How to Think Like an Immigrant To Get Ahead of The Curve

DeathtoStock_NotStock (Ed. Note: This post is dedicated to my amazing mother, Inna Kruman, who has endured tremendous hardships and sacrificed a great deal for her children's success - and still managed to "make it" in America despite staggering odds. I take my metaphoric hat off to her and thank her to no end. This is her story as much as it is mine.)

It is no secret that America's success is tied in many ways to the success of immigrants. Placed squarely in a system that rewards the hustle, many have succeeded - well beyond their wildest dreams back home.

Every successive wave of immigrants has brought its own inventiveness and chutzpah, language, culture and a way of thinking - and of doing things - in other words, its own mentality of immigrants.

Partly because of luck (ability to enter the U.S. and then to be protected by its Constitution, then the fact of living in a time when information flows so easily) and partly due to pluck (work ethic, knowing what you're working for, a challenger's mentality), new immigrants have been successful in so many spheres - yet more and more, with time.

Look at the founders of top startups, the top financiers, consultants, lawyers, politicians and musicians, academics. Increasing numbers of the most successful people in America were born abroad or here to parents born abroad - whether from India and China or Korea, Russia, Israel, Nigeria and France. The list goes on and on.

If we discount specifics of their origins and cultures, we can find the fuel, the fire, the *thing* (or things) that makes these people tick and break through barriers, time after time.

Being an immigrant myself - and yet, quite thoroughly American, at once - I've thought and read a lot about X-factors that all others - not just immigrants - can use to get ahead.

From what I've seen it isn't origin or nationality, religion, gender, even education level that can answer for this great effect.

Let's ask the questions that so many immigrants have answered for themselves in order to become successful here (and likewise elsewhere in the world):

1) Why did you come here, in the first place? What were you running from back home? Repression? Death? High taxes? Lack of opportunity?

The answer for the great majority of us - whether born elsewhere or in the U.S. - is some or all of the above. You're here because of opportunity, because of freedoms - reasons that are clear and stark. Streets may not quite be paved in gold here - and it's getting even harder just to "make it" - but it's still much better than alternatives.

When you're escaping from regimes that want to kill, repress you or just take away your chances to develop as a human and professional, you know exactly what you're working for and why. It could be to feed your family or to get an education and to do exactly what you want to do in life. It could be wanting just to be yourself, to make life better for your kids, to start a business or to make a differenceYou have a purpose and a mission and the energy to follow through.

Failure is very costly and you can't give up. Alternatives are very scary. Your family, your life depend on your success.

Lesson: A sense of urgency and limited alternatives are key to immigrant mentality. It means being traumatized by parents' worries, but it also means you'll give it everything you have to "make it." Figure out what your purpose and mission in life are and apply all your energy to pursuing them!

2) What kind of problems have you had to solve while growing up? Were you the head translator for the family? Chief earner? Troubleshooter? The family's guide to how "The System" works? Did you start working early, as a kid? Were you negotiating constantly because your funds were low? What did you have to sell to stay afloat (let's hope not organs)? What sort of hustle did you have to run?

When you have had to solve hard problems since your childhood, you're not daunted easily. Whether it's problems of logistics, lack of money, human conflicts or the other issues you'll inevitably face, you will break through or go around walls other find too high.

Lesson: Take on challenges you think are too hard. Push yourself out of your comfort zone with people, the job you do, the things you're willing to do to broaden your experiences (travel, take on internships in other fields). In short, take risks and don't follow the straight path (if you have the luxury of not breaking your bank or starving your family, in the process).

3) What motivated you when growing up - and what remains of that to motivate you 'til today? Was it a simple goal - to go to college - or to make more than your parents or the trappings of great wealth? How hungry were you growing up to be like all the "real Americans" - or otherwise, like rich, successful people where you came from? How hungry were you to escape your circumstances - poverty or lack of education or a lack of access? Are you an optimist by nature? Do you push forward because looking back is not an option?

Lesson: What drives you in childhood will generally drive you well into adulthood. If you weren't driven as a kid, find your passion, mission and purpose in life by learning from others, learning about yourself and trying different things (and taking calculated risks to do so). Once you know where you're going and why, you will be driven to succeed all the more.

