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Start Making Progress to Your Goals by Acknowledging the Full Scope of Your Challenge


Sometimes, people who give advice make achieving financial independence or enjoying career success sound simple. And in a mathematical sense, that can be true.

For example, if you want to save money each month, you need to earn more than you spend. You can follow a 50/30/20 rule for budgeting. And since there will be emergencies, not all of which can be covered by bail bonds or a friend’s timely assistance, have at least three months of salary set aside.

This is basic arithmetic. But for many people today, it’s not a simple matter of following some equations. Middle-class families might barely make ends meet. Young professionals struggle to advance in their careers while being unable to pay off student debt. Millions of Americans might not even be able to deal with a moderate emergency.

When you’re living from paycheck to paycheck, achieving financial stability can seem impossible. Short of winning the lottery, how can you even get to the point where making progress towards your goals is a matter of simple arithmetic?

Untangling a mess

On the ground, in real-life situations, someone who’s trying to break out of a bad situation will likely be facing multiple issues at the same time. It’s like a mess of threads you have to untangle. You aren’t solving for x, but x, y, z, and many other unknowns. And that makes it a complicated problem.

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Swap out ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ with ‘rich’ and ‘poor,’ and the essence of this statement is the same.

Rich people are all the same, in the sense that they all ‘get it right’ in the same factors. But every poor person or family is faced with unique challenges. Failing to recognize this, many people will inevitably fail to improve on their finances, even by following well-meaning tips. And the same goes for career advice.

If you don’t take action based on personalized advice, you can’t make headway. Start by identifying the particulars of your situation. Look at every factor and dig deeper.

For example, millennials are perceived as overspending on non-essentials. But they don’t do that because they are somehow wired differently. They are burdened with student debt while often serving as caregivers for older generations, even as salaries fail to keep pace with inflation. This makes them prone to emotional decisions.

woman working with her laptop on the couch

Targeted improvements and hard decisions

You need to be realistic about improving a complicated situation. This will help you make targeted improvements in areas of high urgency and impact. It will also point out practices that are simply unsustainable if you want to get better.

If you’re making $600 a week and half of that goes to pay for rent, you can hardly expect to cover all other expenses and still pay off debt. You’ll have to explore other options for actual affordable housing, even if it means crashing with a friend, moving back to your parents’ house, or leaving the big city.

Career progress is no different. If you’re eyeing jobs that require new skills, and you’re not learning them at your current job, you’ll never get there unless you find another way. But how’s that going to happen when all of your spare hours are devoted to watching TV or playing video games?

Work with what you have

Becoming successful and financially independent was never going to be a simple equation. You already knew that. But a thorough evaluation of your situation shouldn’t be overwhelming.

People are wired to fear the unknown. So even if your financial or career picture looks desperate, achieving definition makes it less intimidating.

You need to work with what you have. Maybe you can’t afford an online course to learn a new skill, but you can make some progress with free tutorials. You’ll have to spend some more time searching for reliable sources. Ask on forums. Let people know about your situation. Someone might prove willing to point you in the right direction.

It’s possible to start a business without bootstrapping. Investors look to fund ideas, but also people they can believe in. You can leverage a promising concept or the fact that you have a clear vision for success. Self-improvement goes a long way towards demonstrating the latter.

Never stop working on those areas for improvement. It will be a long haul, but eventually, you can bring some of those variables under control. And when you make that equation easier to solve, you know that you’re slowly getting to the point where things become simple.

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