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13 Life Lessons I Learned Growing Up Poor

13 Life Lessons I Learned Growing Up Poor

When my family immigrated to the United States, they had $200 between the six of them. To save costs they would take any job that would accept them, mostly 16-hour factory shifts, and lived together to reduce rent even as our family expanded. At one point we had 11 people sharing 4 rooms and 1 bathroom.

Many of the common conveniences my friends had I didn’t and when you grow up poor, you often imagine what it would be like had your family been wealthy. Sometimes you look at more well-off families with envy. As a kid, I thought about all the negatives of my situation – eating instant noodles for the 5th time in a week does that to you – and when I started as a freshman at a college I felt inferior to my more affluent peers because I lacked the culture, the sophistication, and the elegance I saw they had.

I viewed my upbringing only through the lens of what I missed out on instead of what I gained. Only in adulthood am I beginning to see how my experiences growing up impoverished has positively shaped who I am and what I’ve been able to accomplish in my life.

1. The more you give, the more it comes back to you

If you’re poor, most likely your friends are too and you either learn to look after one another or suffer together. When my family first came to the United States, they barely had enough to get by, but my grandmother Rose, the matriarch of our family, always opened our home to those who had even less than us. Sunday dinners were spent with people from all races and backgrounds and my grandma always made sure noone left hungry.

Years later, when my grandmother opened up her own nail salon in our neighborhood, her first customers were many of the families she welcomed into our home all those years earlier. The people my grandmother fed brought their daughters, their friends, and their co-workers. Many of them became my grandmother’s life-long customers and even though my grandmother is now retired, she still gets requests from them to give them manicures and is able to live comfortably in retirement.

When you are generous to others, others will be generous towards you.

2. Problems can be solved with creativity

When my family took our first vacation, we encountered a problem we hadn’t thought about before. Our neighborhood was known for high levels of robberies and we didn’t have an alarm system to protect the house while we were gone. My grandfather didn’t let this deter him from enjoying vacation with his family.

The day before we left, my grandfather closed all the blinds to prevent anyone from peeking in, put the radio on a Vietnamese radio station so it would seem people were talking from within the house, and he allowed our neighbors who normally parked in our street, to park on our driveway so it seemed that people were entering and leaving. When we came back from our vacation we learned that 2 homes had been robbed a street down, but our house had not been hit.

Growing up, learning to be resourceful became a regular part of my identity. When I moved to San Fransisco, a few friends and I wanted to have lunch at a popular restaurant that had an 1-2 hour wait unless you came with a reservation. But to make a reservation, you must have at least 10 people. I gathered a group of 10 friends and made a reservation for the following month. When the day of our reservation came, half of our group could no longer make it and informed me only as I was driving to the restaurant.

So the 4 of us that remained had to either find more people or lose our table and wait 2 hours. I decided to recruit people who were waiting without a reservation and asked if they wanted to join our group. The first 4 groups I asked rejected me, since we were pretty young, I imagine they thought we would run when the bill came out, but the 5th group I asked said yes and we had our table of 10, saving both groups a combined wait time of 2 hours. When you grow up poor, you’re forced to use creativity to solve your problems.

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3. Comparing plate sizes is the fastest way to be unhappy

With such a large family and a small budget, my family only ate out on special occasions. Whenever we went out to eat I would always look at what others were eating. I envied how others could have lobster, crab, and even shrimp when my family only had rice and simple meats. When I was four and we were celebrating my aunt Quyen’s birthday, my aunt pulled me to the side and said, “only look at what others are eating to see that they have enough; never look at another person’s plate to see if you have more.”

Today, I earn more on my own than entire families make in a year, but even with a large income, I see how unhappy many of my co-workers are. They make 2-3 times more than the average American, but still consider themselves poor because they see and compare themselves to the person who has been at the firm longer or their friends who work at larger firms. When you look at what others have that you don’t, you are going to be unhappy no matter how much you have.

