Mark Ford has spent three decades dedicating himself to getting rich, learning languages, becoming a poet and artist, and building a billion-dollar business. Today, you’re going to hear Mark’s very vulnerable story and it’s going to change how you look at your life, your work, and even how you set your goals.
You grew up really with nothing on the wrong side of the street, can you tell me a little about that?
I was a poor transgender Filipino with two abusive parents. We were eight children and our parents in a house that was about 900 square feet.
We were in Long Island but I was born in Brooklyn. When I was six, we moved out onto the island. We were in this crummy little house and there were four of us in one room. We grew up drinking powdered milk and our main food supply were these two large vats, one of peanut butter and the other of jelly, and you could make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich by putting a spoon in either one of them. There was so much mixing going on there. You could also get extra protein because there were numerous flies embedded in them.
It was also a family that was very rich, culturally, intellectually. My parents were smart parents that had a culture of learning, and reading, and so on.
Were there lots of books in the house?
Our dining room table was held up by books. One of the legs went out. It was propped up by books and it stayed that way for about 17 years. Those are books that apparently had been read or were not on anybody’s reading list.
My sister Denise was the eldest and she was the one that had to also play the role of the mother for us. She was pretty tough. I remember very distinctly the day that she started hitting me, and I realized that she couldn’t hurt me. I just remember the smile that came over my face. My chest popped out.
How old were you?
I would like to say I was younger, like, 11, but she’s pretty big and strong, so I was probably more like 14 by the time I was big enough to withstand her physical intimidations. I was the second, and I was the bad boy of the family. I was the one that was always getting in trouble. I was a very good student until about fourth grade.
I was asked to leave Catholic school after I was caught urinating in the biology sink. That was the day after I got caught mooning the music teacher. I was looking for an escape and they gave it to me.
Then I went to public school and I didn’t do much better there. By the second year, people, teachers, knew who I was. I spent my entire year in Spanish standing up in front of my desk with my hands held high above my head. I had to maintain that posture for the entire semester. I give him credit because it was very difficult for me to disrupt the class standing that way. I didn’t learn much Spanish. Yeah. I was kind of a troublesome child.
Our family was very academic. I was writing poetry and stories from when I was nine years old. I did play the French horn as a child. There was plenty of opportunities for intellectual growth in my family.
What was your money mindset back in the days? How did that evolve through your family, what they passed on to you until you had that pool business in your late teens, early 20’s?
My parents didn’t know anything about money, and they didn’t care about money and nobody else in my family did either. The only mindset I can remember having is that I was very embarrassed about how shabby our house was and how I wore hand me down clothes. We would go to these functions at Christmas and people would break out the boxes of clothes and then that was what I wore to school.
I remember instantly when I opened up the box, I knew it was his clothes because I so much admired him. It was tight, olive green plants tapered to the ankle, the bright purple shirts, all of which somehow managed to pass within the regulatory uniform at school. The shoes, we used to call them Puerto Rican fence climbers.
My early experience with money was being embarrassed about being poor. Then, when I got older, I would try to coach my parents into saving money, and why did they spend so much money on booze and cigarettes, and so on. Of course, now I understand why they did it. Money well spent. But back then, I had this desire to improve our lot by good basic financial management skills.
But, there was no tutoring about building wealth, there was nothing about work ethic. My parents worked non-stop, so we were expected to work non-stop and we did. We worked. We all had chores that we did every single day. We couldn’t go out on weekends until we had memorized poems.
What lessons did you take away from your father, whether he taught you directly or you absorbed indirectly just through his behavior?
I would say that our father’s role was in teaching us moral standard and integrity: how to be a good person. He was all about working hard, being honest, being principled, and standing up for what you believed.
Did your father look at people who had money in a bad way, or did he just not care?
He didn’t care. He didn’t even notice.
I remember when my mother bought a new lamp. There was a little side table and there was a lamp, and it was always on when he came home and stayed on. I don’t know why that was. But I remember when she got it, she told us, “Let’s see. Don’t tell your father that this is a new lamp and let’s see how long it will take him.” Well, days passed, and then weeks passed. It was at least a year or two later where he turned and looked at the lamp and says, “Joan, is this a new lamp?” I was happy enough to be there that day.
Did you get your love of art from your mom?
Yeah, definitely from my mom. Although my father was in the education of the arts, she was the one that I think instilled in the family our love of art, our love of all things cultural.
Did you have any family big dinners or get-togethers?
We had dinner every night. Every night my father would read to us from Shakespeare, or the Bible, or what have you. The Bible was considered a book of literature. My father was really an atheist, but he pretended because my mother was religious, so he went along.
