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What I learnt from my privileged friends in Uni

01

One lifetime ago, I had the privilege of studying overseas in Melbourne.

While it did help me get a degree, the truth is, the real education was the opportunity to observe society through a different lens.

For one, I hung out with very different people there – a lot of my friends there were from well-to-do families not just from Singapore, but from other Southeast Asian countries.

Now, I’m fully aware that there are wealthier kids out there who study in the UK and US, but for a guy who never went to educational institutions that were even remotely elite, this was a real eye opener.

Looking back, I think this was one of the experiences that awakened me to class differences and income disparity.

As you already know, the privileges bestowed when you come from a well-to-do family is huge. Often we focus on just the superficial side of things – nice clothes, bags, meals, accessories, cars because they’re more obvious.

I present some less apparent findings in this article.

Wealth can definitely buy learning experiences – even those out of uni

02When we graduated in 2013, I went straight to work.

Plenty of my friends either took a gap year or went on to start a business.

Now, I know I’ve expressed that most Singaporeans should strongly reconsider a gap year, and this is why.

Gap years, while having the potential for huge wealth of learning experiences, are also huge in terms of opportunity cost. If your parents fought tooth and nail to send you to uni, a gap year could be financially crippling.

Similarly, you can learn so much from running your own business. But you can also lose a lot from a failed venture.

These are ‘tuition lessons’ that wealth can afford you outside academia. And they are often expensive.

The next time someone says “taking a gap year is a wonderful experience that is totally worth the money” or “everyone should start a business in their 20s”, understand that it might not apply to you.

Wealth makes being sociable and assertive easier

03Whilst the average Singaporean might shy away from conversation, I’ve found my friends more willing to engage in socialising, and thus appear more friendly and approachable.

The implication is that this also exposes them to more opportunity – even when they previously had no existing relationship with the other party.

I first observed this when a friend of mine just asked strangers if he could get onto their guestlist at a club. It usually worked.

The thought was pretty audacious to me at that time, but after trying it out myself, I can say you’ll be surprised at what happens when you just ask people for things – whether it’s internships, opportunities, expensive stuff you might otherwise need to buy etc.

Indeed, sometimes all we need to do is ask. Ask and you will receive, the saying goes.

Of course, in this aspect, there are hidden advantages that wealthy kids have that we regular folk don’t.

Granted, there are many non-financial factors that result in better social skills and assertiveness.

But I think wealth helps.

Why?

They can afford to dress presentably and feel more confident, for instance. They can code switch to the ‘right’ accent to suit different social situations. Their parents and schools have also likely trained them in the art of small talk. “

These advantages might seem small, but they all add to one’s social capital.

That said, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn what works for them and put it into action.

Wealth removes the barriers of enterprise04

Now, this is something I observed with my friends whose parents ran businesses (as opposed to being well paid salarymen (like doctors, etc). They were extremely enterprising.

When people were going crazy over macarons back in 2011, one found a way to bake them en masse and brand them to sell for profit.

When power balance bands were insanely popular (despite being bullshit), I knew a guy who bought them in bulk, and then proceeded to sell them at a pretty profit.

Both of them clearly didn’t see the appeal of macarons and power bands – the guy who sold the power bands clearly knew they were just placebo.

Witnessing this really made me wonder: how often do we make money for the wealthy (at our own detriment) because we wanted to follow some silly trend or FOMO?

I read this article last year about how spending from middle-class Singaporeans actually grew faster than their wealthier counterparts, and it really hit home.

If the rich aren’t spending that much money, why are so middle income Singaporeans increasing our spending at a faster rate than them?

(Once again, I have to disclaim this is also a matter of privilege. They realised the demand, and their wealth allowed them to take full advantage of the situation. In contrast, someone with a poorer background might have business ideas, but not the means to execute their ambitions.)

The importance of spending within your means

05Hanging out with wealthy kids eventually made me think I was one of them.

I am ashamed to say I rented apartments I couldn’t afford, ate overpriced food at cafes and generally tried to keep up with the Joneses. You can’t live the upper middle class life without upper middle class income.

This didn’t work out well for me, as lots of the said Joneses had millionaire businesspeople parents. I had known for a long time that I was spending beyond my means, but looking at my bank account gave me a reality check – I took up a job in the last semester and started freelancing to offset my costs.

I think this made me realise that it’s extremely easy for someone to get caught up in peer pressure, especially if they’re in an environment where high spending is the norm.

Many times, I think it was a matter of ego – I did not want to believe that I was somehow inferior because I could not afford the things my friends did.

This was hard, because ego is an incredible difficult thing to overcome.

The myth of the spoilt brat (and other stupid shit us poor people fabricate)

06After listening to years of talk about elitist schools and following obnoxious IG accounts, I had always assumed all rich kids to be spoiled brats.

Definitely, there are shitty rich people out there whom the qualities I’ve mentioned in this article don’t apply to. Not even close.

But on the flipside, I found most of my friends (despite their family’s wealth) to be decent people – hard-workers, critical thinkers and opportunists.

They had great attitudes and the means to get shit done. Exactly the sort of people you expect to be successful in life.

Why did I have these unfair preconceived notions in my mind? Personally, I think this is a greater symptom of the poverty mindset that we often (unknowingly) have.

