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 5)
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on Jun 23, 2005
"Based on what I've seen"

I don't know how much you have seen, or if your statement is true or not, but I think it's always dangerous to extrapolate one's own experience.

On overall, a human tends to exaggerate his own part in his destiny, partly because he has closely experienced the hardship of the labour he has done, and he does not want that experience to be minimized. This does not at all mean I minimize what you have done, you have applied your talents and created good opportunities out of bad ones. I just think that you should look at the big picture of your life, not just the work you have done. You got where you are largely through hard work, but not solely.

I think your story was a great, extraordinary story, about how you improved your situation through hard work and smarts, and it proves that that way, is certainly a way for able bodied people to improve themselves. No discussion about that. And to me, that should have been your main point, a real-life example of how things can be done. But I still dislike the statistical statements about those who are still in your original situation.

What kind of always bothers me about generalizations about the poor and their unwillingness to work, is the fact that there are millions of them. If there are so much of them, surely there must be more success stories? There should be thousands that have done things similar to you and made it. But where are they? It's either that, or you are a statistical anomaly, and in that case it's hard to generalize from an anomaly.

I think there are a lot of factors that make someone destined for poverty, and among those, unwillingness to work is certainly one of them. But health, upbringing, intelligence are also among those. ( In fact, you mentioned one of those yourself : "too foolish or stupid to live responsibly" )
on Jun 24, 2005

There are plenty of statistics (and if you read through my blogs I've discussed them ad naseum) that do show pretty clearly that in the United States, generally speaking, people who are poor are poor because they are unable or unwilling to work.

There are two types of people -- people who make excuses and people who take responsibility.  I prefer to deal with people who take responsbility. 

on Jun 24, 2005
Awesome job brad, you are the perfect example of a hard working american...
on Jul 05, 2005
Man, your history is so much like mine, except that I'm now 33 and haven't made the millions. Never mind though, this quick story has refocused my resolve... thanks! I will double my efforts to get my e-business plan finished...
on Jan 24, 2006
on Jan 24, 2006
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on Apr 09, 2006
I'm not so sure others really have the same chances. Life being "unjest by default", only those knowing how to get through by work can "civilize" their environment.

My point: Brad got a mother teaching him stuff of immense value (higher than a tuition, car or rich house). Really, how would fare a child of the same environment without this kind of "get out of your hole" wisdom?

Poverty seems to fit those who have their "good ways" to scrap. Like "untaught/trained" Romans in the end, caring for bread and circus. The poverty environment (and people to each other) scream "you can't make it here" and some bubble utopias more than elsewhere.

Mind you, such "bubble" understanding of the world affects rich kids too. Hippies are said to often fit there. With no proper "education"/training on how to actually do something might just lower in the social scale, being given lots of tools but gaining little ability/will to use them.

That's where parents (and/or close people to rely on) count. Sadly, many approaches to help failed (France anyone? Poor them ).
on Apr 11, 2006
An inspiring post. Really a great adventure. When I was at graduate school at UH, there was a supermarket called Star just a block down from Dole Street. While working on my dissertation way back in the late 1980s I got a job there at minimum wage working the "graveyard shift". I put myself through grad school doing low paying jobs and I too hold people who just wont work with yes, a touch of disdain.
on May 01, 2006
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on May 01, 2006
I like what you do, continue this way.
on May 16, 2006
I wondered... can we see a video of you typing near 120 wpm?
I really need a new alien for GalCiv. Pleeeaaaaase?

on Aug 07, 2006

Just updated this.

Couple new notes:

What is poor? If you have a DVD player then you're not poor.  If you have a DVD player and think you're poor then you might consider your spending choices.

Wishing and thinking are not as valuable as planning and doing. Good ideas mean nothing without followthrough.

on Aug 07, 2006

I missed this earlier:

What really mystifies me, Draginol, is this - you say you grew up poor, and you are now rich. Life is peachy. Yet there is a thread of irritation running through many of your blogs that suggests you bear deep resentment towards those who have not succeeded as you have. What is wrong in your paradise? Surely not a pang of conscience?

No, not a pang of conscience. If I seem unsympathetic to the poor it's because I hear the same tune over and over again and it is that tune I find annoying: "It's not my fault, forces beyond my control are keeping me down." Those forces, inevitably, turn out to be a lack of motivation and lack of work ethic.  You can have a good work ethic and still be poor in some (rare) cases.  The guy who sticks with some entry level job becuase they aren't motivated enough to go out and find better work.  But more often, the poor are people who simply think "life isn't fair" and choose not to work or take personal responsibility.

on Aug 14, 2006
It's pretty rare to meet someone who is poor and is also working very hard.

sheesh, I did some temp work in a factory in cornwall when I moved down there and I saw poor people, the people there work exceptionally hard and very long hours - yet cornwall remains one of the poorest counties in the uk. They do not seem to be able to improve their lot. Their wages are a pittance, blood money. long long hours for very little.

That comment is a very broad generalisation - yes?
on Oct 19, 2006

sheesh, I did some temp work in a factory in cornwall when I moved down there and I saw poor people, the people there work exceptionally hard and very long hours - yet cornwall remains one of the poorest counties in the uk. They do not seem to be able to improve their lot. Their wages are a pittance, blood money. long long hours for very little.

That comment is a very broad generalisation - yes?

Define poor. How much were they making per hour?

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