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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 July 18, 2019

How to Sharpen Your Transferable Skills For a Swift Career Switch

How to Sharpen Your Transferable Skills For a Swift Career Switch

Most people grow up with dreams to go to college and graduate with high-paying job offers waiting for them the week after graduation. Others may favor non-traditional career paths. But the desire is the same: to find a job we love where compensation is commensurate with experience.

However, plans change. For instance, what started out as a dream to be a surgeon is cut short by a nasty injury and you’re debating how to transition into a new role. Or you might be facing being let go from your current employer and are anxious about “options out there.”

Whatever the case may be, switching careers can be intentional or unintentional. What matters is that you’re well-prepared, and the only way to do so is to learn new skills — hone in on your transferable skills.

Why Hone in on Your Transferable Skills?

There are several reasons you need to develop these skills if you want to go far in life and your career. In a nutshell, honing in your your transferable skills can lead to:

Better Job Offers

Continuous assessment and improvement of your skills widens the pool of job offers for you to make selections from. You’re no longer tethered to one industry as you’re able to lead your career by design, not by default.

People with transferable skills on a resume also open up opportunities for more potential employers.

Increase in Pay and More Responsibilities

You’ve heard the saying “with great power come great responsibility.” In your case, transferable skills make you more marketable to employers which could lead to pay raises.

Although this isn’t an automatic process– you have to be proactive about what you want in the marketplace, there is a chance that these pay raises will come with change in titles and roles.

A Shot at Entrepreneurship

Yes, changing career paths also includes the possibility of working for yourself. With these skills and work experience, you could live anywhere in the world and design a life and career you want.

We’ve talked about why you need to strengthen your transferable skills but what are some these skills, and how can you work on them?

13 Tips to Sharpen Your Transferable Skills

1. Update Your Resume

You might be surprised to know this but yes, updating your resume is a skill. The very first thing you should do while thinking about switching careers is to highlight attributes that make you very desirable candidate to employers.

Think about your volunteer experiences, freelance projects, and school projects. Although they might seem insignificant, they demonstrate your ability to deliver results that several companies are looking for.

While you might have held several positions since college, switching careers will require you to have a different type of resume.

There are three different types of resumes: functional, chronological, and a combination resume. However, if you are looking to switch careers you’ll want to have a functional resume. A functional resume is strengths-based that emphasizes skills that are transferable rather than a collection of dates and job titles.

2. Brush up on Your Communication Skills

Every attempt to get ahead in business and in life starts with the need to communicate effectively. Whether it is interpersonal, intercultural, or multi-generational, the ability to be seen and heard while respecting the boundaries of work relationship matters.

That’s why it’s one of the top skills you need to master. Strong communication skills allows you to effectively tailor your messages to specific audiences, which will make you a stronger asset to any organization.

To hone this skill:

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Pay attention to your listening skills. To communicate effectively, you need to first learn how to understand others.

Your ability to decode overt and implied messages, no matter how nuanced they are, is key to knowing how to foster deep relationships with others.

This article can also give you effective ways to enhance your communication skills:

How to Master Effective Communication Skills at Work and Home

3. Learn Technical (or Business) Writing

Another form of communication, writing, is a skill that can take you anywhere.

Companies communicate a lot through written memos, emails, newsletters, and other audio-visual means. But at the crux of this all is someone or some people who are tasked with translating the organization’s vision into statements anyone can understand.

To hone this skill:

Consider taking some free or paid classes online. You can accomplish this through several community colleges or online platforms like Lynda, Udemy or edX .

4. Practice Public Speaking and Presentation Skills

No matter how intelligent you are, no one will take you seriously if you’re unable to pull off a decent level of persuasion through presentation skills.

Most presentation can be done through either electronic devices or require your physical presence. Your chosen career may require you to be in front of several hundreds of people or you could be charged with developing materials for presentation.

To hone this skill:

Volunteer to lead projects that give you some responsibility for putting together presentations.

Also, try taking courses that will improve your public speaking skills if you feel lacking.

These tips on public speaking would be helpful too:

The Ultimate Public Speaking Tips to Hook and Impress Any Audience

5. Get Comfortable with Identifying Problems and Solutions

Every organization has got its problems no matter how greener the grass is on the other side.

How to hone this skill:

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Practice being resourceful.

Do you know where to find every company policy on the intranet in less than five minutes?

Think about a time you noticed some inefficiency at work and proposed a solution. Think about instances where you lent your voice to a cause which resulted in improved processes for your department.

No matter how small or inadequate you might feel, you’ve got some problem-solving skills that some organizations want.