4) What was your style of work in childhood? After you learned to put out fires through fast wits, how quickly did you learn to plan and save and manage people? What gets you through life as a kid may be either incredibly helpful as maturity or incredibly hurtful as delusion when you hit adulthood.

Lesson: If you were lazy as a kid, you were probably just coasting along on your intelligence alone. If you were a hard worker then, you always will be. A work ethic is something you can gain once you go through the difficult process of finding purpose in life, a mission and the means to achieve it.

Everyone has the energy and work ethic inside them to succeed. Intelligence (as opposed to, and in concert with "street smarts") can be gained in the process, at least enough thereof to be successful.

Street smarts is in many ways more valuable than intelligence, if you're doing anything that involves business and selling (and the great majority of professions and daily transactions today do just that, whether directly to customers or to bosses, employees, etc.) All of us have no choice but to Always Be Selling. 

5) How hungry are you always to be learning? Maybe your love of learning is inborn. Was it a hunger that you've always had or because your parents pushed it? Likely both. Because you're hungry to learn and get better and get up out of the metaphorical ditch where you grew up, you will outlast, outwit, out-learn - and most importantly, outwork - the other guy who didn't grow up with the same "stimulus." You'll feel like the underdog at least until you "make it" to where you want to be - and likely for the rest of your life, on some level.

Lesson: If you weren't born with that hunger, DEVELOP IT! Every person wants to succeed and be the best at something and has that capability deep inside. Develop a hunger by listening to, reading about and imitating others that have it. Fake it until you make it. Or better, work hard, stay hungry and achieve your potential (without worrying so much about opponents or those who've doubted you, etc.)

6) Did your parents invest everything in you, so your life can be better than theirs? You have to pay it back by taking care of them AND pay it forward to your kids. That means you feel the pressure and inherited neuroses. But yet, it also means you're grateful and will get somewhere - or else, you'll feel you have betrayed the sacrifices made for you.

Lesson: If others haven't invested so much in you (and of course, someone has invested in you along the way or you wouldn't be alive today), Invest In Yourself. Value your time and energy. Filter what goes in and out of your body (specifically your mouth) and mind. Resources and time are finite. Invest in yourself by always learning new things, taking care of yourself and by focusing your efforts on the most important people and goals in life.

7) Are you used to looking for loopholes or dealing with discrimination against you? Are you used to having to get around barriers set up to trip you and make you fail? Think Soviet Russia, Commie China, corrupt India.

Lesson: When faced with adversity, you learn that no barrier is too high, no system is too corrupt, no repression too strong to hold you back from achieving your goals. The chip on your shoulder trains you to move mountains by habit. When you have to do this in a (relatively more fair and just) system like the U.S., you will go that much farther and faster than those without that resilience.

In addition, when it comes to innovating and seeing things from a different angle and with different eyes, your ingenuity in getting around discrimination and the selective rule of law will help you a great deal to see connections between people and systems others can't. It's a great asset. To develop this, craft your career as a HYBRID. Work in different industries, constantly learn new things from other disciplines, meet new people from different backgrounds, write down your ideas constantly and find relationships between your ideas and others'.  

8) Were your earlier failures and hard knocks traumatic for you or your family? Have you had to risk a lot and failed and had to face the serious consequences? You've learned to take calculated risks, to think and plan things through very carefully, to make the best of very little time and money. This will help you "see around corners" and help you avoid and minimize mistakes in business and in life.

Lesson: If you were always careful to avoid risks, cultivate yourself to take calculated risks. There are times in life when you have to go for broke, but even if you do, you should always maintain safeguards to avoid losing everything in your life. If you were always a risk taker, cool your heels. In Russia, we say, the slower you go, the farther you'll get

9) Were you frustrated when young by others being unable to understand you or where you're coming from? Did you desperately want to be understood and liked? Then you likely learned how to speak clearly and get across just the message you wanted and nothing more and nothing less.