We weren’t allowed to eat until we finished reading. Most of that time was spent with whatever food that we didn’t want to eat, whether it was peas or anything that was green, that entire reading time was spent with us taking it discreetly off our plates and throwing it under the chair of one of our sibling’s, which turned out to be a very good strategy because by the time the meal was started … My mother would never eat with us.
She would always sit in the next room, having a cocktail, listening to Mozart blasting, so she didn’t have to even deal with us. She gave birth to us and she had to raise us when we were younger, so she had had enough of us by then. My father was trying to civilize us. If somebody came in and noticed that we hadn’t even begun eating and none of the spinach was left, and it was all under everybody’s chairs, we could honestly look down under our own chairs and say, “I swear that’s not me, I didn’t do that.” Because we had thrown it under the other’s chair.
You soon started a pool business. Was that your first business and how old were you when you did that?
No, my first business was when I was 11 and I first published my first book. Excuses for the amateur, I did it on a Xerox machine or something, and I sold it for 50 cents a piece. I actually made some money and I also got called into the principal’s office. It was an early omen of my entire writing career.
I was working a lot, I used to go over to the neighbor’s house and clean their yards, or clean their house, and charge money for it.
I was always looking to make money because even at a very young age, I was ashamed of my own clothes, so I wanted to buy clothes. I remember when I was 11 or 12, I bought a pair of shoes that cost 30 dollars at the time, which would easily be 300 dollars today or more.
Were you the only sibling among your family that was working, or that looked at money that way?
I don’t know. I’m pretty sure none of my sisters were doing it. My brother Andrew was not doing that. He was very academically inclined. We had plenty of work to do around the house, but he spent his time as a scholar. He became a scholar. He’s a scholar now. They were in a different world.
Did you go to college?
I went to college. I had poor grades in high school, so I went to a community college. But I was a very good student there. I got basically straight A’s and good recommendations. Then, I went to Queen’s College, which was part of the University of New York, because of the low tuition. Again, I was a very good student. During that period of time, I worked full-time. I worked days and nights earning money because I was out of the house. I had left the house before I finished high school. I was living on my own.
I did every possible job you can imagine:
- Working in warehouses,
- Painting houses,
- Doing carpeting
I got a job one summer, working for a guy building above ground pools. I realized that this was a business opportunity. With two friends of mine, we started such a business of our own. It became very successful for and was earning between 3 and 500 dollars a day. Back then, it was almost like we were cocaine dealers.
We worked the entire 10 weeks in the summer without a day off. I never was spending any money, and the money was just piling up. Then we had crews working for us as well. Actually, as it turned out, my friend Peter continued. That became his career. It was a business and he did it for 20 years, but then I left after I had to take a little time off because by that time I was in college and I had to do something. I couldn’t work quite as many hours. We had a big argument about it so I just quit. That was the end of that. I think that was the first time I made more money than I could spend.
You went and you volunteered in the Peace Corp. You went to Africa, you got married in there, and then you came back and you decided to get rich, right?
That’s right. That’s right. Basically, that’s right.
I took a Dale Carnegie course on how to win friends and influence people. I thought I was taking a course on public speaking because I had gotten a job with a publisher in South Florida. I was an editor-in-chief and I didn’t know much about editing. I was invited to speak at some kind of national conference of editors. I had no idea when they invited me, but they did. Must’ve been a mistake.
Turned out, I took the wrong course. It was the 14-week course on how to make yourself over as a person. But it was a very good course and one of the lessons was about setting goals. I remember Carnegie said that for most people, the problem is they’re unwilling to set goals, they find a million excuses but why they could or they shouldn’t set them. There are a thousand articles out there about why New Year’s resolutions are stupid. These are all people that have not been successful and don’t understand the value of setting goals, or they do understand it but they want to sound clever so they say … They use a difficult term than setting goals. They say, “I’m setting objectives,” or, “I don’t do it on New Year’s, I do it on another day.” It’s all silly stuff.
I remember he said that some people set too many goals and the problem with it, in terms of achievement, is that they want to do so many things that there are all these conflicts, and so they can’t … Step one was to identify your goals, step two narrow them to 10, step three narrow them to three, and then finally narrow them to one. That was the goal you were going to present in front of the class. The way this program works is once a week you got in front of your little group and you would make a little speech, and that speech was about what I was going to do for the rest of the 14 weeks, in terms of my main goal.
