One of the great things about being a parent is we each get to fuck up our children in our own unique special ways.
Some years ago my son was approaching the age that children start school. Like most parents, I wanted him to enjoy all those opportunities and privileges that were not present during my own childhood.
I enrolled him in a fancy private school. For the most part his classmates were the children of C-level executives, bankers and hedge fund managers living large on the generous ex-pat packages that used to be on offer pre-Brexit. At various times they also included a Thai prince, the son of a Saudi billionaire, and one of David Beckham’s kids.
The plan had been that while my son received a good education, he would also establish a network of well placed supportive contacts. In the future they could provide introductions, grease wheels, and open doors to opportunities that would otherwise be inaccessible. The “old school tie” network.
The old school tie
As a migrant, I did not enjoy access to such a network. If I wanted a door opened I had to kick it in!
“As a migrant, I did not enjoy access to such a network. If I wanted a door opened I had to kick it in!“
Over the years I have vicariously observed how beneficial these ready made networks can be: employment offers; favourable zoning or planning decisions; parliamentary preselections; knowing the price required to win a competitive tender; having (well deserved) regulatory fines and punishments watered down to mere warnings and slaps on the wrist, and so on.
I don’t believe that business should be conducted this way. That said, I am pragmatic enough to understand this is how the real world works. A disheartening number of university places, graduate jobs, and lucrative non-executive directorships get awarded on the basis of knowing the right people.
Starting in struggletown
My own upbringing was somewhat modest. I attended the local state school, where breaking into cars and selling drugs were considered extracurricular vocational courses. The principal strongly believed all children should have the opportunity to receive an education, and put this philosophy into action by taking in all the troubled kids who had been expelled or unwanted elsewhere.
That certainly made for a cosmopolitan student body and provided a very hands-on school of life education.
My school had a well deserved reputation for breaking teachers, teenage pregnancies, and drug overdoses. However that true believer mentally also attracted a few incredibly driven educators who regularly worked minor miracles in order to provide a decent education to those kids who were willing to learn.
Where and how we grow up has a huge influence on the lens through which we view the world. It hones our worldview and provides us with a baseline for what we perceive to be “normal”.
Maintaining perspective leads to success
Yet here is the thing. After winning the ovarian lottery, the single biggest contributing factor to my modest financial success has been preserving my struggletown perspective of what is “normal”.
As a 19-year-old, I embarked on a solo backpacking adventure around Europe. When you maintain a struggletown perspective of “normal” backpacking is easy. Your worldly possessions are limited to what you can comfortably carry, and constrained by what you can afford to lose in a youth hostel.
I had a fantastic time on the road. The re-entry challenges I face settling back into “real” life upon my return were brutal!
Unfortunately once you have the travel bug in your system it is there for good. The only successful “cure” that I’ve found is the prospect of travelling with young children!
Celebrating the small wins…
My first professional job after university started to pay me some real money. Not a lot, but significantly more than I had been making doing a paper route, working in a shop, and behind a bar.
The student lifestyle certainly has a used by date. A diet of beer and peanut butter sandwiches catches up with a person once they sit in a cubicle for a living.
It felt great to finally have more money than I needed. Bollocks to “normal”, I had escaped struggletown!
For a while I lived large: going to concerts, live sporting events, and weekends away; eating (and drinking) out with my friends every night!
Life was good.
… until lifestyle inflation punched me in the face
Predictably a day or two after each payday I was broke again.
I learned the hard way that if you let them, lifestyle costs will easily expand to consume all available income. Just as with travel, the lifestyle genie is difficult to put back in the bottle once released.
Adjusting my baseline of “normal” to sit just above what I calculated to be “enough” solved the problem. I no longer lived like I was still a resident of struggletown, but I adopted a measured approach to enjoying life to ensure I didn’t continue to burn through my whole pay packet.
The remainder of my income I divided between funding my travelling adventures and (often unsuccessful) investments.
