Seven Life Lessons from ‘Growing Up Poor’ Stories-The Advantages of Poverty

This is based on the story of a couple of people who had grown up in a poor family in India. Period — 1980s and 1990s.


I was 4 years old and my brother was around 2 years old. We were getting used to the habit of managing hunger. It was a challenge to get food for more than once in a day. I remember going to bed without food on some of the nights. Whenever we get food, it used to be plain rice and some Dhal devoid of any vegetables, masala. A very plain tasteless food and not easy to eat.


I was around 4 years old. One day, while having dinner, my parents were arguing over something. Suddenly my father got angry and kicked the vessels kept in front of him(Oh, Yes, Indians love to sit on the floor and eat the food). Rice, Dhal flew away and fell on the floor(It was sad to see food being wasted considering the situation we were in). I got frightened. My father rarely shows anger. That day arguments turned uglier. The effect lasted for four to five months. I had seen arguments getting uglier in our neighbor’s house, as my friend’s father was a drunkard. It was a violent neighborhood at times.

The way to control emotional bursts is through Empathy for others and Self-reflectiveness during those turbulent emotions. Emotional bursts do not happen due to a single incident. It builds up over a period of time towards somebody.

If we keep thinking about those incidents/problems, the emotions become intense and affect our life’s stability. It was important to forget, forgive and move on. Learn to be non-reactive, develop empathy and suspend judgments at those moments.


“Whatever they give, you should not take and eat” — Before visiting any home, my mother would warn us with those words. Though poor, our mother wanted us to be self-reliant, have self-respect and live a dignified life as much as possible. Being starved most of the time, it would be natural for any child to grab food as soon as somebody offers them. As we were afraid of our mother, we restrained ourselves from taking food or water from other’s homes, whenever we visit them.


A child would be emotionally upset if he or she had to constantly worry how his or her mother was going to pay house rent, provisional store expenses, school fees. It was painful to see neighboring shop owners refusing to provide rice, vegetables or cereals when mother go and request them. Yes, we should not blame them, as they also need to take care of their children’s future.
Continuous emotional upsets would affect the thinking ability and cripple the capacity of learning. The future would appear bleak most of the time.

“Be the first” in all tests and exams in your class.

Instead of focusing on many directions/goals, I had a simple task to meet my goal — Take books and keep reading. Put efforts, work hard and do not think whether you have the talent or not.


Sadness is one of the basic human emotions and is usually triggered by a difficult, hurtful, challenging situation. Sadness lingers for a long time even though the experience and corresponding emotional hurt have faded. Sadness would sap our energy, close down our interests in many things. I had seen how persistent sadness had drowned some of our neighbours into depression — few of them tried alcoholism — further fell into the trap and ruined their lives. After witnessing the negative effects of gambling and alcohol, I promised myself not to try them at any time.

  • SOCIALISING — Another factor to avoid depression — friends. In childhood, every day we had friends coming home after school. We generally walk together as a gang to school and walk back again as a gang. Roamed around in markets as a group — the guys always cracked jokes, teased each other every time in a creative way interlinking with some filmy dialogues, did mimicry, sang localised songs, told stories from films, and it was fun forever. Spending time with friends had the potential to even turn an introvert into an extrovert. Generally, when a person is sad, he would like to isolate himself and remain lonely for some time, to self-reflect. Loneliness and Isolation may lead to depression. I was lucky that socialization with friends helped me to avoid that depression. We never had TV, Radio, listening to music or any other programmes to distract our mind. Unless you distract your mind from the sadness, it would be tough to focus on studies. Friends became a source of your distraction from sadness.
  • SMALL WINS — I learned a lot from some of my friends — When they were playing cricket — though they had lost the match, they were happy. The reason might be about the boundary they hit or the runs they scored or the one important wicket they took by clean bowling the batsman. In one of the matches, one of my friends bowled only one good ball out of 3 overs, which clean bowled a batsman — but he cherished that wicket, was on cloud 9 for the next whole week. They applied the same mindset to other instances in life. They were average in studies. If they received test results of total average around 45%, instead of feeling sad, they would feel happier. They focused on the positives than the one negative. This character is contagious and I was happy to acquire those skills unconsciously.
  • BEING OCCUPIED — As we were growing up, I and my brother did part-time jobs after school hours, so that we could share some of our daily expenses and support the mother in repaying the debts. Sometimes, we would bring some contract work to home. Our neighborhood kids would help us in finishing those contract work. We were occupied on some of the Saturdays and Sundays too with some contract work. Where was the time to feel sad, if you were occupied physically and mentally most of the time?
  • HELPING OTHERS — Growing up in the 80s and the 90s environment — it was your duty to take care of old people in your neighborhoods. Most of us had daily routine work to help them — Example- we had to bring cow milk, vegetables, provisional items daily for senior citizens, from a faraway place. It was part of our lives to take care of older neighbors. We used to teach subjects to our friends, neighborhood kids and we were a kind of sought-after people for education in the neighborhood. If you are spending more hours than anybody in studying, you would obviously be better than others who had not spent that much time. You would feel happier, emotionally better when you see a progress in the life of people whom you have helped. When people comment on your activities, appreciate your help — it increases your confidence further. These things had helped us to keep the sadness away and forget them.


What would you do if you or your friends could not afford toys, cricket bats, balls?

  • We had used our Rubber Flip-Flops(Slippers) as cricket bats. Crumbled paper tied with a rubber band was used to be cricket balls. The more the dense we pack, we could pitch the ball up. Sometimes a polyethylene cover is wrapped around the crumpled paper to avoid the wear, get longer life and help in playing over a wet surface. (Oh, we Indians love Jugaad innovation).
  • Our houses were very small — We played cricket sitting on the floor inside our house, as there was limited space to move around. We had used our geometry box as a bat and a notebook as stumps. We made our own rules.
  • We had played tennis inside those small homes using notebook’s hardcover as a bat, ball being crumbled paper tied with a rubber band and stools being the net.
  • We learned to survive and study without buying books.
  • I used to play one man cricket using a small ball made up of paper and the wall being the batsman.
  • Tender-Coconut shells used to be the football for us during our school days.

A broken toy may constrain your thoughts, but if you never had a toy- you were completely free to explore.

Somehow we found the lack of resources was never a constraint at that time. Being in a poor environment in the 80s and 90s — you had more friends near your home — we experienced a healthier social life — We constantly interacted with other kids in making those toys — it further quickened the development of creativity, communication, curiosity, and social interaction. Group interaction, group-play with our neighboring friends had exposed us to multiple perspectives for a problem — We could see objects, behaviors, situations from other’s perspective.


Empathy — The ability to understand and share the feelings of others. The more we are aware of our emotional feelings, the more skilled we are at reading the emotions of others. A recent study says that poor people are better at Empathy. Social struggles had built the caring attitude in the minds of poor people. Without relationships, you cannot survive in the violent neighborhood and Empathy builds those relationships.


We are all unique. Everyone’s childhood life is unique than anybody else. All of us can write a nice book about our own life, which could be an example for others. Every one of us will have a lot of little stories, moments of their life, which could teach others. There is no need to look at others for motivation. We need to just look inside of us and look back at our own past life to understand our strengths, uniqueness, and use them to move our life and other’s life forward.

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at or

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