Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
Why I think anyone can make it
Published on July 3, 2004 By Draginol In Business

Sometimes in my writings I probably come across as unsympathetic to the "less fortunate". That is probably true to a certain extent. Mainly, I'm a crummy writer so I tend to write my opinions in ways that grate. But also it's because I grew up poor -- for an American. I lived amongst other poor people and know from first hand experience what kinds of things makes a person poor and what kinds of things can make someone wealthy.

Of course, bear in mind, in the United States, most people who say they are poor are probably not really very poor, even by American standards. Of course, even the poorest Americans are still well off by the standards of most of the world.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself.  I just turned 33. Still reasonably young. Generation X. I've got 2 little ones now. So the story I'm about to tell shouldn't come across as one of those old timers who tells about how things were in the old days.  I graduated from college in 1994. Only 10 years ago.

When I was 4 my parents got divorced and my mom and I moved to Michigan. I was a child who grew up in a single parent household whose mom worked for minimum wage while we lived in a small apartment trying to make ends meet. We lived amongst other poor people. Most of the people who I met who were poor were just losers. I realize that won't win me any compassion awards with the politically correct crowd, but the older I get, the more obvious it becomes that some people are losers. These are people who were too foolish or stupid to live responsibly.  The woman who lived next door paid me 10 cents per bag (when I was 6 years old) to take her garbage out to the dumpster.  Her money came from welfare. In the entire time we lived there, she never got a job. She had 3 kids, each from a different man. She had money for cigarettes though. Money for booze.  But couldn't get a job. I'm sure she would be the first to complain that "the rich" don't pay enough in taxes. Across the hall was a druggie. Usually jobless too.

The apartment complex was full of two types of people -- people on their way up and people who just couldn't get their act together. For the most part, the latter group were people who just didn't want to work, or decided that life was unfair and wouldn't do anything about it, or were just unbelievably irresponsible and short-sighted in their decision making. That isn't to say that all Americans who are poor are lazy or stupid or irresponsible. I also have met people who suffered from physical or mental problems that limited what they could do. But for the most part, the people who were "poor" would be poor no matter what you did for them (and by poor, I'm talking about people who are in their late 20s or older making less than $15,000 per year in 2003 dollars).

Some people aren't willing to work their way up. Those people want propserity handed to them. They say how it's not fair that other people have it so much easier. Well you know what? Life ain't fair. My mother taught me that.  When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. I was willing to take this woman's trash to the dumpster (about 100 meters away from the apartment) filled with the most disgusting stuff, in the dead of winter, so that I could make money to save for college, buy Star Wars figures, and baseball cards. At 10 cents per bag. I took the garbage out for our neighbors too so I could earn a couple dollars a week doing this.  Big money to a 6 year old in 1977.

When I was 14, I got my first hourly job. My summer job was to paint, by myself, a giant chain link fence that surrounded a 5 acre property. In the dead of summer with temperatures in the high  90s, low 100s. But I did it and I got paid minimum wage.  I could describe in detail how unpleasant this job was. The fence itself was overgrown with thorny vines which I had to first remove before I could paint. And did I mention how hot it was?

When I was 15, I worked in a garage cleaning the crap out (sometimes literally) and helping the guys fix the "shovels" and other things that came in (it was a garage for escavation equipment). I worked these crappy jobs because I didn't have a car. So I could only work at places I could either walk to or get a ride to.  These jobs weren't pleasant but you have to do what you have to do. Life ain't fair.

I took some of the money I saved in those 2 years and bought a Chevette for $1,500. Crappy car. Rich kids at school whose parents bought them cars made fun of it.  But with that car I was able to get a nicer job at the mall. Still working minimum wage, it was at least air conditioned and eventually I got raises to making a little bit more. And I learned new skills. The mall job required I wear a shirt and tie. I had to interact with customers, improve my communication skills, and learn to present myself better.

