The Best Teachers are Hardships That Don't Kill You

Tommy Leung wrote this on May 23, 2018
4 minute read

I got my first credit card at age 17. It’s a funny story.

This was a time before cellphones. Or at least before I had a cellphone.

A call came into the landline at home. I answered it and it was for me.

There was a woman on the other end. She had an accent. Maybe Indian. I didn’t fully understand everything she was saying.

But she was peddling a credit card.

I still remember the feeling I had after the call. It was like a whirlwind came through and before I knew what happened there was a credit card with an $800 limit to my name.

I’m not sure I even knew I got a card until it came in the mail a couple weeks later and I put two and two together.

Now I was a 17 year old with $800 that I couldn’t afford to spend.

I proceeded to max it out and then signed up for more credit cards. In the end I had a wallet full and over $10,000 of debt.

I was perhaps 19 or 20 at this time.

I also went to college and paid for it with student loans. By the time I graduated I had about $90,000 in debt from credit cards and student loans.

And I couldn’t afford the payments.

I was able to defer student loans and I did that. Credit cards just snowballed. You can’t make progress paying the minimum.

The magic of compounding becomes the evil of compounding.

Some of my credit cards were so delinquent that they were closed. Debt collectors called.

Life from 21 to 24 were hard but transformative.

That was the time when I lived through the worst of the financial storm and started coming out the other side.

I found a way to pay off all the credit cards and debt collectors. I became serious about budgeting. About understanding where my money went. I read Dave Ramsey and others.

I didn’t move back home. I didn’t tell anyone about it. It was embarrassing.

There was no one to help me. And that might have made all the difference.

“When you go through really hard times, you really figure out who you are, how you respond to things, and how things affect you.”

- Lauren Alaina

Some lessons can only be learned the hard way. I had to learn this the hard way.

This was also the time I stopped partying late into the night, became more disciplined with my workouts, and kept my apartment clean.

The trajectory of my life changed drastically from this point.

The one thing I had through this turbulent time was my discipline to work hard. I had a job. It didn’t pay great but I would always show up and work as hard as anyone.

That was my rock.

And I started rebuilding from there. It started with basic personal finance. Then basic personal health. And each new good habit compounded itself over time.

The evil of compounding returned to being the magic of compounding.

Comparing where I was and where I could have gone to where I am now is almost unbelievable.

I couldn’t have imagined it at the time.

There was a time when I could barely afford to eat and my bank account was dollars from being overdraft. Again.

Now I have to figure out how to invest and risk my money for the best returns.

I got here with a little luck but I didn’t win the lottery or magically come into a million dollars.

I took it one day at a time. Said yes to as many opportunities as I could. Said no to others. Kept a close eye on spending. Saved money. Read books. And leaned into hard work more often than shied away from it.

And the fact that no one bailed me out when I was at my lowest played a big role.

One reason I made it through were the words of wisdom I heard or read from people like Will Smith, Christopher Reeves, Robert Kiyosaki, Seth Godin, and many others.

A metaphor for work ethic described by Will Smith resonated with me the first time I heard it. It is why I remember it to this day.

He attributes a lot of his success to his work ethic. The metaphor was this: imagine the two of us getting on a treadmill. The outcome will be one of two things. Either you get off first or I die.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

“I’m always asked, ‘What’s the secret to success?’ But there are no secrets. Be humble. Be hungry. And always be the hardest worker in the room.”

- Dwayne Johnson