I still don’t have a car in 2018: A story about playing financial chess

“Most successful people operate off a healthy fear of failure!”

Three of the principles of my blog are: Creating Ecosystems of Success, Wealth Building and Long-Term Thought. Hell, I’ll also pull in both Creative and Critical Thought. As we’re riding into December of 2018, I’ve wondered what to write next. A friend of mine who runs her own magazine and has her own audience suggested that I write something about budgeting. I do intend to do that, but my mind thought back to something I wrote on the Examiner several years ago which will serve as a nice prelude to budgeting. It involves several important considerations when budgeting, and it might admittedly ‘trigger’ some people, but try to keep in mind the overarching messages.

I originally published a series called; You Still Don’t Have a Car Yet? around 2012. It was inspired by a question from a lady friend who went to my church and whom I briefly dated. We bumped into each other again one Sunday and she was surprised that I still didn’t have a car after getting rid of my old Saturn SL2 which was on its last leg. I heard in her voice that there was more to her question – something I’d experience again in the future.

It’s a topic that never gets old, and instead of resurrecting and republishing the entire series, I’m simply going to pull out its main points and discuss why I still don’t own a vehicle six years later. Keep in mind that this piece was written from the perspective of a single man (due to life circumstances), and your life may be different. I hope you enjoy it and that it inspires discussion in your own circles. So, let’s dive in.

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My personal finances crashed and hit rock bottom right around 2011 – two years into my federal science career. I started my career with very little savings based upon my educational path and life circumstances. I was still a new homeowner and just paid out my entire $8,500 “Obama Tax Credit” for a condominium project I didn’t know about before closing – the first of many ‘assessments’ over the years which ended up equaling the price of a brand-new car. I also tried my hand in the investing world, at one point trying to do too many things at once, both money- and time-wise. The result was getting into a debt hole of greater than $20,000 on top of my student loan and other bills.

Around that time, I was fortunate that two friends shared Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University (FPU)” with me and over the course of the next five to six years, they invited me to help teach the class with them at our church. I was also fortunate that I met a mentor who ‘adopted’ me into his group of proteges. He was very strong-willed and had a business background. He both taught me and stayed on me about some important aspects of money including: understanding what a ‘Net Worth’ is, saving into my retirement account and getting my ‘Matching Contribution’, and understanding the ‘Law of Compounding Interest’.

Now armed with this new information, it started guiding my decision making. FPU is admittedly just one of many financial programs out there, and it works very well. There are several others, but for the sake of my familiarity with it I’ll discuss it. A major pillar of it is budgeting – numerically think about your ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ with the aim of getting out of debt, building up an ‘Emergency Fund’ and then positioning yourself to stay ‘liquid’, invest, and give. To get a feel for why this important, I’ll once again refer you to back to Ylan Q. Mui’s 2016 article from the Washington Post entitled; The shocking number of Americans who can’t cover a $400 expense.

This is a good place to introduce the concept of ‘Cash Flow’. Cash flow is simply the amount of money you have left over once all your monthly bills and obligations are paid. The greater your expenses and debts are, the less cash flow you’ll have. The less they are, the greater your cashflow will be and the more life choices you’ll have. You’ll probably also have a healthier state of mind and body as financial stress can impact your overall quality of life.

When I looked at my budget in 2012, I sought to identify where I was trying to go in life and then what my needs and wants were. I wanted to live in a place of abundance, and I didn’t ever want to feel the shackles of debt again. I also didn’t want to be in position to have to ask relatives or friends for financial help ever again. Finally, I wanted to go that next step where I had an emergency fund, where I could get some investments, and lastly where I could help others – giving back to my alma maters for example.

While there were quite a few surprises in my condominium complex, it was a smart buy because it was right next to the metro. As such owning a car became less of a priority. Let’s unpack that a little bit. Keep in mind that I’m not telling anyone that they should get rid their car.

For you it might be something else and this would admittedly my approach may not work in cities like: Atlanta, Buffalo and Charlotte. In any case when I looked at my budget, getting rid of my car meant getting rid of: car insurance, gas charges, upkeep and maintenance, having to renew the vehicle’s registration, and any other associated costs. The state of Virginia charges personal property taxes on vehicles for example.

Yes, it was strange at first not having a car in my parking space and not being able to jump in a vehicle and drive off whenever I wanted to. As I describe later though I adjusted. It was a ‘trade off’ as the great Dr. Thomas Sowell says – giving up something in the short-term for what I saw as a greater gain in the long-term. I included the game of Chess in the title because like this, winning that game involves an understanding of the value of the pieces in your army, and in some cases, sacrificing your lesser pieces early on to ultimately win the game.

Let’s move on to some other important concepts. Among the things I learned from Robert T. Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad books were the concepts of ‘Assets’ and ‘Liabilities’. Under Robert’s definitions, assets are things that put money in your pocket every month, while liabilities are things that take money out of your pocket every month.

One of the things he described in his books under liabilities was cars. Was he saying not to buy cars? No, but he was encouraging his readers to look at finances in alternative ways – in this case while cars are symbols of power for some people, they also ultimately take money out of our pockets.

Speaking of which, something that’s been documented in numerous books and which wasn’t explained to me early on was that brand-new cars depreciate significantly as soon as you drive them off the lot. This is something I pondered as I decided to get rid of my car and not immediately get another one. I also realized that I was never really a ‘car guy’ meaning that I never really fantasized or obsessed over them. In fact, I got to a point where saw them as ‘necessary evils’ in a way which were put here to keep us dependent on the energy and auto industries, and at the mercy of those running them.

I’d like to now introduce the concept of ‘Minimalism’. Though this was always a part of my nature, I didn’t know what exactly it was though I had been called both ‘cheap’ and ‘frugal’ in my lifetime. Minimalism is basically the practice of getting what you need, and not wastefully looking to consume more. I credit writer and YouTube content creator Aaron Clarey for the term because I first heard it from him – something he encourages – something which goes against the grain of most of our society. If you’re in the mood for a laugh, his video content on culture and economics are both very funny and insightful.

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“If you live right next to the metro, why would you own car?” I’m going to say something controversial here. I’ve gotten this reaction from a certain group of people. It’s the same group of people who are content to eat soup and sandwiches according to my Dad as described in my piece entitled; Challenging Misconceptions in Wealth, Income and Privilege. I’ve gotten the ‘side-eye’ from another group of people, and for the single guys reading this, I’ll just say that many ladies frown upon a man who doesn’t own a car. Interestingly the other more important aspects I described above usually don’t come up in conversations about why I don’t own one.

I’ve also been ‘clowned’ about it in some instances. When you’re doing something like this, knowing in your heart why you’re doing it, and keeping your goals in mind is very, very critical when someone challenges you. Oh, and if you’ve thought it out and it’s working, don’t argue with anyone over it. It’s not worth it. This is an instance where even in adulthood, being the leader of your own life and not caving into peer pressure is key.

How does one get by without owning a car? Well again it helps to live right next door to a metro system. My first year of college at SUNY Brockport, I was amazed by the number of classmates from New York City who didn’t have their driver’s licenses. Where they were from, they just didn’t need them and openly admitted that.

Once I got rid of my car, I now noticed that there were quite a few other people in the Washington, DC metro area using “Zipcars”. Then within the last couple of years ‘ride share’ programs and ‘apps’ like “Uber” and “Lyft” became prevalent. Admittedly if you need to go to an area that’s further out, it usually requires some planning – maybe using a Zipcar, or maybe just renting one, but again you must keep your overarching goals in mind.

Again, it’s a tradeoff. There’s a definite convenience to getting in your car whenever you want to and zipping off some place, and that’s what you’re paying for when you own one unless of course it’s giving you some sort of social prestige or personal confidence boost. How much is that convenience worth to you?

So in summary, again I’m not telling anyone what they should do with their lives. I chose to make a tradeoff (a car and certain people) with specific goals in mind. Now that I had a grasp on money and finance as described above, my new ‘drivers’ (no pun intended) were:

• To become ‘financially peaceful’ and to build wealth;
• To be able to handle all the costs associated with homeownership – something I stumbled into which came with its own set of financial costs and surprises and;
• To maximize my cashflow so that I could save, invest and to be able to give.

In terms of giving, we often think about giving to our churches and alma maters but sometimes there are other needs. A fellow alumnus from Johnson C. Smith University recently needed to raise money to buy winter clothes for the students at his school in Grand Rapids, MI. Because of some of the personal choices I’d made, I was easily able to support his effort and help the kids in his community stay warm this winter.

Again, major components to all of this are long-term thought, and budgeting which I’m going to cover shortly in its own blog post. Another important piece is being a secure individual, following the beat of your own drummer and not being peer pressured into keeping up with other people’s thoughts of what’s acceptable for your life. The other piece is being malleable and willing to continue to learn more information and applying it to your life.

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I’m going to end this post with some quotes. The opening quote for this piece is from the popular and outspoken sports talk show host Colin Cowherd who weaves life parables into his sports commentary. This one involves our personal drivers and motivations. “My investing advice to the average individual, is don’t be average,” is a quote that has stayed with me from Robert Kiyosaki’s books. It involves thinking outside of the box and doing the opposite of the crowd.

Dave Ramsey’s famous quote is, “We’re going to live like no one else, so later we can live like no one else!” It involves making temporary sacrifices for greater gains later. Finally, one of the content creators on a YouTube show I regularly watch often says to, “Keep your savings high, and your overhead low!” I think you get the picture. What are your motivations and where are trying to go in your life?

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this one, you might also enjoy:

Your Net Worth, Your Gross Salary, and what they mean
A look at the Law of Compounding Interest and why you should care
My personal experience with Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball revisited
Mother’s Day 2017: One of my mother’s greatest gifts, getting engaged, and avoiding my own personal fiscal cliff
The difference between being cheap and frugal
We should’ve bought Facebook and Bitcoin stock: An Investing and technology story
Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege
What are your plans for your tax cut? Thoughts on what can be done with heavier paychecks and paying less tax

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or by adding the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, on Instagram at @anwaryusef76, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Ohio State 62, Michigan 39: My short take

Okay I’m going to try to keep this short. As one of the many Michigan football fans still hungover from yesterday’s 62-39 loss in Columbus, the idea to write a short take on yesterday’s annual game literally came to me during the conclusion of a church service here in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. I’m not trying to be funny, but it’s true. In any case here goes.

First, I want to sincerely congratulate Head Coach Urban Meyer and his staff, the Ohio State Football Team, and their fan base. They did a great job preparing for the game and they executed their game plan damn near perfectly. Despite the rankings and all the chatter leading up to the game, I had a feeling they were going to play at a high level and they did. I also want to note that the game seemed to be officiated fairly and there was little controversy surrounding this contest as was the case in 2016.

I watched the game with my usual crew at Buffalo Wild Wings on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Tonawanda, NY – our annual spot for watching the two school’s annual meeting. What stood out to me as the game unfolded, was that our team didn’t seem to be prepared for the contest in terms of intensity or scheme. Offensively, the game started off positively with a nice run by Karan Higdon. The second play was a pass play in which Shae Patterson got sacked which was a bit of a head scratcher for me, as I would’ve gone back to the running game.

