Growing up I thought I was going to be rich
My family emigrated from Sudan in 1997, leaving behind all of our family, friends, and familiarities. We didn’t come with many possessions. In fact, many times we had nothing besides each other. The family. The unity.
The root word of unity - unit - means one group. One system. One being. During what became our lows, new migrants to a foreign country, language, and people, my family acted as one being. In a totally alien society, our only source of comfort was in those we knew best, each other.
This had the effect of me spending extremely large portions of time with my family during much of my early years in America, periods of key mental development in early childhood. So much so that I grew up learning of all of their mannerisms and little quirks. Their behaviors and its reasoning. Their excitements and disappoints – and their respective causes. Consequently, I understood the financial distress that was our reality.
At the same time we were on welfare, I understood regardless of our conditions here, we were better off than we would be there. I knew that although we might have been relatively better off in Sudan, we were absolutely better off here. My parents had done their part in the family, they had fulfilled their role.
They gifted me and my siblings with an improved Game of Life featuring more characters, more rules, and, most importantly, more opportunities. Beyond anything my parents could fathom living in Sudan. Systematically guided by my unity, it became my duty to chase the only thing we did not have – money.
Scheming Since the Second Grade
From a young age I schemed. I sold handmade crafts to neighbors and candy to classmates. Any and every way to make (or save) money and I was on top of it. I honestly believe that I solely learned math with such enthusiasm as a child only to calculate how to make more money.
If it had to deal with money, it had to deal with me. I had business ideas, thoughts, and plans constantly running through my head. They are hilarious when I think back on them. One in particular stands out to me.
One evening, I was bombarding my dad with a series of questions. I’m not sure on the particulars of the logic train, but it ended with me discovering that water was cheaper than soda. Out sprung this brilliant idea to buy millions of bottles of Coca-Cola and replace a small amount of soda in each bottle with water. Since water was cheaper than soda, we could rebottle the excess soda, sell it, subtract the cost of water, and profit the difference. The best part was that nobody would be able to tell the difference since such a small amount of Coke was missing!
Although this business scheme taught me arbitrage in the 4th grade, it also subconsciously solidified my life position as a businessman.
The idea had been running in my mind for a while so I planned on presenting it to the family. I’m not exactly sure what I expected their response to be. Maybe that I was an idiot and wasting my time. Maybe that I needed to stop worrying about “big people” problems and to go clean my room. Maybe that they would notice the future Fortune 500 and we could all rejoice in our newly found riches. Yeah, probably that.
In a few days my uncle Amin was going to visit from Sudan. Amin is easily one of the better people on Earth. He is thoughtful, considerate, and respects everyone’s opinion regardless of any differences - including age. That behavior was striking to me as a child. The many times I was thought invisible during “adult conversations” and looked at funny by many of my relatives for living in America had made its impression. But Amin was different from them. Like my father, Amin was a businessman. My intuition was that his presence in the home would bring a lot of discussions centered on business, which would give me the opportunity to propose my business plan. He was (is) also one of my favorite relatives and I could wait.
One night, shortly after his arrival, we all gathered in the living room when I decided it was the time to change the world.
After I finished they couldn’t stop laughing.
At first I wasn’t sure of their reaction, but found them to be laughing not at my idea but at the mental acrobatics I undertook to make money. The great, convoluted lengths of thought. They remarked on how critically I analyzed, how successful of a businessman I would be, how rich I would become.
How rich I would become
I was reaffirmed in my newly found role, my new life purpose – make money.
It sort of became a dominant theme throughout my life. Family, teachers, and even strangers would constantly comment on how rich I would become. And the remarks only skyrocketed after I was accepted to Cornell University and The Dyson School, its prestigious undergraduate business school. Friends asked to live in my future beach home. Family members emerged from the woodworks to ask for gifts and money. Even if they were joking, which is my attempts at giving them the benefit of the doubt, as the lyricists Jermaine Cole said, “All good jokes contain true shit”. It began to feel as if I was destined for business.
At the same time, the older I grew the greater our wellbeing became. The family business was doing relatively well and we had climbed out of poverty and into newfound wealth. Although there was such a drastic change in my external conditions, internally I largely remained unchanged. I remembered the times when we did not have and knew that at any moment we could return. I constantly worried about finances. I questioned all large purchases. I became extremely frugal. Living through the changes my parents created with far less resources than I presently had only further pushed me into the prophecy. If my father and mother were able to achieve all of this, then what must I do to fulfill my role?
