I grew up poor in an area of Baltimore that most people never see (“Billyland”). It’s not something I focus on or feel sorry for myself about, it’s just a fact.
Growing up I had some friends go the right way and some friends get into bad trouble, getting into drugs, violent crime and sad single parent situations and deeper poverty.
I found my way out and managed to build a career and have an opportunity and a future.
Here’s how I did it.
I’ve never seen myself as a victim. I was born in fairly rough circumstances to a single mom in a part of the city that cops make fun of as being full of hillbillies, but we did our best.
Mom loved me and I love her. My younger brother and I would sit while she read us stories and keep warm huddled together.
I was always determined that things would get better, and having that family love at a young age helped.
I didn’t think of myself as “poor” in particular, because I didn’t know any kids who weren’t poor.
All I knew is that I was going to have a great future no matter what. I’d find a way to make it happen.
We didn’t have much growing up in our small apartment, so we learned to make do.
I’ve never known another way to be, because that’s how I was from the earliest age. Saving cans to return to the store for spare change, getting used to using only a few dishes, mending clothes instead of chucking them out.
The habits of being industrious have morphed as I age, but the basic habit of finding inventive ways to make things work have continued.
I can still whip up a meal out of a pack of Mr. Noodles that will make your head spin, and I know how to resole shoes myself with the help of only a few basic tools.
When you need to find a way, you do. I’ve continued to carry that attitude with me throughout life.
We were always a thrifty family. That meant coupon clipping back in the day, but it also meant wearing warm clothes instead of cranking the heat and taking public transit at discount prices.
For a time there it did mean the food bank too at our local church, and I don’t think there is any shame in poor families having to tap into community resources when times are rough, especially in a single parent household.
We made do and we did that partly by being thrifty.
To this day when I see a great deal I notice it and pay attention. I don’t think of myself as a victim, I think of myself as a person who was made stronger and smarter by growing up poor.
4) Mega creativity
Growing up I was always creative and it’s something I’ve noticed in other old friends from my neighborhood and people I’ve crossed paths with who grew up poor.
They had huge imaginations!
Going to the library after school was my biggest treat, and our basic TV was so small and crappy that I actually started to prefer books and comic books for the simple reason that I could build entire worlds in my imagination.
There were no rabbit ears leading to a fuzzy signal, it was crystal clear 4K (or whatever definition we’re up to by now in our brave new world). I also loved to listen to sports games on mom’s old radio and imagine the plays in my head, cheering when the Orioles hit a homer. I could see it in my head and hear the roar of the crowd like I was right there.
My imagination has served me well, and I credit growing up quite poor for a big part of that.
When you grow up poor, you notice opportunities where other people just see blank stares and closed doors. From a young age I wasn’t handed anything. Even the clothes on my back were pretty basic.
So I noticed things. I noticed that if you went by the thrift store on Saturday morning there were clothes they had in a bargain bin and some that were even free. I found some very cool stuff there, actually.
I also noticed opportunities in every other area of life, something I continue to this day.
Did you know that around 41 million computers are thrown in the trash every year? I can promise you one thing: not all of these computers are beyond repair!
How do I know? I’ve fixed more than a couple at about 90% off the price of what a new computer would have cost, that’s how.
6) Credential skepticism
I respect education and have had my share of professors I deeply respected. But I admit that growing up poor gave me and my friends a serious skepticism about credentials.
At the local medical clinic we were much more interested in whether our doc would give us a pill that works than whether he went to Johns Hopkins or Harvard.
I still feel that way. Great for those who have multiple Ph.Ds and all sorts of credentials in ABCD. All I want is competence. And what I offer employers and everyone around me is competence and a great attitude.
If education helps people with that then awesome! But if it’s just some vellum on a wall I frankly think it would do better as toilet paper.
7) Resistance to sob stories
In my childhood and throughout life I’ve met people who’ve suffered terribly. It isn’t always their fault at all: some lost family members or had tragedies and abuse that made them turn to drugs. Others went through mental health breakdown and family breakup that tore them apart.
But I’ve always had a little bit of resistance to sob stories, especially when somebody comes up to me on the street asking for money.
Maybe that makes me coldhearted, but I do know that I don’t want to give money to feed an addiction or somebody’s own death, so I give some food if I can but not money.
When I hear politicians or others playing the victim I get sick to my stomach. I can see how they are trying to twist people’s emotions to take advantage of them.
I credit my upbringing and learning to fend for myself for that resistance, because I know that sometimes those who want to cry to you the most about their hard situation are the worst kind of people of all, or at least the least trustworthy.
8) Sensitivity to entitlement
Just because somebody was born in good circumstances doesn’t make them entitled to run my life. I’ve always felt that way and always will. I know many who feel the same from all backgrounds of life.
But I’ve found this dislike of entitlement is especially strong around the people I grew up with and those of a lower class and working class background.
We just don’t want the superior attitude shoved in our face, and we don’t respect it. We’re fully aware that we’re not the top of the totem pole, but being treated as lesser is never something I’ve accepted.
When I see entitlement I smirk and feel all potential respect fading out of me.
9) Anger at elitism
Elitism is different than just being wealthy or doing well in life. I actually look up to people who succeed, including on a material level.
But when I see arrogant people who think their wealth makes them better than others I feel sickened. It’s not just that some of them were born into it, it’s that they are living in such an illusion.
Money won’t save your soul, and it’s always been hard for me to respect those who seem to think it will. I think many who grew up having to scrounge feel the same.
Elitist people strike us as out of touch with reality and also kind of ridiculous. Frankly they’d be funny if they weren’t so damn annoying and fake.
I think the greatest trait that growing up poor stimulated in me was communicativeness. I learned to speak my mind clearly and directly and be open about my needs.
I learned that talking can open many doors and connecting with other people around you can lead to all sorts of hidden opportunities. It led to my first job at the local convenience store stocking shelves.
In my path to being a writer I came to see that words aren’t just words: they’re actions waiting to happen. And that’s how I see hardship in general: it’s not a lot of fun, especially when you feel left out or disadvantaged, but it is a chance to become smarter, tougher and more perceptive. And that can open a hell of a lot of doors in life.
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