About Emotional Mastery

Life’s not fair. How to deal with it.

Learn how to take the unfair lemons in life and make lemonade.

Ed Latimore, author, blogger, and retired pro boxer
Ed Latimore Author, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

The older I get, the less I believe fairness. Nothing in this world has ever been fair, and nothing ever will be. But what can I do about it and how can I flourish despite this?

That’s all that matters.

The only reason people think things should be fair is because we’re born in this most abundant and advanced period in history. Don’t forget that once upon a time, every nation in the world embraced the practice of slavery.

You can’t get more unfair than legalized slavery.

The slave masters didn’t acquire slaves from some lottery where every citizen had a fair chance of subjugation. Rather, powerful groups preyed on weaker ones, conquered them, and ruthlessly exploited their labor to bolster their own society.

I’m no expert on ancient languages, but I wonder if slave cultures even had a word for the modern ideas of “fairness” or “equality” or the new buzzword everybody on one side of the political spectrum is using these days, “equity.”

If fairness transcended all peoples and time periods, there would never be winners or losers. In a fair world, each person would have exactly the same abilities, education, and opportunity handed to them from birth.

But things are not fairly distributed; They are competitively taken.

Most things in life are zero-sum games, with a clear winner and a clear loser. Even if we accept that it’s “fair” that the winner worked harder than the loser and that’s why they got that outcome, we can’t get around the circumstances, opportunities, and genetic advantages/disadvantages that a person is born with.

A higher than average IQ may give someone an advantage in one area while a homely face gives them an advantage in another. These things aren’t fair, but they happen. If we try to make everything fair for everyone, we end up in one of there scenario:

  1. Everyone gets everything they want.
  2. Everyone gets nothing.
  3. Everyone gets a fixed amount regardless of effort.

The first is impossible.

Resources exist in finite amounts and unlimited euphoria is not attainable. You have finite time, energy, and there must be a trade off. You can have almost anything; you just can’t have everything.

The second means everyone starves to death no matter how hard they try. Worse than having your motivation stripped (more on that in the last scenario), your efforts are meaningless. This is effectively slavery. You work all day and you get nothing but exhaustion.

The third is communism and there are many reasons why turns out poorly every time a society tries it. When everyone is told what to do, regardless of their individual strengths and are rewarded the same regardless of their individual contribution, they lose motivation.

In societies striving towards perfect equity, someone powerful has to sit at the top and enforce the system. They certainly aren’t eating the same slop as the “equal” citizens beneath them. Leaders and followers are both aware that life’s not fair, but for entirely different reasons.

You should be happy that life isn’t fair.

We live in a time where a person can change their entire life situation if they want to by leveraging their strengths and figuring out where they can stand out.

A poker analogy shows why life’s not fair

life's not fair poker straight ed latimore

There are many analogies for the unfairness of life, but a great one is poker.

In poker, you play the hand you’re dealt to the best of your ability. Given a long enough period, everyone eventually sees the same cards, the same sort of unexpected opportunities, and even same dumb luck. Sometimes things will go your way for a while due to no effort of your own, even if you’re playing poorly.

By simply being in the game, you’ll get the opportunity to win big–but only if you stay in the game and play your current hand better than others play theirs.

On the flip side, you’ll also have strings of bad luck. Even when you do things correctly, you’ll lose. Every person at the table has the same luck, for better or worse. No matter your belief system, desires, or expectations, the game of poker is fair because it is unfair to everyone.

Life is a lot like this.

Besides the cards you’re dealt, you always don’t get to choose how long you’re at the table.

While everyone eventually sees the same cards over a long enough timeline, this assumes you have an unlimited amount of time and money. Whether you’re on a hot run of good luck or a cold run of bad luck, it will eventually end. The only question is whether you’ll have your money in the game when it does.

If you lose all of your money before something good happens or you stop playing before something bad does, then it may look like the game is treating you unfairly but it’s just an illusion based on your perspective.

If you played poker for an eternity and everyone played at their absolute best, no one would ever win. However, that’s not possible. Again, we exist with finite resources, not the least of which is the time allotted to us. And this is precisely why the game of poker isn’t fair. While you sit waiting to catch good cards that let you win, you may run out of money.

Poker is set up brilliantly in that it forces you to pay “blinds.” If you’re unfamiliar with poker, blinds are the amount two players have to pay regardless of whether they bet or not. In some games, players are even forced to pay an “ante” plus the blinds. An ante is an amount every player has to put in at every hand, like a fee for simply being part of the game. It’s entirely possible to lose all your money to blinds and antes before you win anything.

Such is the game of poker. And life.

Sometimes you’re beaten out of the game before you get a chance to make a difference. You can never make enough money because you always have bills to pay, you get sick, or little disruptions like car repairs and broke family begging for help eat up your reserves. When the big hand finally comes, you’ve got nothing left to make your move.

