by Matt "Kroc" Kroczaleski T-Nation
People love to say how someone is a "product of his or her environment."
Often it's apologist jargon reserved for when someone does something wrong or commits a crime. It suggests the accused had no choice other than to become what their environment led them to be. To put it bluntly, I don't agree with this line of thinking.
If this were true I would've dropped out of high school, gotten into drugs, and become a full-fledged alcoholic. I never would've accomplished anything and blamed everyone and everything else for my failures.
To be fair, I'm not saying that your environment has no effect on you whatsoever. I'm merely stating that everything in life boils down to choice, and the power to choose lies within the individual. Certain situations may increase the difficulty of the choice, but the freedom to choose your actions – and your attitude – remains.
It Begins With Responsibility
First, one must assume all responsibility for everything that's happened or has failed to happen to them. Once you adopt this as a philosophy for governing your life, you become empowered.
You see that you and you alone decide your future through the choices you make. This philosophy is the key to unlocking your potential as by doing so you not only assume responsibility, but also control of everything in your life.
Successful people choose to learn from adversity and allow it to make them stronger, while weaker people use adversity as a crutch to blame their failures on. Yes, bad things may happen to you that appear to be beyond your control (developing testicular cancer was one such occurrence for me) and you may not always be able to control those instances.
But you can always control how you react to them. You can see them as learning experiences and opportunities to grow into something better, or you can use them as excuses that will ultimately hold you back from reaching your true potential and lead you down a path to mediocrity or worse.
Believing that my choices directly affect the quality of my life has allowed me to fight through much adversity. As a child, I was surrounded by drinking and drug use and could've easily gone down that path, but I also had many goals.
From a very young age I knew that these negative things that surrounded me would only prevent me from achieving what I really wanted. I made a conscious decision, a choice, to avoid them.
I also grew up poor, in an area that was rife with poverty, and was led to believe that wealthy people were somehow privileged and that their success was due to some inherent advantages that I didn't have access to. Yet as I matured, I noticed that the harder a person worked, the more successful they were, and usually, successful people just worked harder than less successful people. This relationship between hard work and success not only applied to economics, but also athletics and scholastics.
The Greatest Success Factor
There are many other factors that play into success, but I believe the single most important factor is hard work. There's no disputing that hard work is a choice that anyone can make, but as you might've guessed or experienced, hard work is difficult.
Many would rather make excuses or blame others instead of simply admitting that their lives are substandard because they've chosen the path of least resistance.
Similarly, it's also much easier to temporarily escape your problems with alcohol or drugs than it is to get to work solving them, and as such, the temptation to self-medicate is too much for many to resist. In either case, it's choosing the path that presents the least challenge and the results will usually speak for themselves.
I've been through some difficult situations I'd very much like to forget. I've had to wrestle a loaded gun away from the head of a loved one to prevent a suicide.
I've had to go out into the woods in the dead of winter to break up branches because there wasn't enough money to buy firewood to heat our home.
I've had to sit helpless in the passenger seat of a car while it careens at eighty-plus miles per hour down a dirt road with the driver so drunk, he had no memory of it the next day.
I experienced all those things during my adolescence, and honestly, these are far from the most difficult things I've had to deal with.
I know what it's like to contemplate suicide because my problems seemed so insurmountable. I felt completely alone in the world, just me and demons, and the only thing I desired was for the pain to stop. I've felt all this on the inside and yet had to walk through life presenting myself as if nothing was wrong.
I used to hate when people would ask me, "How are you?" Even though I knew the question was just a rhetorical greeting, it bothered me that I had to put on a fake smile and lie, answering "Good, how are you?" when I really wanted to reply, "Well, things are so dark and horrible right now that I was just contemplating killing myself."
Adversity Makes You Stronger
I'm not sharing these things looking for sympathy or pity. I loathe pity, and there are many out there that have had much more difficult lives than I have. I only share these experiences so that others going through tough times can see that anything is possible if you're willing to work hard enough and persevere when things are at their worst.
I can say with total honesty that I feel fortunate to have experienced all the negative things that I have. Adversity makes us stronger.
Every time you overcome something difficult it makes the next challenge that much easier. My biggest fear with my own children is that their lives are too easy and that they'll have a very hard time coping with difficult things in life when they inevitably arise.
I could've easily used any of my experiences as excuses for not achieving anything, as so many often do. Instead, I chose to learn from what I went through and make myself a better, stronger person. I chose to use what I observed to make better choices and build the kind of life I really wanted.
And even in my darkest times, when it seemed like there were no answers to my problems, I made the choice to never take the path of least resistance. You can do the same.
So choose to not to be a product of your environment, but rather a product of your desires. While I can't promise you that it will be easy (it most certainly won't), I can promise you that it'll be worth it.