"I am poor."
This is something I used to tell myself on the regular. Growing up, I used to hear it from my father all of the time, too.
"I'm poor, son," he would say to me.
I'm not sure if he meant it. After all, he did make over 80k a year at the time.
He didn't say that to me because he thought he was really poor. My father knows what poverty really is. There was a time when his father—my grandfather— was dying from cancer in Spain. At that time, my father experienced real, crushing poverty. My grandmother told me of a time when she went without eating for a full week, just so my father and my uncle could eat. She ate the scraps they left on their plates. I imagined my grandmother eating bones...
My father knew poverty growing up in Hialeah in the 70's, as an immigrant from Cuba, with a single mother and a younger brother.
THAT is poverty. THAT is poor.
So, why would he tell me he was poor, when he clearly was not?
It's not that he was poor, it was more the fact that he wanted to save money, and save from being poor again. "Always put money away for a rainy day, son," he would say. When you are really poor, and you eventually break away from that life, you never want to go back there again. Maxims to that effect decorated my childhood, "Always live within your means," was another one of his sayings.
In those times, maybe my father still felt poor, comparing himself to his superiors at work, who lived in mansions in Coral Gables, who were season ticket holders to the Miami Heat and the Dolphins, and who owned boats and other nice things he couldn't afford.
Maybe, poverty and feeling poor can be a habit; maybe it can become part of our identities, even long after we have escaped its snares.
So, one day I caught myself fretting over money, and I noticed myself saying, "I'm poor."
It wasn't just one day. There was a long period of time—years after starting The Ark—that I fretted constantly over money; over my ability to pay the bills. "I'm poor. I'm broke. This sucks."
This is the way I wanted it to be, though. I started a gym that charged a sliding scale. Some people didn't even pay for membership. Others paid what they could. $20 a month? $50 a month? If you paid $100 a month back then, you got the celebrity red carpet.
After a while, I wised up and realized that, despite taking a vow of poverty, I didn't want to be poor anymore. I wanted to make a decent living doing what I love, lest I end up doing something I didn't love for the sake of making enough money to support my family. So, I started charging a little more for my services, still at a rate that was lower than the average for our city.
I was able to make a little more money, but my feelings of poverty persisted. I felt trapped in my poverty, until I realized that I really wasn't poor... and yet, to this day, I qualify for food stamps, and I live under the poverty line.
So, how can I live under the poverty line and not be poor?
Let me begin by saying that this is not an attempt to sugarcoat poverty. Being materially poor is a crushing scenario. Being poor makes it easier to make crappy, short-term decisions. Being poor makes it harder to eat well, to learn, and is a sure-fire way to feel unsafe all of the time. If you're interested in seeing just how crushing poverty can be, google "effects of poverty," and you could spend an entire year reading research articles on the subject.
This article isn't about how crushing poverty is, though; it's about how to make poverty your superpower.
Remember that article on making your limitations your strength? This is just that; an article on how I made my poverty my muscle.
Here's the deal: if it were not for my insane ability to process and deal with material poverty, The Ark would not exist today.
My ability to process and reframe my material reality has allowed me to undertake this amazing project that has changed lives, and has acted as an incubator for other projects, which will move forward and blossom into more change for more people.
I don't own a car. I ride my bike and my skateboard. Some of you have probably seen me skating on the trail to work, or have seen me in town on my bike. You may have thought to yourself, "Wow, he's really living the life! He's living green! He's staying healthy! He keeps moving!"
When I ride my bike through my neighborhood, they say, "He must have a DUI." Funny how your background and prejudices can change your perspective, huh?
My poverty is my superpower, because it affords me a perspective that a lot of you miss. When I get into my wife's truck to go to the grocery store, and the door is falling off the hinges, and the AC doesn't work, and the goshdarn truck doesn't even have a tape player, I'm like, "OH MY GAWD. WHAT AN AWESOME RELIEF THAT I DON'T HAVE TO CARRY MY GROCERIES IN MY BACKPACK! LIFE IS GOOD!"