In general, the offense did what it had done all year long which was to try to pound the ball with occasional shots down field. Throughout the year despite its talent level, our offense was never a consistent force, but instead methodically picked and chose its spots with varying amounts of success – sometimes due to a lack of execution, and at other times due to questionable play calling. This worked well as long as the defense stood its ground and repeatedly got the ball back which brings me to my next point.

Early on it was clear that Ohio State’s approach to our physical and blitzing defense was to get the ball out of Dwayne Haskins, Jr.’s hands quickly using crossing and wheel routes out of the backfield. In instances where Ohio State spread its receivers out and were able to neutralize Coach Don Brown’s pass rush, Haskins which is not known for his mobility was able to run the ball up the middle and slide when our coverage held. In other instances, Ohio State was able to draw pass interference calls on our defensive backs which were left on ‘islands’ by themselves in ‘Man’ coverage – No. 28 Brandon Watson particularly got targeted and torched by Haskins. Their running game by itself didn’t hurt us so much.

Approaching halftime, our Wolverines were down 21-6, and with the Buckeyes getting the ball back after the half, it seemed as though it was going to be a maize and blue ‘blood bath’. A special teams fumble by the Buckeyes helped put us in position for Chris Evan’s touchdown late in the second quarter. If not for that gaffe, we would’ve been in serious trouble. That said there was a potential touchdown that we missed out on because Zach Gentry couldn’t secure the ball after a Buckeye defender slapped it out of his hands.

On both sides of the ball as the game progressed it seemed that Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff were being outcoached by Urban Meyer and his. Our offense started slow, interestingly didn’t seem to be taking advantage of our three talented receivers: Donavan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tariq Black. I also wondered why our 6’8” tight end Zach Gentry wasn’t getting targeted more. In a game of this magnitude, we needed to challenge the Buckeye defense more downfield especially when they were ripping our defense to shreds and scoring at will. This brings me to my next point.

My comments on many of the postgame YouTube press conference footage mostly involved my surprise that Don Brown seemingly didn’t look at what Indiana and Northwestern had done his defense and planned for Ohio State to do the same thing or more. During the game, I wondered if he would adjust his blitzing style, and go with more defensive backs, like how Bill Belicheck and Bill Parcells did to my Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV where they slowed down the Buffalo Bills’ powerful offense. Instead he seemed to stick with the same game plan which he used all year which brings me to my last point.

It’s very easy for us as fans and commentators to criticize what’s happening on the field and I acknowledge that. I’ve also never coached a sport though it’s something I’d like to try one day. That said, I know enough to know that in athletics, particularly in big games it’s important to be able to adjust your plan of attack if necessary – or to anticipate having to do so. I discussed this in my interview with legendary Niagara Falls high school basketball Coach Pat Monti, who thoroughly scouted his opponents and figured out what he needed to do to give his teams the best chances to win even if meant making games ugly and unwatchable.

As we’re closing in on the end of Jim Harbaugh’s fourth year, this is something I’m wondering about, and something I wondered about during yesterday’s game. As much fanfare as there was when he got hired, how well can he and his staff really coach when going head to head with opponents like Urban Meyer and his staff on the opposite sideline? I asked myself this for the first time as yesterday’s game unfolded. One of my buddies I watched yesterday’s game with came down hard on defensive end Rashan Gary who was the top high school player five years ago and with good reason. That said it’s the coach’s job to motivate the players and put them in position to succeed. While we support him, right now, me and others in the fan base are questioning the ability of our coaching staff to do this on the biggest stages.

What’s going to happen from this point on? I honestly don’t know. I’m going to close by saying that I feel bad for our players, some of whom may have been looking ahead to Indianapolis and beyond – some of whom who have never beaten Ohio State which is something they’ll always have to live with. As we got closer to the Ohio State game, I became weary of talk of the “Revenge Tour” and Karan Higdon’s guarantee of victory as the team, the program and the fan base might suffer a black eye like we have now. Anytime ever I’ve competed, I’ve never been a trash talker and am a firm believer in just letting your play do the talking.

Like Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teams who couldn’t get over the hump, for the remaining players and staff, perhaps this humiliating loss may be a part of their growth process that will eventually push them over the hump. We’ll have to wait and see. This year the Wolverines will once again be in Ann Arbor during the College Football Playoff. Hopefully Coach Harbaugh and his staff will ready first for their bowl game, and then when the Buckeyes come back to Ann Arbor in 2019. There’s a whole year to think yesterday’s game over.

Thank you for taking the time to right this blog post. If you enjoyed this one, you might also enjoy:

Michigan loses to Ohio State 31-20: Reflections on the 2017 game and the season
John U. Bacon presents his new book Endzone to Michigan’s D.C. Alumni Club: A look back
Michigan defeats Maryland 35-10: Two weeks until the 2017 Ohio State game
Michigan beats Florida 33-17: A recap of the maize and blue’s season opener
The 2016 Michigan-Ohio State game, the Big Ten Officials, and the College Football Playoff

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add my RSS feed to your feedreader. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

A look at the Law of Compounding Interest and why you should care

“Compounding Interest is the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. He who understands it, earns it. He who doesn’t, pays it!”

Note. Like my Net Worth piece, the subject matter of this blog post is not new. It has been known for years by those who’ve learned about it in their families, learned about its concepts in business school, or who have discovered it on their own. It’s a discussion from my personal perspective which I think is worth visiting. Also, while this is a ‘money’ topic, I’m discussing it from a ‘scholarly’ perspective. I’m not rendering financial advice where I’m telling readers what they should do. In the spirit of the first principle of my blog, Creating Ecosystems of Success, I’m simply introducing a concept and discussing why it’s important for the lay person, so they can make their own life choices.

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“Because we’re getting our Ph.D.s and we’re in school for so long, we won’t start making our money until much later,” my lab mate and senior graduate student Damon adamantly said. “When you save and invest your money, it doubles about every 10 years, and we’re missing out on the ‘doubling cycles’! The classmates I attended Colgate University with, who’ve already gotten out and started working, are already seeing their money double!”

To start this off with some humor, coming from Buffalo’s eastside, anyone named Damon I’d ever met up to that point was black, but this Damon was of Greek descent. Damon was a very smart, opinionated and short-tempered guy. He was knowledgeable on numerous topics: current events, politics, and economics, and I loved talking with him while in our research lab as I always learned something.

Damon introduced me to one of my current heroes, Dr. Thomas Sowell and let me borrow his copy of Inside American Education, which Dr. Sowell wrote. I didn’t know it, but that day while our Pharmacology experiments ran, Damon gave me my first lesson ever on the “Law of Compounding Interest”. I was in my late 20s, and similar to my learning about the ‘Net Worth’ and a ‘Matching Contribution’ concepts, it was late in the game, but still much earlier than many people learned about it. So, let’s talk about the Law of Compounding Interest and why we should all care.

As opposed to trying to piece together an explanation of Compounding Interest myself, I’m going to simply reference the book How To Turn $100 Into $1,000,000 which I referred to in my post entitled, Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege. In that story I talked about how my mentor challenged me to read what appeared to be a children’s book. While it is written for children, the book contains lots of valuable information that many adults don’t have a handle on – even those in their 40s and beyond. Since reading the book I’ve consequently given copies to my younger cousins and other youngsters in my circle to give them the chances I didn’t have. You should too!

Before discussing the Law of Compounding Interest, I’m going to jump ahead to Chapter 9: Investing, because for the sake of this post, it needs to be introduced first. According to Chapter 9, investing is defined as, “Putting your money into something that can potentially make you more money.” There are lots of investment classes out there: Stocks, Real Estate, and Businesses of all kinds.

Coincidentally, the same buddy I discussed in my post entitled; We should’ve bought Facebook and Bitcoin Stock, recently approached all of us, looking for ‘investors’ because he wants to start his own Amazon store – a ‘speculative’ investment. When you think about the Law of Compounding Interest though, you want to think about putting your money in places where it will steadily ‘appreciate’ over time – someplace safe where you’d place your retirement savings for example (discussed below).

Two important concepts to understand here are ‘Principal’ and ‘Interest’. Financially, Chapter 8 assumes readers understand the meanings of Principal and Interest in the context of getting a ‘Return on Investment’ (ROI), as opposed to the borrowing context where you’re paying someone else interest on a loan. The chapter quickly starts discussing how Interest can steadily build your Principal from year to year.

If for example you have a $100 and it’s invested in something at a 5% interest rate after one year, you’ll have earned $5 so your total principal at the start of year two will now be $105. If you keep that $105 principal invested, it will earn the 5% and not the $100, so your new total after year two will be $110.25, and so on. This is just an example, and this is just with the starting a principal of $100, but what if you started with a greater principal – let’s say $2,000, and you steadily added more money to it every month for 10-20 years? For retirement purposes the ideal scenario is to be invested for 40 years allowing one to retire well at age 65. Ideally the person should have started investing/compounding at age 25. However, getting started at any age is the key.

The second aspect of the Law of Compounding Interest discussed in the book is the “Rule of 72” on page 84. The Rule of 72 is a calculation which allows investors to determine how long it will take for their money to double based upon a given interest rate. To determine this number, you simply divide 72 by the interest rate that you expect to earn over time. The higher the expected ‘Rate of Return’, the less amount of time it takes to reach your goal. For example, if you divide 72 by an interest rate of 10%, it would take 7.2 years for your money to double. If you divide 72 by an interest rate of 2% the time would be 36 years – hence the importance of looking for the most competitive rate of return relative to your personal risk tolerance when looking for investments.

The chapter cites two more examples which highlight the importance of continuing to add to your principal and then the importance of time. The example on page 86 shows the difference in returns when two siblings both start with a $5,000 investment at the same age at an interest rate of 8%. One sibling continues to contribute to her account out to age 50 – that is $1,000 every year and arrives at 50 years of age with $750,000. The other doesn’t contribute anything further and arrives at 50 years of age with a total of $200,000.

The last example on page 87 gives an example of two people who start investing at different times in life. In this example both subjects become millionaires by 70 years of age. The first individual started saving $1,000 per year starting at age 15 and paid in only $55,000 to reach their $1,000,000. The second individual started at 30 years of age and had to put in a total of $140,000 to reach their $1,000,000. The take home lesson here is that because the first person started earlier, it took them less than half the principal of the second person the reach their $1,000,000.

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My classmate Damon’s words at the start of this post, underscores these last two points. Our peers who started working immediately after earning their Bachelor’s degrees, were in theory able to start taking advantage of the Law of Compounding Interest earlier, assuming they knew to do so. Working towards our Ph.D. s, we wouldn’t be able to start the process until much later. But there were other professionals from our peer group who were getting even later starts than us due to the nature of their fields and the amounts of debt incurred during their educations; the Law and Medical students come to mind.

There’s another piece to this though. What about individuals who didn’t go the college route at all? They too would’ve been able to start using the law earlier in life assuming they knew about it and followed it. So, as I’ll describe below, having a degree has nothing to do with using this law.