This approach worked remarkably well, and I greatly benefited from consistently applying it.
From struggletown to sorted
Over the years that baseline has required revisiting in response to major life events.
Co-habitating, migrating, marriage, and kid(s) all resulted in material changes to both how much was “enough” and where my “normal” baseline was defined.
Maintaining a healthy perspective of “normal” throughout was a major contributing factor to my becoming financially free.
Keeping up with the Joneses
Sending my son to this fancy school ran contrary to the approach that had worked so well for me. I had hoped that being surrounded by children from successful high achieving families would show him what was possible, and broaden his horizons.
Without a doubt, my son had the “poorest” father in his class. The school fees were eye-watering!
My son seemed relatively content at the school initially. Young kids are refreshingly blind to skin colour, religion, and socioeconomic status.
Unfortunately they grow out of that.
Over time he started grumbling occasionally that we didn’t have as many nice things as his friends.
He became embarrassed we took the bus to school, insisting we hopped off a couple of stops early so that nobody would see. His classmates were dropped off at the door in Mercedes and Porsches.
How the other half live
It wasn’t until I took him to a classmate’s birthday party that I realised I had made a huge mistake in sending him to the school.
The birthday boy’s mother spent the equivalent of half a year’s average UK salary on catering and entertainment for the party. Instead of doing the traditional kids party “dump and run”, parents stayed to enjoy the amazing wine list and delicious canapés prepared by a nearby Michelin star restaurant.
An elder sibling of one of the kids complained that her father was such a bastard because he wouldn’t lend her the private jet to “summer in Como” with her school friends.
A group of fathers huddled together comparing bonuses. They earnestly debated the relative merits of upgrading their vacation homes in Barbados versus buying a new Bugatti Veyron.
The baseline for what was “normal” at this party was so different from my own as to be unrecognisable!
Just as mine baseline had been a generation earlier, my son’s perspective of what was “normal” was being framed by his peers and experiences in and around school.
Unfortunately he wasn’t learning that it was possible to be successful, earn millions, and do great things. Instead he was learning about all about the politics of greed and posturing, that appearance was more important than substance, and that money really can buy you into or out of just about anything without there being any need to work for it.
To say those were jarringly inconsistent with what he observed at home would be an understatement.
In his eyes his parents were embarrassingly poor, living in a small flat some distance from school in a less desirable part of town. We didn’t spend our summers in the Hamptons or winters skiing at Zermatt. We didn’t even own a car!
Fuck the Joneses!
I realised that exposing him to this grandiose perspective of “normal”, I had sabotaged his worldview.
Could he be content spending a weekend in a caravan on an Essex beach when his friends were all flying off to Marbella or St Tropez in Daddy’s jet?
Would he be happy paying for his own used Volkswagen Golf student car, when his peers received brand new BMW convertibles for their birthday?
There were several reasons why I pulled my son out of the private school, sending him instead to an outstanding state school. Ensuring that he developed a grounded baseline of “normal” was a major one.
It took several months for his attitudes to begin to change. Initially he looked down on his new classmates, many of whom lived in council estates. After a while he came to realise they were just people, some of them nice, some of them not.
Without a doubt, my son has the “richest” father in his class. The school fees are free!
The education quality received at the state school exceeded that of the private school.
The state school teachers work with kids from very diverse backgrounds and very limited resources. To succeed the teachers must adjust their methods to what works for each child. At the private school if a child was struggling then the parents needed to hire a tutor to provide additional help.
My son has been fortunate to have been taught by some of the same driven style of miracle workers that I once benefited from.
After roughly a year at the state school he thanked me for pulling him out of his private school. He said he felt happier and less pressured. Best of all, he was grateful for the nice things he had that he recognised his friends did not.
That is a promising beginning for where he will define his own baseline for “normal”.
- Evaluate your own baseline for what is “normal“. Is that helping or hindering you achieve your goals?
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