Lesson: Know your audience at all times and tailor your message accordingly to be understood. This applies equally to all people and all contexts. If you know how to communicate with people - both in speaking and in writing, plus non-verbal cues, you will be golden.

9) Did you have to learn to negotiate early, out of necessity? Negotiate cheaper prices, faster service, for fees to be taken off, to push forward and not be deterred by a-holes?

Lesson: Don't take limits others set before you as gospel. You can always negotiate - and get past those limits AND WIN! If you don't ask, the answer is always no. (And you'll be shocked how often the answer is yes). Even if you're shy, practice negotiating at a market for something small in large volumes.

10) Did you value experiences and people more than material things - because you had few material things, to begin with? Did you have to forgo spending money on entertainment or travel or a car or a house to save up to pay for college or to start a business or to feed your family? If so, you already know that experiences and people are more important than material things can ever be. Money certainly CAN buy many conveniences - including time - but it can't buy taste, happiness (beyond basic necessities and the comfort of not worrying constantly about finances), sincerity, true friendship, love or loyalty.

Lesson: Seek great experiences and surround yourself with great people in your life. Seek meaning, not happiness.

11) Did you have lots of nasty surprises growing up - whether financial, cultural, social, legal, etc.? Did you not fit in, in school? Did you look and sound different from other kids? Did you get harassed just for being who you are? Did you have to deal with sudden money shocks? A flooded house? A broken car? Well, then you know that you can't worry about things you can't control.

Lesson: Work on what you can control - how you speak, how you look, what you know, what people you associate with, what you eat and drink and listen to and look at.

Don't sweat bad weather, traffic, a-holes at your job or angry customers or when the IRS says "pay more taxes" and the like. Life is too short and stressful to be adding nonsense to your busy mind and schedule.

12) Were you taught early on that nothing is beneath you? Your family may have been something truly special back at home, but here, it is All Hands On Deck. 

Were you the one who got assigned the chores of dishes, trash, mowing the lawn, watering trees and plants, going for groceries, proof-reading and researching and so on? Your family may have been rich sometime ago, but now you're here. You have no servants or house help. You ARE the servant and house help. You can't outsource the tasks. You don't get paid - it's just your duty and your payment for the food and drink and electricity that you enjoy.

Yours and family's merits back at home now mean quite nothing. Because you are not squeamish to roll up your sleeves and work, you'll make a grateful and efficient worker and absorb the lessons quickly and MOVE ON. You will have empathy for others coming up behind you - you'll have been there, in their shoes. But then you'll also know why you are going through the hard times - to afford the help, to make life better for your family and self. At least you know you're in a place that values work and industry and gives you chances to succeed.

Lesson: Be self-sufficient to your best ability. Learn to rely on #1 before you ask for help. Be grateful for all things that come your way - both good and bad, the difficult and easy. Learn your lessons quickly and move on. Do not get stuck. Don't dwell on failure or your "circumstances." These always can get worse or better. The good part is, you can change them for yourself. Back in the mother country, you would likely have no choice - or chance.

So make the coffee by yourself and sweep the floors and clean the toilets now. When kids come, you'll be grateful that you know to GSD (that's Get Sh*t Done).

13) Have you had to learn another language and culture on the fly? Have you had to learn to understand, think and speak like people with whom you didn't have much at all in common then? Well, you've been changed for the better by the experience. You've had to open your mind, expand your horizons, gain empathy for others and take roads you never thought you'd travel in life. It's made you stronger, more resilient and confident in your worldview.

Lesson: learn other languages and cultures. Travel and live in other countries for a while. You will gain wisdom and understanding of others that will give you great friendships and unique insights into others, as well as teach you different approaches to a fulfilling life and success in business. 

Knowing another language (or 2 or 5) will serve you in amazingly useful ways throughout life.

Now go forth and hustle like an FOB immigrant! Approach life with that same zest and humility and optimism! You'll be SO glad you did!

Are there other important lessons you’ve learned about becoming successful from being an immigrant in America? Please share them with the Community in Comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

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Yuri Kruman is a Healthcare Product Manager, published author, blogger at BlueprintToThrive.com and health tech entrepreneur based in New York.

*The views expressed herein are his own*