Who should care about the Law of Compounding Interest? Everyone. That goes for STEM professionals like me and Damon, ‘Blue-Collar’ workers swinging hammers, Cooks in the kitchen, Lawyers in courtrooms, non-degreed individuals, business owners/entrepreneurs – everyone. No matter what your profession is, you only must know about the law, start it, and start it as early as you can.

To start using the law and to using it correctly, one must embrace two of the principles of my blog; the learning of Financial Literacy/Money, and Long-Term Thought/Delayed Gratification. Thus far in my writings I’ve discussed the latter principle sparsely, but it’s key here because to take advantage of the Law of Compounding Interest, the individual must think long-term. This means that they must be disciplined enough to live without a certain percentage of their paychecks every month.

They’ll also forgo or delay some short-term luxuries and indulgences for greater gains later – playing the game of ‘Chess’ in a way. This isn’t something that’s necessarily easy to do in the presence of considerable peer, societal, and in some instances familial pressures. See my Mother’s Day 2017 post, to get an idea of how to lose both money and time due to personal and cultural pressures.

What are the real-world applications for this? I’ll cite two articles. The first is by Rodney Brooks of the Washington Post. I cited his article entitled; 71 percent of Americans aren’t saving enough for retirement in my post about the Tax Reform and Jobs Act. It discusses reasons why people can’t take advantage of the Law of Compounding Interest. Another piece is entitled; Club Fed millionaire: Membership 23,000 and growing by Mike Causey which discusses the growing number of federal employees who are retiring as millionaires – most self-made. I’ll say it again, the majority are self-made meaning no one gave them anything, and they simply methodically prioritized, saved, and invested their money.

There’s a final context for the law, and that’s giving. When you think about Higher Education, Philanthropists and generous alumni often leave gifts to their schools of choice through ‘Endowments’, many of which are invested so that they’re continuously compounding and generating returns used for scholarships and operating expenses. The famous Jim Kramer runs his “Charitable Trust” of which he is continuously thinking about out how and where to safely invest its funds for charitable purposes. Lastly, consider how the lives your relatives and your community could be changed by having a continuously growing principal and interest you can use in any fashion you see fit: saving up a down payment on a home, college tuition expenses, seed money for building businesses, supporting political campaigns, etc.

* * *

If it sounds like an underlying theme of this post and others like it is that your financial (and life) success is about what you know and don’t know (outside of your profession), then you’re correct. In an upcoming story I’m going to discuss how I didn’t understand these pieces when I first started my federal science career and didn’t take advantage the Law of Compounding Interest or the federal government’s ‘Matching Contribution’ – both of which have cost me money. There were actually several personal ‘blunders’ in these areas.

The opening quote for this piece is from the famous Physicist Albert Einstein and it pretty much sums up the importance of this topic – either you’re getting paid, or you’re paying out. Compounding Interest is something anyone can take advantage of regardless of: race, creed, color, sex, gender or religion. One just must know about it, and then start living by it. If they don’t know about it, they must be curious enough to find out about it. Most financial literacy programs cover it in some way.

There are other necessary pieces such as ‘Budgeting’ which I’ll cover as well in another post. As I stated in my Net Worth piece, it’s not something that can be worked out with your boss, or even legislated by the government, though I do think schools could do a better job of teaching this information at an early age. In closing, two other principles of my blog do tie in here, and they are Self-Accountability and Self-Reliance, because first, the individual must realize that no one can make them practice and incorporate this law into their lives, and secondly, it’s themselves who have to do it. And with that, I hope you’ve learned something here about the Law of Compounding Interest.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, you might also enjoy:

Your net worth, your gross salary, and what they mean
The difference between being cheap and frugal
We should’ve bought Facebook and Bitcoin stock: An investing story
Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege
What are your plans for your tax cut? Thoughts on what can be done with heavier paychecks and paying less tax
My personal experience with Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball revisited
Mother’s Day 2017: One of my mother’s greatest gifts, getting engaged, and avoiding my own personal fiscal cliff

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or by adding the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, on Instagram at @anwaryusef76, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Reflections on the classroom from a veteran of the school system revisited

The first principle of my blog is Creating Ecosystems of Success, and a key focus is Education. Dad was a critical piece of my journey towards my earning my STEM degree and starting my career. I originally published this piece in the Examiner back in 2012, shortly after he retired from education. I lived with him for almost three years prior to starting my federal science career, and learned some things about his career in education simply through watching, observing and talking to him.

Dad taught in one of the ‘lower’ two districts in New York State’s “Capital Region”, and this account captures what it’s like for some teachers who work in ‘lower income’ communities. While Dad agreed to let me publish this piece, there was some deliberation over its content as he wanted to be truthful while not offending anyone. This piece raises several key questions. Do parents have a role in their child’s education? Is it the school’s job to do everything? Lastly, what are the ramifications for kids getting passed through the system without doing the work, and what ultimately happens to them?

* * *

Dad retired from education after 20 years of teaching Life Science in junior high in one of New York State’s eastern central school districts. When asked about being an educator and the daily issues he faced, he focused mainly on the attitudes and preparedness of his students and their parents. He also focused on an administration that highly emphasized passing its students, probably due to outside pressure which eventually trickled down the to its faculty. The issues he discussed were not unique to his district, and were common in lower income communities across the nation.

“One of the hardest parts of the job was getting the students to believe that I knew what I was talking about,” he said. The adolescent years are known to be the start of a rebellious period in the lives of young people. It’s not only challenging for parents, but also for educators. He further added, “Many of my students came to school hungry and without having breakfast. It’s hard to learn that way!”

Dad spent a lot of time discussing parenting saying, “Somewhere there was a disconnection between the parents and what the students should’ve been doing at home, particularly their homework. The parents should’ve been helping to reinforce our program at home. If we could’ve just gotten the parents on board, things would’ve gone more smoothly.”

“Parents aren’t what they used to be. They seem to act as though they can just make babies and it’s the school’s job to raise them,” he lamented about parents who weren’t proactive and vigilant about their children’s education.

“When I came home, I frequently saw my father reading,” he continued. “In some families, kids come home and see Mom and Dad watching TV and not reading, and will do the same thing. For African American and Latino kids, reading is very, very important,” he said passionately.

Whether it’s a low income district or a high income district as described in the writings of Dr. Ralph G. Perrino of the former Northern Virginia Tutoring Service, strong parental involvement seems to be a key ingredient in the success of students.

When he visited the University of Michigan when I was in graduate school, the famous (and now maligned) neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson, originally from inner-city Detroit, openly acknowledged that he wasn’t a strong student early on in his life. He further acknowledges that it was his mother’s insistence that he read and continually expand his mind that set the stage for his successes.

Dad finally voiced his frustrations with the school system itself saying, “In many districts there is a lot of pressure on teachers to pass students who may not be measuring up to the teacher’s expectations and what’s outlined in the curriculum.” In short, whether intended or not, the expectations for his students were being lowered. He further encountered quite a few students and parents who expected passing grades without the work being done.

“The school district was phasing out effort, good behavior, homework, and classroom participation. My students’ grades were eventually based mostly on tests and quizzes,” he said. He closed by saying (with conviction), “The problem is that when these students go out into the real world, they’ll be in trouble in job settings.”

* * *

I want to close by acknowledging all the educators who go to work every day preparing our future generations. It’s a very important and sometimes underappreciated career/job. I’ll always remember seeing Dad go away to school every day, grading papers on the weekends, and enjoying his summer vacations. His experiences weren’t unique, and they applied to many schools in other cities across the country.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy:

The story of how I earned my STEM degree as a minority
Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in academic achievement
The benefits and challenges of using articulate speech
Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege
Who will benefit from Apple’s $350 billion investment?
Father’s Day 2018: Dad’s doctor and his lawyer, and a discussion on careers
Father’s Day 2017: Reflections on some of Dad’s money and life lessons

If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly, follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

The story of how I earned my STEM degree as a minority

“It’s my job to prepare you for wherever you go after you leave my lab. When you go into a company, no one is going to tell you if your presentations and writings are sloppy. You won’t get promoted and you’ll never know why!”

In my post entitled, Who will benefit from Apple’s $350 billion investment?, I cited data stating that less than 10% of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degree holders are African American – a staggering number as these are some of the highest paying careers today. With the first principle of my blog being “Creating Ecosystems of Success”, and one of my focuses being awareness of the STEM careers, I wanted to tell my story.

Thus far I’ve published posts discussing the ‘Biomedical’ sciences I’ve been trained in, ‘Regulatory’ science, the ‘Applied’ sciences, and the ‘Transferrable’ skills learned when earning STEM degrees. In these posts I’ve attempted to make these sciences easily understandable for students and families with backgrounds like my own (see the story of my blog). Potentially the most important story of all though is how one becomes a STEM professional.

I’m a firm believer in teaching the ‘how’. It’s important to encourage participation in the STEMs, but as a student who walked into my training not fully  understanding the opportunity in front of me, I think it’s also important to share what went into earning my STEM degree in a very open and honest way – the good, the bad and the ugly – no fairy tales and no magic. In this post, I’m thus revisiting both my learning points science-wise, and some personal challenges during the process as an African American male coming from Buffalo’s east side. The latter challenges may surprise you.

The majority of the visuals used in this piece are materials from my thesis. Click on any of them to enlarge them. Lastly in this piece I refer to my thesis project without getting into its specifics. I describe it in greater detail in my Basic Sciences and Basic Research post.

Learning how to do science

I fell in love with “Life Science” in the seventh grade at Campus West in Buffalo, NY. I followed that love into Hutch-Tech High School where I majored in ‘Biotechnology’ (AP Biology). At Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), I distinguished myself as a ‘A’ student in my core courses as a Biology major which led to my participation in the Ronald E. McNair Program, where I worked two summers in a Hepatic (Liver) Physiology lab.

It was my first time performing ‘Basic’ scientific research (see my Basic Sciences and Research post). I earned an undergraduate fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency my last two years at JCSU. This precluded my participation in the ‘Minority Access to Research Careers’ (MARC) Program where I would’ve worked on a research project year-round, and would’ve gained more valuable experience.

Having participated in the McNair Program, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Pharmacology, thinking that working in a Pharmaceutical company like Pfizer or Merck would provide stable employment. Thus, the sole focus for my science training was finding a job. While a Ph.D. in Pharmacology would help me get there, I didn’t completely understand what the road to a Ph.D. in this particular STEM field entailed, as I didn’t yet know how to do science fulltime.

“Anwar has never done rigorous scientific research before,” my Graduate Advisor, a fellow Western New Yorker, wrote in my evaluation for my second lab rotation within the Department of Pharmacology of the University of Michigan. He gave me an ‘A’ which I was happy about, though based upon his statement, I wasn’t sure how I’d done in the lab. Did I perform adequately over those four months? Did I underperform, but still received an ‘A’ just because? Either way, he allowed me work under him for my thesis project – perhaps seeing some potential in me.