As someone who didn’t grow up in a particularly well-to-do family, my elders often villainised the rich, perhaps out of a deep-seated inferiority complex.

“Rich kids are all spoilt brats.”

That’s false. Upbringing is far more important than wealth when determining character.

Rich people got a lot of money and are not happy.

Again. Untrue, it’s far easy to be happier when you’re wealthy vs struggling to make ends meet.

“Rich people are rich only because they steal from the poor.”

False. That’s zero sum thinking.

If you think about it, we conjure up these laughable stereotypes to comfort ourselves of what we perceive as an inability to change our circumstances. The older you become, the more tragic it is.

And if you keep thinking this way, the rich are just going to get on with life while you stagnate while angrily shaking your fist.

How to get over this chip on your shoulder? I’ve found it useful to think of it this way:

07At the core of things, people are essentially the same.

But what separates a wealthy kid from you is that somewhere along the way, one of their ancestors built up an advantage for them.

If your family doesn’t have that advantage, it now falls on your shoulders to create that advantage. There’s no other way.

As you’ve hopefully gleaned from this article, wealthy people already have so many advantages. Make no mistake – they can afford to be lazy, arrogant, spoilt, and entitled. They are one epiphany away from turning their lives around .

We on the other hand, can’t.

If you want to get ahead, the last thing you need is a shitty mindset.

Stay woke, salaryman.

PS: When you’re rich, it’s much easier to be generous, says 2019’s Parasite. Instead of resenting the rich for that, why not let us strive to be rich, then?

Illustrations by Lim Hui Shan.

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11 replies to “What I learnt from my privileged friends in Uni

  1. Hi, I don’t know much about systemic ______ (I don’t know the right term) and all of that but I can see the point of your article here. The focus is on me as a person changing my mindset and attitude. Maybe even habits. I think it’s called reframing your mind or something like that. Yes, there are bigger issues at hand (like what the comments on Instagram said. Which makes sense. They are right.) but what can I do that is within my circle of control and actions. And that is: reframing my mindset. After all, you’re the woke salaryman, the average Joe who is like me. And hopefully many other salarymen out there. This website is for easy read but harsh truths. To be relatable to the general mass who perhaps don’t know much. It’s not an opinion piece for policymaking, a newspaper article, people who do their research on social issues and injustices, etc etc. It’s just a light read with humour and a dose of reality check to unwind at the end of the day. Thank you for this new article! (:

  2. This article says the truth we dont want to hear, but its the truth that we all need. Thank you for articulating it so well.

  3. “When you’re rich, it’s much easier to be generous, says 2019’s Parasite. Instead of resenting the rich for that, why not let us strive to be rich, then?” Strive to be rich? Why is that your takeaway from the movie lol

    1. Because stories can be interpreted in different ways, and it’s okay to do so. A more precise way of putting it might be that we should strive to create value so that we can also become wealthy in the ways that we find fulfilling.

    2. Parasite’s poor family did strive to be rich. It was, in fact, one half the tragedy (in the Greek sense) of the story – the other being their starting condition in poverty. They strove hard but sometimes opportunities for some people are so limited that even a great amount of hard work results in little.

      I’m sure people have already talk about systemic issues elsewhere, and perhaps this website (which I find excellent) is geared towards individual empowerment and focuses on that.

      That’s fine, but outside of that, it’s still important to devote some energy towards fixing systemic limitations on opportunities. A society where more opportunities are available to everyone ends up more competitive and productive – something that can benefit us all.

      1. Agreed. Though I think it’s also important to note that focusing on individual growth first so that we have the resources and influence to fix systemic issues more effectively is also a legitimate plan of action

  4. “Rich people are rich only because they steal from the poor.” Why are you dismissing this as mere zero-sum thinking? Capitalism is a zero-sum game. The reason Bezos is the richest man on earth is because he’s exploited his people.

    1. I’m not sure about capitalism but our epiphany, and what we are encouraging, deals with ignoring hierarchal comparisons (which is a zero sum game because for you to be on top, someone has to be below and vice versa) and to get on with VALUE CREATION and the fulfilment of your personal life goals.

      Being productive and creating value is a positive sum game. If I spend time after my 9-5 job developing an innovative solution to a problem, I might be able to find investors, take it to market, create jobs and solve that problem at scale. This is all positive. No one loses out in this game of value-creation.

  5. Hi, Woke Salaryman.

    Thanks for such a insightful content here and how there are a lot of things about rich people stereotypes we need to address. It is also good to see how you make the point of spending within the mean clearly.

    However, I have some issue with some of the way you address the stereotypes. Yes, upbringing is important than wealth but it can be said that wealth affects upbringing. I am sure you might see this when parents who have been rich all their lives (some not all) not only spoiled their children and make them oblivious to money saving, good character training etc.

    Additionally, I do agree that the notion that it is wrong to say rich people steal from the poor. Yet, it doesn’t help when schools award scholarships to rich kids despite the purpose of a scholarship being to provide funding for the achievers (some providers even makes it clear that they want achievers below a certain income level) and students who really needs them. Don’t you think that at least from this little example shows how the “rich steals from the poor” stereotype continues to be a part people’s mindset? (Not forgetting corruption but that’s a totally separate story).

    As you said, the last thing you want going forward is a shitty mindset (goes both ways to the rich and poor).

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