When I was 18, I was able to use my 2 summers working at the mall book store (as "experience" that showed I was responsible enough to be reliable) to get a job at the bank. My first job there was driving a van from bank to bank to pick up the deposited checks to take it to the district bank which gave the checks to the proof machine operators.  It was a highly unpleasant job and mindnumbingly boring. But it paid much better ($6 per hour in 1988 was not too bad). And it helped ensure I could afford college.  I went to Western Michigan University. I was accepted at the University of Michigan but I couldn't afford to go there. So I went to WMU.

When I was 19 and 20 I got "promoted" to being a proof machine operator.  When you get a canceled check back in the mail, you'll notice at the bottom of it is a computerized number that takes your chicken scrawl amount you wrote and makes it into something that the computer scanner can read. Back in 1990, that meant some poor schmoe (like me) had to actually look at your check, make out what you wrote, and type the number and account information onto a keypad and run your check through the proof machine.  I did that for 40 hours per week. I still have occasional flashbacks to that as it was incredibly repetitive. 

But partially because of that job, I also became incredibly fast at typing. My typing speed got up to 100 words per minute by that point (still not at the 120wpm it is today).  This acquired skill would do me well in the future.

But despite working at the bank, and working all those jobs and having saved money all my life, I couldn't get much aid for college. Why? Because my mom had lived responsiblily and hadn't piled on huge debts.  I had a scholarship thanks to my high ACT scores but it wasn't nearly enough.  So I started a company selling computers to the faculty.  I knew how to get computer parts wholesale and could then undercut the local computer store.  I called the company "Stardock Systems".

In 1992, OS/2 came out and I felt I could get a competitive advantage by pre-loading OS/2 onto the computers I sold. I became quite familiar with OS/2.  In early 1993, I thought there would be demand for an OS/2 video game.  The only problem was that I didn't know how to program.  So I bought a book called "Teach yourself C in 21 days" and a book called "OS/2 Presentation Manager Programming".  With those two books I learned how to program and wrote Galactic Civilizations.  Anyone who ever played the game and also knows programming can verify that only the techniques in OS/2 PM programming are in that game.  What that meant is that all the "graphics" were merely iconic windows, not real images because OS/2 PM programming didn't include chapters on how to do graphics programming and I couldn't afford any more books.

Even still, my plan, once I graduated, was to go work at some cool company. I sent my resume to Texas Instruments and tons of other big companies. No response.  I later learned from a friend who worked at Ratheon at the time that these big companies won't look at resumes from minor colleges like WMU.  He got in because he went to (wait for it) the University of Michigan, the school I was accepted at but couldn't afford (my friend's parents paid his way through and drove a firebird).

So while failing to get a job, the little game I made did really well. Except that I didn't get paid any royalties. Our publisher ripped us off and because I was poor and couldn't afford a lawyer, I was screwed. If you bought a copy of Galactic Civilizations for OS/2, that's cool but I never got a penny of it.  But the game was such a success that I was able to use the good publicity to build Stardock up with other products while I waited to see if I could get a job anywhere. 

Because I worked 3 jobs during college my gradepoint was only 2.6 so I was at a competitive disadavantage. But that time allowed me to keep working on Stardock stuff which led to Star Emperor (a GalCiv derivative I wrote for IBM) and Object Desktop for OS/2 which I teamed up with a fellow OS/2 fanatic Kurt Westerfeld to bring to market.

And the rest is history. By 24 I was a millionaire. And during the stock bubble, my company's valuation was ridiculously high (wish I could just stick with that number ) which fortunately coincided with my 10 year class reunion!

So what's the excuse of able bodied people who are poor? I'm not particularly intelligent. I don't enjoy working any more than anyone else (just ask my mom).  But I did what I had to do.  And now I pay 6 figures in income taxes of which a large percentage of it goes to other people.  If I can make it, why can't others? If you are able bodied, what's stopping you?

I think Americans are very generous people.  As a nation, we spend more on programs to help the poor and downtrodden than any other nation.  We provide more aid to the poor of the world than any other country. 