What made me want to stay in his lab? After my summers in the McNair Program, I knew something about the enzyme my Graduate Advisor’s lab worked on; “Neuronal Nitric Oxide Synthase” (see my Basic Sciences and Research post). I was also encouraged by two more senior students in another lab to stay based upon my advisor’s: talent, his productive track record and the productivity of his students.

By the way, in the coming years when prospective students would visit our department, my Graduate Advisor was always very adamant about the prospects getting the current students’ perspectives on the department. I think his reasons were that doctoral research is a significant life and time commitment as you’ll see later, and it’s in a student’s best interest not to walk into a department ‘blind’. Ideally, they should have a feel for the overall climate of their prospective department; its culture, its faculty and whether its students go on to establish their own careers.

The Basic Sciences and Basic Research are worlds all in themselves, worlds I initially didn’t know how to succeed in. Aside from some of my teachers in high school, there were no STEM professionals in my ecosystem in Buffalo. Also, once again, while my summers in the McNair Program gave me a taste of this new adventure I was embarking upon, they didn’t show what the experience would be like fulltime.

What qualities and attributes were needed to earn my Ph.D. in the STEM field I had chosen? One very important quality/value I received from my home ecosystem was that of hard work and the importance of doing quality work. I’ll credit my mother for this and her many years of making us do chores at home, which instilled a sense of personal responsibility and pride in my work. Also, the adversity-filled experience on my high school basketball team taught me how not to quit on things when they got hard – another valuable tool. Lastly, I was always naturally very malleable personality-wise, and open to being taught.

My Dad’s words about excelling in my coursework helped me to get into Graduate School and were useful until the end of my coursework. Once the fulltime research phase began however, it was a whole different ballgame, as working for my Graduate Advisor required a host of other ‘tools’.

I myself was a ‘project’ going into my Graduate Advisor’s lab – one which needed to be built from the ground up. There were plenty of challenging times for both of us as my first two to three years were spent literally just figuring things out. Fortunately, he was willing to teach me as long as I was willing to do the work and be taught. What do I mean by figuring things out? The following is a summary of what I learned as I worked on my thesis project:

• Learning to ask questions, to be inquisitive, and to talk about science

I added this learning point in last, but it may be the most important of all. I’ll credit the whole department for teaching me this lesson. One classmate and one professor stand out here. Verbally asking questions is essential to doing science. In my Basic Sciences and Basic Research post, I described how our experiments were questions themselves, but it’s also very important to be able to verbally ask questions of peers about their science both one on one, and in group settings in a respectful way.

During graduate school, I sat in on numerous seminars, and I was initially afraid to ask questions in front of everyone else. Part of it was a fear of sounding foolish. The other part of it was that while I’d excelled in my coursework as an undergraduate, I didn’t regularly talk about science with my classmates at my undergraduate institution. Over time I overcame my fears and got to the point where getting my questions answered superseded everything else.

• Seeing and understanding the science through my Advisor’s eyes

“You’re going to have to drive the project!” My biggest learning point was learning to see the science through my Graduate Advisor’s eyes, and not just in terms of obtaining my Ph.D. and finding a job. There was an ‘art’ to science, a thought process, a methodology, a culture and a lifestyle. It took about five years of training to get to the point where I could start see the science the way he saw it, and even talk about my project the way he talked about it.

I needed to understand the science in its entirety and appreciate the process, and all the challenges involved. I needed to approach my research like a professional; to design my experiments systematically and proactively – to think about the limitations of our experiments and the data we generated, to think of the next steps, and to always think about the final published paper.

• Doing science in the lab everyday vs. learning about it in a classroom

There’s a major difference between learning about science in a classroom setting, and actually doing quality science fulltime. For me that involved being proactive about my work, and being consistent in everything I did experimentally, in my writings and my presentations. Our experiments were questions, the results were the answers, and we needed the answers in a timely fashion. Everything needed to be approached with a sense of urgency, and in a way, time was our enemy. It also involved thinking about the project when outside of the lab – something my Advisor and his peers and competitors did – sometimes at the expense of other things.

I was now out on the edges of science in the ‘trenches’, trying to discover new knowledge. A major part of this involved approaching my thesis project like a job. And in many ways it was, as my peers and I received stipends. It wasn’t a high-paying job in terms of salary, but instead the payment was knowledge and wisdom which would equate to greater financial compensation later.

• Graduate Research is in part a job or an apprenticeship like one of the skill trades

“This is your job now!” My Graduate Advisor and I had this conversation after my completing two years of coursework and starting my thesis project fulltime. I hadn’t made the connection yet that my research involved being in the lab 100% of the time. It required being on time in a job-like setting where I’d work on my project daily at a work bench – sometimes at night and on weekends. The data generated from my project would be published in scientific journals, as well as when my Graduate Advisor sought to renew his own research grants. Finally, it would be the basis for my completed dissertation, in addition to a record of my productivity after eventually leaving his lab.

• Learning to Multitask

I had to learn to work smart, and not just hard. My Graduate Advisor instilled in me the ability to multitask and to, “have multiple things going at once,” as he always emphasized. In addition to working on my own project, I was also responsible for growing the stocks of proteins that the entire lab used, which was a huge responsibility. I was also the lab’s “Chemical Safety” officer who was responsible for all the lab’s waste disposal – chemical and radioactive. Multitasking was what he did on a grander scale all year. As a student, it seemed unfair at the time, but it’s a skill that has transcended our lab into other arenas, as with everything he taught us.

• Learning to Compete

“You have to know where the line is, and then do your best to stay above it,” my Graduate Advisor told me years later after I graduated. Though I didn’t understand it at the time, he was teaching his students how to compete and survive. It’s not widely discussed, but science is about competition, especially in academia where at any given time, multiple labs around the country, and even around the world, are working to make the same scientific breakthrough. It’s an arena where ultimately, the group who makes the finding first gets the fame and notoriety, and future grant funding.

There was such a thing as being ‘scooped’. This is when another lab made the finding first, leaving its competitors to either disprove it, to add something to it, or to work on something else altogether. Because my Advisor was so talented and hungry, it never happened to us, but I saw it happen to some of my peers and their labs. Nothing was guaranteed. Just like he had to fight and claw to keep his lab running, I also had to fight and claw to push my project through to completion. I further had to fight and claw to stay in the department and finish my degree. Science and life are about competition.

“I know that I drove you guys pretty hard,” my Advisor shared with me years after I graduated, which we both smiled about. At times he was very abrasive, aggressive and very demanding of us. It was for a reason though and I realized during my training that working for brilliant and driven people is hard, but if you can stay in the process and take their coaching, you’ll be better off for it later.

My Graduate Advisor attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an undergraduate, the University of Michigan for graduate school, and then the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his own postdoctoral training before becoming a professor at the University of Michigan. We never talked about MIT in my ecosystem in Buffalo, and I just started understanding my Advisor’s pedigree towards the end of my training. His father was a scientist as well, and he thus had exposure to science at an early age, and even earned a couple of patents before starting college. Don’t get me wrong, having parents in the STEMs isn’t a necessity to getting into one of the fields yourself, but the early exposure can pay huge dividends later.

This is a good place to state that my Graduate Advisor, his peers, and scientists at most research universities are driven by their scientific research, and they’re always thinking about it; late at night, and even on family vacations. The argument can be made that their research is their purpose for living. The truly talented ones are further tough enough to withstand any environmental changes such as when the second Bush Administration cut the NIH’s budget, causing many labs around the country to downsize or perish altogether, while others figured out how to survive.

“You all are very different than we were! When I was a graduate student, we fought over the latest issues of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (JPET),” said one of the more senior and celebrated faculty in our department who was jokingly said to have invented the Heart. He felt that we weren’t studying up on our field enough in our spare time beyond our core curricula. Most of us were only doing the minimum reading and studying, something my Graduate Advisor also stayed on me about during my training.

Learning to manage my life outside of the lab so I could do science

The accompanying newspaper clipping is from one of Buffalo’s local weekly black publications, The Challenger. My mother proudly submitted the story and that’s her handwriting on the top of the clipping. It was a big deal back home and she even shared with me that I’d exceeded her expectations which was very gratifying. When looking at the clipping, it’s something to proud of, but what you don’t see there is that there were a host of personal learning points outside of the lab as well – experiences which could’ve derailed the whole thing.

Being African American and ascending in education and a career often leads to discussions of “forgetting where you came from”. So, I want to close with what I learned about how life outside of the lab can affect one’s ability to do science and be a professional. Sometimes it’s actually necessary to leave certain parts of your old life behind. I learned on numerous occasions during my STEM training that I had to protect both my project and my life. That is, I had to make strategic decisions in my personal life that would increase my chances of finishing my degree and surviving to talk about it.

While working on my thesis I got involved in a very chaotic romantic relationship which compromised my mind, spirit and overall well-being at times; nearly derailing my project and potentially adversely affecting my Graduate Advisor’s entire lab all at the same time. There was one day I consider a near death experience – something I’ve discussed with friends and relatives only in bits and pieces. Fortunately, I survived, but this type of thing wasn’t restricted to my significant other.

There were two instances involving two close friends whom I consider my second and third brothers. One incident transpired over a Thanksgiving holiday and the other a Christmas holiday – both of which involved nearly getting pulled into violent confrontations late at night at nightclubs and parties in my hometown of Buffalo, NY. One friend had too much to drink and in the process of having his own fun, inadvertently splashed another guy with his beer. The guy who got splashed was unhappy about it and started following us around the venue. While I thought bullets might fly, my friend got away with just getting punched and knocked out temporarily. Fortunately, we both made it home safely.

In the second incident, another buddy wanted to stay and confront some guys over a female outside of a nightclub. Apparently, he was looking at the guy’s lady and there was an initial confrontation I didn’t see inside the venue. My friend didn’t want to appear afraid and wanted us to take our time leaving. When I realized what was going on, I wanted to leave immediately – something he and I clashed over afterwards. Fortunately again, nothing happened, and we got out of there safely.

Neither of these incidents were worth the potential price to be paid. Neither my significant other, or either of my friends considered the possibility of my showing up to the lab in a cast, with a black eye, or with teeth missing, or maybe being laid up in a hospital, unable to continue my research. The take home message from all of this is that you must be your own best advocate in life. None of us can avoid tragedies, but there are some things we can avoid.

You must protect what you’re doing, sometimes from people around you in your family circle, friends or significant others, because someone else’s selfishness and bad decisions can hinder your life and professional aspirations. In my case it was earning my STEM degree and starting my career.

* * *

“Give a man fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

I included this famous quote from the Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu because the road to my STEM degree was literally like learning how to fish. The opening quote from this piece is from one of my many talks with my Graduate Advisor. In some ways our relationship evolved into that of a father and a son which I’m very, very grateful for as not every student had this. I saw several peers leave partway through their graduate training without their doctorates either due to a loss of hope, or irreconcilable differences with their advisors. Some were African American, but not all were.

This is my STEM story and there are many others out there. I want to point out that the point of telling this story was not for my glorification. As I said in the opening, I think it’s critical to explain all sides of the process in addition to simply encouraging students to get involved in the STEMs solely because of our under-representation as African Americans, and because of the monetary benefit. The how is very, very important. If you’re a STEM professional, I encourage you to also tell your story to STEM-hopefuls in an age-appropriate way.

