Story: People Don’t Always Get What They Deserve.

For the weekly videos, I now tell a story. I’ve realized that for me, and I think for many people, a story is what holds my attention and makes a point most powerfully.

This week’s story: People don’t always get what they deserve. This story–about something my mother said to me–is reassuring, because it’s true. You don’t always get what you deserve, even when you work hard, and my mother’s observation has been very comforting to me in other circumstances, when things didn’t go my way.


If you want to read more along these lines, check out…

Happiness challenge: Saying the right thing.

Eight excellent tips for living that my parents gave me.

Has anyone ever said something to you that has stuck in your mind for years this way?

You can check out the archives of videos here.

  • kim

    The classic from my mom: once you get your way, stop talking. We have a tendency to start to feel guilty about “winning” sometimes, but if you’ve convinced your partner to order pepperoni rather than sausage on the pizza, ENJOY the pepperoni and don’t look back!

  • This one is so, so hard for me. I think it goes back to the “gold stars” that you talk about needing (getting what we deserve is like the biggest gold star of all). I struggle to do things just for the sake of doing them because I love acknowledgement. My husband, on the other hand, does things all the time without any need for gold stars (shoveling someone’s walkway when they aren’t home, etc). I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that sometimes doing the work we are called to do is enough in itself… it doesn’t matter if I “get what I deserve” … often, letting go of this desire actually reaps more benefits than clinging to the gold star mentality. Thanks for the reminder, Gretchen! 🙂

  • I really liked your story and feel that it’s also a very important part of letting go of fear and pride.

    If we accept that although we did work hard, it’s still a blessing to have received fruit from our labors, we’re much more humble and peaceful. On the contrary, if we see all we get in life as what we deserve or not deserve we may feel a rush of pride when we “get our due” but then feel terrified the rest of the time that we’re not doing enough.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear it resonated with you.

      • Thanks Gretchen!

        My sister shared this with me because “Grace” is my middle name but I thought it also related to your video post so I thought I would pass it on:

        To your brilliance!
        Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • adora

    You have a lovely mother, Ms. Rubin. My mom would just be bragging to other parents how I got the genes, or be backstabbing others if I had lost. lol.
    It is very true. People don’t always get what they deserve. With everyone who succeeded, there must have been thousands who worked just as hard and didn’t get any result.

  • Olivia

    Great reminder!

  • peninith1

    I experienced the ‘dark’ side of this when, as a highly successful grad student in a prestigious PhD program, I married a fellow student in the same program. Within a year, my advisor abandoned me and I ‘failed’ my oral exam–when I had never received anything but the highest distinction in any academic endeavor. I later learned that the faculty decided it would be too hard to place us both, one of us had to be jettisoned, and as the woman, I was obviously the person who had to be dumped. I was horribly upset by this ‘failure’ because in my heart I knew that it was not real and that I was not only not incompetent, I was an excellent scholar. I spoke to a professional counsellor before making a decision what to do. He told me it was simply a matter of what was most important to my own dignity and self esteem–doing whatever necessary to remedy my ‘failure’ with the faculty, or move forward without the advanced degree but a belief in myself without the endorsement of faculty. I chose the latter–and this choice led to a most wonderful career outside the academic world and intellectual development that might never have happened had I stayed within it. I am glad that I gave up getting the acknowledgement I DESERVED, because I won more in self respect and an interesting career.

  • Katie B.

    When I played high school sports, my Dad always said, “The best team doesn’t always win.” And about parenting, my Mom always says, “If you are going to take credit for the good, you will have to take credit for the bad.”

    It is in the doing that we should take pride, not in the outcomes of that doing. I often find myself categorizing people as either “process” or “results” people. I think this would fit in your series — abstainer vs. moderators, tigger vs. eeyore etc.

    • Ruth

      There is also the facilitative leadership model that says there are three elements to leadership: relationship, results, and process, and people tend to lean towards one or another of them. (I’m very results-oriented.)

  • Julie

    Your mother is full of insights like that! I underlined the part in The Happiness Project where you remembered her telling you that mistakes make the best memories.

    I just came back from a honeymoon where everything seemed to go wrong (late to the airport // forgotten driver’s license // tickets booked for the wrong DAY by mistake) and instead of crying or getting angry about it (or considering annulment, ha) I was able to remember what your mother said and just laugh off all the mistakes. It ended up being a great time, and I’m sure we’ll never forget all the “mistakes” that turned into funny memories.

