The Responsibility of Opportunity


On Tuesday of last week, the temperature was 102 degrees in Phoenix. While hot, I didn’t mind it too much. My home is air-conditioned. When I need to go somewhere, the Max A/C in my Honda Accord cools me down seemingly within seconds.

For lunch that day, I had a taco salad. The lettuce was purchased through our local timeshare, the meat had been bought from the grocery store and cooked the night before. I warmed up the meat in my microwave, but chopped the onion, jalapeño, and olives fresh.

Lunch was good—and filling. I even skipped the cookie afterwards.

I did decide to brew myself a cup of coffee that afternoon. I used Gevalia House Blend (it is one of my favorites) and added a small shot of Coffeemate Caramel Macchiato creamer—just enough to take the edge off and sweeten the cup for the afternoon.

With my coffee, I sat down with my laptop at my dining room table to do some work for the afternoon. I placed my cell phone facedown on the table and decided to open Facebook first.

Near the top of my Newsfeed was an article from the New York Times: So Similar, So Different. The tagline caught my attention, “For these 2 women, the lottery of birth decides opportunity.”

I was intrigued. I clicked over to the New York Times website completely unprepared for the emotion that would accompany my reading of the story.

You are welcome to go read the article. I highly recommend it before continuing with this post. But if you don’t have the time, here’s a short synopsis:

Journalist Nicholas Kristof writes about an encounter last month where he was accompanied on a visit to Myanmar with a 20-year old college student from Notre Dame named Nicole Sganga. Upon arriving at a remote village, Nicholas and Nicole met a 20-year old woman named Sajan. The parallels between the two women immediately attracted them to one another: same age, same gender, both bright, hard-working, and fun-loving.

And yet, the differences were overwhelming. Nicole is from a middle-class family in Long Island, being educated in journalism, and doesn’t plan to start her family until ago 30. Sajan dropped out of school at age 10 when her father died, was traded for marriage at age 13, raises 2 children, has no electricity, shoes, or sandals, and can only leave home with her husband’s permission.

Two young women, born at almost the same time, both with talent and dreams, both seizing opportunities, yet only one in a context in which her abilities can come fully into play.

Talent is universal, but opportunity is not. May those of us who have been given opportunity refuse to waste it. (tweet that)

As I considered my own life in light of this story, I was reminded of the great opportunity I have been afforded. By the simple, uncontrollable nature of my birth, I have been given enviable gifts: shelter, clothing, food, clean water… shoes. These are simple necessities that many human beings around the world will go without. I grew up in a safe, middle-class neighborhood with public schools and parks and rec departments. I did nothing to earn this opportunity—it was granted to me solely by the lottery of my birth.

And yet, how often do I take it all for granted? Nicholas Kristof’s piece caused me to become further aware of the responsibility associated with the opportunity I have been given—and convicted at how often I squander it.

Your life is different than mine. But I encourage you today to consider the blessing of the opportunity you have been afforded. And determine to make the most of your opportunity.

Be grateful. Those of us who have been given opportunity should be grateful daily. Too often, we think about all the things we don’t have instead of the wonderful things we already possess. Consider again the story of Sajan—and sense your responsibility to be grateful for the life and the chances you have been given.

Be diligent. There is great responsibility that accompanies our opportunity. Our most important response is to make wise and diligent use of it. Work hard. Study hard. Everyday.

Do not overvalue comfort. There is a natural inclination in each of us to avoid pain at all costs. But only through trials in life do we develop patience and perseverance and maturity. Those who have seemingly been given opportunity to avoid pain and discomfort must be careful to not value comfort over growth.

Own less. Our unearned gift of opportunity ought to give us pause in our consumerist pursuits. Sure, we studied hard in school and worked hard to develop our skills in order to earn the type of living we can now afford. But are bigger houses, faster cars, trendier fashion, and cooler toys really the greatest use of our money? Especially when there are so many people in our world with equal drive and talent, but without opportunity.

Remember others. One danger among those who have opportunity is to forget those who do not. And whether we are talking about inequality in America or around the world, one of our ongoing responsibilities is to remind ourselves that injustice still exists.

Create opportunity. With your time, your talents, and your dollars. Find trustworthy organizations that are working to solve these problems at home, overseas, and for future generations. Get involved financially by contributing from your excess. I am a fan of both Compassion and Heartwork (both are working hard to provide opportunity to kids in developing countries), but there are countless others.

Opportunity is not universal. May those of us who receive it, appreciate the great responsibility that accompanies it.

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

Follow on TwitterLike on Facebook


  1. says

    Your post gives power to the saying do what you are meant to do. Some of us feel inside of us what we are meant to do and don’t do it. Some of us feel what we are meant to do and can’t do it.

    Those of us that can at the least attempt to do what we feel we were meant to do are truly lucky.

  2. says

    Very timely post indeed Josh. You not only possess the marvellous ability to “see”, but also to express yourself in a remarkable way! Humble reminders of observation and (self)-reflection…
    Thanks again for your inspiration and may you have an equally inspiring day!!