Going to Cornell was everything I expected it to be, which is oddly why it was such a culture shock. Everyone seemed to study. Everyone seemed to know. And everyone seemed to be vying for the same banking and consulting jobs. I knew that to succeed at Cornell, to make my investment worthwhile, I would need to graduate with a job in banking or consulting. And so that is how I began. With visions of me working 100+ hour weeks. With visions of my life consisting of nothing but work. But also with visions of me accomplishing my role.
Going to Cornell was also the time when I had the interesting experience of getting to know a lot of different people – including myself. Coming from an extremely tight-knit home, I knew what my parents would do in every scenario I was faced. And that is mostly what I followed. College presented many scenarios that my parents just couldn't prepare me for. So I must take it upon myself to decide a course of action that falls in line with what I ultimately want. Actions are made by and affect solely us. Wanting the best for myself, I began to question all of my actions. Where my actions, ambitions, and thoughts my own or the consequence of my surroundings? What I discovered is that I had come to a place where I knew no one, including myself. I had to, for the first time in my life, leave the roles I hide behind at home. I had to truly understand myself. I had to momentarily separate my being from the unity and create my individuality.
Over the course of my college years, that – I discovered - was the purpose of college. To become exposed to such a varying array of perspectives that you challenge your own. That you justify your decisions. That you get to the Whys.
To Get to the Why
I thought about my attempts to get into finance and consulting and started asking the Whys. Why did I want to go into finance? Why did I want the money? What did money mean to me? It was at that moment, when I began to question what being rich entailed, that I realized money, in its physical nature, was absolutely worthless. It is the concept of money that we truly want.
Money, as we have defined it in our society, is the physical manifestation of opportunity. We don’t necessarily want to be millionaires, but we want what we believe only millionaires can have. We don’t work for cotton and linen painted pieces of paper, but for what the goods, services, and experiences we can buy. Not for stacks of dead presidents, but for the opportunity to do as we please. Once I accumulated the funds necessary to afford me the opportunity to do what I pleased all of the time, I would become rich and reach financial independence.
So I decided to begin with the end in mind. What is it that I pleased to do with the money, with the opportunity? To purchase fancy cars and a large home? I had worked valet at a 5-star hotel before. The allure of driving a Porsche or Mercedes quickly fades. It is a temporary high and the only way to continue the high is to get more. A bigger, faster, or better car. A first class ticket to the hedonic treadmill.
Material possessions weren’t going to be my source of happiness. I grew up fairly content with what we had. Since we didn’t have many things, we had to place our happiness in a different home; somewhere it was not affected by outside conditions – internally in the unity of our family. As long as the family was together, we all were happy. In terms of my personal life satisfaction, I had to strive for this internal happiness again. I had to live a life that made me happy.
Except I still felt that I had an obligation to my family and friends to be rich. It wasn’t until after I had reworked my understanding of rich that I truly understood my parent’s role. They weren’t to provide financially security but provide opportunity. To create the opportunities that they didn’t, and we wouldn’t, have in Sudan.
As a child, yes, an extra few hundred dollars each month may have made my parents happier, but not for the money – for what it represented. They would now have the opportunity to NOT take the 2nd or 3rd shift. They would now have the opportunity to do more of what they please to. To spend time with the kids, reading, or relaxing. My role as the rich uncle was rapidly crumbling.
Being rich isn't a societal comparison; it is an internal measure of opportunities granted.
Reverse engineering the new definition of rich, I decided to calculate what it would cost me to live my ideal life indefinitely. For me to discover that, I had to design a life that I would enjoy indefinitely. To discover that I had to ponder on what activities I wouldn’t mind constantly doing. To discover that, I had to explore my different hobbies, interests, and talents. And to discover that, I had to look within myself. For what brought me happiness.
And so I dropped out of one of the best business schools in America. To find true happiness. To create a life that I don’t need a vacation from. To turn my dreams into reality.
To create a life abound by true happiness that allows me to develop deeply rooted passions, stem a purpose, and allow my profit to blossom.