4. If you don’t ask, the answer is already “no”

When you are poor, you do a lot of asking. Asking for a discount, asking for work, asking for an extension on your rent. In asking, you learn that the worst response anyone could give you is a “no.”

When I was five, I wanted to learn how to ride a bike so I could join the other kids in my neighborhood instead of just watching them from the sidewalk, but my family couldn’t afford to buy me a bike.

One day, my dad saw that our neighbor had thrown out a used bike that was about right for my size. My dad saw an opportunity and walked to our neighbor’s house, knocked on their door, and asked if he could have the bike they had just thrown out. That used bike became how I learned to ride a bike and it was only possible because my dad had the audacity to ask to go through another family’s trash.

In high school, I made it a goal to win enough scholarships so that I could pay for college on my own and my family wouldn’t need to take out a loan. As I was applying for scholarships, I remembered how my dad knew the worst that could happen to him was someone tells him “no”.

Over three years, I made a list of 312 scholarships and applied to every single one of them. 281 rejected me, but the remaining 31 said yes and together equaled more than $1.2 million in scholarships, more than enough money to pay for any university that would take me. I only got to this point because of the lesson my dad had taught me earlier in life. The worst anyone could tell you is “no” and if you don’t ask, the answer is already “no.”

5. A good solution is better than a perfect solution

When my dad was still working on an assembly line, he was applying for his nail technician license hoping that he could join my grandmother’s nail salon, then our family business. Because he was working during the weekdays and got off too late to attend non-weekend classes, it would have taken him months to get his license.

To speed up his learning, he volunteered to give free manicures to all the women who worked in customer service and secretarial roles at his factory. When he took the licensing exam he had enough experience to pass and shaved weeks off his training saving him time and money. My dad’s solution wasn’t the most elegant but it solved the problem.

When I was applying for college, I knew I needed at high SAT score but I couldn’t afford to take the same SAT courses that other students were. As an alternative, I asked a student for a syllabus of the prep course she was taking. I found the books listed on her syllabus throughout various libraries in my state and asked my local library to borrow them for me.

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When the books arrived, I spent the summer self-teaching myself the material on the syllabus. It took me twice as long to get the results, but by the end of the summer I saw the same 400 point boost on the SAT while saving my family $3000 in the process. When you’re poor you can’t wait for the perfect solution so you do what you can with what you have.

6. You can find comfort in the uncomfortable

When I was still young, my father walked out on our family leaving me, my mother, and my little brother to survive on our own. My mom who had been handicapped since she was young was unable to work. To get by we relied on food stamps, welfare, and what the rest of our family could contribute.

It became normal for my mom to miss her payments: sometimes I would wake up and there would be no water and other times our electricity had been cut off. So I would go on for days dressing in the dark or not taking a shower. Somehow along the way, I learned to be comfortable. I knew if the electricity went out to grab the flashlight and when the gas went out to use a lighter to heat our food. I learned to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.

My job involves working with people who are older and more experienced than I am, but it is my job to be in the same room with them and give them advice on how to run their business; some of my clients joke that I’m young enough to be their son. To a 23-year old, being in this situation can be frightening, knowing if you say the wrong things, you’ll be out of a job, but when you know what it is like going for days without running water, going into a broad room isn’t so scary.

The more uncomfortable situations you experience, the more comfortable you will be next time you find yourself in one.

7. Don’t be bothered by small stuff

When you move from house to house and you have a budget constraint there is never a perfect home. Sometimes the heater didn’t work well, other times you hear the noise from cars driving on the major road in front of your house.

One of the homes I lived in had such a bad cockroach problem that even exterminators couldn’t keep them from coming back. I would find at least a dozen cockroaches when I turned on the light in the morning, but everything else about the home was great: big rooms, cheap cost of living, and on a quiet street. Crazy looking back on what my family put up with, but it helped me learn not to be bothered by minor inconveniences.

In life things are inevitability going to go wrong. Your taxi driver will take a wrong turn so you’re late for a meeting, you forgot your umbrella at home so you’re walking in the rain, or you get locked out of your house. In those moments it can be frustrating but remember that compared to a hundred of other inconveniences such as living with cockroaches, your inconveniences are quite small, so don’t let it bother you.