My poverty is my superpower, because it provides me with clarity and motivation. If you clicked the link above and read this Atlantic article (oh snap, there it is again), then you may be thinking, "But, Michael, this clarity you speak of directly contradicts the article you shared."
Yes, I know, and now we turn to the real purpose of this article. The tool YOU NEED in your life that can turn any limitation (remember that snapper?), into your superpower.
This tool is called, "REFRAMING," and it is the most powerful tool you could ever have in your mental skills arsenal.
Here's how it works: you get a crappy situation, and you look for the bright spots. The proverbial silver lining. I know, you've heard the cliché before, "There's always a silver lining." Well, it's beaten the ef up, but it's entirely true. If you can master looking for the bright spots, WHEN THERE ARE NO F*****G BRIGHT SPOTS, then you have mastered "reframing."
Here's how it happened for me...
First, a seed was planted; it was this video of Bob Marley speaking to a hostile 60 minutes reporter:
The exchange went like this:
Reporter: You made a lot of money out of you're music?
Bob: Money? I mean, how much is a lot of money to you?
Reporter: That's a good question. Have you made, say millions of dollars?
Reporter: Are you a rich man?
Bob: What you mean rich, what ya mean?
Reporter: Do you have a lot of possessions? A Lot of money in the bank?
Bob: Possession make you rich? I don't have that type of richness. My richness is life, forever.
I remember giggling like a little kid watching an artist at work when I first saw this. It resonated with me, because Bob Marley, who grew up in CRUSHING poverty in the slums of Trenchtown, Jamaica, was basically saying that you could have richness without material possessions. Even though he KNOWS that "the destruction of the poor is their poverty."
Now, maybe he was speaking about a spiritual richness: "my richness is life, forever," sounds a lot like eternal life, maybe through his belief and acceptance of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I. So, just to be clear, Bob and I may not be talking about the same thing.
BUT, what this did is it planted a seed in my brain. A seed that would grow into an insane ability to deal with, and function properly under the snares of poverty. Y'all thought I was out here living life to the fullest. Ha! I'm just a poor guy making it look DAMN GOOD. Y'all are like, "Damn, I wish I was him." Little did you know that, with the wrong mindset, you would not last a week in my shoes. Maybe I'm underestimating you, maybe not...
Some time later, maybe years later, I was fretting over my finances. I was pacing back and forth, trying to come up with some way to make a better living while still doing what I love. Then, I said those three words for the last time with full sincerity: "I AM POOR."
I caught myself. I thought about Bob, "Possession make you rich, Michael?" And I thought, HOLD THE F*** UP, I AM NOT POOR, I'M ACTUALLY RICH AF.
Now, for the first time, I was able to see what you see when I'm out on my skateboard, cruising to The Ark, on a trail shaded by pines and oaks. I could see myself in all of my richness: independence, autonomy, meaningful connections with the people I work with. I could see my bomb-ass wife, my impeccable diet, my ability to eat great food that I grew, or that people close to me grew. I could see my health, I could see the amazing business I have created and the skills I have acquired along the way. I could see that my personal value, my happiness, and my value to others, is not at all tied to how much money I make, or how many nice things I get to own; my happiness is entirely tied to those things outlined above: autonomy and meaningful connections.
I can be broke AF and happy, but when my relationships with the people around me suffer, I am a miserable piece of poop.
I can live without a lot of money, but take my independence and my autonomy away, and I am a miserable slave. That's why I decided to start The Ark in the first place; I am unapologetically independant. My personality requires this freedom. My personality does not require money.
I figured this out a long time ago, but I just needed some help to recognize my own negative self-talk, i.e. "I'm poor. I'm broke." and turn that into an opportunity to *reframe* my less-than-ideal material situation into an extremely positive one: "I am independent, I am resilient, and my value is based on my actions and impact, not on my possessions."
Poverty is my superpower. Reframing is the tool I used to make Superman's kryptonite into Popeye's spinach. Awareness is how I caught it, and that baldhead 60 minutes reporter made it all possible, by interviewing Bob Marley "stoned out of his gourd" in Jamaica.