If The Odds Seem Stacked Against You, Making This Choice Is Utterly Crucial

The key to persevering when it feels like you just can't win.

success overcoming obstacle person standing on top of mountain StunningArt / Shutterstock

Whether you’re striving for the next level of success or trying to pay the bills, there will always be times when the odds against you seem so daunting that you’ll want to give up.

This has been the case for me time and again, since my youngest days. 

I'm a brown, Ismaili Muslim originally from Tanzania and raised in foster care in England. F

or years, the cards were stacked against me. My mom had abandoned me to foster care so she could pursue a crazy dream.


I failed my high school exams. After training to become a CPA and moving to Canada to start anew, I decided to try my hand at commodities trading.  It was the mid-1980s. Gold prices collapsed soon after I began trading, and I went broke. 

Soon I had nothing to my name but a sleeping bag and colossal debt.

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That fiasco was followed by teetering on bankruptcy as a result of the stock crash on Black Monday: October 19, 1987. 

What followed was investing and borrowing to set up a home furniture business, a luxury women's clothing boutique selling extravagantly priced outfits, and a high-end Russian restaurant. 


Within a year, Canada’s once-booming oil economy collapsed. My young family and I lost our home. All our possessions were taken and sold at auction, with no money to retrieve them. 

There was no time to think.

I could only react to one crisis after another: being chased by creditors — both business and personal — needing to find a way to work without a bank account or credit cards, all of which had been closed down by the bank. 

And on the personal side, I’d fallen in love with a woman from a drastically different background than my own: a Filipina, whom I married in another odds-defying move. 

Most people I knew thought our intercultural, interfaith marriage wouldn’t last six months.


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As if that weren’t enough, I also took on a challenge that few if any self-respecting CPAs would dare: writing creative nonfiction — with no training or credentials in the craft.

Yet, despite the staggering challenges and slim odds of success, ultimately, I did succeed.

Today, I’m a respected CPA and a well-reviewed author — a feat in and of itself and my wife and I have been married for over 30 years.

There is one thing I attribute this to: one simple-but-powerful choice that all of us can make: The choice to consistently hold onto hope and determination — even when the odds against you seem daunting.  


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Making this choice begins with knowing that it IS a choice, and taking a few brave yet simple steps that reinforce it:

Ask how not if. When staring ahead at a daunting situation or endeavor, remove the possibility of failure from your mind by asking how it can be accomplished rather than if it’s possible.

A thousand times over I could have asked if, and been paralyzed by the question. If I’d find a way forward in Canada,  if I’d crawl out of near bankruptcy when all our possessions were taken and sold at auction, with no money to retrieve, not even the kids’ toys or bedding. By asking not if, but how, I empowered myself to find solutions.


Take action. The longer you dither and contemplate, the more you will be overcome by fear and doubt. I could say I was fortunate in some ways not to have had time to think when bouncing from one crisis to the next: I had to make a plan for tackling the challenge ahead and get started.  

Constantly ask yourself: what’s the next step? Getting started is one thing. But you have to keep going. Just like when you’re driving, keep your eyes on the road ahead by contemplating, anticipating, and planning for your next steps. Focus on the resources and opportunities you have at hand and how to use them.  

Remind yourself there is always a path forward. Reinforce this reminder by looking back at your journey to date and recalling everything you have overcome. 


I guarantee you, there is plenty.  

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Emil Rem is a creative nonfiction writer, an eccentric accountant, and an advocate for overcoming the odds. He is the author of Heart of New York.