HungerAugust 13, 2021
Thanks to a consolidation of stimulus checks, increased food stamps, enhanced unemployment benefits, and child tax credits, the number of Americans living in poverty will be nearly halved this year. This is the largest short-term poverty reduction in our nation’s history, a 45% decline from 2018. Child poverty has decreased by 61%. Compare that to the more than 20% poverty increase that came with the welfare cuts of the Reagan era. Turns out government aid works. Really well.
I was raised by a single mother who made $800 a month, which was just enough to clothe, house, and feed us. Growing up in economic insecurity instilled in me a hunger for success. But there’s a difference between a hunger that drives you and a hunger that impairs you. I don’t know exactly where that line is drawn, but I’m certain it sits above the current Federal Poverty Level.
Four years ago I wrote about the kind of hunger that drives you. That desire, combined with the greatest economic mobility vehicle in history (the U.S. economy), helped me achieve economic security. Let’s hope 61% more kids now have that chance.
[The following was originally published on February 24, 2017.]
I’ve been thinking a lot about success lately, its underpinnings, and if it can be taught. Talent is important, but it will only gain you entrance to a crowded VIP room. (Kind of like Platinum Medallion on Delta — you think you’re special, but at LGA you realize there are a lot of you.) The chaser that takes talent over the top to significant success, methinks, is hunger.
I have a great deal of insecurity and fear that, coupled with the instincts we all have, has resulted in hunger. It can come from a lot of places. I don’t think I was born with it. Understanding where hunger comes from can illuminate the difference between success and fulfillment.
The sources/fuel/triggers of my hunger:
For the first 18 years of my life, I was an unremarkable child who didn’t work hard and didn’t test well. At UCLA, we all started as nice, smart, attractive people (“18” and “attractive” are redundant), who were pairing up, even if for 10 minutes, based on a clumsy sense of attraction (“she’s hot,” “he’s cool”). But by senior year, the women were gravitating to guys who had their shit together, showed early signs of success, or, having rich parents, had already achieved the accoutrements of success (weekends at their parents’ fat pads in Aspen and Palm Springs).
The women’s instincts were kicking in. They were seeking out mates who could better ensure their offspring’s survival, vs. mating with a super interesting guy who wore an army jacket everywhere, smoked a shit-ton of pot, and could recite key scenes from Planet of the Apes. My instincts were also kicking in, and I wanted to spread my DNA … everywhere. It seemed that a prerequisite for this was to signal success. So I landed a job at Morgan Stanley. Had no idea what investment bankers did, but I knew it signaled success.
It didn’t take long to realize that while success in the eyes of others feels meaningful, doing something you like feels profound. People who tell you to “follow your passion” are already rich. But it’s key not to hate what you’re doing. The secret is to find something you’re good at: The rewards and recognition that stem from being great at something will make you passionate about whatever “it” is. Figuring out early that my hunger to impress was leading me down a road of misery — investment banking is a unique combination of boring subject matter and a great deal of stress — gave me the confidence to get out. I quit the path of success without fulfillment.
Up to then, my story could have been a summer flick about a gregarious guy trying to get laid and stumbling toward self-awareness. But the tale took a turn. In my second year of grad school at Berkeley my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Prematurely discharged from the hospital in Los Angeles, she started chemo. She called me and said she was feeling awful. I flew home that afternoon and walked through the door into our dark living room, where Mom was lying on the couch in her robe, contorted and vomiting into a trash can, distraught. She looked at me and asked, “What are we going to do?” It rattles me just to write this.
We were underinsured, and I didn’t have any contacts who were doctors. I felt a variety of emotions, but mostly I wished I had more money and influence. I knew that wealth, among other things, brought contacts and access to a different level of health care. We had neither.
In 2008, my girlfriend and I got pregnant, and I witnessed the profoundly disturbing miracle of birth as my son rotated out of my girlfriend. Note: I still think men should stay out of the delivery room. I felt pretty much none of the things you’re supposed to: love, gratitude, wonder. Mostly nausea and recognition of the science experiment we were embarking on to keep this thing alive. But instinct kicked in, as it often does, and my son became less awful, even likable.
The need to protect and provide grew increasingly intense. The 2008 crisis hit me hard, and I went from sort-of wealthy to most definitely not. The previous crisis in 2000 had registered the same economic effect, but it rolled right off me — I was in my thirties then and only had to fend for myself.
This was different. Not being able to provide for the needs of a kid in Manhattan at the level and texture I envisioned for my son seriously fucked with my sense of why I was here (as in, “on earth”) and my worth as a man. I was shaping up to fail on a cosmic level, and the flame of hunger burned brighter.
The instinct to protect and nurture your offspring is core to the success of our species. But the pressure many of us put on ourselves to be a good provider is irrational. Believing your kid needs Manhattan private schools and a loft in TriBeCa to survive is your ego talking, not paternal instincts. You can be a great dad with a lot less than I thought I needed to earn.
Lately I feel my hunger waning — my doctor says it’s low T. Maybe. I’m spending more time with people I care about, trying to be more in the moment, and passing on professional opportunities so I can focus more on the condition of my soul. Not totally sated, just not as hungry. Still, I want to inculcate a sense of hunger in my boys via chores. I pay them each week for their tasks, hoping they’ll connect work with reward and get hungry. Also, twice a year after paying them, I mug them on the way to their room. That, too, is a life lesson.
Life is so rich,
P.S. Wondering how you create a hunger for your products? This realm is something that my friend and fellow Professor Adam Alter knows inside and out. His Product Strategy Sprint gets into the weeds on the psychology, principles, and practices of today’s stickiest products so that you can apply them to your own products. Have a look.