If You’re Still Poor at 35, Maybe It’s Not Your Fault

“If you’re still poor at 35, you deserve it!” shouts the headline.

The quote supposedly comes from Jack Ma — from his Alibaba story and how he became one of China’s richest men.

It’s a great headline, and the article itself is pretty inspiring (though I can’t verify that Jack Ma really said those things).

But the article has always bugged me for one reason: it puts all the responsibility to become rich on you.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do our best to make our lives comfortable. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be ambitious. I’m a firm believer in taking action; and not hoping for freebies from the universe.

But I think saying “it’s your fault that you’re poor” is way too arrogant.

It completely ignores external factors to financial success. Today, we’ll talk about two of them: privilege and opportunity.


WTF Is Privilege?

If you’ve never had to think about privilege, that means you’re privileged.

Like if you’re a Straight White Male in America — then you have privilege. Or for that matter, if you’re a straight guy in any part of the world — you’re privileged too.

(If you don’t believe me, here’s a hint: when you’re walking down the street alone, you don’t have to worry 500 times that someone much stronger is suddenly going to grab you and try to rape you in a dark alley.)

Privilege is special benefits that only certain members of society enjoy. Like how men worry less about safety than women. Or how, access to cheap higher education is simpler for the Malaysian Bumiputera.

Of course, we all have varying degrees of privilege. A common Chinese guy living in Malaysia (me) is more privileged than a common White guy living in America in 1943. Mostly because I have peace and security around me; while the American guy in 1943 had to go to fight World War II in Europe. I can actually think about what kind of career I want for my life, and drive Uber if I want to make more money. But the first thing on the honorable WWII soldier’s mind was just to survive.

Now I’m not here to debate about who deserves it, or bitch about why life isn’t fair. What I’m here to say is that privilege exists, but whether you have it or not is totally random. If you’ve got it, congratulations — you won the genetic lottery.

If you were born at the right time; into the right class of society — it’s always going to be easier to make money.


What About Opportunity?

Opportunity is privilege’s cousin; they’re closely related, though not the same. If you were born with privilege, you’re bound to have more opportunities to make money.

For example, there’s this famous article that says most entrepreneurs actually come from rich families; they already have money, so they can afford to take risks.

Here’s another example. Let’s say your dad is a rich businessman with lots of powerful friends. Do you think you’ll have more opportunities to become rich than the son of a construction worker? We’ve just witnessed it: By most accounts, Donald Trump is actually a terrible businessman. His companies have declared bankruptcy four times. But his father was rich; and now he’s going to become the next president of the USA.

Interestingly, Malcom Gladwell wrote a whole book about the topic of opportunity vs success: Outliers. Successful people are often idolized because they seem to have magically controlled their fate; and by the sheer power of their will: forced life to grant them success. What we don’t often hear about is unique advantages and opportunities they received along the way.

But listen closely to their stories, and you’ll notice something: many successful people (at least the honest ones) give credit to family, friends and mentors. For helping them reach where they are today.

Warren Buffett, third richest guy on the planet explains this candidly:

“I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society I was born into. If I’d been born into a tribe of hunters, this talent of mine would be pretty worthless. I can’t run very fast. I’m not particularly strong. I’d probably end up as some wild animal’s dinner.

But I was lucky enough to be born in a time and place where society values my talent…”

Is Warren Buffet extremely hardworking, wise and smart? Yes, but even he recognizes that without the right opportunities, he’d likely be nothing.


What You Can Do to Improve Your Chances

Up to this point, it might have sounded like I’m giving excuses for lazy people who are poor. I’m not.

What I’m trying to say is, sometimes we overemphasize our individual abilities. Sometimes we forget that making money has a lot of factors involved, beyond individual ability. I don’t want you to feel you’re a loser if you’re 35 years old and still struggling to pay your bills.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions on what you can do to improve your chances to make more money. There’s no guarantee that if you do these, you’ll become the chairman of a billion-dollar company — but they’ll definitely help.


1. Understand Your Privilege; Have Gratitude

So maybe your skin is the wrong color, and your family isn’t rich. But as I mentioned earlier, all of us have some form of privilege. If you’re reading this, at the very least — you can see, you can read English, and you have access to the Internet. And you’re likely not in the middle of a warzone.

That’s still way better than a lot of people in this world. And it’s still a lot to be thankful for.

I know. I’m starting to sound like your high school teacher; nagging you that you should be thankful for the things you have.

But f*ck it, you should be thankful for the things you have. Gratitude is going to make your life happier and more successful. And it’s a mindset that will help you attract more money.

If you still don’t believe me (and all the research above) — think about all the rich, successful people you know. Are they always complaining about things, or are they thankful, happy people?


2. Expand Your Opportunities

While you likely can’t change your privilege, you can do a lot to get more opportunities in life.

And here’s where I agree with Jack Ma’s supposed article. If you’re ambitious and willing to work hard — this world can give you more opportunities than any other time in history.

For example, if you wanted to learn from the world’s best minds, you could access Ivy League university courses at Coursera for free. If you wanted mentors to help give you career advice, you can make contact with almost anyone on social media today. And if you wanted to start a business, you can use the Internet to reach customers from anywhere in the world.