8. Knowledge is indeed power

Growing up my uncle worked at my grandmother’s nail salon, but since the income wasn’t fantastic, he read books on computers when computers were still new and floppy disks were the closest thing we had to the “cloud.” On the weekend, he would repair computers of local businesses. He was able to make a good side-income doing this for years based on a few books he read.

Even when my aunt passed away and he was the sole provider, he would continue to read books and find ways to make side-income to care for my cousins. My uncle is one of the most resourceful people I know – give him a book and he’ll turn it into income.

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My first apartment after college didn’t have a washer or a dryer and going to a local laundromat would have cost me an afternoon. Luckily, a roommate of mine found a young couple who were giving away their washer and dryer for free, it just needed some small repairs.

After we spent a Friday evening moving the washer/dryer into our apartment, I spent the weekend learning how a washer and a dryer worked, went to a local hardware store, bought some parts, and spent the weekend repairing the units. By Sunday evening, they were as good as new and I did my first laundry load in our washer. Though I don’t plan to be a professional washer/dryer repairman knowing I have the power to access knowledge and use it to improve my life is powerful.

9. Care for the things you have, no matter how little you have

I didn’t have much growing up. My drawers were never filled and my room was mostly empty. This made it easy to clean up my room and care for my stuff. Because I didn’t have much, I would wear the same clothes often and so I took care of the few shirts and pants I did have. So when a shirt was stained, I would clean it right away otherwise I just lost a shirt I’ve had a long history with. Today, I still own very few things but whatever I do own it is because I enjoy having it and invest effort in caring for it.

10. Opportunity is everywhere, but not where you thought it would be

My Yale friends are some of the most intelligent people I know, but I still can’t find more street smart than with the friends I grew up with. One of my best friends in high school is a guy name Phi. He and I had similar backgrounds, our families immigrated from Vietnam and we both had fathers who left us when we were younger.

Phi wasn’t the academic type, but he knew how to create opportunities for himself. When we all turned 18, we began receiving credit card offers. These credit cards are meant to get you to spend and begin a cycle of debt. For the people who knew this they avoided the cards all together. Phi saw an opportunity.

Many of these credit cards even though they had horrible terms gave you a period where you didn’t have to pay interest. Phi applied for all these cards that had a 0% interest period and withdrew all the cash he could from them. He used all the money to buy three small homes that were in foreclosure, fixed it up when he wasn’t at school, and moved himself, his siblings, and his mom to one of these homes and rented out the other two.

Since he fixed the other two homes, he used the rental income from those to pay off his bills, the mortgage on the house his mom lives in, and earns equity at the same time. Since the 0% interest credit cards keep coming, every time a card is nearing its end, he would use the new card to pay off all the debt of the old one and cancel the old card.

Today, Phi has paid off all three homes and all income he makes from them he invests in a fourth rental home. Where the banks thought they would make money off Phi, he has used them to make a better life for himself and his family.

11. If you want something, no one will get it for you except you

My grandparents always dreamt of owning their own business so when they came to America they spent their time and money to make their dream a reality. They only bought second-hand clothes, cooked all their lunches, and when something was broken would attempt to fix it themselves before hiring someone or buying a new one.

On the weekends when they weren’t working, they would drive around looking for locations to open their shop and scoping out the competition. When I was 4, a location opened up near where we lived and my grandparents spent their savings to secure the lease. My grandparents had a dream and pushed themselves to make it happen.

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When I was applying for college, my grandparents became my role models. Though my community wasn’t known for sending people to elite universities, my dream was to be the exception. I would wake up while my friends were still asleep to work on my essays and stay up late when my friends were already in bed to work some more on my applications, essays, and scholarships. When you grow up poor, you learn that no one will push you. You have to push yourself.

