Is America still a land of opportunity? Thoughts of a recent early retiree

 

Statue of Liberty, a well known symbol of hope 

Franklin D. Roosevelt:  “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

I’m a recent early retiree at the age of 48.  I’ve been retired as of August, 2020.  My wife and I (and our Pomeranian dog) have been slow traveling across the eastern parts of the United States and spending time with our family since then.  

Recently I had this question come up during my conversation with my wife, and it got me thinking.  

The short answer is absolutely!  America is still a land of opportunity.  Where else can an immigrant who didn’t speak a word of English make a life for himself and his pack?  

My family immigrated to the United States from South Korea in the summer of 1981.  I was 9 years old at the time.  The only English I knew at the time were the following:  yes, no, yacht, and a short phrase ‘Yes, I am’.  The reason for knowing that phrase is because of a book I found in my cousin’s house. It was an elementary level English tutoring book.  Somehow that phrase stuck with me...

My family was poor when we lived in Korea.  We lived in a studio rental with an attached small kitchen.  There was no bathroom attached to our rental.  Bathroom was just an outhouse where you did your business and you washed off from your kitchen.  Taking showers was an unthinkable concept to us at that time.  We used public bath houses where you paid a small fee, to take baths...

When I found out I was going to the United States, I was thrilled.  Whenever my dad would come back from his business trips to the US, he would bring bags of Hershey’s chocolates, Kraft cheeses and other treats.  Those times were like my Christmas mornings!

I would bring some of those to school, and share with my classmates.  They would be so excited that they were eating American chocolates and treats.  It was one of those times in life that you never forget!

I was totally psyched at the prospect of living in the US.  Why wouldn’t I?  Back then US was the most prosperous nation on Earth.  Everyone I knew wanted to go there.  It was land of magical Hershey’s chocolates, Kraft cheeses, and Spam!  To a 9 year old, it was like going to Disneyland.

I had no regrets leaving South Korea.  Although I missed my friends, I knew better things lay ahead in America.  

Fast forward to after my graduation from college with a useless degree in music theory and music composition!  I had a fiancĂ© (who would be Mrs. Wandering Money Pig), but I couldn’t possibly support my wife to be with this degree.  

I ended up selling Toyotas and Pontiacs as my first real full time job.  It was a grueling trial by fire to be studying music then all of a sudden having to deal with all kinds of people in retail.  The area I worked at was in Jamaica, Queens, which was a pretty rough neighborhood back then.  

I persevered through the first 9 months.  I used this experience to land a better job at an Acura dealership.  This was one of those life changing moments in my life.  It was going from making $24000 to making double that the following year.  

The day I got the job, I was so pumped coming home that I started doing push-ups when I got home.  I knew this was a life changing move.  I somehow felt it...

Acura dealership job lasted until January of 2000.  By then, we had purchased our first home (a small co-op apartment).  After working briefly at another Acura dealership from January 2000 to May 2000, I came to a realization that this is NOT what I want to be doing when I’m older.

There were two things that happened in that 4 short months at that dealership:

One was the fact that I was literally waiting all day for people to walk in or call.  I was bored out of my mind!

The other was that there were two older gentlemen working at the dealership who were instrumental in getting me to consider a career change.  One person would go to the nearest OTB (off tracking betting) few times a day to make wagers on horse racing.  The other person would constantly lament their lot in life.  It was really depressing to sit behind him to listen to his ‘woe is me’ speeches all day...

This impetus is what I needed to move on.  Nudged by my wife, I enrolled at a computer learning school to get a certificate in basic computer troubleshooting.  

It was this career change that allowed early retirement to happen!  I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get paid for my skill if I had stuck around the car business.

After landing my first IT related job at a startup in January 2001, I leveraged that experience to land the job that would ultimately lead to early retirement.

So if you ask me now whether America is still a land of opportunity or not, then I would say absolutely!  One hundred percent!  No brainer!

Here are some things that got me here.  I guess these are my ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’.

Do’s:

  • Change something if you don’t like your current situation.  If you don’t like your job, change it.  America still gives you awesome opportunities if you’re willing to work hard for it.  I didn’t like selling cars anymore, so I learned a new skill in computers.  
  • Get a skill that pays you well.  This skill can be learned.  Learn how to be a carpenter, a plumber, an IT technician, a computer programmer, a nurse, etc.  It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it works FOR YOU and it pays you well for your time.  If I could go back in time, I would seriously consider learning computer programming in college.  This pays you really well...
  • Learn constantly.  Whatever it is you’re trying to get better at, keep reading, listen to podcasts, and pick the brains of experts in that field (a mentor/a teacher).  I picked up a computer book in the year 2000.  Before that, I didn’t even know how to browse the internet when it first came out.  Back then, internet was dial-up kind (Google ‘dial up internet!’), and it took forever to see anything on a website.    Loading a page to learn something was super frustrating.  I persevered and so can you.  Even someone like me learned a new skill.  You can too!
  • Have patience.  Learning a new skill takes time and effort.  Don’t be discouraged when learning something new.  Like anything you learned that you got good at, it’ll take time...Stick to it.  

Don’ts:

  • Give in to your current situation.  It may be hopeless and depressing when you think about a dead end job, but it can be changed.  You have to take the first step in that change.  Like me changing from selling Toyotas and Pontiacs to Acuras, or learning a new skill...
  • Expect things to get better without working at it.  If you’re waiting for your life to change for the better by winning a lottery, getting an inheritance, or some magical fairy to bring you money, then you’re going to be waiting a LONG time.  Life is not easy.  You have to work as hard as you can to get what you want.  It takes sacrifice, perseverance, and patience to get to where you need to.  You can’t wait for things to happen by just waiting...
  • Compare yourself to others.  It’s not easy when your friend or someone you know seem to be living  much better than you.  Stop comparing yourself.  Control what you can, and that’s you!  You can’t control what goes on with everyone else’s life.  Just do what you can.   Work hard, and the result should manifest itself sooner or later.  
I’m a strong believer in America being the land of opportunity.  I’m so grateful for all it has given me.  Frankly, if I had lived in South Korea, I would not have had the opportunity to get to where I am.  Without a first rate education, good family background, or connections, life in South Korea would have been extremely difficult.  

I will always be grateful for what America has given to an immigrant who didn’t even speak English.  I did work hard when I had to, but I still think America had lot more to do with my success than I did.  I truly believe it was possible in America but not in most places.  The fact that US has a mature financial system and stock market is something I’m also grateful for.  Without that, retiring early would’ve been an impossibility.  

Thank you all for reading!

Jake

Wandering Money Pig 


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