Life’s Unfair. Get Used To It.

Father and son at the sea shore

My Dad and Me

Jake was a model employee. He’d been with the same company for 45 years, and never missed a day. At his retirement party, he received a farewell gift: a trip for two to Aruba. It was something Jake and his wife had always dreamt of.

A week later, they were on their way to the airport. While going through security, Jake suddenly collapsed, and died of a heart attack.

Jenny was a model athlete: tall, muscular, and motivated. From the age of fifteen she’d won practically every triathlon she took part in. At her Olympic qualifier she crushed the national competition. Two more weeks, and she would be on her way to represent her country.

Friends threw her a farewell pool party. That night, Jenny slipped over an ice cube, and landed on the edge of the pool. With a broken tibia, she could kiss her Olympic dreams goodbye. She never reached her old level again.

Folkert, my father, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Last year, one of his doctors told him he was in the final stages, and advised him to get his affairs in order. While I was visiting, we got a second opinion which was much more optimistic.

My father began a breakthrough treatment to which he responded remarkably well. Instead of a few months, he was given a number of years. Then he started experiencing new symptoms, completely unrelated to his cancer. On September 30th, he was diagnosed with ALS.

DO YOU HAVE THE ANSWER

What do you make of these stories? How do you respond? What can you possibly say to Folkert, Jenny, and to Jake’s wife?

Is there a satisfactory answer to the question why bad things happen to good people?

Some have tried to come up with something, as if knowing the answer would somehow soften the blow. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, I get very uncomfortable when people attempt to make a wrong right. On what authority are they speaking? What do they know that I don’t?

Please don’t tell me that “everything happens for a reason,” or that it’s “for the better.” Don’t tell me there is a G-d who orchestrates cruel things out of love for his unruly children. Don’t tell me that Jake, Jenny, and Folkert deserved their fate because of some colossal cosmic conspiracy we call karma.

It doesn’t help.

It only hurts.

Yet, in the back of most people’s minds is the belief that we reap what we sow. We get what we deserve. It’s at the heart of the American Dream. If you study, apply yourself, and work hard, you can go from foster care to self-made millionaire. That’s only fair, isn’t it? If you are a good person, good things will happen to you. Good boys get rewarded. Bad boys get punished.

But what about all those bad boys who end up on top? The higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the more selfish, cutthroat executives you’ll encounter. They didn’t get there by playing nice. In certain circles, success knows no mercy. It’s either eat or be eaten. Sharks in fancy suits walk all over gentle Mr. Goody two-shoes, the docile doormat.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR CAREER

A few days ago I had a serious conversation with one of my voice-over students. In the last twelve months, she had invested a nice chunk of change in her studio. She bought a great new mic, a lovely preamp, and even a new computer.

I believe in her, and more importantly, she believes in herself.

When we started our session, she sounded peeved.

“Paul,” she said, “Over the past couple of years I have worked my butt off. You know that. I promised myself to give this voice-over thing a good shot. When I listen back to some of my early recordings, I can tell that I have grown. And when I listen to what else is out there, I know I have something to offer. You said so yourself. But get this…

The other day I told one of my voice-over friends that I was going to audition for that commercial we talked about. I really poured everything you’ve taught me into that audition, and I sounded pretty good, if I say so myself. Guess who got the job? My friend! The one who has zero personality and zero experience. She even let me listen to her audition, and it was mediocre at best.

Be honest with me, Paul. Did I just waste years of my life? Should I sell my equipment? What good did all of that training do if I get beaten by a newbie? It’s so frustrating, and it makes me mad! How long do I have to wait for my big break?”

THE MYTH OF OVERNIGHT SUCCESS

When I heard her question, I had to think of actress Jenna Fischer. You probably know her as Pam from the American version of The Office. She always wanted to be an actor, and she eventually moved to Hollywood to pursue her dream. She fully expected to be working in movies within a year of coming to LA. It didn’t happen that way.

Jenna worked as a temp, she took acting and improv classes, and she borrowed money to make ends meet. At one point she had to wear a pair of shoes with a hole in them because she couldn’t afford anything else. It took her more than six long years before she finally got “discovered.”

Jenna Fischer is a perfect example of the adage that it can take years to become an overnight success. She knows from experience that the (voice) acting business is without guarantees, no matter how talented and motivated you are. When asked about it, she had this to say:

“This business is not fair. It is not like other businesses where if you show up, and work above and beyond everyone’s expectations, you are pretty much guaranteed to move up the ladder. I don’t know why it works out for some and not for others. And when you move here (Hollywood, P.S.) you have no idea which camp you are going to fall into.”