    Plus, no driver’s license meant we rented bicycles and because of that, we noticed a glass-blowing studio that we wouldn’t have noticed had we been in a car. We took a glass-blowing class together and made some beautiful cups. Great memories! Please thank your mom for us. She’s a wise woman.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that those words resonated with you. I can’t wait to pass along your story.

  • Felicity

    I have a similar sort of story. My mum was always very low key about my excellent school reports. She always said ‘Well done’, but that was about it. This used to miff me a little, but I later realised that she just always wanted me to enjoy myself and do my best. And she was just as calm when I did badly even though I tried hard e.g. at sport 🙂 – so in the end, I think her way was best. Again!!

  • Natacha

    I can say that it is very true. But though, it is highly frustrating! In my engineering school I’ve experienced that a lot: people who work hard don’t always get what they deserve AND people who don’t even try, or cheat, get more than they deserve. My mom always tells me “one day, it will all come back to them, what they did wrong, even if you can’t see it right now. and one day, all the right things you did will all come back to you too. In fact, it is already here, but you just can’t see it right now.”

  • Netty4

    Thank you for this insight. I have been qualified for promotion to police Sgt for many years however only around 1 in 10 people who are interviewed each round will get the jobs available. The promotion success is dependant solely on the half hour interview and not how you perform in the role (I perform Sgt duties on a regular basis and always praised for my abilities). Your video struck a chord as over the years I have seen people promoted who are not necessarily as good as me in the job, however, they do perform better in the interview. Lots of people tell me I deserve to be promoted but rather than become bitter I have had to accept the process.
    Your video is so true

  • The flipside of this is that people don’t always deserve what they get – pleasant surprises, a windfall, the luck of being in the right place at the right time, and so on.

    So the ‘unfairness’ – aka randomness – of life can sometimes work in your favour. If you don’t question the good luck, then it’s just a short step to not questioning the bad luck. And moving on…

  • Dear Gretchen,

    first of all, thanks a lot for your efforts in trying to improve your communicative style and never think of any step as a definitive achievment.

    When you first announced that you were going to start a new series, with stories, I was about to comment that stories are often pleonastic or redundant (as in the preceding case: we all know what it is like to feel the pleasure of giving for free and we do not need to listen to the whole story about your friend’s jogging habits to get it), but then I read the comments, all praising your choice, and avoided being the only one ruining the party.

    However, this time, it is even clearer, that what is powerful and has efficacy is your mother’s insightful remark, not the story’s “packaging” to it.

    Long story short: if you think you need stories to communicate, think again. Or at least keep the packaging as short as possible (like in this case). I do not want to have to decide to stop watching your videos because they only become interesting after several minutes of boring details regarding friends or relatives (this is really not your case, but it often happens to other people who believe that they *ought* to be personal…and end up being boring).

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for your response. One thing about these stories—they are SHORT. One minute!

      I’m not sure that I agree that the story is superfluous to the goal of communication. To say “You can be generous by taking” – for me, it would be hard to understand exactly what this means without a story to put it into a context with which I can identify.

      In fact, sometimes I have the reverse challenge. I’m very struck by a story but don’t know exactly what to make of it. An upcoming video is an example of this, about Eisenhower.

      • Thank you very much for this reply. I agree, your stories are short and in fact my comment is much more about long and detailed stories (“I was during my honeymoon, on the Maldives, once my beautiful wife told me…” and so on for a long time).

        I agree that “You can be generous by taking” might not be enough, I just wonder whether the story is the better way to explain the point (personally, I prefer your fitting comments, such as in your posts about underbuyers/overbuyers, which you could have chosen to overfil with stories –and didn’t).
        As for what you name the reverse challenge, this is exactly what stories are meant for! One HAS to use stories, when they tell more than what an essay would have told (think of many legends and parables). I would just avoid using stories when they do nothing but repeat what could have been said directly without them.

  • RachelUK

    Hi Gretchin. Congratulations on your great happiness projects. It has inspired me. I would love to read the 8 tips from your parents but when I click on the link Google says that the page can’t be found. Is there anyway I can access this? I am in UK…don’t know if that makes a difference. Thanks!

  • Megan Nelson

    This resonates with me. In college, I got a less-than-perfect grade in one of my favorite classes, which I had worked very hard at, and I was tempted to think I “deserved” the A. But, it helped when I realized that I had gotten A’s in other classes that perhaps were not “deserved”! As my aunt says, it all works out in the end, and if it hasn’t worked out, it isn’t the end.