If you find yourself thinking that other people are "just lucky" or that you are constantly being singled out by the boss or some other authority figure or that life isn't fair, then you need toughen up and quit looking for scapegoats. Look inside. In the United States, hard work, more than intelligence, more than inherited wealth, will win the day in the long run. You may not become a millionaire. But you won't be poor. And by poor, I mean real poor, not "I can barely afford a new DVD player" poor (hint: if you have a DVD player, you're not poor but if you think you are, consider the choices you made to buy a DVD player in the first place rather than how you might have used it otherwise -- my mom and I didn't even have cable TV until I was in highschool and no VCR until college and this is the 90s we're talking!).

Our country is rich in opportunity for those willing to work for it. Often that work is mindnumbingly crappy but opportunity lurks for those who are persistent.  Don't let pride be your downfall. I got my start taking out garbage for welfare mothers and worked my way up to painting fences in the blistering heat and so on today. If I can make it, anyone can.

 


 

Epilogue: I've gotten a lot of comments pointing out that I did have the advantage of having a mother who instilled her values into me. That is true.  I had my share of advantages. My dad helped steer me into computers, for instance, by giving me a Commodore 64 for Christmas. And my mom was adament about the value of learning skills and planning for the future.  But that's really the point isn't it? That people can succeed by having these kinds of values. A parent giving me a computer instead of a game machine or a parent that taught me that there is no such thing as a job that is "beneath" you are the kinds of things parents can do for their own children that can make a big difference. Too many people who fail in life are people who think they have no control over their own destiny. How often have you heard some welfare recipient say they won't "flip burgers" because they feel those jobs are demeaning? Or the person who spends their money on frivelous things instead of things that can lead to a better future?  Becoming "successful" doesn't happen overnight. It's the result of a series of decisions and actions that lead to a better life.  Too many people want success handed to them or look to blame others for their misfortuntes. As soon as you give over your destiny to someone else in the form of blame, you're doomed. 


Comments (Page 1)
on Jul 03, 2004
Excellent post, draginol. It's nice to see this side of you, as this is what blogs are often for.

I have always had an entrepeneurial approach as well, and can honestly say one of the main reasons I am not wealthy is, I never aspired to be (which, I figure, is OK, as long as you aren't a mooch). I learned early on (as I'm sure you can attest) that wealth brings with it its own share of problems; if you aren't willing to take on those problems, perhaps that route isn't best for you.

In my case, however, I am proud of working to end a long standing tradition of dependence in my family. To me, that is what having "made it" will mean. I do hope to be a successful author at one point; this gives me a terrific forum to hone my skills.

Anyway, back to the main point, which is: this post does bring out some hard truths and give good cause for self examination. Thanks for sharing.
on Jul 03, 2004
Brad, you are the American dream. Thanks for sharing.
on Jul 04, 2004
Really inspiring Brad. I live in a third world country but my family is financially ok and I was able to make my way smoothly till college. In 1996 my life changed dramatically when I first step into a plane to come to US of A for further studies. Thats the first time I felt my ties and connection to my family were lost and I have to be fully independent. After 2 years in college and 4 years working in with a company in US I moved back to my home country (lost my job) and found myself starting all over with my life.

On one way I am glad my life start out as it is but on the other side I wish my parent will stop nurturing me at some point so that I will know the reality of life, the reality of making a living. Now despite my full time job here in my home country, I try very hard to find other opportunities so that I will not tie to some company and have my own time for living. Hoping one day I will be back to the US of A, where my heart is
on Jul 04, 2004
Hoping one day I will be back to the US of A, where my heart is


You too, Sharpliner, represent the American drream! I hope that your hope is fulfilled.
on Jul 04, 2004
As do I, sharpliner. I have a gut feeling you would be a wonderful asset to our country.
on Jul 04, 2004
Your assertion that Americans donate more money than any other nation is inaccurate. Per HEAD of population, they give less than many western nations. Overseas aid is not as generous as it could be, except for where they spend money on the armed overthrow of other nations, of course!!
on Jul 04, 2004
Your assertion that Americans donate more money than any other nation is inaccurate. Per HEAD of population, they give less than many western nations. Overseas aid is not as generous as it could be, except for where they spend money on the armed overthrow of other nations, of course!!


