I wake up to pee, limbo-ing because the wall above my toilet is low and sloped at 45 degrees. The flushed water flows into an open sewer 10 feet beneath my window, and above that is a chicken pen ruled by Ricardo the Relentless Rooster. Suddenly, Ricky’s ritual, 4:00 am cock-a-doodle-doo shakes me from my sleep. I struggle to shut my eyes while I lay on my mattress on the floor in an apartment so devoid of furniture that it could be a MOMA exhibition. Nodding off again, I blissfully dream of my cocky, feathery neighbor as breaded, fried, and cohabitating on a plate with his new neighbors mashed potatoes and gravy. A satanic, KFC Colonel cackles malevolently in the distance.
With morning sun blasting through my curtain-less window, I realize there’s nothing to eat for breakfast. A few minutes later at the market, grocery shopping for me has become a precise calculation of caloric density per Brazilian real. I get to the register, and the cashier’s swipe of my debit card is like a sharp slit to my wrist. Walking out with plastic bags cutting off circulation to my fingers, it’d be much easier to catch a bus, but climbing the vertiginous favela is cheaper than a gym membership.
Back at home, I contemplate going out at night, but why should I punish myself? Every club’s cover fee converts into a debt issued by my future self to my present self. The terms state I may only pay in installments of savings from eating cheaper meals.
I am broke.
And it’s the best thing I can be right now.
I don’t have a smartphone, a washing machine, a bed, a TV, curtains, or even a mirror. I don’t need any of these. I haven’t sworn them off forever, but my sabbatical from “essential” material possessions forces me to value and develop my most fulfilling personal relationships. I’ve found I have more fun resourcefully cooking a two-dollar meal with a friend than I do at a fancy restaurant.
Still, “broke” and “poor” are not synonyms. The latter is more permanent, more dangerous. Poverty means falling with no safety net to catch you before you hit the rock-solid ground of hunger, sickness, and vulnerability. Yet, if I were sick or helpless, I could depend on my family, friends, and government to assist me, but none are supporting me now. I’m incredibly fortunate that my white, male, Beverly Hills privilege will prevent me from ever knowing poverty.
Furthermore, as someone aspiring to build businesses that eradicate poverty while making profits, being broke is the true MBA. After all, good businesses intimately understand their beneficiaries. Good businesses immerse themselves in their customers, employees, and partners’ problems. Then, they create solutions to these problems, figuring out how to make money from them along the way. Empathy can’t be taught from a textbook—it requires genuine human interaction.
I’m never going to feel what it’s like to go to a deteriorating school and not be able to afford medicine. But, being broke forces me to smell the favela’s stench of raw sewage, sweat in the heat when the power goes out, and be stranded when there are no buses home late at night. Consequently, I’m a better mediator between my hosts and guests when the government decides the favelas can go without water for a few days.
I’m not ashamed to want to be very rich, but when I am, I hope being broke now makes me compassionate and modest in my future wealth.