12. What you have and where you are at isn’t as important as who you are with

Growing up, my family vacations were going to nearby beaches. These beaches weren’t the cleanest, but they were close and the motels were cheap so my family could afford to take a weekend trip every summer. As a kid, I didn’t mind how dirty or trashed the beaches we went to where because I was just glad I could leave the house.

As a teenager, TV and the internet showed me that beaches didn’t always have beer cans everywhere or were puke green in color. I just wanted to escape all of it and vacation somewhere beautiful like what I was seeing on National Geographic.

After I graduated from college, I took 5 months to travel the world by myself with money I saved from working the previous summers. I saw the most beautiful sites in the world from the beaches of Thailand to the mountains of Sapa, but all I could think was how I wished I could have spent those months with my family back on the dirty beaches I would despise as a kid. As I learned, being on top of the world doesn’t mean much when you can’t share that view with people you care about.

13. Be confident with who you are

Being comfortable with who I am took a long time for me to accept. When I started college, in my class were the decedents of many of America’s most prominent families. I didn’t dress as well as they did; I didn’t speak as eloquently as they did; and I wasn’t as cultured as they were. I felt vastly inferior.

As college went on and I became friends with many of the people I initially felt so intimated by, I realized I didn’t have many of the experiences they did, but that wasn’t to say my experiences weren’t as valuable. Since graduating from Yale and working with some of the wealthiest people in the world, I’ve come to see that I do lack many of the experiences they’ve had and learned from, but I also learnt I could easily gain many of these experiences.

A few wine tastings and I can tell you why you should pair your ribeye steak with a Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux for a juicier dining experience; a few black tie events later, I can tell you how to present yourself at an elegant setting; and a few fancy dinners later, I could tell you why sending your daughter to a summer camp in Maine might be the best thing you do for her.

I learned that many of the experiences that my friends who grew up in wealthy households had, I still have opportunities to have and learn from but few of them will ever get an opportunity to have the experiences I’ve had and learn the lessons I’ve learnt.

We can’t change how we were raised, we can only appreciate how it has made us the person we are today.

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13 Life Lessons I Learned Growing Up Poor

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Last Updated on January 14, 2019

The Key to Finding Job Satisfaction and Having a Successful Career

The Key to Finding Job Satisfaction and Having a Successful Career

Regardless of whether you hold an entry-level administration role or regularly travel to the ends of the Earth as a hot-shot senior executive, you can still find yourself harboring an emptiness… a feeling that something is missing. A popular assumption that experiencing job satisfaction and a successful career should be underpinned by a well-rounded suite of tangible benefits, no longer holds true for many of us.

We’d never deny health care benefits, appropriate and fair remuneration, bonuses and travel perks in a job package. However, even if served to us on a silver platter, those features can only satiate us to a certain point.

You might wonder what governs entrepreneurs and start-up business owners to quit their lucrative jobs, essentially look the gift horse in the mouth and kiss such benefits goodbye! There can be an irresistible pull to mastermind a business with products and/or services that serve the greater good of community wider than that constituting their daily existence.

Even with research showing entrepreneurship to pose greater threats to their mental and physical health, this unique breed of individuals choose to go against the grain in chasing their dreams of being their own boss. Why? Why would anyone risk this type of career suicide?

Whether you’re an employee, have recently taken the leap to being a business owner or been in business for a while, the commonality is a congenital condition we all share as human beings; to feel a sense of purpose, value and contribution to our community. Despite it being harder to find this for ourselves in today’s world, these approaches will help you achieve ultimate satisfaction through the twists, turns and joyrides that are essential features of shaping a successful career.

1. Search for Opportunities That Feed Your Passion, Not Temporary Excitement

Even though well-intended, the ‘feel good now’ compass that career coaches and consultants often recommend you use to create career satisfaction can actually do you more harm than good. Excitement is transient. It doesn’t last. Passion is the compass you need.

Passion and excitement are two different things. The resounding career legacy that still draws you to turn up on the job regardless of the sunshine or storm that awaits you…that’s passion. It’s like a mental and/or emotional itch you can’t shrug off. Staying attuned to that calling will breed success for you sooner or later. Patience is key.

