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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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Published on September 16, 2020

12 Practical Interview Skills to Help You Land Your Dream Job

12 Practical Interview Skills to Help You Land Your Dream Job

Today, with many companies going remote—at least until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine—technical proficiency is a vital skill for every interviewee to master. You may be asked to interview for a job on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. The way you handle yourself in the online interview (your interview skills) will say much about your ability to work from home efficiently.

Does your workspace look clean or cluttered? Is the area free from noise? Is your home office well lit?

Once hired, you may be asked to organize meetings on Zoom and other platforms. Along with mastering the technology, you will have to learn to follow certain protocols.

Now is the time to get up to speed on your technical skills. Learn which interview skills are needed for the particular job for which you are applying and practice them.

Online learning sites, such as LinkedIn Learning and Udemy, offer courses for free or a nominal membership fee. If you are a DIY type, make use of training videos offered through your particular digital tools.

Additionally, demonstrating that you have these 12 interview skills will help you land your dream job.

1. Organization

When you work in a brick-and-mortar office, some of the organizing is left to others. Your direct supervisor may host a Monday morning quarterback meeting where each worker reports on the progress on their tasks.

When you work from home, much of the organizing will be left up to you. To a much greater extent than before, you will need to develop a schedule and stick to it. Some tasks may be faster to complete from your home office where you don’t have other workers competing for your attention.

Conversely, you may find that some tasks that would have gone quickly in an office seem to take forever from your home computer. Your phone may ring a lot, which can distract you, or you may have kids and a spouse who inadvertently disrupt your schedule.

To do: Set a schedule and stick to it.

To discuss during your interview: Be specific. Point to the interview skill you utilized to create a schedule for a complex work project and followed it.

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2. Flexibility

You set a schedule for the completion of your tasks, but your prospective boss gets their work done between the hours of 2:00 and 8:00 a.m. Your West Coast partners are three hours behind your East Coast partners, and one of your partners lives in England while another lives in Australia.

Feedback and collaboration (see point 3) may need to happen asynchronously. Be the flexible candidate—the person who is willing to occasionally disrupt their schedule for the greater good of the team.

For extra credit: don’t just look up time zones, look up whether they observe Daylight Savings Time.

To do: Be flexible about meeting times.

To discuss during your interview: Highlight a time when you worked on a team where members lived in different time zones. Discuss your processes.

3. Collaboration

As recently as six months ago, before the pandemic raged around the world, collaboration wasn’t quite as essential as it is today. In a remote office setting, collaboration doesn’t just mean working well with others—but actually sharing documents and editing them online on time.

Several cloud-based tools, such as Google Drive, Basecamp, and Trello, enable the type of collaborative teamwork that most companies want today.

To do: Download the correct software and practice using it.

To discuss during your interview: Discuss how you worked remotely with a group. Share how you overcame certain challenges.

4. Poise

Murphy’s Law states, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

When things do go awry, keeping your wits about you will demonstrate your consummate professionalism under fire. This will show your future bosses that you will be able to work well under the pressures of remote work.

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What could go wrong, you ask? You might be muted without realizing it—your Internet connection may not be robust, your headphones may blip out, your cellphone may ring, Zoom could have an outage. The list goes on and on.

To do: Make sure you have the most up-to-date versions of Skype and Zoom uploaded.

To discuss during your interview: Consider highlighting a time when a project did not go as planned. Demonstrate the interview skills that allowed you to rise to the challenge.

5. Communication

Your ability to handle online communication is one of the top critical skills you will need to thrive in today’s remote workplace. Download Slack if you haven’t already. Get used to toggling to a different form of online communication if one of your tools fails.

When it comes to the preferred format for your online interview, demonstrate proficiency by offering several different options. Give your phone number, Google Chat Hangouts name, and Skype ID.

To do: Familiarize yourself with video conference and online chat tools, such as Slack, Fleep, or Workplace by Facebook.

To discuss during your interview: Be prepared to share the online communication tools you’re using and examples of how you use each one.

