On a rainy and gloomy day in 2002, I sat at a bus stop on the east side of Las Vegas in front of a favorite local hotel, Sam’s Town. I was 18 years old, hardened, broken and wearing a chip on my shoulder. I was in a personal hell, which was fitting for a city often referred to as Sin City. This hell, one by one, consumed my friends, family members and every one of our dreams. I was a byproduct of my environment or the almost cliché term: a statistic—a homeless African-American high school dropout, born into an uneducated single-parent household, living on welfare and food stamps in Section 8 housing. We regularly ate government blocks of cheese and powdered milk. Loaves of Wonder bread were considered a delicacy. Most kids were focused on college entrance exams, senior proms and senior trips, but there I sat at a bus stop.
Poverty can’t be explained to someone who has never experienced it. It’s easy to look from the outside and say this is self-inflicted or that if a person had more ambition or gusto, he or she could make it out of poverty. What most don’t realize is that poverty goes beyond the superficial. It is a psychological, emotional and institutional disease. And once a person is in its grasp, rarely does it let go. Researchers have coined this term, “the cycle of poverty,” which is the idea that it takes three generations to break free from the grasp of poverty.
As I sat at the bus stop that day, things seemed to be going in slow motion. I was tired. I was tired of struggling, tired of fighting, and tired of being in fear and worrying about where my next meal was going to come from or if I was going to have a place to lay my head down at night. I looked around and the faces around me all had the same look: lost in thought. As if to say, is this it?
For 18 years, the east side of Vegas was my world. I lived it, breathed it and was shaped by it. It taught me how to hustle, how to survive. Every ’hood in every city around the world, although different, is the same: the same stories, the same struggles. To an outsider, it looks like just a dilapidated part of a city, but it takes someone who grew up there to really get it. The hopeful turn hardened, and the could-haves turn into could-have-beens. Every so often, someone rises out of the chaos, giving hope to what one might become. But more often than not, it’s understood that if we make it to average, that’s enough.
Unlike most cities, Las Vegas has a way of taunting everyone with what could be; huge flashing neon lights say come in and maybe, just maybe, you could be lucky enough to win a fortune. But like a mouse trap, very few actually get the cheese. That day, my thoughts were flooded. I thought about my mom: aging, working random minimum-wage jobs just to keep food on the table. I thought about the times that shaped me forever: digging day-old food out of supermarket trashcans so we could have dinner; taking ice cold showers in the middle of the winter because we couldn’t afford heat; sleeping on benches, rooftops and random couches. I thought about my friends and how each, one by one, was being chained down by the system, where smiles turn to frowns and laughter becomes a rarity.
This can’t be it, I thought. There has to be more.
The lives of passion, purpose and success I see on TV can’t just be pretend or relegated to the few with the right situation, skin tone and family name.
At that time, I had never left the east side of Las Vegas.
There has to be more than this.
There was no blueprint, map or GPS to guide me to where I needed to be.
I looked up that night at the sky and the moon in all its glory. Call it the universe, God, Buddha, Allah, Krishna, the divine mother—whatever you want to call it spoke to me at that bus stop. A feeling, an urge, a hunch came over me that if I truly focused, gave up my habits and truly committed to being a better man, I could make it out.
That day I set my intention and planted the seeds. I had no idea how I was going to make the shift. I had no idea how hard it would be and how staying in poverty might have actually been easier than if I had decided to leave it. I had no idea how many friends I would lose, enemies I would gain, how many times I would slip and fall, or how, now, everything about me and every morsel of my being was about to be tested.
Lao Tzu wrote, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
That gloomy day, at a bus stop on Nellis and Boulder Highway on the east side of Vegas, broke, hungry and lost, something shifted in me. The bus came, I stepped on it and took a seat and I never looked back.
Twelve years have passed since that day, and my whole world looks different.
I am now a successful entrepreneur and human performance coach, and only one of a few Master Trainers for Nike. I am an Ivy League graduate, and I spend 250 days a year traveling the world helping people create lives of passion, purpose and play.
The struggle was not easy, but from it, I learned six things that can help anybody create an amazing life.