There are other non-tech ways to expand your opportunities too. Like, you can choose to hang out with positive people, instead of negative-minded ones. Or you can volunteer for extra work that teaches you valuable skills.

And you can always vote for a government that you think has good plans for the economy.


– – –


Whatever your position in life is, it’s largely not your fault that you don’t have certain privileges and opportunities.

I hope you appreciate whatever you have though; and use them to make your life as good as possible. But more than that — I hope you’ll consider how you can help give opportunities to those who are less fortunate than you.

Maybe with your help, they’ll be able to step out of poverty.

And if you’re still poor — don’t give up. Maybe you’ve made some bad life decisions, but it’s not all your fault that you’re struggling. Maybe the government screwed you, some bad people conned you, or you just need more time. Maybe it’s really the system.

Things may look bleak, but by all objective accounts — we actually live in the best time in human history. Things can get better. And if you give it enough time; if you want it — you can have opportunities too.

Now you just need to keep trying.


– – –


Pic from Pexels.

Originally published at mr-stingy’s column on iMoney.

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  • I read this post a while ago on yahoo/msn I dont recall. Anyway, I knew it for damn sure that this writing is so honest and truthful, it must be Mr Stingy. And I was right. haha. I never get the chance to thank you for this post. but Thank you soo much.
    I was so angry to hear all the rich people cliche.
    For my belief, I may not judge other people weaknesses nor their failures bcz its a test from God.
    On the other hand, Yes. Nobody should ever give up. We can all still have a piece of mind. Nevermind if its not money. Just never stop to improve yourself, maybe its a career that you love. Even if you didnt turn out to be a millionaire, just continue what you do best.
    Steve jobs, Jack Ma, Warren Buffett.
    Those were the chosen one. My dad used to say the same thing you just said. He asked me, did you honestly think someone like Tony Fernandes, or anybody else who happened to make it in life, become what they are Now. because of their education/ whatever on the typical list? no. they met/knew the right people. Introduced by the 3rd party @ the right time. and They have the right attitude from the life experiences they got which indeed, has been written for them. So now, I think its almost irony, that the richest always think we can blame ourself if we cant feed our cats, let alone a debt or a failure.

    I second your every words. 😀

    • Thanks Yana,

      I think even the very rich — if they’re being honest with themselves — will admit that a portion of their success comes down to blessing/luck/privilege. It’s just the proud assholes who claim 100% credit for everything that they have!

  • Hi Aaron
    I enjoy reading your blog although I may not always agree wholeheartedly with you. The lack of depth, I believe is in part due to your age/life experiences. Nevertheless, you still have an unique point of view that is refreshing. I am a parent of 2 teenage boys. Often time, I would find a particular blog of yours a suitable read for my sons. However, I hesitate to forward to them because of some expletives used. I am not saying, my sons will never come into contact with such language on their own, but it is something else when it is an article forwarded by their mom. It’s kind of like “endorsement”. You write well, in fact very well. Most of the time, I get what you are trying to convey without the unnecessary swear words. Since you believe in optimizing (according to own intro), you might want to exercise some caution. I can’t speak for others, but I will definitely be sharing your blog with many others if you would consider my concern.

    Anyway, happy blogging.

    • Hi Sara,

      Thanks for dropping by and your kind words. The expletive thing is something I’ve actually thought about for a long time (my mom reads my blog and gives me grief about it too). I understand it’s uncomfortable for some people, but at the same time — sometimes nothing can bring the impact of a properly-placed expletive. It’s how I speak in real life too (although usually censored when there are women and children around).

      Of course, being a pretty new writer — I’m sure my style will continue to evolve over time. I’m not sure what will happen to the rough language, but I suspect it’ll continue to be there to some extent.

      Hope you’ll still come back for more though, and thanks for the feedback. I really appreciate it!

  • I think, while the headline is harsh, but to molly colly with the these explanations seems defeatist mentality.

    Rather, let keep a positive mindset. Use it to strive for the best but don’t get too hang up over it.

    • Hi David,

      I have to disagree with the defeatist mentality part. Recognizing privilege, opportunity and reality doesn’t make one a defeatist. Rather, they’d help one have more gratitude and cherish the opportunities they do have.

      Agree with having a positive mindset though.

  • Hi Aaron,

    The headlines does sounds a little harsh, but let’s take a look at it from this point of view – being poor may not actually mean poor financially. Maybe it does, but hey – being rich and poor means differently to different people.
    As in, it’s subjective.. somebody from a less priveleged background could very well feel rich at 35 just because he has enough to pay the bills or he has enough money to make his family feel happy (It could already be a step up from whatever he has experienced before).
    Let’s take another scene – a well paid doctor from a privileged background could still feel poor at 35 because he has so little freedom compared to say – businessmen for example.
    Needless to say – that article in particular only targets those who are always feeling the need to compare and not satisfied with what they have.. a link bait in my opinion. That being said, it could also work in another way – it’s a Jack Ma’s way of giving you self motivation to do better! LOL

    • Thanks Keong,

      Yeah, the article has always bothered me with its overly-dramatic tone. I understand the “intention” is to motivate — but sometimes we set ourselves up for failure that way too…

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