I’d like to end this story by acknowledging the late Dr. Minor J. Coon.  Dr. Coon was not only a member of my Thesis Committee (on the program above), but he was also a legend and a pioneer the in the study of Phase I Drug Metabolizing Enzymes – Cytochrome P450s particularly.  Dr. Coon actually trained my Graduate Advisor who subsequently suggested asking Dr. Coon to be on my committee – something that surprised me as we all looked upon him with great reverence.  Growing up on Buffalo’s east side, I never dreamt of being a part of such a well accomplished tree of scientists.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy:

A look at STEM: What are the Basic Sciences and Basic Research?
A look at STEM: What is Regulatory Science?
The transferrable skills from a doctoral degree in the basic sciences
A look at STEM: What is Inhalation Toxicology?
A look at STEM: What is Pharmacology?
A look at STEM: What is Toxicology?
A look at STEM: What is ADME/Drug Metabolism?

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add my RSS feed to your feedreader. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Father’s Day 2018: Dad’s doctor and his lawyer, and a discussion on careers

Your brother is going to be my Doctor, and you’re going to be my Lawyer!”

Happy Father’s Day. My 2017 Father’s Day blog post talked about some of my father’s life and money lessons, and there were many. I wrote some more about us in my second essay submitted to A Voice For Men entitled: Two very well-behaved boys left to figure things out on their own: Reflections on growing up ‘Blue Pill’, which discussed how my brother and I had to figure out several aspects of manhood on our own. There weren’t a lot of men around growing up, and there were limitations in what we were taught by the men we did know.

For this 2018 post, I’m going to go in a different direction and will discuss what Dad wanted both me and my brother to be career-wise, versus what we actually became. This piece isn’t an “ode to fathers” per se, but instead a set of thoughts and ideas based upon something my father said to us as children, which will serve as a jumping off point for things me and those in my circle regularly discuss today as adults – things that have impacted our family dynamics as the years have gone by. As described in my piece Challenging stereotypes and misconceptions in academic achievement, Dad’s fatherly guidance helped me reach my academic potential. He also stimulated me to start thinking about potential careers at an early age.

* * *

“Your brother is going to be my Doctor, and you’re going to be my Lawyer!” Dad said on one of our summer visits in the mid-1980s. The three of us were crossing a street in downtown Schenectady, NY and he turned and gave his proclamation to the both of us – communicating with one of his hands – his signature style. Like many parents, Dad had his own plans for what we should be. Somewhere alo4ng the line, he determined that it should be a Medical Doctor and a Lawyer, and as with everything Dad said, he said it with lots of authority, pretty much commanding us.

Not having either in my immediate family circle on either my mother’s or father’s side, I didn’t know much about what lawyers did. I had some idea of what medical doctors did because I had gone to see them on numerous occasions as a child. One of Dad’s first cousins was in fact a medical doctor, but we didn’t see him enough to be able to ask him about his career. In elementary school it hadn’t occurred to me what I wanted to be career-wise, though I got the inkling that it would be something scientific after really enjoying “Life Science” in the seventh grade – essentially beginner’s Biology. My brother had begun showing signs of being both artistic and creative.

But what made my father so enamored with medical doctors and lawyers in terms of careers for his sons? Dad was always one for stability which is why he became a junior high science teacher. Neither of his parents had gone to college, so he was a first-generation college graduate. From what I can see, some parents naturally want their children to do better than them. In the mid-1980s, the conventional wisdom was that medicine and law were two very high-profile professions which would lead to affluent and comfortable careers/lifestyles.

“I know that your grandfather would be very proud of you being a doctor and all,” Dad said on several occasions regarding my Ph.D. years later. He didn’t necessarily understand what my doctorate stood for or the skills it represented, but the title of ‘Doctor’ meant a lot to him – something I witnessed in the coming years both positively and negatively. Coincidentally, I think he initially discouraged me from pursuing a doctorate – potentially because he only knew Ph.D.s in the context of the school system, and not the ‘Research’ and ‘Regulatory’ worlds.

With one of the principles of my blog being “Critical Thought”, I believe it’s important to look at things in their entirety. So, while Dad wanted these two prestigious careers for us, what would it have taken for us to get into these two professions? The answer is it would’ve taken lots and lots of school for the both us and then, most likely, considerable debt to pay back. This is something very important to consider for parents and students looking to attend college to pursue ‘White-Collar’ careers.

In terms of higher education, thinking out the entire plan long-term is critical – considering the cost of the degree, how to get a quality degree for the least amount of money possible, what the expected salary will be on back end, and finally how much debt will need to be paid back. According to a 2014 article in Forbes, the average amount of debt for Law School graduates ranged from $84,000 to $122,158. Also, according to a recent 2018 article by Credit Donkey, the average medical school graduate finishes with $192,000 of debt.

Keep in mind that these are on top of however much debt was accrued during one’s undergraduate studies. The numbers probably weren’t as high thirty years ago, but it’s important to be mindful of blindly chasing certain careers based upon titles and prestige. If it’s something a student really wants to do, that’s different, but the costs still ought to be considered.

If you run the numbers and your prospects aren’t good, I would recommend not going into debt for that particular degree. A mentor recently taught me that the economy actually dictates the need for specific careers at a given time. I don’t know what the prospects were like for lawyers in the mid-1980s when Dad announced his wish for me, but as I progressed in my education, I heard more and more stories about the market being ‘saturated’ with them. I likewise heard that the landscape for medicine had changed, and in some ways, it wasn’t as lucrative a career as it once was.

In terms of my career, I figured it out as I went along. I had an interest in the Biological Sciences and thus followed that path. I pondered going to Medical School at one point, but decided against it after a professor at Johnson C. Smith University encouraged me and some of my classmates to study up on what it entailed – the demands, the lifestyle, and the backend costs.

It’s also important for students and parents to keep in mind what the student is good at, and where their gift/passion lies. While I turned out to be the son that was interested in the Biology, my brother’s gifts were completely different. He turned out to be a ‘design and build’ –type of guy. He had the gift for designing things, constructing things, taking them apart, and he was quite formidable with tools and devices. He started studying Architecture in college but didn’t finish, but in hindsight, he may have also been well suited for one of the ‘Skill Trades’ – something that didn’t come up as a child as college and ‘White-Collar’ careers were emphasized as opposed to ‘Blue-Collar’ careers.

Speaking of the trades, since finishing my own education, I’ve realized that there is power in learning one or more of the skill trades. There will always be the need to build and fix things. That includes: the electricity and plumbing in your home, airplanes we travel on, the public transportation vehicles we ride to work on every day, and so much more. If your refrigerator breaks down as mine did recently, for example, you either have to buy a new one or hire someone to come and fix it – unless you can do it yourself.

Unfortunately, our society looks down on the Blue-Collar careers in some ways, though they pay very, very well and don’t require the schooling doctors and lawyers need – the same is true for the debt required to train for the latter two careers. In my opinion, individuals who are proficient in the trades people are willing to pay for; and those who also have some business training, stand to make lots of money as they can do things like start their own companies and hire other people.

My brother never finished college and has become a bit of an inventor/entrepreneur which actually is the route that our technology giants like: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg took. There may have been some luck involved for each of them, but these men are reminders that in some instances, ideas and skills are more powerful than the degrees themselves. Today for example, there are quite a few individuals making significant incomes without being ‘degreed’ – those who can write code for Blockchain Technology applications for example. Also, while my brother isn’t degreed, he’s also not saddled with a significant debt payment of any kind – a tremendous advantage.

As for me, depending on your belief system, I got lucky. I pursued a Ph.D. in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field at a time when the economy rewarded individuals with such degrees. What’s even more significant is that I finished only with a little bit of debt from my undergraduate studies. Because I pursued a STEM degree, I didn’t pay for any of my graduate studies so I didn’t have a hefty loan to pay back for those five to six years of graduate school. This brings me to my closing point. It wasn’t until I finished that phase of my science training that I realized that I was missing something very, very important – something some kids are given early, and something others stumble upon later in life if at all.

Regardless of whether or not you get a college degree, a trade or some sort of entrepreneurship, the critical piece is understanding money. Something not discussed much in our younger years was wealth-building – something that is possible for everyone, and independent of one’s career choice as it involves a specific set of behaviors that I’ve written about in my Net Worth and Debt Snowball pieces. Understanding the concepts of Wealth-Building: budgeting, living within one’s means, delaying gratification, investments, and ‘Compound Interest‘ – these are the keys to a great and bountiful life, not necessarily the careers and titles themselves, contrary to what many people think.

Prestige and titles are nice, but if you read Dr. Thomas Stanley’s The Millionaire Next Door, you’ll see that there are many high-income professionals who look the part, but who are actually struggling. In my blog post about the Tax Reform and Jobst Act, I referenced a 2016 article in the Washington Post entitled: The shocking number of Americans who can’t cover a $400 expense which showed that even some individuals making over six figures, surprisingly couldn’t cover such an emergency.

I never wanted to be one of those people. I may be different from most, but I’d rather secretly live nice and comfortable with a simple outward appearance, as opposed to looking wealthy and struggling behind closed doors. That’s a personal choice however – one which everyone must make for themselves.

* * *

In closing, our parents sometimes have dreams of what they want us to be. Some kids actually go ahead and fulfill their parents’ dreams while others go their own way. In some instances, our parents can discourage us from what we really want to do based upon what they know and feel from their lives.

There is thus a complex set of decisions to be made based upon: what one really wants to do, their unique gifts, what they’re passionate about, and how they’ll be able to earn a living on the back end. In the end, the economy dictates what’s needed at that particular time – it will determine who gets hired and how much they will be paid. Lastly, no matter what path is chosen, the critical piece is understanding money. Once again, Happy Father’s Day.

Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Two very well-behaved boys left to figure things out on their own: reflections on growing up ‘Blue Pill’
Father’s Day 2017: reflections on some of Dad’s money and life lessons
Mother’s Day 2018: Memories of my grandmothers
Mother’s Day 2017: one of my mother’s greatest gifts, getting engaged, and avoiding my own personal fiscal cliff
Challenging stereotypes and misconceptions in academic achievement
The benefits and challenges of using articulate speech

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, on Instagram at @anwaryusef76, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Lasting lessons basketball taught me: Reflections on three years of basketball camp

“Basketball is our game and yours can be the same.”

The first principle of my blog is “Creating Ecosystems of Success”. I originally published this series on the Examiner back in 2014. As a teen I dreamt of being a basketball player just like a lot of kids – a dream for which one must have lots of ability, drive, and luck to achieve. My experience turned out to be quite the adventure, and I didn’t formally play basketball beyond high school. The lessons I learned there however, not all of them happy and pleasant, helped me as I progressed into adulthood and into my Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) career. As mentioned when I began reposting this series, I’m working on an ambitious writing project chronicling my early basketball journey in Western New York.