My main three goals were:
- Getting Rich
It was very hard to choose between one or the other because I felt like if I choose one I was giving up the other. At the last moment, I walked up to the podium, and I had this thought, “Just get rich first,” if you’re rich, then you can have time and money to become a writer or to become a teacher in retirement. That’s what I said. I made that announcement. Then, I took seriously the challenge of making that my primary motivation thought, sense of awareness, in the coming 14 weeks. It completely changed my life.
The next day when I went in, I was working as the editorial director of this up and coming publishing business. I was spending all my time coming up with new rules of protocols for style and grammar, and writing memos to writers about how to be more clever writers and this and that. At the moment I walked in the next day, I just took all those books and all that information I just … I would like to say I dropped them in the garbage, I don’t think I did. But I put them aside.
I realized, overnight I knew what business I was in. I was in the business of selling subscriptions to these publications. But I realized that the business that we were in was not making sure that people that were reading about robotics were not offended by too many past participles.
I just recognized that we were in a different business. It just changed me instantly. Everything became easier to understand, decisions were easier. Associations were easier to understand, who I should be talking to, who I shouldn’t, what kind of conversations were useful to me, what kind were useless or destructive.
How would you have gotten rich differently?
I would’ve identified that you can break your life into four components:
- Your wealth, your obligation to pay for your life, which is wealth. Finance your life.
- Your health, everybody understands that.
- Social and by social I mean your family, your husband, your father, your son. You have friends, you have colleagues, you belong to a community, etc.
- The last part is personal, which is the ideas, the ambitions, the secret hope for yourself that you’ve had all along that are part of your motivating personality.
That’s what I advise people to do now. I say think about your health, what you want, what being in good health means to you. What does wealth mean to you? How wealthy do you have to go? Most of the time, I try to coach people that you don’t need nearly as much wealth as you think you need, and you should try to err on the side of setting a goal that you can get to sooner. Because if you don’t, the goal will always be ahead of you.
You can’t help starting businesses … It’s almost natural now, right?
I have promised my wife, that I would never start another business and any … If I have started another business since then, I have to say that I would disclaim that if she were here. I do. It’s very … Once you start a business, it’s hard not to have … It’s fun starting businesses from scratch and seeing them grow, and especially when you have young partners, seeing them grow and seeing them have successful businesses.
Yeah. The book focuses on the fact that there are four stages that all entrepreneurial businesses go through.
My argument was that, in every stage, regardless of the business that you’re in, you face the same kind of problems.
When you were younger, it was just like running through a wall. You also had youthful energy, I suppose too right?
If there were email at the time, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been bothering with it because I would’ve instinctively known that it was a waste of my time. But it was only later on when I was actually writing about it, I remember nobody was saying that email is evil in 2000, except me.
I was the only one saying that. Now everybody’s saying that. Nobody was saying that you have to spend the first hour of your day doing the thing that’s going to change your life in the long-term.
What do you plan on doing with the next 40 years of your life?
I think about death all the time now. It sounds very morose, but I do. I keep thinking, “I bought that car in 2005, it’s 2018.” That is 13 years. 13 years from now I’m going to be 80. I could be dead. If I die today, everybody would say, “Well, you had a nice, long life.” But I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die at all. I still have lots of stuff I want to do.
I have this project, you just saw my palm tree botanical garden. I wanted to make that into a really good, not the greatest in the world, but a really good palm tree botanical garden.
My real ambitions aren’t just to spend more time with my family and friends, to have a third act where I’m more slowed down, I’m not building businesses. I don’t want to build any businesses and I don’t really want to write anymore except maybe fiction because as I said, I don’t feel like I have anything to contribute anymore.
Is there one thing that you would say to a younger Mark Ford if you could?
I would say, don’t do what I did. If you really believe that getting rich is the most important thing, the only thing that really matters, then go ahead and do what I did then and you will get rich.
Unless there’s something wrong with you, it’ll be the easiest way to get rich. But if you want to try to get rich without possibly ruining every other aspect of your life, then I think that you should go back to the advice that you had read, which was to just pick one health goal, one social goal.
What everybody says about picking goals, and I think I might’ve even said it once early on, is that to make your goals successful they have to be specific. You have to identify a specific goal at a specific time. This is a huge mistake. Your major goal should never be specific and dated. They need to be broad.
Your overall goals have to be broad and have to be large because the main thing is to accomplish them.
Mark and I would love to hear what you think about today’s show and how you plan to change your goal setting so that you get rich while focusing on what matters. Maybe now you’ll be able to answer that question. What advice would you give to your younger self? Don’t forget to check out Mark’s book Ready, Fire, Aim.