One of the most interesting books and powerful books that I’ve ever read is Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. While I do not fully agree with ‘The Donald”s style, there is something to be said about his attitude. There is something to be said that looking at life as an endless series of opportunities and possibilities. Instead of looking at life as a series of challenges, problems, or hurdles, Donald Trump looks at life as one series of opportunities.
There’s no such thing as a problem. To him, it’s just a giant jigsaw puzzle that all fits together to produce even more opportunities and even more blessings. There’s something life affirming about this perspective. There is something empowering about this point of view. The reality is that this point of view is quite rare. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s just social conditioning or maybe it’s just a cultural thing, but most of us tend to look at life as that thing that happens when we’re making other plans. In other words, we have set goals where that we’d like to achieve. These are of course, positive goals. But life happens and places challenges ahead of us and this gets in between us and the good stuff that we’d like to get. In short, life happens when we’re making other plans.
I begin this essay with Donald Trump because he truly embodies the American Dream to me. When I was growing up in The South, I often heard from relatives that America was the land of milk and honey. I heard that America was the land of opportunity. This was the land of possibilities. As I grew older and after I spent twenty three years in New England, the thing that I realized was America became the land of milk and honey. It didn’t happen automatically. It happened because of people that thought like Donald Trump. It happened because of people that thought in terms of possibilities and in terms of endless series of opportunities. America did not happen because of people that looked at life as a problem. This was the guiding narrative that still informs my impression of my country.
Twelve year-old Playground Hustler
When I was twelve years old, I was going to WinslowElementary School at the North side of Boston and I noticed that a lot of the kids there paid a lot of money for a candy that they would buy at a corner store. My parents being typical migrants from the South would often shop at bulk discount stores. One of the biggest bulk shopping stores that was very popular at that time was a group discount buying department store that was organized primarily for local and federal employees. This store was a very big thing for the Southern migrant community because you could buy food, groceries and home care products for up to fifty percent off. This is a big deal for most immigrant families that were struggling. You have to remember, this was before Costco and Walmart got really big. So my brother and I would accompany our parents to Fedco and they would always buy us a candy that cost fifty percent off the regular prices.
One day, when I was at the playground with my brother and we saw our playmates walking off to buy a candy at the corner store. We asked them how much they were paying for their candy, they said that they were paying something around one dollar. I made some quick mental calculations and the packs of candy what my brother and I were carrying actually cost twenty-five cents. I blurred it out to the person I was talking to ‘what if I just sell you this pack of candy for fifty cents?’ Since the corner store was kind of a way off from the school and the kids, they really want to bother with spending a dollar for a candy that they have to walk some distance for. My pack of candy quickly sold out. That’s when my brother and I realized that there is a lot of money to be made by just reselling candy. We did this several times and my dad realized that we had fifty dollars saved up. This was a big deal in 1979. Kids normally didn’t have fifty bucks lying around. My dad was quite concerned. He was asking ‘what did you guys do to get that much money?’ We told him. We got bulk discount candy from him and my mom for free and we resold it for fifty cents a shot. Instead of my dad being happy that we discovered the spirit of capitalism, my dad warned us and actually told us to cut it out. What he said made a big impact on me for close to two decades. What my dad says was that you cannot make money off people. You cannot sell something that is way more than a decent profit. In other words, my dad was saying that there is such a thing as a moral profit. Making one hundred percent profit margin over discount candy is ‘immoral.’ It took me several decades to understand where my father is coming from. He looked at what me and my brother were doing as immoral. We felt dirty. We felt that we were doing something wrong. It took me a long time to fully understand why my dad taught the way he thought. Now that I’m older, I can understand why he thought the way he thought.
My father’s big assumption about money is that wealth isn’t created. Instead, wealth is often transferred. In other words, unlike the American system where business people look to increase the size of the pie, my dad thought that people only got rich at someone else’s expense. The only way for your slice to get bigger is if you transfer someone else’s slice to yours. This is where my father’s coming from. The whole concept of turning twenty-five cents into fifty cents rubbed him the wrong way. There was something dirty about it. For the longest time, for over a decade, I believe this. Up until on my late 20’s, I believe that if you made a lot of money off the labor of another person or if you flipped a merchandise at a profit margin of over twenty-five percent that you were doing something wrong. Of course, we’re not talking about drugs here. We’re not talking about contraband. We’re just talking about legal stuff like candy and products. So my dad’s moral capitalism really weighed on me and it really changed the way I looked at the whole concept of making money. I stopped my playground hustle.
The other side of my thinking at the time was the risk I was taking in buying the candy and getting it stolen from me, getting caught selling the candy at school… was this risk worth turning a large profit. My Dad thought no, but I thought that maybe it was not worth 100% profit, but a nice 50% profit would satisfy my customers’ needs buy giving them candy at school where there was no other option to buy and at the same time make a profit. Making a profit is a good thing and one should be proud of it.
I later went on to develop several businesses and my father who was somewhat anti-capitalistic, ended up not saving very much money for his retirement because he kind of thought profit was a dirty word. He and my Mom just got buy most years and were able to save some money. But when my Mom turned 75 she developed Alzheimer’s and had to go to an expensive nursing home. In Boston a nursing home was running $180,000 per year! That nursing home owner I figured was making about a 100% profit, but the amount of risk he takes on caring for another person is huge. My parents did not have an insurance to pay for her long term care bills so to my Dad’s shock, he was going to have to pay for her care himself out of their $450,000 retirement savings.
When this happened my Dad took me aside and said that he wished he’d been a little bit more profit motivated in his younger years and told me two things: to be excited if you make a profit and the damn nursing home insurance! He had no idea that decision in his younger days could come back to bite him in retirement.
The upside is my Dad has gone back to work part time and is able to chip in some money for my Mom’s nursing home bill, so he still have $250,000 left of his original $450,000 savings.