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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 2)
on Jul 05, 2004
WOW...thank you for sharing.
on Jul 05, 2004
hmmmm.... I am hooking up with a friend right now to hopefully start building computers. I just wonder where we will get the costumer base at...

As far as being poor and making it... I ask, no offense to your Mother, but why didn't she 'make it'? Personally I think you have an opinion of people who are poor as lazy when in fact most are not and try to do the best they can with what they got. Coming up with ideas and ways to make them happen can be difficult and cane lead to failure and starting from scratch again. Some stop trying, others never try. Others failed at school or felt they were failures and dumb because of school, some get into crime, others work so hard at their minimum wage entry level jobs (just to never go any higher than that) or work 2 jobs just to have something.

The bottom line is this, even as I read how you made it, you could have just as easily not have made it. on a few occasions your company was in trouble early on. If it didn't make it would you be rich or poor? doing fine or just making it?

I do agree that more people should try and some who are poor tend to want things handed to them while they have 100 dollar cell phone bills and 200 dollar cable bills, but that is not all of them or even most.

I too am trying to build something. I work as a security guard so that I can go to school and work at a relatively stress-less job (or so I thought... that job put me in the hospital) and use the money to fund my business. Its pretty hard. The school I went to doesn't garner much from the 'big leagues' architectural firms and now that I am doing tech and management I still might find the job market just as high nosed about where I went to school. Nevertheless, going to school gave me some ideas. even not finding a job gave me some ideas (and push to make my own business)

At any rate, not all people know how to do what you did. even if some did that doesn't mean they will make it. and let me tell you, there are allot of people in a poor community who will tell you that you won't. Even your own Mother will have doubts... but let me not talk about that (mostly because my Mom is starting to see the light with what I am doing).


basically, when it comes down to it, its just life. Try to do you best and work hard (and smart... of which allot of people do not do and I think actually really should be your point)
on Jul 05, 2004
In a free society, the market decides how much people make.


"The Market" doesn't decide any such thing, the people in power do. It has always been this way.
on Jul 05, 2004

Says you based on what? What powerful person assigned me my lot in life?

Those who throw up their hands and act like they are powerless, as if they are leaves riding on an ocean current indeed make for a self-fulfilling prophecy. But in my experience, we have a great deal of control over our destinies.

on Jul 05, 2004
Says you based on what?


My interpretation of history as well as the present.

What powerful person assigned me my lot in life?


That's a completely different question.

Those who throw up their hands and act like they are powerless, as if they are leaves riding on an ocean current indeed make for a self-fulfilling prophecy. But in my experience, we have a great deal of control over our destinies.


I agree completely.

How are you defining "the market"? I am defining "the people in power" as the government and big business.

on Jul 05, 2004

You think the government sets wages?

You think the government or big business decide that Software Engineers make X and Basketball stars make Y?

No. What makes people make what they make is largely based on the need for people of skills X and the number of people available who have skills X.

on Jul 05, 2004
It's pretty rare to meet someone who is poor and is also working very hard.


That's probably because you (as well of all of us) live in very insular worlds. In your world you do not see (or perhaps, notice) the people who are poor who work their asses off. But then, this could also come down to how your definition of poor compares to mine.
on Jul 05, 2004
You think the government sets wages?


Asside from the minimum wage no, of course not. I did not mean to imply that it did. However the people in power do exert a large amount of control over wages, and the lower your economic posistion is the greater this control is. How is this done? Through laws concerning minimum wage, overtime, salaries, visas, trade agreements, tax laws, lobbying etc.
on Jul 05, 2004

HOW? How does minimum wage laws set the salaries of basketball players, engineers, graphics designers, etc.? 

The # of degrees of seperation between how much say Tobey McGuire makes for a film and say NAFTA is so distant that you might as well say that the weather has control.  There are lots of factors that determine how much one makes but ultimately the free market is the biggest input.

There is no invisible hand of illuminati or whatever who gather together to fix salaries.  And I firmly believe, and have seen from personal experience, that anyone who works hard and is persistent and is able bodied will not end up poor in America.