The statistical source for that one, by the way, is IPSOA (the institute for pulling statistics out of one's arse
on Jul 04, 2004
>>>>> I have a gut feeling you would be a wonderful asset to our country

Thanks.. so any hiring in US for a 5 year experience programmer? know VC++, PHP, Java, linux, mysql, msql....
on Jul 04, 2004
David also ignores the fact that I never claimed the US gave more per capita. Just more total. I don't know if the US gives more per capita or not, I noticed that David didn't provide any sources for his claims. Typical. However, I do believe that the US does spend a relatively low amount per capita in official foreign aid. But many of us would also argue that US military spending should get counted partially as foreign aid. After all, Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, etc. cost many billions of dollars for the US and they don't count under official "foreign aid". But it doesn't change the reality that the US does spend the most overall regardless of whether it's per capita or not. Though that's a bit off topic, if someone wants to write about US foreign aid in detail they need to create their own article.
on Jul 04, 2004
That's a great success story, Brad. But it's exactly that, a success story. And it's exactly those (the successful) who should (i'm not saying you don't), support those who worked hard, but never met success, and even those that have stumbled on their own faults. That's what loving people are called to do.
on Jul 04, 2004
It's been my experience that most poor people didn't work very hard at all. That's kind of the issue.
on Jul 05, 2004
I'd have to say I fully agree with you there Brad. Life is what you make it and most people could be living a better life if they only chose to do so.

There was a point in my life where I got sick and became a member of John Howard's Surf Team (a slang term some use for Aussie welfare) for a little while, but that did absolutely nothing for my self esteem and motivation towards improving my life. I made a conscious decision to get out there and take hold of the things I wanted and worked hard till I got them. Now all that work is starting to pay off.

Like you, I started small and just had to build on that. I didn't have a choice to do anything else. Part of the problem I see these days is that so many people are after instant gratification in their personal and professional lives and if they don't get it, they just give up.

My $0.02
on Jul 05, 2004
Good article, but while I don't denigrate your success (clearly, you're one of those that have earned it, rather than having it handed to you), I think you miss several key points:

1) Life isn't fair, sure. I agree as my mom taught me that one as well. But it's one thing to acknowledge that life isn't fair and another to contribute to that unfairness (this is a general comment, not an accusation aimed at you) or let those that do get away with it without a fight.
2) I also think you fail to adequately address the reason why so many who are poor are in such a circumstance. You seem to attribute it mainly to laziness. However, might at least some, if not most, of it be to lack of incentive? Let's say you kept developing games, only to find that others kept prospering from your work instead of you. Or you contracted a disease while taking out the disease, the treatment for which required you to use whatever savings you had earned. This, however, is exactly the situation that most "menial" laborers find themselves in. They're paid exactly enough to live off of, but not enough to improve their lives. And should they be unfortunate enough to complain about their condition or get hurt... well, they're easily replaceable. All the while, their employers profit from their labors, while doing very little work themselves (why aren't these employers [not employers in general, but specifically this type of employers] considered as equally lazy as someone who is poor?). This is not to say that there might be those who are too lazy to work even under the best of circumstances, but with how society is currently set up, how is one able to tell one from the other?
3) My disagreement isn't so much there is a disparity in what people earn, but in the size of the disparity. If someone works hard, then they deserve the fruits of their labor. I don't care if they are skilled or unskilled labor (I don't think either is intrisically better), here "illegally" (and from where did we obtain the right to decide who should be here and who shouldn't? sorry, I know that's a side issue) or not, nor does it matter to me the color of their skin, what religion or sex they are, or even what their sexual orentation is (however much I may believe they're morally wrong). What matters most to me is that works hard, then they have EARNED decent housing, good food, and affordable health care and it is wrong for companies that can afford it and society as a whole to deny it to them.
on Jul 05, 2004
Good article Brad,

Hard work is the key to success. Interestingly, study after study has shown that those who work between 7-20 hours per week while attending high school, do much better in life than those who don't work at all - even the children of wealthy parents. So, as my grandmother used to say "Hard work never hurt anyone" [and is in fact beneficial].