Initially I thought that I would simply republish the original series and let it go, but I’ve decided to add onto it as I continue working on my book project and ideas keep coming to me. Heading into the summer months this particular follow up installment will discuss what I learned from the three years I attended basketball camp. See if you the reader can pick up on the universal themes which transcend the great game of basketball.

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“Basketball is our game and yours can be the same,” was the signature quote of the Ken Jones Basketball Camp – the camp run by Dr. Kenneth Leon Jones, my first high school basketball coach. As he told us students more times than I can remember, “I’m a student of the game.” He ate, slept and breathed the great game of basketball. Our basketball program at Hutch-Tech High School in Buffalo, NY was an extension of him and was unique in our league, the “Yale Cup”, during that sliver of time he coached there. He taught us the structure and fundamentals of the game which at that time were the hallmarks of only the area suburban and private schools. To learn some more about what the Yale Cup was like, see parts one and two of my interview with Buffalo basketball legend Jason Rowe.

What was also unique about our program at Hutch-Tech was that our coach ran his own basketball camp – the first and only one I’d ever attend. I first heard about the Ken Jones Basketball Camp as a freshman. Towards the end of the 1990-91 school year, a highly successful season for Hutch-Tech’s basketball program, Coach Jones posted fliers for the camp on the bulletin board near the coaches’ offices. I knew very few fundamentals of basketball as most of my play consisted of games of “Twenty-One”, also known as “Rochester”, and ‘pickup’ games on Buffalo’s playgrounds and at the William-Esmlie YMCA. I thought attending the camp would not only teach me more about the game, but it would also give me an ‘in’ going into tryouts the next year – something it may have in fact done.

I’ll point out here that my perception of attending the camp as an ‘in’ to get on the Varsity team was a flawed way of thinking. There were several peers who attended the camp and didn’t make the team during those years. For any prospective players or parents reading this, it’s very important for kids with aspirations of playing sports to understand that spots on their school’s roster should be, and must be, earned. Spots on the roster should be awarded based on skills and preparation – not some form of favoritism or partiality – both of which do happen in the real world at workplaces later in life.

I was blessed that my mother and father were able to come up with the $300 to $400 fee to attend the Ken Jones Basketball Camp, as not all of my peers could afford to go. Keep in mind that I went three of my four years in high school – again a blessing. Also keep in mind that there were several local camps in and around the city of Buffalo which I didn’t know much about; which in hindsight, I also wish I had attended. Later in life I learned that no matter what your craft is, learning from multiple teachers only makes you stronger and more formidable. Each year the Buffalo News actually advertised all of the area camps, and neither I, nor anyone in my immediate family ecosystem at the time, knew to look for them.

At this point I’ll distinguish between the two types of camps and if I’ve misspoken here, please do leave a comment below this blog post. According to what I’ve learned, there were two types of basketball camps; ‘Teaching’ camps which were designed to impart the fundamentals of the game, and also what I’ll call ‘All-Star’ camps – showcases for the nation’s top talent. These included the: Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and ABCD camps. These camps drew your future Division I and NBA talent. The documentary Hoop Dreams shows a snippet of the Nike Camp in the early 1990s where in that particular year, players like Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, and Alan Henderson attended. They were scouted by high-level college coaches like P.J. Carlissimo, Mike Kryzewski, John Chaney, Kevin O’Neil and others.

The Ken Jones Basketball Camp was a ‘teaching’ camp. In the early 1990s it was held at Hamilton College in north-central New York State. It drew kids from all over the state – some from the Buffalo area, and many from the Rochester area where Coach Jones used to coach before moving to Buffalo. There were also kids from the middle of the state and the Hudson River Valley. That was true for the coaches on staff too. Coach Jones had an entire lineup of coaches he’d either coached with, coached against, or in many cases had simply befriended along the way. In a way they were like a group of ‘Mob Bosses’ like in the movie Casino. Instead of organized crime though, they were all passionate about basketball. You could hear and feel it in the workshops they taught in addition to how they coached us.

“It’s a season of basketball in a session,” was one of the other signature quote from the camp’s brochure and it was true. It was one week packed with: workshops, drills, and competition. I’d never seen anything like it before. Towards the end of the camp there was a ‘playoff’ for each age group and an All-Star game for the camp’s best players. It was literally like a basketball boot camp. We had to be up at 6-7 am for calisthenics and stretching, and then breakfast to start our day full of games and drills/workshops. We were also supposed to be in bed at a certain hour each night. As promised, our muscles and joints were aching by Tuesday and Wednesday.

It was a very ‘organized’ style of basketball they taught us there – very different than the ‘street-style’ we played in Buffalo which involved mostly, “going up strong to the ‘hole’,” and usually watching your teammates dominate the ball on offense while everyone else stood around watching – ‘isolation’ basketball. As I was going into the camp looking to become a much better offensive player, I was very much surprised by the amount of time we spent on defensive principles and fundamentals.

I also noticed that some of the other kids my age were much more developed than I was in terms of their offensive skill sets and their overall ‘basketball-IQs’ – their basic knowledge of the game allowing them to know what plays to make offensively and defensively – instinctually in some instances. One teammate from my first year at the camp who was from Palmyra-Macedon (Pal-Mac) High School in the Rochester area stands out to me. We were the same age and similar height, but he had already developed a reliable 15-foot jump shot – something I hadn’t developed at that point as no one had emphasized it back home.

Interestingly, the best basketball I ever played was probably at that camp my second year. I think it was largely due to the players I got to play with. They weren’t selfish, ‘me first’ players. The guards were disciplined and they looked to share the ball. At the camp going into my junior year of high school, I remember regularly touching the ball on my team, and making the All-Star game at the end.

What I’m going to say next is probably the most important part of this piece. I didn’t know how to actually harness what I had learned from the camp, and make myself a better player. That is, I didn’t understand that simply going to the camp by itself wouldn’t make methe best player I could be.

Afterwards, it would take hours and hours perfecting those fundamentals, and then learning how to use them in actual competition. This is the actual “development” – something that takes time, focus and commitment. When I look back on those years, I also realize that I was also developing on my own. In a game like basketball, if you want to play at the highest levels, you have to not only develop yourself personally, but you also have to figure out how to coalesce and build chemistry with the group of players you’re going to be playing with in competition.

What I didn’t understand at the time was how to break out of my ‘comfort zone’. As you might imagine, the majority of the kids at the camp weren’t black, and as an inner-city kid I didn’t know how to blend with kids who didn’t look like me – befriending them and asking them to show me what they knew – also learning about their basketball and life experiences. Making new friends was encouraged, but I just didn’t know how to do it. This was also prior to the cell phones, social media, and the technology we have today, so I didn’t think to try to befriend and stay in contact with the other kids long-term.

Probably the last important principle I didn’t understand was that becoming a great basketball player involved combining the ‘organized’ and ‘street’ styles. The reason I played my best basketball at the camp was because I had become used to playing the ‘organized’ style. A teammate at Hutch-Tech likewise told me later that my game was ‘basic’, meaning that it was very technically sound and very ‘textbook’.

I thought he was picking on me as per usual, but he was right. It turned out that the great and transcendent players at any level could play within an organized team structure, but could also play off of pure instinct when necessary – creating shots for themselves or teammates, or creating key turnovers on defense – again all off of instinct. All of this takes any player time, effort and focus, and it should come from within the individual in order for it to truly bear fruit.

“Damn Anwar. You spent all of that money to go to basketball camp,” a classmate said to me as my junior year season fell apart due to injuries and grades. He was pitying me, and or gloating – I couldn’t tell which at the time. I wasn’t originally going to put this quote into this piece, but it’s a critical aspect of my book project because it underscores how peers view you when you’re setting out to do something of meaning and value. Some are happy for you, while some are waiting for you to fail.

And again, not every family had the money to send their kids to camp which probably created some envy. Some kids wanted to play on the basketball team and didn’t for whatever reason, and you don’t know how they’re viewing you and your opportunities until you yourself are going through a hardship of some sort. This also underscores the importance of having the mental strength I discussed in part three of this series.

And I think I’ll wrap this up here. As I’m working on my book project, all of the things I didn’t know from that time are coming to me – things those in my own immediate familial ecosystem didn’t necessarily know to stress to me at the time – things which the highly successful players are and were taught at those critical stages of their development. This piece is thus highly valuable of young players in those stages. I have a cousin like that right now who thinks she wants to be a basketball player. This piece is very much for players like her who are good on defense for example, but need to develop their offensive games to go to that next level.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part two: Life lessons
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part three: People, teamwork, mental toughness and leadership
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part four: Life, success, and failure
Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Buffalo Traditional’s Jason Rowe discusses his college and professional careers and coaching
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

My personal experience with Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball revisited

“The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” – Proverbs 22:7

One of the principles of my blog is the “Teaching of Wealth Building and Financial Literacy”. A key component of Financial Literacy is understanding debt – specifically what happens when you carry too much of it. I painfully learned what it’s like to carry exorbitant amounts of debt – a place I hope never to return to.

I got out of debt because some friends graciously shared Dave Ramsey’sFinancial Peace University” with me. While there are supporters of Financial Peace University and Dave’s “Debt Snowball”, I found that there are also detractors and critics. I wrote the following piece on the Examiner in early 2016 after someone else wrote an article about why she quit her Debt Snowball. I didn’t write this to rebut the author in a confrontational way or to discard her experience altogether, but instead to share an alternative perspective. By the way, to read about how to prolong your Debt Snowball, see my Mother’s Day 2017 blog post.

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Over the holiday season, an article appeared on my Twitter feed from another passionate Financial Literacy writer (there are many) titled; Why I Gave Up on Dave Ramsey’s Debt Snowball. Being a coordinator within the Financial Peace University ministry at the Alfred Street Baptist Church, and also in the final stages of my own Debt snowball, the article resonated with me and prompted the crafting of this piece. This piece won’t refute Jennifer Calonia’s experience, but will actually agree with some of her points and discuss my own experiences.

No one plans to go into crippling financial debt which usually occurs because of a lack of Financial Literacy; living above one’s means, or something else such as today’s soaring costs of higher education. Many people don’t understand what they’re doing and the long-term ramifications as was in my case. Roughly nine years were spent completing my Ph.D. and then the two and a half years of subsequent training – all on a taxable graduate stipend which ranged from $17,000-$22,000, and then a postdoctoral salary of $37,000. During that time, my expenses often exceeded my income for a number reasons. My old Saturn SL2 was bought with my father’s credit card. It was maintained using another credit card whose balance eventually ballooned to $8,500 (just paid off this month). An unhealthy relationship or two also contributed to the bonanza.

After starting my first real job in the Federal Government, my debt swelled at least two to three times due to wanting to learn to invest in real estate, and wanting to do too much too soon money-wise. It was a good idea but the trainings came at a steep price which in hindsight could’ve been obtained for less money. Those who gave those particular trainings dangerously encouraged us as students who didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars saved up, to use our credit cards, under the assumption that the costs of the classes would get paid off relatively easily once we some real estate deals were done (to be covered in depth in a later piece).

