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Poverty Is Good For One Thing

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It was the Athenian statesman, Pericles, who would say that there was no shame in poverty. Only in not doing something about it. The Stoics would probably agree, though they might word it differently. They’d say, there’s no shame in poverty, only in not doing something with it. Seneca famously said that poverty was good for at least one thing: It was an opportunity to practice forbearance and discipline. It was a chance to show you would not be crushed by fate.

If we think back to the times in our life when we had the least money, chances are this was also the time when we were the most disciplined, when we had our wants most under control. Fewer options meant less temptations, less distractions. We worked hard because we had to. We put up with inconveniences stoically because we had to. But as we become successful, these bumpers disappear. Being poor tests us, but also protects us.

It was wealth, Seneca observed, that challenges the philosopher just as much, if not more, than poverty. When one has the opportunity to indulge themselves, suddenly more temptations appear. Carried on paper money, alongside the bacteria and traces of cocaine, is self-importance, ego, and greed. There was an opportunity in wealth he said, an opportunity “for being moderate, for being hard-working, for being orderly, and for greatness.”

As you strive to improve and succeed, remember that. That money won’t put you on easy street—at least not philosophically. And so, in the meantime, enjoy the few benefits that go along with having little. Because you’ll miss them when they’re gone.

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