With nothing but $25 and a backpack, Adam Shepard set out to prove whether the American Dream still exists. He headed for a city he didn’t know — Charleston, South Carolina — with the goal of having $2,500, a car and a place to live by the end of the year. Shepard chronicled his experiment in Scratch Beginnings. The book holds a few gems for average people working on their own lives — and you don’t have to be completely broke to learn from Shepard’s experiences.

The Attitude of Success

In Scratch Beginnings, Shepard makes it immediately clear that his goal is not to create a rags-to-riches story. Instead, he set out to refute Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, along with similar books that claim that “working stiffs are doomed to live in the same disgraceful conditions forever.” Shepard’s goal was to discover whether, with self-discipline and the attitude of success he could actually move beyond homelessness in under a year.

The Long View

Shepard first stop in his experiment was a homeless shelter. The majority of the book is devoted to the seventy days he lived at the shelter and the men he met there. Those men fall into two simple categories: the guys with plans for lives beyond the shelter and those who have become utterly complacent with their lives. It’s a simple lesson. The guys with plans couldn’t be sure that their plans would work, but the guys who had stopped looking to the long view were certainly not going to make progress.

Many residents of the homeless shelter Shepard landed in relied on a local day labor operation to provided them with money.

The attraction of just showing up and working and getting cash at the end of the day is, to some people, superior to working a real job. True, some of the laborers are temporarily unemployed, and some are working while they have days off from their permanent jobs, but still others simply come to work a few days a week whenever they need cash. If they don’t fell like working, there’s no need to call the boss faking an ailment or yet another death in the family. They just don’t go.

It’s an easy way to get by when you don’t have a long-term plan. You can cover your basic needs and just sort of continue along without a particular course of action. It took Shepard only a week to understand that his priority had to be getting a permanent job. But making a long-term plan, whether you’re living on the street or making ends meet, is the only way to move forward. Without plans and goals, we’re all stuck exactly where we are today.

Guts Get the Job

Few employers are willing to take a chance on a worker who’s only address is the local homeless shelter. But there’s one thing that can overcome just about every obstacle in getting a job: sheer guts. Don’t have the skills? Don’t have the education? Don’t have the address? Going into an employer’s office and asking for an opportunity anyway takes guts, but that can be enough to land you a job. Shepard learned that fact the hard way, by getting passed over by a moving company uninterested in a prospective employee who lived at the local homeless shelter. Shepard made the moving company a particularly gutsy offer:

Let’s make a deal. You send me out for one day with one of your crews. Any crew. And I’ll work for free. You will have the opportunity to see me work, and it won’t cost you a dime. If you like me, super, take me on. If not, well, then we will part ways and I can promise you I won’t be a thorn in your ass, coming in here every day begging for a job.

Not only did the manager say that he’d never heard an offer like that, he was impressed enough to hire Shepard on the stop. That willingness to be bold got Shepard through a few other rough patches chronicled in his book and it’s one of the greatest lessons I think most people can learn. You don’t win big when you won’t play big.

In The End

Adam Shepard wound up cutting his experiment short by three months: his mother had cancer and Shepard went home to help her. He’d more than met his goal, though. Nine months through his experiment, Shepard had already purchased a used truck, rented and furnished an apartment and saved $5,000 — double what he had hoped to save in 12 months.

He did it without the connections and advantages many of us take for granted. He landed a job through sheer guts, not listing his college degree and other qualifications on his applications. He figured out frugality on his own. He even earned a raise during his experiment. Shepard’s story proves unquestioningly that it really is possible to reach your goals and beyond, even if you start from scratch. I think he more than made clear that success — at every level — isn’t so much about the opportunities you’re offered. It’s about the opportunities you make for yourself, your willingness to plan big and your efforts to chase your goals. Scratch Beginnings is certainly worth a read, especially if you want a little inspiration without saccharine sweetness.

More information about both Shepard and the book is available on ScratchBeginnings.com.

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