After accumulating my mound of debt, my life was blessed when two friends (from the same trainings) discovered and shared Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University (FPU). Just briefly, four of the key components of FPU – the cornerstones of Dave’s “Baby Steps” include:

• Saving an Emergency Fund – one month and then four to six months
• Learning how to budget
• Using cash instead of credit cards and debit cards
The Debt Snowball

The Debt Snowball is a strategy for eliminating debt. The individual lines up all of their debts smallest to largest, steadily paying them off one by one using the money from each paid off debt on the next one, steadily increasing the size of the payments on the larger ones until everything is paid off using “Gazelle Intensity” as Dave Ramsey calls it. Dave Ramsey uses the parable of the Gazelle who represents consumers who are preyed upon by the Cheetahs who represent credit card companies, banks and marketers.

Jennifer Calonia’s points are honestly all valid. My own Debt Snowball has taken two to three difficult years (and that’s without children), and it is easy to feel like quitting. Life continues to happen not just to you, but those around you – some of whom aren’t making good financial decisions and ultimately need your help – often unexpectedly. There is also the pull to do what others are doing – taking lavish vacations and acquiring luxury items for example. Finally, because you’re living on a fixed income when doing the debt snowball, some people may conclude that you’re “strapped” for cash which can be hurtful if you’re sensitive to the words of others.

These are all reasons why Ramsey discusses prayer when pursuing this effort (if that’s in your value system of course). From experience, when doing the Debt Snowball, one has to know that there are times when this financial plan can and must be altered temporarily – the holiday season for example. Furthermore, periodic rewards are realistically a good idea too (within reason). In other words, if you’re doing the Debt Snowball, you have to allow yourself some fun, or else you’ll stop it and never go back.

Much to my surprise, Dave Ramsey does have his detractors and critics as does every author/speaker/guru. There is for example a second method to paying down debts which involves paying down the highest interest rate obligations first. Some consider this more financially intelligent than the debt snowball which is powerful because of the ‘emotional’ effect of seeing the debts go away.

“We’re going to live like no one else, so later we can live like no one else,” Ramsey says frequently during frequently during FPU meaning that some sacrifices are initially involved, for greater gains and a comfortable life later on. Money is an emotional topic and as with most things, everyone has to make the best decisions for their own lives. Being on the cusp of completing my own debt snowball, it admittedly wasn’t easy, but if one can find a way to stick to it, it does work.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed this one, you might also enjoy:

Chris Brown discusses true stewardship and financial peace
Your gross net worth, your gross salary and what they mean
The difference between being cheap and frugal
Mother’s Day 2017: One of my mother’s greatest gifts, getting engaged, and avoiding my own personal fiscal cliff
Father’s Day 2017: Reflections on some of Dad’s money and life lessons
We should’ve bought Facebook and Bitcoin stock: An investing and technology story
Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part four: Life, success and failure

This article was originally the conclusion of the series titled the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. As described in the opening piece, I’m working on a larger writing project regarding my high school basketball experience and what it taught me about: life, success, and failure. As I’m working on finalizing that project, more ideas are coming to me and so I may add to this series from time to time. Part four discusses some of the valuable lessons basketball taught me about how to be successful in life.  As with all of the posts in this series, this one also falls under my blog’s principle of “Creating Ecosystems of Success”.

* * *

Basketball taught me that no matter what you set out to do, it helps to have a mentor who is experienced in your craft of interest. Someone who has been there already, knows all of the tricks of the trade, and the potential pitfalls, and can help guide you in the best possible way towards your goal is invaluable.

“Sometimes kids have to realize when a coach is trying to help them,” Coach Larry Brown said during his unsuccessful stint coaching Carmelo Anthony, Allen IversonStephon Marbury, and some of the other younger NBA stars on the 2004 Men’s Olympic Basketball Team. “Kids have to understand the difference between coaching and criticism. There is a big difference.”

One of the most important lessons basketball taught me is that when someone says something to you that may at first seem unpleasant or like they’re attacking you, it’s important to try to figure out where their words are coming from. Are they coming from a place of hurt? Are they coming from a place of genuine concern? Are they coming from a place of trying to help? Trying to figure out where people are coming from, and avoiding ‘Knee Jerk’ reactions can often save a lot of trouble later on for all parties involved. It can also lead to major successes and breakthroughs.

Basketball taught me that you have to know the leaders of your craft. On the court, you have to know who to model your game after to improve your own game. In other arenas you have to know who the leaders of your field are and how they got there. In graduate school, my thesis advisor stayed on me about knowing what was new in our field because it impacted our own research projects – it helped us not to, “reinvent the wheel,” as they say.

Basketball taught me that sometimes you have to lose before you can win. This is a hard concept to fathom, especially when the losing is taking place. In life, however, it’s often important to learn what not to do just as it’s important to learn what to do in key situations. Furthermore, there are usually very important lessons in every loss.

Basketball taught me that there are times in life when you have to go your own way, and leave certain people behind in order to achieve your goal. Examples are friends and relatives who don’t share your interests who can sometimes hold you back from achieving your goal. In other instances, they haven’t been to where you’re trying to go, and may hinder your getting there.

It likewise helps to associate with those who share your interests, and are trying to go where you want to go. If you’re going to be a good basketball player for example, you have to hang around with other basketball players. The same thing goes for learning to invest money, learning how to write, learning how to Salsa dance, pursuing higher education, etc.

In my playing days, it was often stressed to us that, “the game is 95% mental and 5% physical.” This relates to one of the biggest lessons that basketball taught me which is that whatever it is you’re trying to achieve, you not only have to be focused on your goal, but you also have to be mentally strong, as there will likely be unexpected obstacles to whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish.

Just as on the basketball court, on the way to achieving your goals in the game of life, not only will you have to put in the work to master your craft, but you’ll also have to endure negative people or dream killers – sometimes the people closest to you telling you, “you can’t,” or, “you won’t,” or, “you’re not” – all disempowering words, but comments you’ll face when setting out to accomplish something of value. Many successful people derive motivation from disempowering words and naysayers, while unsuccessful people buckle and fold under such criticisms and doubts. With this being a basketball-themed post, Michael Jordan is probably the best example of this as his critics and doubters regularly served as his main motivators as he memorably described at his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Your attitude determines your altitude,” my high school basketball coach Ken Jones told us regularly. In translation, your approach to a given situation will impact the outcome of that situation. We were fortunate that in addition to trying to lead us to victories, Coach Jones also wanted to develop us into the best people we could be. Likewise, in whichever activity a young person is involved in, the life skills taught are just as important as that particular activity.

This article will be continued in part four of the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part two: Life lessons
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part three: People, teamwork, mental toughness and leadership
Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Buffalo Traditional’s Jason Rowe discusses his college and professional basketball careers and coaching
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Shaka G. Brown discusses Salsa, and the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival part two

This article is part two of the interview with Shaka Gonzalez Brown in honor of the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival. Part one of the interview discussed Shaka’s: background, the golden age of Washington DC’s Salsa scene, and some of the inspirations for his own social dancing style. Part two will discuss: the current state of salsa, the rise of other Latin dance styles, and the Capital Congress. The pictures used in this post were once again graciously shared by Shaka himself.

Anwar Dunbar: When I started dancing in 2002, Salsa reigned supreme, but then around 2007, Bachata ascended, and then Kizobma and Zouk.

Shaka Gonzalez Brown: They just kept coming up with things to take over from salsa (laughing).

AD: Yes, so you had these other universes coming up. How are things now? You started teaching some Kizomba yourself right? What is the state or balance now of the Latin dances?

SGB: How things now? Well, Salsa used to be the main dish. I was talking to a buddy and he said, ‘Salsa is my steak, and the Bachata is like some mashed potatoes, and one of the other dances might be like some vegetables, but I have to have my steak you know?’

So that was the case for a long time. Bachata and Kizomba are easier dances, so it’s easier to reach the masses. To dance Salsa, it sounds weird to say this – it can be hard and it can be really discouraging for someone. So you have a personality type that wants to learn it, and is going to go into something that’s hard, and they really don’t care about it being discouraging because they have a bigger goal. But there are other people who say, ‘I just want to have fun, and salsa is too complicated.’

So in terms of dealing with that, the instructors, the teachers, and the artists are the ones who have a big responsibility in terms of making it fun as people are on the path, because if you’re discouraging someone who is just starting out, they’re going to find something else to do where they feel more welcome. It’s important to let people know that, ‘You know you’re at this point now, but there’s something to enjoy about being at this point, and we’re going to be with you all of the way whether you’re an advanced dancer or just a beginner.’

I’ve seen this – the schools and the instructors that are able to build the best scenes are the ones who are open and welcome. If you look at folks like Ismael Otero of Caribbean Soul, he’ll have dancers who come in who know nothing from their first day of class, but they know they like the environment and they know they like hanging out with him. As long as you hang out with somebody you’re going to pick up their habits, and you’re going to pick up their touches.

So as the student you say okay, ‘This group of people, I’m going to dance with everybody, they’re friendly and they might be good and they might not be that good, they’re just learning but they’re all a group,’ and that’s what people want to be a part of. They want to be a part of something, so with the Bachata and the Kizomba, the basic steps are pretty simple so there’s not a big range in terms of this person has been doing this for one month, and this person has been doing this for six months.

That six month person can easily dance with that one month person, and still make them feel like they’re doing something, whereas the Salsa can be so exclusive, because as you mentioned, you can get to the social or party and say, ‘I want to dance with the person who has been dancing for five years,’ but they’re going to be so much better than the person who has only been doing it for two weeks, and that two week person could be standing there like, ‘Okay I just spent my money, dressed up, came out and now I’m just standing here not doing anything.’ Then they can go to the Bachata room and someone will grab them and say, ‘Oh you’ve been dancing for two weeks? You’re fine,’ and then they’ll be dancing all night. So it’s how that system is managed that’s really going to determine what happens with the Salsa scene, because people have more options now.

AD: I experienced that firsthand when I moved to Albany (the Capital Region Salsa Social). I did some low level teaching and tried a little bit of DJing as well; both more challenging at times than they look. I wanted to bring Salsa to the area the way that you guys did it, and it just didn’t take. Likewise I witnessed a bunch of people gravitate towards Bachata, and then Kizomba. I just didn’t understand what was going on at the time but you’re right. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.

SGB: And because folks are on different paths sometimes, even when a person says, ‘I want to be a DJ,’ they may want to DJ because they have music that they like. I was talking with Lorenzo Haire (DJ Renzo), and we talked about how there is a difference between a DJ and music collector. A music collector is going to have music that they like, so they’ll say, ‘I’m going to play something that I like and hope that you’ll like it,’ whereas a DJ will ask, ‘What is it that I can do with this crowd?’

Renzo said the same thing. He said, ‘I don’t make up playlists. I get to the venue, start playing a song, and see how it works. If that works then I’ll work with that, but you don’t come with a full playlist of everything you’re going to play regardless of the people that are there.’ So when you have someone who says, ‘This is the music that I like, and you guys need to like it as well, and this is the only thing I’m going to play for you,’ it can turn people off. Some people might want to hear some Salsa Romantica, some Marc Anthony, some Bachata – do something to draw me in not push me away.