You’re also likely to have more than one key passion. Beware of getting caught in the notion you have to find your one true purpose. In fact, run immediately from any coach who tells you there is only one. There isn’t.

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Your passion is a journey that can take multiple forms so forget thinking there is the single dream job out there that will give you satisfaction in every way you can imagine. It simply doesn’t exist.

Consider embracing different roles and projects to help you fuel your passion or fuel your pursuits in finding it. Job satisfaction and your career success will be all the more sweeter from a wider range of enriching experiences.

2. Don’t Position Job and Career Satisfaction Assessments as Pivotal Guides to Your Success

Despite their popular use for vocational guidance, assessment tools such as Gallup’s Clifton Strengths and the Myers Briggs Type Indicator have come under fire[1] as being limited to the amount of true value and direction they can offer partakers.[2] These and many other guidance assessment tools (e.g. VIA Character Strengths , DISC ) are self-report questionnaires that don’t have normative population data against which to compare your results.

Simply remember these tools help you develop a stronger sense of what you identify as strengths and weaknesses within yourself, not in comparison with other people. They will still add insight around what sorts of career opportunities, tasks and projects are going to light your fire, what ones are going to extinguish it and what will prod and keep the coals steadily smoldering.

3. Be Clear on Your Personal Values, Ethics and Principles and Choose Relationships That Support You Honoring Them

Teamwork, collaboration, open communication and trust are commonplace for any flourishing work environment. However, whether or not your personal values can be honored in your work can make or break your job satisfaction.

How committed do you want to be to an organization that expects an average of 10 unpaid overtime hours every week under the guise of ‘reasonable overtime’? Are you willing to accept their construing this expectation as ‘strong commitment’ at the expense of your partner and children waiting at home for you? What are your boundaries concerning when you clock on to their time and when you clock off to yours?

Being very in tune with what your personal values, principles and ethics are will bid you well in the job satisfaction stakes. Spending time to reflect on experiences and working relationships you’ve had – the good, the bad and the ugly – will help you make well-informed searches and grounded decisions that will propel your career success.

Finding and nurturing relationships with associates and colleagues who share similar values doesn’t just make your day-to-day pursuits more enjoyable. You become fortunate to work with like-minded people who will support, understand and appreciate you like a second family.

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Being able to honor your personal values in your work means you will still be able to sleep at night when you have to tread where others fear to, and make extremely difficult decisions others would never ever dream of having to make as you forge success in your career.

4. Be Clear on Your Own Definition of What Having a Successful Career Means for You

It’s tempting to get caught up in the ideals and projections of success expressed by those we love, admire and respect. Underneath, we all want on some level to belong to a successful club of some sort.

With research reporting how much money we feel we need to be truly happy,[3] many of us try to subscribe to the notion that having the car of our dreams or taking a European holiday annually will not bring us happiness. The truth, however, for many of us is these tangible rewards are congratulatory reminders of our persistent efforts to chase our career pursuits.

If those are things you aspire to, don’t let anyone steal your desire and want to feel deserving of these things, that those are some parameters by which you define your career success.

Despite consistently being the top revenue earner for two years running, you may not wish to become the sales manager. You may not wish to step out into running your own business even though you consistently excel as an employee, delighting clients and repeatedly receiving glowing testimonials.

Your definition of career success might be enjoying the predictability of a regular workplace routine. You get to leave – without feeling guilty – at the same time each day, love the people you work with and get to spend a good, uninterrupted amount of work-stress free quality time with your family. That picture is also blissful job satisfaction and complete career success.

5. Identify the Sorts of Challenges and Problems You Want to Learn to Overcome

Standard advice you might receive from a career coach might be to look for opportunities where you get to capitalize on exercising your strengths and career-related activities you enjoy.

However, to become a success at anything involves improvement. To excel at anything often involves stepping outside boundaries and comfort zones where others wouldn’t. This means dedicating focus and attention to things you’re not so good at and things you don’t like.