I had some similar experiences as you (although our family was solidly middle-class), but both my parents had been farm kids themselves and believed strongly in "chores". As we were remodelling (always remodelling) two houses over seven years, there was always some work to do. I escaped the free labour at 15 by getting full-time summer employment - like you at minimum wage. I continued working through all of my school years.

There's pride in work well done, even repetitive, mind-numbing work. And, as you say, it's always an opportunity to aim for something higher.

As to your statement that you're not particularly intelligent - I suspect you are being modest in the extreme. I think that's probably one huge "competitive advantage" that you have over many poor people. Many people aren't aware that, of the poor, there's a hugely disproportionate percentage of those folks with learning disabilities.

The correlation between learning problems and poverty is strong.

But I suspect, so too is laziness, for those without learning disorders.

Anyway, a nice inspiring story.





on Jul 05, 2004

1) Life isn't fair, sure. I agree as my mom taught me that one as well. But it's one thing to acknowledge that life isn't fair and another to contribute to that unfairness (this is a general comment, not an accusation aimed at you) or let those that do get away with it without a fight.

What does that have to do with anything. How do other people make life unfair? The people I've met who are downtrodden tend to be people who brought it on themselves with galactically foolish decisions.

2) I also think you fail to adequately address the reason why so many who are poor are in such a circumstance. You seem to attribute it mainly to laziness. However, might at least some, if not most, of it be to lack of incentive? Let's say you kept developing games, only to find that others kept prospering from your work instead of you. Or you contracted a disease while taking out the disease, the treatment for which required you to use whatever savings you had earned. This, however, is exactly the situation that most "menial" laborers find themselves in. They're paid exactly enough to live off of, but not enough to improve their lives. And should they be unfortunate enough to complain about their condition or get hurt... well, they're easily replaceable. All the while, their employers profit from their labors, while doing very little work themselves (why aren't these employers [not employers in general, but specifically this type of employers] considered as equally lazy as someone who is poor?). This is not to say that there might be those who are too lazy to work even under the best of circumstances, but with how society is currently set up, how is one able to tell one from the other?

You're talking to a guy whose first product, Galactic Civilizations, which I spent 2 years of my life working on, causing permanent damage to my rist (carpal tunnel) to make that I got paid ZILCH for.  I got totally ripped off.  And my friends who were interested in joining up with Stardock after GalCiv chose not to after seeing that experience.

And then I made a sequel, Galactic Civilizations II and we published that ourselves so that we couldn't have a publisher rip us off only to have the distributor not pay us.  And then we made Galactic Ciivlizations for WIndows where our publisher has been unable to fully pay us our royalties.

In 10 years I've eaten around $800k in bad debt. 

But you know what? I try try again. I adapted.  Today a good portion of our revenue comes from electronic sales. No middle man.

3) My disagreement isn't so much there is a disparity in what people earn, but in the size of the disparity. If someone works hard, then they deserve the fruits of their labor. I don't care if they are skilled or unskilled labor (I don't think either is intrisically better), here "illegally" (and from where did we obtain the right to decide who should be here and who shouldn't? sorry, I know that's a side issue) or not, nor does it matter to me the color of their skin, what religion or sex they are, or even what their sexual orentation is (however much I may believe they're morally wrong). What matters most to me is that works hard, then they have EARNED decent housing, good food, and affordable health care and it is wrong for companies that can afford it and society as a whole to deny it to them.

Who decides what the size of the fruits of their labors? Some esteemed group of wise elders? In a free society, the market decides how much people make.  Between 1992 and 1995 my total income was less than $25,000.  And in 1998 to 2000 my total income was around $40,000.  Is that "fair"?  But now I make a very good living.  Someone might argue that it's not fair that I make so much more than most people. But most people aren't willing to take the risks and make the sacrifices my wife and I made.

People who are salaried employees are compensated by their labor -- through their salaries. An agreement between employer and employee.  But those of us who start our own businesses have no such garauntees. Our financial destiny is in our hands for good or ill.

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