AD: That’s right and I was guilty of that. People definitely have different palates in terms of music and it’s a lot like eating a meal.

So Shaka on that same vein, when I first started dancing in Detroit (the YA Social), I didn’t organize any of the events, so I was unaware of what goes into: starting socials, coordinating with other studios, and building up relationships with other instructors, and I was oblivious to all of the behind the scenes stuff. I got a lot of exposure to that when I moved to Albany where I saw the politics that go on, the business side of dancing, the rivalries, and all of those unpleasant things. Describe your transition from being a student, to an instructor/performer, to a promoter.

SGB: Everything is a transition and an adjustment – like when you go from being the guy who goes out and dances to the guy who teaches, people will look at you through a different lens. There are folks I know who I see when I go out, and we chat it up each time we’re at a party. Our relationship is seeing them at the club and they have fun when they’re dancing. But if they tell me, ‘Oh I’m teaching over here, here, and here now,’ now I’m thinking, ‘Whoa wait a minute what’s your goal there?’ Now I just don’t look at you and see how you dance, but technically how you dance.

Are you just having fun? Do you know what you’re doing? Are you able to communicate that to people and teach that? I don’t want to say you look at the person as less, but you are way more critical of what they’re doing and if they haven’t taken that into account, then that can be a turnoff for me, just like if I was to suddenly promote myself as a Salsa DJ. I mean I’ve been in this thing for 15-16 years, but I know that I am not a DJ. If I tell people I’m a DJ, the DJs I respect are going to hold me to the flame. If you’re a DJ, can you handle this situation? Can you handle that situation? And I realize, no I can’t handle that situation so why am I calling myself a DJ?

So it’s the same thing with being a promoter. I’m much more of a dancer than I am a promoter because when I see folks actually promoting, I think, ‘I should be doing that.’ They’re the ones handing out flyers and talking to people, pushing people and just constantly promoting, and promoting and promoting. That’s the job of a promoter and so on. Each time you want to wear a new hat, you want to make sure you’re willing to go through what it takes to be that, or else you’re not being fair to yourself.

AD: So sometimes you have dancers who say, ‘I want to teach. I want to start a school. I want to host my own event.’ The short version of it all is that there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes when you transition from social dancing to the promoting, and the event organizing.

SGB: Every single one of those aspects is a very separate job, and you don’t need to be the do all person. If you’re just good at one particular thing, that’s going to rise. If I try to do everything and say, ‘Oh I can teach. I can promote. I can DJ. I can create flyers. I make my own t-shirts and I can bake cookies,’ then it’s like, okay which one of these things are you really going to do? If you’re average at everything and not doing one thing well, then you’re just that; average. You want to be great at something.

AD: So now Shaka, talk about the Capital Congress.

SGB: We started it in 2005 and it came out of a house party we used to do back in 2002 and 2003. We had a big apartment, my friend Dupree and I, with wood floors, and we said, ‘Why don’t we do a house party?’ I was much more of a promoter then because I would send out these long emails. They were funny and they were dramatic. It was just me trying to get people to come to the party. We must have done about six of these parties and we had people flying in from Chicago, coming from North Carolina, coming in from New York, just for these house parties. And so a promoter, my buddy the late David Melendez saw what I was doing with these parties and said that he wanted to do a Salsa Congress in DC. And so I told him, ‘I’m not a promoter,’ and he said, ‘No just do what you normally do,’ and that’s what we did for the Salsa Congress.

That started in 2005, and David passed away in 2007 and I continued doing the event since then. First when I moved out to Portugal and to Miami, it was like a homecoming. For me each year I was like, okay I’m coming back and doing this event which is an opportunity for everyone to be under one roof and of all different skill levels, and all different dance types, and to have access and to be able to learn from the best instructors in the world because they’re all there, and they’re available to interact. I think it’s like you mentioned, it’s important for the instructors to be available so a beginner can come up to them and have the same chance to get a dance as the most advanced dancer. Also the best instructors I know like teaching beginning classes because sometimes we think that the best instructors are going to be teaching the advanced classes.

Sometimes as an advanced dancer, you know how to get the concepts a person is trying to teach whether they’re teaching it well or not. But it’s to the beginner dancers whom you say, ‘Okay let me show you the most important aspects of what you’re doing,’ and getting that guidance from one of the top five dancers in the world, who will say, ‘Let me show you guys two things that if you get these, you’ll be able expand yourselves and take your dance to new level,’ instead of saying, ‘Oh these are the beginners. Let anybody teach them. All we’re going to do is walk back and forth and do right turns.’

There are so many ways you can grow a scene by having the right people – by having that right fertilizer for it. For me that’s what the Congress is. I know it goes well when I can put everybody in the room and just leave and know that folks are going to have a good time and that there’s not going to be any weird drama. There’s not going to be people turning down other people. That to me is the joy of the event. That’s the best part.

AD: So a Congress (in the dance context) is essentially a weekend of: dance workshops, shows-.

SGB: It’s workshops, parties, performances – and you know it’s a Latin dance experience.

AD: And it looks like you guys have expanded it to incorporate: Bachata, Zouk, and Kizomba.

SGB: Well it’s the same thing; I don’t want just steak. I want the steak, the mashed potatoes, and the vegetables. I want everything to come together at the middle of the pot. My focus is making sure Salsa doesn’t end up as the back burner-type thing. I live in Miami and outside of my window, they have the Ultra Music Festival. It’s hundreds of thousands of people all in one place, and as an event organizer, I think to myself, ‘Oh it would be great to have something like that,’ but as a Salsero I think okay there aren’t that many Salseros, and if I had that many people, I would not be able to cater to what it is that I love. I would not be able to have just David Gonzalez, Hector Martinez and Frankie Morales that I can just text and talk to on Facebook and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’re putting this kind of sound together and we’re going to do the old Tito Puento version of this with him playing this,’ and knowing that’s an experience unlike any other.

There aren’t hundreds of thousands of people who will come for that, and I don’t care about that. I want to have that two thousand people come together and have that experience of seeing the New Swing Sextet, and seeing Terry and Cécile. One of the biggest joys for me last year was that I did my first performance to a New Swing Sextet song, and to have the New Swing Sextet last year at my congress say, ‘Hey I want to dedicate this song to Shaka,’ and I said, ‘What?’, and they played that song and I was able to dance to it. That for me is the magic of the event and the most important thing is saying, ‘This is Salsa. This is Latin music.’ The other stuff, I can get that anywhere.

AD: Okay Shaka I’ve got three more questions. Running a congress, what has it taught you?

SGB: In terms of organizing a congress? – finding people who are much better at their jobs than I am. I’ve also learned to hire the best people to: manage the dance floors, the sound, the installation, and manage the DJs. Each one of those tasks, I would tell myself, ‘Oh yeah I can do that task,’ but having to do all of those tasks is overwhelming and I learned that each time I find the right person that I can delegate to, then I find that life becomes so much more – Well maybe you even get a chance to dance at your own event. So I’ve learned that you go professional for as much as you can. If you do anything halfway, then you get halfway results.

AD: The last two questions are related to performances. So the original performance you did with Psyon Mauricio Scott; the famous two man routine, is that available anywhere? Is it on YouTube? Or is it locked away in a vault somewhere?

SGB: If you find it let me know (laughing). I have some halfway versions of it but – this was before YouTube even existed. I think I have one version somewhere, but I would like to see it so that I can go and re-learn it and do it somewhere. We danced to “El Presidente Dante” by Frankie Dante Y Su Orquesta Flamboyan. I first heard that song when DJ Bruno played it at Clarendon Grill. But in terms of performances, that is important to me for people to know what song we’re performing to, and who did it and what version, because you have a lot of folks who just start doing it without knowing what they’re doing and why. So we push that on our teams and say, ‘You guys need to know the music we’re dancing to,’ because one of the most embarrassing things for me is to have a dancer on my team who doesn’t know the song we’re dancing to.

AD: The last question; the five man musical chairs routine you did at the Flava Invasion with Pyson Mauricio Scott, Gordon Neil, Sekou McMiller and Leon Rose, is it true you guys put that together in 10 minutes? One of them told me that.

SGB: That routine, we had no idea what we were doing for that routine (laughing). Gordon said he wanted us to do a routine, and we got together in the middle of the Flava Invasion, and we went over to Gordon’s house. He said, ‘I’m thinking we’ll use this song’ (The Hustler by Willie Colon). We counted out the eight counts in the song and realized there were five sections that we could use. And then the chorus so to speak – that horn riff that comes in, we said, ‘Okay that repeats, so we can all do the same thing for that chorus, and then in between, each person will just free-style.’ And then we decided that when we brought each person up, we’d just rotate the chairs. So we did that, and we kind of just listened to it, said okay that works, and then we all left. We had a specific cut of the song we were going to use, so right before we’re about walk onto the stage, Gordon says to me, ‘Oh we’re going to use the whole song,’ and I said, ‘What?’

So we’re all up there (laughing), and if you see us, we’re all counting the song throughout the chorus and looking at each other. Our plan was that we would stomp so that the other person would know that they were cued up. So you see us all just standing there – you might even see our lips moving, and then at one point in time we stomp, and if the person was off on the stomp, then they would know, because everyone else was stomping. You’d say, ‘Oh this is where we are so now it’s my turn to go out there.’That was a lot of fun in terms of how random and spontaneous it was. We all said, ‘We have to make it through this song.’

AD: Okay, because the end result was brilliant, especially when you did that flip (laughing).

SGB: Oh god. That flip – I can tell you why I did that flip, because I was thinking, ‘I can do a backflip,’ when it was my turn to go up, but Leon went before me, and Leon did a backflip and then I thought, ‘Okay now I have to come up with something else now,’ At the same time I’m counting and stomping and trying to remember when I have to go up, so I said, ‘Okay I’ll do a front flip.’ So I did a front flip and you might notice that I didn’t land on my feet. I landed on my back.

So I do the front flip, land on my back, and then I kept dancing and my back was killing me, and as I walked off of the stage, I’m texting my chiropractor (laughing) and saying, ‘Okay I’ve got to see you on Monday.’ But yes I thought I was going to break my back out there, and there was something that happened with Gordon – he was doing his free-style, and he grabbed his foot as he was spinning around, and afterwards I asked him, ‘Did you just grab your boot?,’ to which he said, ‘I was feeling it (laughing).’ That was the fun of the Flava Invasion that year. There’s a story behind everything if you get to watch that show again.

AD: Yes when I saw it, I was trying to show it to everyone and telling everyone how great it was.

Well Shaka thank you again for this amazing interview. We covered a lot. Thanks for helping me get through graduate school, your teaching and your inspiration, and even for sharing some music files here and there over the years. I look forward to seeing you and everyone else at the Capital Congress this year in June.

SGB: Okay thank you Anwar. I loved being a part of this, and I’ll see you at the Congress.

To learn about the stellar schedule of workshops, and performances Shaka Gonzalez Brown and his team have put together, visit the Capital Congress website.

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