If you look for more ways to improve your problem solving skills, take a look at this article:

6 Effective Ways to Enhance Your Problem Solving Skills

6. Recognize Your Team-Building Ability

Your ability to smoothly switch careers also depends on how well you can energize your team, especially if you’re aiming for a leadership role. Unfortunately, team-building usually isn’t something you learn on the job in most careers unless you hold a managerial position.

The good thing is that you possibly know one or two things about team-building. Think back to moments in college when you had group projects with colleagues and had to work with 3 to 4 other strangers for months. Were you able to get past your differences and disagreements to focus on the uniqueness of everyone at the table?

Making a career switch might require that you work with multidisciplinary teams whether you have a deep knowledge of what the other team does or not. I can easily think of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and social workers working closely to achieve the goals in a patient’s care plan.

How to hone this skill:

Look for collaborative projects and team building activities that excite you and challenge yourself with new possibilities.

Try some of these tactics to keep your team motivated as well:

17 Proven Tactics for Motivating Employees and Building a Stronger Team

7. Lean into Your Leadership Skills

Although similar to the previous point, leadership skills extend far beyond building teams, managing time sheets and correcting behavior.

What I’m referring to here is your ability to develop a vision, believe in it, and inspire buy-in from everyone involved. This isn’t about knowing how to run a particular machine; it’s about how to lead a team of people with various backgrounds, experiences, and ideas of how things should be done.

How to hone this skill:

Although more complex than the rest, it all starts with an introspective look into your strengths and weaknesses. Then get a mentor or a coach who can bring out your leadership qualities so you can operate from a place of strength.

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Learn more about the effective leadership types here:

5 Types of Leadership that Help You Build a High Performance Team

8. Improve Your Analytical Skills

Are you good at taking large amount of data and interpreting them? Your skills could come in handy.

Organizations are looking for people to make sense of the data around them, explain how it affects profitability, and make projections based on it. Best of all? You don’t need to be an accountant to be analytical.

How to hone this skill:

Try taking data interpretation classes online or at a community college. Learning Microsoft Excel or Access is also a plus. If you’re ambitious enough, you could consider getting additional certifications to up the ante.

Take a look at these ways to help sharpen your analytical skills:

What Are Analytical Skills and How to Strengthen Them For Success

9. Don’t Discount Your Time Management and Prioritization Skills

How good are you when it comes to deciding how important tasks are, organizing schedules, and coordinating plans?

Should you be willing, there is a market waiting for you out there. Organizations and busy executives are always looking for talented individuals to outsource these tasks to.

How to hone this skill:

Although not everyone possesses secretarial superpowers, you can improve this skill by focusing on taking huge tasks and breaking them into smaller goals or steps in order to achieve a bigger goal.

Here, you can learn to prioritize to achieve more:

The Ultimate Guide to Prioritizing Your Work And Life

10. Embrace Your Creative and Critical Thinking Side

Although it’s often believed that creativity is for the arts and right-brained people, I believe everyone is capable of being creative. In fact, most organizations recognize creativity as a vehicle that will drive successful inventions in the future.

How to hone this skill:

Try doing something fun. As simple as this sounds, you’d be surprised to learn how much. In fact, behavioral and learning scientist, Marily Oppezzo, says taking a walk might be all you need to get your creative juices flowing.[1]

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Anyone can be creative, you just need the right way to train your brain:

What Is Creativity? We All Have It, and Need It

11. Don’t Stop Learning Tech Knowledge and Skills

Being tech-savvy is a huge plus. If you have an affinity with computers, software applications and are abreast of technological improvements, it is a transferable skill that is worth highlighting.

You don’t have to be a young college graduate with silicon valley dreams to work

How to hone this skill:

All you need is the determination and the readiness to learn. This article will give you some ideas on the types of skills to learn:

How to Improve Your Computer Skills to Get Ahead in Your Career

12. Build Networks and Relationships

You aren’t free from networking. Not at the moment. With your goal to switch to a different career, your networking skills will come in handy.

Fortunately for you, networking doesn’t have to be so hard.

How to hone this skill:

Attend conferences and job fairs. Chances are you already have people in your network you can move you closer to your dream career.

To enhance your networking skills, take these steps:

How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life

Final Thoughts

Although there are several people with the same qualification and degree(s) you possess, what ultimately determines hireability comes down to a myriad of things such as culture fit, how teachable you are, cultural sensitivity, inter-generational awareness, and your ability to navigate uncertainty.

You have a chance to stand out by letting your dream companies know how these soft skills make you an invaluable asset, and how saying ‘YES’ to you is a win-win for both parties.

Happy career switching!

More Resources About Career Advancement

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

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