The game of life isn’t fair

The game of life is not fair, if for any other reason than nothing is guaranteed.

It’s all a function of probability. We’re more likely to die in a car crash than an airplane crash simply because we travel more often in cars than in planes. But every year someone dies in a plane crash while an incredible number of people manage to survive car wrecks.

All we can do is work to balance out the risks try improve our chances of success in what appears to be an unfair situation. The best way to do that is play your first cards right.

While good ones may eventually come for everyone, your opening hand holds a lot of power. Some cards just can’t win in certain circumstances. Other cards give you the advantage over everyone else at your table. I don’t share the fate of most other guys who grew up in my neighborhood even though we shared a lot of opening cards. I can think of four helpful cards I was dealt through sheer luck that they weren’t.

  1. An any early age, I was part of a research study that discovered that discovered I have a higher than average IQ. This opened up some opportunities for me.
  2. Someone with power noticed my intelligence and put me in a different classroom setting.
  3. My father kept in contact with me and showed me a better way to live.
  4. My ghetto wasn’t that large or that rough (compared to the worst ghettos,not regular neighborhoods—it was still a war zone).

life's not fair housing project ed latimore

Overview of the Northview Heights project where I grew up. My little housing projects was bad but it could have been a lot worse.

Any of these could have gone differently, through no choice of my own.

  • If I was born with average intelligence, nobody would’ve placed me in a different school surrounded by different influences.
  • If my mom doesn’t do her best to take care of me, maybe I would have felt like I need to break the law to feed myself.
  • If I’d been born into a city-sized ghetto like Compton, California, I’d have been sucked into that lifestyle and never known anything else.
  • I got some shitty cards, but I also hit a few “outs” that gave me opportunities. But it was still up to me to play this mixed hand.

In the end, our fate is still up to each of us.

No number of “good cards” will make up for stupidity and sheltered thinking. The only equalizer in this world is this: Major life events strike everyone with impartial certainty. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Life is fair because it’s unfair to everyone.

But not everyone responds to these events the same way or with the same skill.

Even the same tragedies and traumas affect everyone equally. Some people make lemonade with those lemons, others stay sour and salty the rest of their lives.

I’ve had life dish me out unfair things, so I give it right back. Yes, I’m actually recommending you play unfairly. That feels unethical. It’s not. I’ll show you why.

Take sports. When we try to create the illusion of fairness in sports, players and coaches come up with new tactics and methods that push the limits of what we consider “within the rules.” Those rules aren’t set in stone anyway. In sports, rules are only modified when one player gets too good at something the rules previously allowed.

The losers trot out a new rule to limit or eliminate the use of that tactic or loophole.This is what fairness is really about: Most attempts at fairness are unfair ways to allow those with less compete with those who have more.

Once rules are established, players with an insatiable drive to win will find ways to excel within the rules. They aren’t breaking the rules, but they’re also not worrying about playing fair.

Their successes will build to the point where their tactic is considered cheating because not everyone can replicate it. Then a new rule is put in place to make the game “fair” again for everyone else who couldn’t compete.

The limitations of trying to play fair

This is why I don’t bother with fairness. You don’t see me tweeting how to “create more equitable societies” or any of those blue-check buzzwords. Look around our culture with objective eyes.

Winners don’t insist on fairness. I don’t want to play fair. I want to excel. I want to win.

It’s like the old saying in sports goes: “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” This is not a moral or ethical consideration, merely a practical one. It means you need to find your angle that makes you uniquely better than other players. You must exploit your personal talents and skills in ways others can’t.

Working harder and sacrificing personal time to make more money isn’t cheating, but it damn sure doesn’t seem fair to others who can’t make those sacrifices.

If I come from a family with money who can afford to send me to all the best sports camps but my opponent’s only instruction came from a coach who never excelled in the game, obviously I have an advantage. A huge one. Someone might even call it unfair considering the differential in skill it may create.

It’s the same with private education or bodybuilders who spend all their time working out instead of relaxing. People are born rich or poor, intelligent or dull, good-looking or repulsive, in good times and bad. All men are not created equal, nor do they live equally, and they certainly will not die equally. Pretending otherwise means those driven to succeed will surpass you while you complain about the unfairness of it all.

Forget the illusion of fairness. Take the cards you’re dealt, find your angle, and play your best.

Leverage unfairness to your advantage, and you’ll win.

Ed Latimore, author, blogger, and retired pro boxer
Ed Latimore Author, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Further Reading

The Cure For Hate: Best quotes and big ideas
5 life-changing lessons I learned growing up in the projects
6 harsh truths your parents never told you
How to overcome fear: 7 lessons from boxing