how to rise from poverty

I was rich as a child. Not really. I wasn’t. I lived in fairly plain conditions in subsidized housing. My family was poor enough that we used the residual heat from cooking to heat our home. I had to share a room with my brother. I didn’t get a puppy. We only had one car, and it didn’t even have air conditioning! And worst of all, I didn’t have a Wii. ¬†Or high-speed internet, although it hadn’t been invented yet.

Now granted the subsidized housing was married student housing since my dad was still in PhD school when I was born. It was a cheerful, happy community with dozens of kids my own age. We did use heat from cooking to heat the house, but so what, why not? I never minded sharing a room with my brother – I assumed that’s how brothers were supposed to live! I didn’t get a puppy because I never really wanted one. We only needed one car because everything was close by, and most cars didn’t have air conditioning back then. And although I didn’t get a Wii, I did get a computer when I was 10 – a Tandy Color Computer – because my parents thought learning some computer skills could be useful if it ever managed to evolve into a useful device. Too bad computers never really took off, eh?

When I read the Science of Getting Rich, there was a passage that Bubelah pointed out to me that really struck me:

“Do not tell of the poverty of your parents or the hardships of your early life. To do any of these things is to mentally class yourself with the poor for the time being, and it will certainly check the movement of things in your direction. Put poverty and all things that pertain to poverty completely behind you. “

One of the memes of my financial life has been to proudly point out how my parents rose above their parents financially, and how I was rising above them (at least in terms of income – in terms of real long-term wealth they are still way ahead of me). This meme was always painted a massive struggle against near-impossible odds – primarily due to my big brain. I have been fond of telling people how I didn’t always have the big house and the big cars and the bling bling (does anyone still say that with a straight face)? I made it on my own! I never had STUFF! We lived in a SMALL PLACE! We struggled! We succeeded in the face of a harsh, cold world!

I got carried away. It’s true that I didn’t have a lot of stuff growing up. Having a small apartment for four people restricts storage space. We never really lacked for much. I don’t think I ever saw a book in a bookstore when I was a kid that my parents wouldn’t buy for me if I asked. A toy? That they might deny. But I really can’t remember anything in retrospect that I felt I lacked. Maybe at the time I wished I had the Schwinn X22 bike instead of the X21, but I can’t recall it now.

A few points:

  1. Recalling your “poverty,” even for the sake of telling someone an inspiring up-by-the-bootstraps story, is putting a negative spin on your memories and a cloud over your future. Don’t remember your “lacks.” If you grew up in America, chances are good (although not 100%) that your “poverty” as a child was a lack of the coolest new bellbottoms.
  2. Think forward, not backwards. Your childhood was a launchpad for who you are today. Are you improving your health, your wealth, your finances and your well-being? If so, your childhood was rich, because it gave you the tools to improve yourself now.
  3. Talking about poverty will not make you rich, ever. If you spend time telling people about what you lack, you’ll continue to lack. If you don’t want to keep lacking stuff, go out and do something about it. Don’t whine about the poverty of your youth.
  4. When you are 20 years older today, do you plan on telling people those were the lean years? I bet if you read this blog or any of the blogs in my blogroll you don’t plan on that. You PLAN on telling people that these were the years you brought the booyah. The early 2000s were when I got my shiznit together! Think about 20 years ago the same way. Even if it’s not 100% true, doesn’t it make you feel better to think that way?
  5. Listen to rich people talk about their youth. Does Sergey Brin sit around complaining about being a Jew in Russia as a child, and having to emigrate when he was 6 years old?
  6. Two out of every three billionaires made their fortunes from scratch. Being rich as a kid means you are LESS likely to be a billionaire. That’s an amazing thought.

I try as much as I can these days to think of what I had, not what I lacked. Concentrating on the things you didn’t have then, or don’t have now, is a sure way to be miserable.

Creative Commons License photo credit: billy verdin