JUST BE FAIR

“Fair” is an interesting concept. Most dictionaries define it as “in accordance with the rules.” Most rules civil societies live by, are practical, logical, and even reasonable. They’re an example of cause-effect thinking: If A, then B. Without rules, life would be chaotic. 

Most of us have unwritten rules that guide our hopes and expectations. To name a few: “If I train hard, and do my very best, I will be successful.” Or “If I live a healthy life, I will live a long life.”

Here’s the problem: those rules aren’t always reasonable, and they are rarely absolute. They only seem that way. What makes sense, and what seems right from our limited perspective, doesn’t necessarily happen. Kind, innocent people die young. Selfish bastards live to be a hundred. No explanation given. 

Secondly: Most people don’t play by our rules. They might not even be aware of them. Perhaps they’re playing a different game altogether, and we don’t even see it. Many decisions that affect us, have nothing to do with us. 

Third: Life isn’t logical. It’s not a matter of “If A, then B.” Usually, it’s: “If A, then D or Z.” People are emotional beings, and what they do isn’t cold and calculated. We forget. We make mistakes. We act impulsively, and break all the rules.

Last but not least: Even though we often think we are, we’re never one hundred percent in control. If we’re physically and mentally healthy, we can control our actions to a great extent, but we cannot control the outcome. Life consists of too many variables. Even perfectionists have to admit that…. at some point.  

NOW WHAT?

So, where does this leave us?

Are we hopeless and helpless leaves in the winds of chance? Should we stop trying to accomplish things, simply because the outcome is uncertain, and likely to be unfair?

I’ll tell you what I think we should do.

We should begin by skipping the question “Why.” “Why me, why this, why now?”

Asking “Why” is asking for a logical, reasonable explanation which you won’t always get. I hate to break it to you, but your rules, conscious or unconscious, don’t apply all the time. 

My student did everything she could to win that audition. There was nothing she could have done to change the preference of the client.

Jenny missed the Olympics because she accidentally stepped on that ice cube. It wasn’t part of some devious celestial plan.

Jake had earned that dream vacation, but he died at the airport because his heart stopped working. Period.

My father did nothing to deserve ALS. There wasn’t anything he could have done to prevent it from affecting him. The question “fair or not fair” isn’t going to change his condition. He has to learn to live with ALS, and he’ll eventually die with it. 

One last thing, if I may.

Most people tend to contemplate the issue of fairness when they believe they’ve been wronged, tricked, or were denied something they felt entitled to. That’s when they will ask the question “Why?”

When things go really well, and life smiles upon us, we hardly ever ask the question “Why me, why this, why now?”

We take our good fortune for granted.

Think about it.

Is that really fair?

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

PS Be sweet. Please retweet!

photo credit: doobybrain via photopin cc

About the author

Paul Strikwerda

is a Dutch-English voice-over pro, coach, and writer. His blog is one of the most widely read and influential blogs in the industry. Paul is also the author of "Making Money In Your PJs, Freelancing for voice-overs and other solopreneurs." goo.gl/ihVpMc

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career

14 Responses to Life’s Unfair. Get Used To It.

  1. Pingback: Feeling Like A Fake | Nethervoice

  2. Kent Ingram

    Hi, again, Paul: this article touched me very much. Like you, I am a part-time caregiver to elderly parents. My dad has battled lymphoma since December of last year and, hopefully, he’ll see his 91st birthday in December of this year. My mom is terribly arthritic and has dementia. I’m the one who has to be available to take them to doctor appointments and run errands, etc. (my dad is still able to drive, believe it, or not). I know you understand what a drain it is of one’s energy. This has affected the way I run my VO business, as well. Count me as one who DOES believe in Karma and that most things do have a reason for happening. I also believe that there IS a system of universal justice. Even great white sharks get hunted down and eaten by killer whales, if you’ve ever seen those nature show clips. I try to take a lesson from all the things that happen to me, both positive and negative, and I’ve quit trying to be the poster-boy for equality and fairness because, as you’ve written, life just isn’t fair. All I know is that I have to make the best out of the situation I’m in, whether it’s as a part-time caregiver or a VO talent. My direction is always forward, rarely backward. Thanks for a wonderful article, sir, and bless you and your family.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    I want to thank everybody for their heartwarming responses. It struck me that we know very little about one another. What we see is just the outer layer of a life. The sad thing is that we often base our judgment on this outer layer. That’s not fair either.