 

on Jul 05, 2004
Are you intentionally being obtuse? Try making an honest effort to understand my posistion before replying with strawman arguments.
on Jul 05, 2004
Abe,

so far your stated 'position' appears to be something along the lines of "The MAN is keeping us down!"
Try explaining your position in a way that does not invite easy comparisons to Illuminati and other tin-foil inspired theories.
on Jul 05, 2004

Abe,

Perhaps you can dumb it down for me because like Cita points out, your argument basically boils down to "The MAN" is keeping everyone down.

Re-read what you wrote:

the people in power do exert a large amount of control over wages, and the lower your economic posistion is the greater this control is. How is this done? Through laws concerning minimum wage, overtime, salaries, visas, trade agreements, tax laws, lobbying etc.

My mom and I started with nothing.  How did any of these things control me? How would they control someone else? How do they prevent someone who works hard and keeps trying to improve themselves from succeeding?

Are the things you mention factors? Sure.  But so is the weather, your grammar, your height, etc. But at the end of the day, the single biggest factor is the free markets. Millions of people choosing to buy one product, good or service over another one. Their combined purchasing power driving demand for some skills and not others. Demand that translates to higher salaries for those who have the skills in question and lowering them for those that lack skills that are in demand.

People who work hard and adapt to changing conditions are in the best position to keep moving up the economic ladder.  My story is largely one of adaption.  I started out doing highly unpleasant manual labor. But because I was reliable (i.e. I showed up every day, which you might be surprised how much of a problem that is at the lower rungs of society) I was able to leverage that into a job at the mall (B. Daltons) wearing a shirt and tie.  I was then able to leverage that into getting a job at the bank.

Even my college degree, Electrical Engineering, I didn't end up using because by the time I was graduating I had observed that computer programming skills were more in demand. And so I bought myself a book that's at any book store (Teach yourself C in 21 days).  And I also noticed that there were no video games for OS/2 at the time and believed there was a demand so I wrote a game and that demand helped translate into greater success.

Different people adapt to the times at different speeds. How well one adapts and how quickly one does along with hard work can determine the rate in which one moves up the economic ladder.  Hard work, hoewver, on its own, is enough to keep you out of poverty. And ensuring you have skills in demand will help you improve your lot in life.

So any suggestion that "powerful people" are somehow controlling our economic destiny is something i find quite unfounded (at least in the United States).

on Jul 05, 2004

The true people who are at risk are the children of those who feel that they are entitled to a certain standard of living without working.  It is really hard to not follow the example of one's parents.


That said, it is awfully heartless to cut a family off of social support.


One wants to get people off of the dole to make a good example for following generations, but the families may go hungry in the meantime.  What are you going to do?


It is impossible to be absolute in the answers to any of those questions.  Are people going to be taken care of without working? Or are people going to be "forced" to fend for themselves?  (No matter what the choice, there will be negative consequences.)


**By the way, is the first time that I have commented on one of Brad's articles?  I think so.

on Jul 06, 2004
just like me.
on Jul 06, 2004
Brad, your article is inspiring. Truly an American dream, from being poor to wealthy, albeit, you did it by way of hard work (it wasn't handed down to you and you didn't win the lottery!). What you say is valid. I do believe that there are people out there who work hard everyday of their lives to make it in this society and sometimes they (like you) make it and sometimes they don't. Most times its not because they're lazy but because of their circumstances. Yes, there are people who make the wrong decisions in life, and most times they "wake up" (and hopefully they do) and finally realize that this is what I should have done and this is the path to take and they get on that road and stick to it and make a success of their lives. But there are those who have no control because their free will is being eaten up by the "demons" in their lives, alcohol, drugs, abuse, etc. It's sometimes easy to say poor people are lazy (and there are some lazy ones out there, no denial there). Then there are those people who work hard earning minimum wage trying to feed their families, hanging on for dear life, giving it their all and that's all they can do because they don't have any other recourse. What if they don't have the foresight to go out and seek that which can make their lives better? What if what they're doing and the way they're doing it is all they know? What if they've tried and tried and keep getting dumped on no matter what they do? What if it doesn't get much better and they remain in the same circumstances? What if they've given up on the American dream? What if they don't want to be any higher up the ladder than where they are? Well, that's it isnt it? They have to want it, go after it and grab it. The opportunities are there as you say, one just have to work hard, which most of us do, and keep on reaching for that dream. No matter what the circumstances are, you try and try and keep on trying - we get it. Hey, if you can do it, then there's hope for the rest of us.
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