When I was 15: Four Lessons From the School of Hard Knocks

When I was 15, I experienced my biggest failure to date. I had done so badly in my year end examination that the Principal had to personally tell me that I had to repeat the year. That was definitely not going to be an easy conversation with the relatives during the upcoming Chinese New Year gathering.

But I’m glad that happened. I had unknowingly enrolled myself into the school of hard knocks and these are the 4 lessons that I learnt that eventually led me to accumulate $500k in networth by age 33.

Lesson 1: Skilled vs Unskilled Labour

During this time, I did not take an allowance from my parents and worked odd jobs which included being a camp instructor. A role where the bosses would constantly remind you that you were there for passion and not money. A role where you slept for 3-4 hours per night. A role where you got paid a mere $40 per day. But it was here, where I really learnt about the difference between skilled and unskilled labour.

Photo credit: PA Water-Venture

There I was slogging away for $40/day, while the high elements instructors were raking in around $200/day and the kayaking instructors were getting $150. All because they were specialists. Naturally, I took steps to become an instructor and eventually became one shortly after leaving the army.

Lesson 2: Money isn’t easy to come by

I was eventually called up into National Service with $4 in the bank. My pitiful salary doing odd jobs was barely enough to survive. Those who know me well enough will know that I don’t usually eat breakfast. Having lived an ultra frugal life during that year, I stopped taking breakfast to spend less and it eventually became a habit.

The habit was brought over to my NS days where I barely ate canteen food. I would eat cookhouse food almost exclusively because it felt like a luxury to have 3 square meals everyday. To save even more money, I would collect drink sachets and biscuits from the combat ration packs to eat during admin time in the bunk. Saving myself from having to spend money on snacks.

I was so frugal, I left NS as a Lance Corporal with $8000 in the bank. This is from a time when a recruit’s allowance was $350/month, if I recall correctly.

Never wanting to be in that ultra frugal position again, I worked part-time while studying, teaching kayaking classes and saving money along the way. It was a proud moment for me when I managed to hit a $100,000 in savings before I was 30 years old.

Lesson 3: People are mostly shallow and will stereotype

My experience as a retainee exposed me to the stereotyping people do. I was volunteered to represent the class in the inter-class rugby competition. This, I believe was pure psychological warfare on the teacher’s part. A tactic to scare the competition into submission because my team had a delinquent retainee amongst them. This was further reinforced when I was enlisted under the mono intake for NS. While most guys would have gone to Pulau Tekong, I was sent directly to the unit with barely any chance of being selected for command school. In fact, in my whole battalion, only the best soldier would be allowed to go to SISPEC for a chance to become a sergeant.

When I entered the working world, I saw the shallow nature of people at play again. The pay structure at my first job had two components. You would draw a low base pay and get additional bonuses when you achieved certain targets. It was not exactly a commission based job, but the better you did your job, the more you got paid. I learnt about the Milgram experiment and remembered Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie, Catch Me if You Can. I started wearing a suit and tie to work and this helped me almost double my earnings. I put it down to people thinking that I was someone important, like the manager.

The lesson here might be a controversial one, but I learnt that stereotypes and shallowness will exist. So why not make use of it to tilt the balance in my favour?

Lesson 4: Things tend to even out over time

If anything, this is the most hopeful of lessons. After many cycles of in-camp training, I started to see the “uneducated” lot of men like myself slowly upgrading to get their diplomas and some even getting their degrees. Others skipped all that and went on to start successful businesses.

It was nice to see that we weren’t a hopeless bunch. We were merely on a different path or a different schedule from everyone else.

I get knocked down. But I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down. – Chumbawamba


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