my purposes and yesterday I reached day seven without breaking the chain! Thank you! : )

  17. James, I knew that when I came across your website just a week ago that you would deposit so much into the well of wisdom within me. I,like all of those who have commented above feel fortunate to have come across your path. Thank you for sharing your LIGHT so that others are inspired and empowered to do the same.

    Peace and Blessings!

  18. Thanks James,

    It’s true, when we choose us, the heart and soul of us, the things that bring us joy and fulfillment, we can succeed. It takes discernment of what we are feeling. We change when we are aware that what is is less than we deserve.

  19. Dear James,

    I really like this article; the reason being that I also was at the edge of despair a while back, unfortunately I gave up on my dream when things became quite tough and that is one thing I really regret till date. Now I am stuck in 9 to 5 and not enjoying it one little bit. Your article about J K Rowling really touches a nerve. I hope it serves as a positive lesson to all dreamers.

    Thanks so much.

  20. Taking responsibility is the key. In sports terms, you gotta want the ball in your hands at the end of the game and be ready to take the shot even if you’ve missed the last 8 in a row. Doubt & fear are a natural part of the human condition. They are but cues and sensations to take action and lean hard and long on our dreams!

  21. Hi James ! This “Chosen Ones” post is one I found to be sensationally inspiring — thank you. I’ve read some of your other posts (I’m a new subscriber). The “2 Minute Rule” post regarding procrastination was very useful too and I suggest it may be relevant to the “Chosen Ones” post. Life presents us all with opportunities. J K Rowling obviously saw opportunities – as we can choose to do. J K Rowling accepted and ran with the opportunities she was presented with. We all have choice in how we react to what Life serves up to us. I have, in the past, been guilty of being given opportunities and then procrastinating on them, not choosing to “Do” or “Go”. It seems to me that making the “anti-procrastination” decision to “Do” or “Go” or “Create” is also a part of becoming one of “The Chosen Ones”. I am building a new habit around NOT procrastinating and about achieving my life purpose by choosing to “Do”. Your posts are helpful and inspiring. I have gratitude for you. Thank you!

  22. Thanks James for the great inspiration….

    I really like the part where you quoted the power of personal responsibilities and “before the world could bet on her, she had to bet on herself.”

    This story of JK Rowling is really an eye opener. It teaches us not to give excuses to ourselves to chase over our dreams. Those successful people are human too, they have their own fears but they choose to suppress them. They are successful because they want to, they strongly believe in achieving it and of course the work very hard for it… because nothing in this world come easily.

  23. Hi James,

    I loved this post, it pretty much sums up my attitude.

    7 years ago I was badly depressed and tried to commit suicide. I’ve recovered now, but life still isn’t easy – I’m a single parent on welfare, studying (with almost straight A’s but that’s hard work – writing my MA thesis now), and volunteer as the secretary of the NGO that runs my kid’s daycare. Committing to exercise and writing are important to me, but I have a hard time finding the hours, or the energy… In the end, as we know, self-discipline isn’t endless and after a long day of studying and taking care of my kid, it’s hard to resist that chocolate bar. Also, lately I find myself skipping gym in order to have more time to write — or vice versa. Do you have any advice on juggling multiple Big Projects?

  24. Hi James,

    I love your writings. You inspire me. Do you mind if I sometimes use your ideas in my blog?

    Good luck!

    • Thanks Lukas! You are welcome to share my ideas far and wide. I always appreciate a link back to the original article on my site. Thanks for the support!

      James

  25. James, great story. JK Rowling is an inspiration in so many ways and a great example of someone who chose herself. Thanks for the hat tip.

    -James

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