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Here’s where working with a coach can be particularly helpful. Map out the experiences that were unsavory in your working history. Were there challenges you opted out of, projects you failed at or toxic relationships that blasted your sense of purpose and self-worth into oblivion? It’s within these experiences that you might just find the most valuable lessons and guiding lights for your trajectory to achieve greater job satisfaction.

If your natural leadership style is to be a collaborator, finding opportunities that require you to apply a more dictatorial style might be needed. Discussing a secondment or short-term project where you get to develop and test your skills can be a step further in earning contention to lead a larger project down the track.

With several of the company’s boldest personality types penciled to roll out the operation, you’ll not only develop skills that earn your right to throw your hat in the ring; those key players have an opportunity to see your competence. You can then work on building relationships with those stakeholders before you need to hit the ground running should you win the lead.

Greater job satisfaction comes with planning and choosing the lessons and opportunities you want to learn, not desperately flailing, floundering and hoping for the best.

6. Keep Reviewing Your Goal Posts and Be Amenable to Change

The word ‘career’ is indicative of a longer-term pathway of change, growth and development. The journey is dynamic.

You will accumulate new skills and let those you no longer need, become rusty. Your intrigue will be stimulated by new experiences, knowledge and people you meet. Your thinking will continue to expand, not shrink. As a result, your goalposts are likely to change.

A major part of enjoying a successful career is not just setting goals effectively, but regularly reviewing and readjusting them where necessary. However, moving the posts or the target still needs to take place by applying the same processes by which you originally created them. The strength of your emotional connection to those revised goals needs to be the same, if not stronger.

By asking yourself the following questions, you can assure your developmental and growth trajectory is still on course:

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  • Would working toward these goals still allow me to honor my personal values, principles and ethics at the same capacity if not greater?
  • Do the activities I need to undertake to meet these goals honor my highest priorities?
  • Does this feel right for me and those who are nearest and dearest to me?
  • Is this aligned with my passion?
  • Is chasing this goal a right step for me to take now or is this a detour or distraction which could delay my greater plan?

Each of your career goals should have different review periods. Whatever you do, stick to the review schedule you set. It will not only keep you focused but help you see your progress (or lack thereof) and allow you to timely re-chart your course before you get too far down the track. You don’t want to waste time haphazardly heading in the wrong direction.

7. Be Prepared to Let Go

It can be unfathomable to us as to why others risk leaping into the unknown when everything truly appears fine and dandy in the career realm. The company provided stability, recognition, financial success, interesting projects and the promise of a promotion…what was wrong? Why now jump sideways to run a café or train in another field altogether?

Nothing may have been wrong at all. It was all going right. It was just the end of a chapter. Perhaps the yearning for the next step is actually taking a different trajectory entirely. You may want to simply experience a different rhythm. Perhaps it’s time to pursue a different passion.

If you have leaped from employee-land to freelancing or have made the reverse-jump (or you know someone who has), you will have quickly grown a different appreciation for pros and cons each work lifestyle brings. Working for yourself can bring the greater realization of your creativity, whether or not it can be monetized to earn you a living.

When your customers are buying you or a product you designed and fashioned, there is a direct level of appreciation and gratitude that can elevate your confidence in the way you have never experienced as an employee, regardless of your rank.

Similarly, there are times where we need to recognize our business ventures were adventures, not long-term life-changing empires. There are times we need to recognize that time is what provides the clearest limitation of how long we persist for in such pursuits.

We have to recognize the absence of enough financial, mental, emotional and physical breadcrumbs that tells us we’re no longer meant to push in that direction. At least, not for the present time.

The Bottom Line

Above all, keep the momentum. As long as you remain committed to pursuing work opportunities that allow you to honor your highest priorities, the truth of who you are and what you stand for, achieving ultimate job satisfaction and a successful career will never be too far away.

More Resources to Help Advance Your Career

Featured photo credit: Csaba Balazs via unsplash.com

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