February 21, 2011
The question of motivational staying power was raised on Twitter. @add_vodka asked:
@RevancheGS @GrlRedBalloon @serendipity85 How do you keep motivated to make sure you don’t give up?
My gut response felt too flippant to say aloud. It wasn’t meant to be but I could see how, for people who don’t know me well or haven’t read this blog, could hear it as a dismissal of their very real issue. So I dug deeper. I asked PiC how to explain how I stay motivated because it’s not something I think about. And in the asking, I realized my answer, in large part.
My short answer was: Generational Poverty. I’m never going back and neither are my parents.
My long answer? In my matriarchial line, I need to break the cycle of poorness. You see, as much as I carry my patriarchal grandmother in my spine, I carry my mother in my soul.
Mom grew up, impoverished, in the depths of rural Vietnam. Her father was a schoolteacher who earned just enough to feed his family for a number of years, but not much better than that. I expect they married too young, had her – the first – too young; had too many children, period. Month to month, their family stretched a single small sack of rice bought on credit against the next month’s paycheck. They ate rice porridge, supplemented by some fish if the kids could catch any, flavored with nuoc nam (fish sauce) if they couldn’t. She was cooking, cleaning and raising her three younger siblings by the age of 8, and more kids were always on the way. There was love and support from her grandparents but nothing in the way of money.
As the oldest, she was expected to fend for herself. Needed a new pair of pants? She had to raise a chicken, sell the eggs, and save the money long enough to buy cloth and sew it herself. The same went for school supplies, or any other needs. Not wants, needs. But, if a sibling needed something before she could make her clothes, she had to give it up for him or her. The family was utterly poor, and she was expected to bear the heaviest burden. The burden wasn’t just in taking care of herself far too early, it was to provide for her siblings, and that lasted well into adulthood. While she shouldered it without question, she was bound and determined never to struggle at that level again.
Fast forward about forty years, she’d worked herself to the bone running two small businesses with my dad only to find her health declining, her son a mess, and no trace left of what was meant to be our family fortune. A modest fortune it would have been, but sufficient to buy a home, send two kids to college, and keep my parents through their retirement. Business hadn’t been awful but life happens, as it does, and she found herself both in the same place she’d sworn never to be again, the place she said we would never be exposed to, this time without the ability to bootstrap her way out of it as she had always done. Her parents and siblings were fine, but in the process, she had sacrificed herself.
It tore my heart to see her struggling, helpless, against the twin depredations of disease and remembered and oncoming poverty. The first preceded the other, as is so often the case with many stories of financial ruin, but not by much. It wasn’t just the disease. It was the combination of family illnesses, debts, and lack of informed financial planning that meant she couldn’t simply seek treatment and recuperate. Financial instability added anxiety and depression to the toxic mix of medical conditions complicating her health.
Had they planned for the future better, had they saved more carefully instead of taking care of her myriad family to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, had they been more cognizant of all the emergencies that could and would arise: all the if onlys, we should haves, they could haves intertwined and spiraled into the mom I know now.
Personally, I never want to go back to my college days. Working 80-100 hour weeks, school 40 hours a week, sleeping a few hours a night, and still slaving over a checkbook scraping the pennies together at the end of every pay period, under a tiny lamp light. That was miserable. But memories of personal misery fade.
The memories of my mom and all she’s sacrificed for me. The memories of how hard she worked, how determined she was to lift herself and her family out of their dirt-grubbing poverty. Those ghosts are in my marrow, my tissue, the air I breathe.
So when someone asks me about my motivation, about how I keep going, how do I not give up, the simplest answer is: I don’t know how.
When I took over for her, it began as a fight for survival. Now, it’s fully ingrained. The responsibilities and emergencies will only grow in greater proportion with time. I have my parents to take care of. I have myself to take care of. I may have future generations to educate and support for some time. And the only way to do it is very careful and diligent financial planning. That’s how my motivation is sustained.
It’s a very different answer, I think, than the one that @add_vodka was looking for, which was more practical stuff, so I saved this longer answer for the blog.
The more practical simple answer is, of course, to set goals and align your goals to your values. But there’s value in knowing why you’d want to do any of that in the first place. The Great Big Why of it, if you will.
My thanks …..