1. Education is liberation.
The information age grants us access to every imaginable resource on this planet with a click of a mouse or a touch of button. Want to take a course on entrepreneurship at Harvard? Want to learn forensic accounting at MIT? It’s now possible and many times it’s free. I knew that if I were to make it out of poverty, I had to educate myself. One book turned into 10 books, and then 10 books turned into 1,000 books. I went from barely passing my GED to receiving a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. For things to change, we first have to change.
Decide what you want to accomplish, and then go after it relentlessly. The resources are there; you just have to reach for them.
2. You are your tribe.
Show me your friends and I will show you your future. As a child, my mom incessantly told me that I should surround myself with good people. I didn’t really understand this until I tried to elevate myself. Small minds think small, and big minds thing big. It is important to surround yourself with people who have similar values, goals and ambitions, who see the best in you and believe that you are capable of great things. I have had school counselors tell me I was stupid, friends tell me I think I am too good and family members tell me I am just a dreamer. It wasn’t until I started to surround myself with people who inspired me, saw the best in me and pushed me to be better that I began to be able to elevate myself.
Who is in your tribe? Cut out the energy drainers and dream detractors. Surround yourself only with those who inspire you, see the best in you and want you to fly.
3. Values are everything.
Our words are what we want to be; our actions are who we are. During my first year at the University of Pennsylvania, it was required that we read the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. One of the things that stood out most for me was that he did not achieve any real noteworthy success until he vividly defined his values. Our values are our nonnegotiables
. These are the things that our lives and happiness are built on. It doesn’t matter how much success we achieve; if we are out of alignment with our values, we will experience dissonance and, inevitably, unhappiness.
Here are a couple of questions that can help you discover what your values are:
What values have been passed down to you from your parents, grandparents or mentors?
What values would you want to pass on to your kids or other people?
Once you know your values, vividly define them. There are no right or wrong answers. Your values are yours and yours alone.
4. Harness your street smarts.
In Osho’s book on awareness, he says that we operate on three levels of knowingness: instinct, intellect and intuition. Instinct is our primal urge, intellect is our intellectual capacity, and intuition flows from pure consciousness. It can be hard to trust our hearts, especially in this day and age in which we are bombarded with so much information and static noise. Growing up on the streets, if you did not learn to trust your intuition, you wouldn’t make it. I learned at a young age that if I quieted my mind and listened to my heart, it would guide me to where I needed to be and keep me out of trouble and danger. It became a constant companion that has helped and still helps me navigate through the chaos of life and make decisions that are conducive to my growth and freedom.
Tune in. Trust your heart. It knows best.
5. See it to be it.
Sight is what we see with our eyes open; vision is what we see with our eyes closed. Athletes have used visualization exercises for years to help them mentally prepare for competition. When I was homeless and broke, I would vividly create mental pictures of what I wanted to become. Every detail: the environment, the smells, the sights, the sounds, the people around me. The mind is beyond powerful. Research has proven that we become what we think. This same technique utilized for top athletes works for everybody else.
Take a few minutes each day and vividly imagine yourself accomplishing your goals and becoming the person that you want to become. The clearer the vision, the more effective the exercise will be. Tune out any negative thoughts and step into your highest potential. Only see what you want to accomplish.
6. Be grateful.
It is hard to be upset when you are in a state of gratitude. When we practice gratitude, it takes us from a place of lack to a place of abundance. When we are in a state of abundance, we then become receptive to infinite possibilities. I learned to appreciate the small things when I had nothing. This has been a quality that I have taken with me throughout my journey. Every day is a blessing. When we are in this space, we open doors for more blessings to flow in. It doesn’t matter what we are going through; we can always find something to be grateful for.
While attending the University of Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to study under Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology. He has done extensive research on gratitude and created an exercise called “The Three Blessings.” The three blessings exercise is simple.
Every day, write down three things you are grateful for. Studies have shown that this simple act improves one’s mood, increases long-term happiness and, when gratitude is expressed to others, improves relationships.
Everything we need to create the lives we want to live we already possess.
The key is to tune in.
Tap into your greatness, harness your power, surround yourself with people who believe in you and then enjoy the ride.
It’s a lifestyle.