    The fact that life isn’t fair doesn’t mean that we should not strive for justice and equality. I believe it is our duty to point out evil, and to create a world in which all can thrive in freedom, good health and safety.

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  3. Rick Lance Studio

    Man, Paul… what a bitter cold piece of reality you just presented.. and eloquently, as usual too!

    I think one of the hardest things for creative, sensitive people in many different professions to deal with is asking that “why” question and not becoming negative and pessimistic about their lives. It’s just life… live it the best you can.

    I attribute it to your great writing skill that your article did not even come off as “negative” in nature. And those of us who know you realize that you’re a very positive guy.

    Best wishes to your Father in his battle with ALS!

    [Reply]

  4. mattforrest

    Paul, my thoughts & prayers are with you & your dad & family. You’re right, life’s not fair. And for a species like ours with our higher-intelligence and self-awareness, I think too often the simple explanations are overlooked, ignored, or even condemned. I do not think God causes bad things to happen, I do not believe everything happens for a reason, and I do not believe we are victims of karma. Bad stuff happens to good people, period. Good things happen to bad people. But as you said, when good things happen to good people, no one notices.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Thank you so much, Matt. As a species we have higher intelligence and self-awareness. I only wish we would use it more. In spite of all that brain power, there are so many things we fail to understand and fail to do. Sometimes I wonder what kind of planet we will leave to our children…

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  5. Debbie Grattan

    Paul – again – wonderful piece of work here. I just love how you can take a subject that is so universal and relate it to each one of us, wherever we are in our lives or careers. You’re a remarkable writer.
    And more important, you are a remarkable person. Thanks for all you do in being a part of our voiceover community. And well wishes on your Dad’s battle with ALS…such an unforgiving disease.

    [Reply]

    Paul Strikwerda Reply:

    Dear friends, thank you for all your heartwarming responses to this blog post. As you can tell, this subject touches me deeply. Like my dad, I approach each day with gratitude for what has been, for what is, and for what is yet to come. I make a concerted effort to plan ahead, and to enjoy each moment.

    Fall is a season of transformation. When the time comes, I will go back to the Netherlands for a while, to help my dad transition. He has been there for me, and I am grateful that I can be there for him.

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  6. Silvia McClure

    Great article! When I’m in that “Why me, why this, why now” questioning-mood after something didn’t go as I had wished, I find that practicing gratitude helps.

    [Reply]

  7. Dave Bisson

    Very well-written, Paul. You make an excellent point about how we remember all the bad time when we didn’t get what we felt we were “entitled to” but rarely keep track of all the times unexpected good things happened. Loved this post. Simply fantastic.

    Also, I wanted to thank you — I recently got a Studiobricks ONE (and am VERY pleased with it), and your blogpost about it was one of the main reasons I decided to make the purchase. Thanks so much!

    [Reply]

  8. Joe Van Riper

    Oh, if only there was some cosmic balance sheet! But, in truth, the only thing we can be certain of us that we are on our own amidst a world of others in the same boat… alone in the final analysis. But most of us are equipped with social awareness and an innate sense of community. These are the things that keep us from complete caos and anarchy; discomfort at causing harm, a desire to cooperate with others, a sense of guilt, and feelings of charity… all of the things in the “asset” column of that cosmic balance sheet. We don’t really expect fairness. If we did, we would become less social and cooperative as disappointments continue to point to the absence of that grand ledger. But we don’t. We continue to be the best person we can be for the betterment of all.

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  9. Dave Clark

    Right on, Paul. Life is a gift. Precious, fragile and fleeting. We can be a blight or a blessing, selfish or sharing. The choice is ours, no matter our ‘luck’ or circumstances.

    [Reply]

  10. Andrew Wehrlen

    Excellent post! I teach my kids that life is NOT fair. Work hard and do your best not because it will automatically result in success but because it’s the right thing to do in any endeavor. What happens in life is what happenens. We must accept that and roll forward or, if you’re so inclined, roll over and take it.
    Thanks! And best wishes as you go forward with your father and his ALS; difficult issue.

    [Reply]

  11. Leah Frederick

    Wonderful article, Paul. I found this little nugget of inspiration in an interview with Harrison Ford where he said,

    “There are a lot of different paths through the jungle, but I’ve always thought the simplest thing you can do is make yourself useful. Be easy to work with, be a hard worker and help people get the job done. And do it with as much passion and quality as you can. [Be] willing to ask, How can I make this work, how can I be useful? And, it helps to be lucky.”

    [Reply]

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