Two Questions that Guided My Journey from Poverty to Yale

I will always be grateful for my mother, who raised my little brother and me without a man in the house, who taught us to value our education despite never finishing elementary school herself, and who never let being paralyzed stop her from caring for her two sons. My mother made living on food stamps and growing up in one of poorest and crime-ridden communities in Atlanta a bit more bearable.

Knowing the circumstances of my upbringing, no one would have predicted when I was born that, two months from now, I would be graduating from Yale with a 3.9 GPA with no debt.

My journey from living in poverty to graduating from Yale didn’t require me to be a genius or to have access to anything others didn’t. My journey began each morning by asking myself two questions anyone else could.

What Even Poverty Could Not Take Away from You

When I walked the halls of my high school, I saw pregnant girls barely 16 bragging about their delivery dates and young men bragging about how many classes they had skipped or the easy money they made the night before. These weren’t the types of lives I wanted for my mother, my brother, or myself.

As I woke up every morning, I would ask myself two questions:

1.     What kind of life do I want for myself?

Asking myself this reminded me of my goal to graduate at the top of my high school class, attend a top university, and one day give my mother and brother a better life. My answer gave me a purpose to want to wake up every morning despite the environment I was living in. As the famous psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, wrote, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

2.     Is what I’m doing today going to get my closer to the life I want? If not, why am I doing it?

Asking this reminded me to keep on my path I set for myself when the temptation to not was all around me. Even poverty could not take away my power to wake up every morning and decide what I wanted to do with my day. Asking these two questions every morning, even if I woke up with no electricity, motivated me to avoid the choices I saw others made around me while working towards building the life I wanted.

Pain is temporary, regret is forever 

Every day, these two questions pushed me to study a bit more for the SAT when others were getting into bed, to wake up and work on my admissions essays when others were still asleep, and to apply for one more scholarship despite already being rejected by over 180 others.

On the days I felt stuck, when my SAT scores showed no improvement, when my essays were trashed, and scholarship foundations would continue to reject me, those two questions reminded me to keep going on my path. Those two questions reminded me that my pain and agony were temporary, but if I quit, I would live with regret forever. Instead of stopping, each day I got closer and closer to my goal.

Eventually, studying while my friends were at the movies, waking up while my peers were still in bed, and knowing the type of person I wanted to be while others didn’t, paid off. In March of 2011, I was accepted to Yale and Harvard and earned scholarships to graduate debt-free from both.

You might not have the money, the social connections, or the physical ability today to take 100 steps every day to creating the life you want, but just the fact that you are reading this right now means that you have the power to take at least one. And that is one step closer than you were yesterday.

What type of life do you want for yourself? And the things you’re about to do today are they getting you closer to that life? If not, why are you doing them?


Davis (@IamDavisNguyen) graduated from Yale University in 2015 and now works for Bain & Company. When he’s not helping CEOs transform their companies, he uses his experience to give people the tools to build better personal lives for themselves and their families such as passing on the success secrets he learned during his time at Yale.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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