I've been lower middle class pretty much my entire life. For those of you unaware of what that means, let me break it down to you:
I was in honors, advanced placement, gifted & talented, etc classes throughout my academic career in public schools. This put me in classes with the best and brightest of each school I attended each year. Being an army brat, I've moved around a lot growing up. In the 4th grade alone, I attended 4 different schools. I've seen the best and brightest of a lot of areas around the world.
The problem was that, being lower middle class, I was always the poorest kid in these types of classes. That, in conjunction with the laziness and inattention with which I managed to succeed, attracted those types with a wild spark in them. I can't explain this fire inside of a person, but I know that I have always blended well with these types of people and I can always see it.
When you're a kid, it's quite easy to find these types of people, but as you get older, you find that they are few and far between. As we age, the majority of us lose that wild spark. We become complacent in what we're told. We finally reach a level of comfort that we are afraid to leave, and we therefore learn to live within those means and dedicate our time to maintaining that lifestyle. For some of us that will never be enough though.
Although I have happily lived alongside zombies for the first 30 years of my life, I did it with a purpose. I wanted to find myself. I wanted to experience life in a way that few can understand until later in life. I wanted to live on the edge. I wanted to gain a state of broke brilliance. In doing so, I've given myself a functional education through life experience that I did not find in the halls of public and private universities.
Here's a few lessons I learned from experience while living a financially poor life:
I own a piece of the Berlin Wall that I myself chipped off of it. I've stood in the kitchen of Anne Frank's house. I've stood in both the gas chambers and burn pits in Auschwitz. I've stood in an Ancient Roman outpost. I've walked the halls of Frankenstein's castle, King Ludwig's castle (the real life inspiration for the Disney logo), the Louvre, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I could go on forever. The point is, I've seen and felt and experienced things most have only read or been told about.
I've been lucky enough to have traveled throughout the US and Europe from childhood throughout adulthood. I've spoken different languages, learned different cultures, etc. When I visit a place, I seek to experience it like a local. I take public transportation, walking, or riding my bike when I can. I seek out the hole in the wall, mom & pop, and most un-touristy places I can find. The point is that being poor gave me more insight into other cultures and infrastructures than any book ever could have hoped.
If you're familiar with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, you know from my earlier reference that I was living in Germany when the East German economy collapsed. I was able to tour many countries within Eastern Europe toward the end of the Cold War era, and into the Clinton years. I stood at the ground floor of an exciting economic climate in Europe, where I was able to witness the rise and collapse of various competing and cooperative economic systems. I observed what worked and what didn't from the ground floor.
In addition, the amount of travel I've done led to me having to manage personal finances throughout a variety of currencies. My personal banking and budget fundamentals needed to be solid, and in addition, I needed to understand fair trade, conversion rates, taxes, interest, and various other skills that are normally only obtainable by working a full career on Wall Street.
Sure...plenty of people know more than me about a lot of things within these categories. There are experts at everything. I'm not going to say I'm the best anything. I am proud to say, however, that being broke has made me surprisingly sufficient around the house.
I can fix so many things, you wouldn't believe, including being able to take apart electronics to fix them. I can keep my car running, including being able to fix things myself quite often (or at least know people who are not only reliable, but who give me fantastic prices because I know them personally). I've tiled floors, laid carpet, built a house frame, laid a foundation, installed plumbing, rewired countless thing, etc.
Trust me, these are survival skills in any world. Many people I know can't even do their laundry right. One of my closest friends, for example, washed his clothes for an entire year with fabric softener because he didn't know that was different than detergent.
I've been on food stamps and unemployment twice in my life as well, so I know what it's like to have practically no income and have to survive. You learn how to cook well because you have to, not because somebody teaches you. You learn because you can only afford the basic staples for nutrition, but your pride demands flavor. You learn to create things from scratch that most people couldn't even name the main ingredients for (ask someone how to make homemade pasta, and the majority couldn't even tell you what pasta's made from). I have practice with skills most people don't have the first clue about.
This is one of the most underrated qualities, however it should be mentioned. Another benefit of being poor is that many of my skills and training have come from some of the most elite in their fields. For example, I played futbol in West Germany, where I lived in 1990, the year they defeated Argentina in Rome to win the World Cup. I saw riots they couldn't imagine in Montreal, haha. That is the athletic environment I honed my teamwork, leadership, and reflexes in.
I came of age down by the US/Mexico border. You would hear stories from both sides. You would spend your weekends at a bonfire up in the mountains with a bunch of other teenagers. You all knew each other from school and were friends, even though one girl's dad is a drug smuggler, another is the sister of one of the leaders of a border gang, two of you have parents who are illegals, one boy's father is a supervising officer in the border patrol, and the rest are military brats just like myself but from other parts of the world.
We came together out of love for each other and taught each other the differences in how we were raised, what we experienced, and what we want from life. We learned from each other's lives and families. I have been in a fraternity, and while I appreciate the bonds formed from that experience, it always felt like a manufactured version of the bond I experienced at a much younger age. Many people like to hang out with the same group of people or the same type of people. Many will only spend time with people who can advance their future. The life lessons learned from smugglers, dealers, law enforcement, military, and the like are much different than you'll get from lawyer or accountant parents.
Because of being poor, I've learned so many fascinating things about people and society as a whole. I didn't just see stories on the news, I actually saw them in person or heard them from the perspectives of the people it was happening to. I think that's the difference between some people. Many people are happy when exciting things come to them, but personally I enjoyed that thrill so much that I prefer to pursue and obtain it for myself. Rather than living an empty life, I know how to get involved now.
I know how I effect the world. I understand myself and my dreams in life. I'm happy and content because I am making a difference and contributing to the well being of the world around me, as well as the world as a whole. Getting involved in activism made me start eating healthier and taking care of myself. I don't spend 12 hours a day at a job I don't like anymore. I don't stress about bills anymore. I'm happy with the material things I own (although I still have a few things I need to get rid of to declutter the house, but nothing too major), and I don't yearn for a different life. I love the adventure I'm on.
This is the state of mind you have to be in to succeed. If your job, your relationship, or your life doesn't make you feel this way, then you need to figure out what makes you happy. In the meantime, there's plenty of activists, volunteers, and charity organizations around you that can use your help. The choice is up to you.
As for me, I'll be watching the world from my laptop as I participate in the world around me, collect the lessons, and share them with you either through my blog, my tweets, or my music. It'll take me where it takes me with a smile on my face :)
About the Author - Brian Penny creates music under the name Mr. Versable. He tweets under the name @Versability. He believes in true love, and won't rest until he's found his...oh, and his last blog cost Bank of America a whole lotta dough!