“You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.” ~ Frank McCourt
1639. This is the year Harvard was founded. It is also roughly the number of times between middle school and high school graduation I woke up and found myself asking:
1. What do I want in my life?
2. Are the things I am doing today going to get me closer to that life?
Growing up in one of the poorest, highest crime-ridden communities on the south side of Atlanta, being raised by a single mother who didn’t finish 3rd grade, living each day on food stamps, and attending what the media called “the most dysfunctional public school district”, not many people expected much of me, so I had to expect something of myself.
On my 13th birthday, I bought a poster of Harvard to hang in my room. Being at Harvard became what I dreamt about: I saw myself attending class in Sanders Theatre, studying in Widener Library, and eating in Annenberg Hall. Even when my electricity was cut off and I woke up at 5:30 am to pitch blackness, I knew that my poster of Harvard was still hanging only 2 feet away from me. I’d begin my day by asking myself those two questions: what do I want in my life and are the things I am doing today going to get me closer to that life?
Reminding myself of my goal each day made it easy to say no to the same choices I saw my peers making, because those paths wouldn’t have gotten me closer to my goal. I found that even poverty could not take away my power to decide what I choose to do with my day.
Asking myself those questions gave me the courage to cold email about 50 Harvard students so I could ask for feedback on my application essays; it gave me the energy to study just one more hour on my SATs when my friends were asleep; and it gave me the resiliency to submit just one more scholarship application when 180 others had already turned me down
. Every day I could feel myself getting closer and closer to my goal as my writing got better, my SAT score increased, and my scholarship checks started coming in.
March 31st, 2011, an email arrived from Harvard.
The first word, “Congratulations!”
A month later, Harvard flew me up to visit the campus where for the first time I got to see inside Sanders Theatre, tour Widener Library, and eat dinner in Annenberg Hall. Though I ultimately chose to attend Yale University, I’ll also be thankful for the opportunity Harvard gave me to realize my dreams.
My journey from eating on food stamps to eating in the castles of Yale didn’t happen over night, instead my transformation was the result of a series of small decisions made across many years, but each small decision got me closer to creating a better life for my family and myself.
Where you are born and where you might currently find yourself do not have to limit the type of life you could have or the person you could become. But to no longer be a victim of your current circumstances and begin building the life you want, you have to do start asking yourself two questions:
1. “What type of life do I want for myself?”
If you don’t know what you want, it is hard to go after it. Asking yourself, “what do you want” forces you to have a clear goal to work towards. Without a clear goal, it is as if you are a ship sailing in the sea without a destination – you’ll find yourself wandering and before long you’ll land somewhere and wonder how you ended up where you are. Hanging my poster Harvard two feet from my bed reminded me of what I wanted and where I wanted to be.
2. “Are the things you’re doing today going to get you to where you want to be?”
Having a vision is the first step, but anyone can have a vision. What separates those who achieve their visions from everyone else is action. The actions you take to build the life you want are small steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but the builders were laying bricks every hour. I graduated debt-free from Yale because I had amassed enough scholarship money, but having enough scholarship money was the result of committing myself to submit to 2 scholarships applications each week, and even before I applied to my first scholarship, the first step I took was going on Google and typing “college scholarships.”
Who you are today is the result of the decisions you made yesterday, and who you will be tomorrow will be the result of the choices you make today. Who do you want to be tomorrow?
This article was written by Davis Nguyen. Davis (@IamDavisNguyen) graduated from Yale University in 2015 and now works at Bain & Company. When he’s not helping CEOs transform their companies, he uses his experience to give people the tools to build better personal lives for themselves and their families such as passing on the success secrets he learned during his time at Yale. To learn more about Davis, visit www.davisnguyen.com.
With all my love,
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