    • says

      Btw Josh, not sure if it’s only me but the “tweet that” option for “Talent is universal, but opportunity is not. May those of us who have been given opportunity refuse to waste it.” created an error at my end. Once I replaced the link with the URL copied from here the tweet went through…
      Just wanted to let you know in case there’s something wrong with the shortened link or something.

  3. says

    Just take the time to realize how lucky we are, to be able to read and comment this article.
    As a thirty-something born amongst the wealthiest nations on earth, I have been slowly realizing that it is my responsibility to create something out of this opportunity, acknowledging this is the necessary step to stay the course.
    Thank you for this article Joshua,

  4. says

    I love this. One of the greatest vulnerabilities is gratitude. It is an acceptance that we have received something precious and possibly undeserved, are will to acknowledge that gift. Opportunities are the actions of gratitude. That is how I look at life. as usual,
    All the best~ Julie

    • says

      *if we are willing

      Darn cell phones and their small keypads that make it easy for me to enjoy my favorite minimalist writer’s insights over a fresh cinnamon roll and hot cup of coffee… ;)

  5. Judy says

    I often think I had it so rough ( childhood tragedy ) . —And I did…yet still I know I am blessed beyond measure. Now I sit in a air-conditioned home and I am sipping gourmet coffee as I type to you. I have all the clothes I need…plenty of food and clean water…and people in my life who love and care about me. If I need something, I hop in MY Honda Accord and go buy it! It’s like I have a magic wand. How dare I ever complain! Thanks for the reminder. :)

  6. Ryan Brevard says

    The NYT article presents the false notion that everyone here in the US has opportunity. Would it have been that difficult to find a young woman who has ‘lost’ the lottery of birth here in the US? Certainly not.

    • Beth DeRoos says

      Ryan Brevard I am so glad you noted that. Nicholas Kristof runs all over the world doing stories like this, when in fact we have so many Sajan’s here in the states.

    • joshua becker says

      I actually think Nicholas was quite fair in his conversation concerning opportunity in America vs. opportunity in third-world countries such as Myanmar. In fact, the entire article was written as a response to those who criticize him for not drawing more attention to problems in the US.

      In the conclusion of the article, he writes 5 paragraphs summarizing the needs in both countries—never arguing that opportunity is universal in America.

  7. A Swedish reader of your blog says

    Thank you for supporting my country by drinking Swedish coffee! Was so surprised to read it is possible to buy outside Sweden. The most popular coffee here. :) The company, founded in 1853, has its name Gevalia from the old town Gefle a bit north from our capital Stockholm.

  8. LL says

    Love the gratitude reminder. Need that kick in the butt daily. Those of us who were labeled “middle class”, but due to the economic downturn in the last few years, feel disenfranchised, need to remember how much better we STILL have it than many. Good post! Are you sure that wasn’t 112 in PHX?

  9. says

    I, too, read, and was moved by, the article you refer to. Like you, I feel privilege and gratitude. Unlike you, I have a 20-year-old daughter (in fact, I have two) and so the piece hit home even more directly. I passed along the piece to my daughters and, not surprisingly, it evoked emotions and awe. Thanks for turning the piece into an even greater inspiration, which I will also share with them (and others). Best regards, David

  10. says

    Hi Josh, I really liked this post. I did read NY Times article too and was incredibly touched. My story strangely resonates Sajan’s, but in a different setting and in a different country. I’ve spent more than half of my life living in the slums of Mumbai, India. To put it bluntly, I’m a slum kid. One of the earliest lessons I’ve learnt is that hunger is real. So is homelessness. So is hopelessness. My story has changed though – somewhere, somehow, through God’s grace. It’s not that I live a privileged life now, like any average Indian kid would. But life’s better. Much better. When things get better, there’s a temptation seek comfort. Thank you for reminding me of the privilege of opportunity I enjoy today. I have much to be grateful for.

  11. Beth DeRoos says

    Yes I read the Nicholas Kristof when it came out and am so glad it gave you pause because what struck me as so interesting in reading your piece, especially how it began, was how UNSimple or UNminimalist your own lifestyle seems.

    I walk the talk when it comes to our minimalist simple lifestyle. In fact our lifestyle allows us to have the means to help others who like Sajan in the Kristof article.

    How many Americans who profess to live a minimalist or simple lifestyle help others? Others right here at home!!! One need NOT got to some other country to see a Sajan.

    All to often it seems as if those who claim to be minimalist in media stories are more elitist minimalists.

    • LL says

      Many are not minimalist by choice. How nice be able to make that leap coming from a secure place. HOWEVER, there are many layers of that one word. Minimalist in possessions, in thought, in desires, in environment (small footprint), in building a small house (how small is small?) and even in one’s effort. I think one must be ever vigilant to live a simple life! My simple may not be your simple. It’s a personal journey. Of those two 20 year old women, who is to say which lives the simpler life? Was that even a debate?