6. Good Computer Hygiene

Setting up a backup system for your computer files is one of today’s crucial requirements for working in the digital age. Storing documents that can be shared by team members is also an efficient way to work together on presentations, articles, and reports—although studies show nearly one-third of employees avoid them because of the time it takes to find documents.

Be prepared in your interview to indicate your experience utilizing this technology, describing how you organize and store files using cloud-based collaboration tools. How do you keep track of links and tabs? Do you use Dropbox? Google Docs? Confluence? Others?

To do: Take inventory of the cloud-based document sharing and storage systems you know and use.

To discuss during your interview: Describe the document sharing tools and backup systems you utilize—both for personal protection and professional file sharing.

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7. Proper Meeting Etiquette

Today, presenting yourself virtually has its pros and cons. While you only have to show a professional persona from the waist up (make sure to straighten up your office space behind you), you must boost your energy to show that you’re engaged in the discussion.

Make your voice as upbeat as possible. Have your talking points at the ready and be careful not to ramble on, as long virtual meetings easily become tiresome. Use the mute and chat features to avoid interruptions.

To do: Once you know the meeting platform, make sure you have it mastered before your interview.

To discuss during your interview: Offer to share your screen to show an example of a work project— while at the same time demonstrating your prowess with video conferencing tools.

8. Respecting Feedback

In the age of working remotely, there may not be as many systems in place to obtain feedback (such as yearly performance reviews). Workers may need to ask for feedback, while managers may need to give more feedback than usual as the team adjusts to working off-site. Respecting feedback is on top of the interview skills list that you should learn.

Taking a proactive approach with giving and receiving feedback and incorporating it into your work style is a desirable quality that your employers will note.

To do: Reflect on the positive feedback you’ve received from past employers to bolster your confidence.

To discuss during your interview: Share a time when you received feedback that made you grow in the job. If you’re a manager, share a time when you gave feedback to an employee who needed to better their job performance.

9. Project Management

Staying on task with projects has evolved far past a to-do list, with electronic tools that can track time, manage team workloads, and even do the client billing. While your prospective employer may have its preferred project management program, your experience with any of the various options—whether it’s Basecamp, Teamwork, Smartsheet, or another—will be applicable.

To do: Know which project management software is likely to be used by the industry in which you’re interviewing, and familiarize yourself with its features.

To discuss during your interview: Highlight a project management feature that is particularly useful in helping you excel in your work, and explain how you utilize it.

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10. Staying up to Speed

Employers expect their remote workers to be technically proficient so that technology runs smoothly and doesn’t create work disruptions. Bosses count on remote workers to know enough about their systems to manage them without relying on the help of overworked IT staff.

To do: Make sure you have a fast internet connection and have a back-up plan, such as a second computer or other tethered devices.

To discuss during your interview: Note that you are diligent about keeping your computer and software up to date.

11. Attention to Cybersecurity Issues

“Virus” is a loaded term these days. Spreading a computer virus in your company, however, will not only bring productivity to a halt, but it will also make you a pariah. While working from public places using free Wi-Fi (with uneven security provisions) has waned, in pre-pandemic times, coffee shops accounted for 62 percent of Wi-Fi security breaches.

To do: Keep antivirus software updated and don’t download software without verifying its authenticity.

To discuss during your interview: Emphasize your awareness of cybersecurity risks and your care in taking necessary safety measures.

12. Teamwork

Work relationships now mostly happen in virtual settings, yet employers value team-oriented workers.

Being a part of a team gives you a sense of connection and shared purpose. A well-honed team understands how mutual reliance makes the sum of its parts greater than when individuals act on their own, improving the end product.

To do: Take stock of your attributes as a team player and where you can cultivate skills that will enable you to work more collaboratively.

To discuss during your interview: Inquire about the company’s culture and how it encourages a sense of community despite working remotely.

Final Thoughts

Preparing for remote positions available in today’s job market will mean honing your interview skills to highlight your technical abilities as well as your adaptability. By adhering to these To-Do’s and perfecting your online interview skills and charisma, you will rise above the competition and win over any prospective employer.

More Tips to Improve Your Interview Skills

Featured photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via unsplash.com

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