    • Angela says

      Beth, it is good to hear you are living simply so that you can give to others. Keep in mind, for many of us, this is a journey, and we are all learning. Like the story in the Bible of the widow’s mite-where she gave all she had, we are inspired to be that selfless, but we’re all at different stages in getting there.

  12. says

    Great post, Joshua!

    When I give my son a gift, I want him to enjoy it and use it. I don’t want him to throw it in the corner and whine because it’s not as shiny as the one his friend got. I also don’t want him to refuse to use it because his other friend doesn’t have one. Being happy is not a sin. Being miserable does not make you a better person. I want my son to appreciate the gifts I give him and not act like a spoiled brat. I think God wants the same from me.

    While I’m here… I want to thank you for sharing your story and your message. You have inspired me to live a better life.

  13. says

    Josh, I really needed to read this today. Last year I moved from the UK to Australia to begin a life of indefinite travels but couldn’t enjoy myself or be grateful on the most basic level because I was depressed (read: unsettled) and, as it turns out, seriously unwell. Long story short, after going home to get treatment, I am now back out in Australia and determined to be grateful and not waste the opportunity and second chance I have been given.
    I’m determined to turn my pain into beauty through writing in the hopes that it helps others whilst trying to have less ‘stuff’ both in the physical and emotional sense.

    Thank you again for this :)

  14. says

    Thanks for the reminder not to overvalue comfort. I am so guilty of this, and so are my daughters, and it plays out in so many different ways – avoiding new relationships, avoiding work, avoiding physical pain, avoiding new experiences – and just plain choosing the sofa reading blogs over doing something more productive. Something to work on …

    • joshua becker says

      Oh dear, not at all. Just one of my favorite coffees and an example of the countless opportunities afforded to me.

  15. Toni says

    We are so blessed in this country. And I am forever grateful for everything. Thank you for reminding me of this fact.

  16. Judy says

    Oh Joshua—I almost forgot—off topic, but in holding myself accountable 3 weeks later, I would say I’m 90% accomplished with cleaning up and clearing out! I’m happy with that…as I know 100% and perfect is unattainable.
    Thanks! :)

  17. says

    Excellent article and wake-up call Joshua, keep them coming! I remember too well having so much to offer and no opportunity. Now that I have the opportunity it will not be wasted! Beyond material things, I have been gifted with joy beyond belief (before I had material things, when I was actually deep in debt), and the gratitude and love is what compelled me then, even when I did not have opportunity (I did not stop looking for them!), and is what compels me now. How ironic that it took suicide and love denied for me to discover this joy, but I know that is not necessary for others. Now my life is dedicated to helping people realize the same inner joy, love, and peace–may all discover it! Thank-you again for this article, which while it can’t deepen my commitment any further, it has given it renewed energy.

  18. says

    Beautiful article you have here, Joshua. Sometimes I wonder about life, about how people should spend their time while they’re living. The media nowadays emphasize strongly about financial wealth and materialism, that sometimes we forget the essence of being human. We’re so engrossed with the latest mobile phone, which we stare at for probably a quarter of our day that we forget to reach out to others…

  19. says

    Sometimes the universe has a habit of bringing everything together and then just letting you work out the rest for yourself. Today I posted about something that has been taxing me for a long while. How far am I prepared to go to make life on this planet more equal for everyone?

    I have lived and worked in the developing world and I am ashamed to say I probably wore a little badge of pride for so doing. But every single day, month and year I knew I could come back to a world where water came out of a tap and it didn’t take 24 hours to book a telephone call home (this was the 80s and 90s). This wasn’t my life it was my choice.

    My daughters are all about to leave home and start the rest of their lives. It got me thinking about how I made the choices I did when I was their age. And how I was pigeonholed much earlier on. Stay with me :) I then wondered if reincarnation was real had I done other things, been more reckless and taken more risks in previous lives.

    I hope so.

  20. says

    Thanks for writing this post and sharing these important ideas and stories. I particularly love the paragraph about owning less. Such true words – there is far more richness in life when we see past the shortsightedness of STUFF! Katie.

  21. says

    Great blog post and thanks for referring readers to the New York Times article. I missed it but everything about the story rings true. I am currently going through a separation from my spouse that has led to significant financial hardship. And yet, I’m writing this, which means I have fingers, I’m not paralyzed so I can move those fingers on the keyboard and I can afford an Internet connection. I also can read and write. I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka in the late 1990s and saw poverty like most Americans never will. Even now, 15 years later, that experience continues to serve my perspective on life. We have more gifts to offer than we give ourselves credit for, and most of them come from the heart, not from our checkbooks. Thanks again, Josh. Joe

  22. Angela says

    Thank you, Joshua, for this and all the inspiration over the years. I am so blessed to be learning how to change, bit by bit. I still have so far to go to become minimalist and to do more for others, but every once in a while, I look back and see how far I’ve com in just a few years. I am extra blessed that I have a husband willing to change along with me and children to model all that goodness for.

Sites That Link to this Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *