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I grew up poor, but my mom’s ‘unsafe’ life lesson helped me become a millionaire

Matt Higgins, author, entrepreneur and 'Shark Tank' investor, explains how his mom inspired the daring 'Burn the Boats' philosophy that led to his success

I had already bolted down the steps of our roach-infested shoebox apartment when my mother screamed for me to come back.   

“TV please!”  

I was so excited I forgot our morning ritual. We had one of those rabbit ear TV’s but an old wire hanger stood in for the missing antennae. Somewhere out in the universe there was a clear picture, and my hand was as steady as a surgeon's as I moved through the static to find it.  

Tethered to an oxygen tank, she could hardly move from the worn recliner that had become her prison. Arthritic knees were no longer able to support her 400-pound frame.

I always placed enough pretzels and ginger ale to last the 10 hours before I returned from work.  Applesauce from now on, she would say, vowing to lose enough weight to fit in an airplane seat.  Whenever I shut the door on our secret life, relieved and guilty all at once, I pretended I was Clark Kent keeping up appearances.  


What my poor mom taught me that gave me an advantage over the rich kids
Author Matt Higgins as a child: He used to scrape the gum off tables at McDonalds to earn money for his family.Courtesy Matt Higgins

But today was going to be different. I had done it. From a high school dropout to, at age 26, the youngest press secretary in New York City history. My first paycheck reflecting my new $100,000 annual salary would arrive in two weeks, and with it, we would finally get out of poverty. It would be enough to hire a caregiver, put a deposit on my own apartment, and maybe have a girl over for once.  

 Mom died at 11 a.m. that day.

My greatest professional triumph and my greatest failure collided within two hours of each other; I couldn’t save her. Some things you never get over. 

 It would take years of therapy before I realized that although my mother had died with just $127 in the bank, she left me the greatest gift a parent can give a child.

 'Burn the boats'

A decade before she died, my mother inadvertently inspired a radical idea, one that birthed my improbable rise from impoverished child to millionaire, and led to my book, “Burn the Boats: Toss Plan B Overboard and Unleash Your Full Potential.” 

 She was such a brilliant writer, but in order to escape her abusive father, she chose a loveless marriage over an education. Later, as a newly divorced single mother of four boys, cleaning homes on her hands and knees to earn a living, she bit down on her lip one day and declared she was going back to school. Armed with a GED, she enrolled in Queens College, earned a BA and went on to pursue two Master’s degrees before her declining health left us desperate. 

What my poor mom taught me that gave me an advantage over the rich kids
Author Matt Higgins' mom cleaned houses and went back to school to get her college degree before her declining health put the family in desperate straits.Courtesy Matt Higgins

As a little boy, I would help feed us by selling flowers on street corners and scraping gum under tables at McDonalds, earning $3.75 an hour. It was never going to be enough. But one day when I was around 13, I had an epiphany: What if I followed in my mother’s footsteps, dropped out of high school at 16, enrolled in college early, and got a much higher paying job? It was a loophole I planned to drive a truck through. 

 “Absolute madness!” my high school guidance counselor declared.  

 “See you at McDonalds,” sneered my science teacher, before calling me a loser.

“Oh, I think it’s a clever idea,” Mom said. “You can pull off anything.”  

 Resilient, not reluctant

She gave me the confidence to believe my crazy plan was right for me, despite relentless lobbying from school officials, run-ins with the truancy police and getting left back two years in a row.  When I turned 16, I dropped out of high school, took the GED and enrolled in Queens College — babyface and all. Working two jobs, it would take 11 years to complete my BA and my degree at Fordham Law at night.  

What my poor mom taught me that gave me an advantage over the rich kids
Matt Higgins at work as the youngest press secretary in New York City history.Courtesy Matt Higgins

I would go on to help rebuild the World Trade Center site, run the business of two NFL teams, assemble a $1 billion portfolio of consumer brands, become a teacher at Harvard Business School and a shark on Shark Tank.     

Parents are led to believe that we are being prudent when we tell our kids they need a backup plan. But what you are subconsciously conveying is you believe their failure is a probability. You’re saying there is a ceiling on your child’s potential. Groundbreaking research out of the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 proved that just contemplating a backup plan is the very thing that might force you to need one. My mom never told me I needed to play it safe.

So how do you respond when your child hatches what you secretly think is a very unrealistic plan?   

You trust that they will figure it out. And you arm them with the tools to rebound from failure and tactics to manage anxiety and risk. 

 Your goal is to make them resilient — not reluctant.   

Investor Matt Higgins with his fellow "shark" Lori Greiner on the show "Shark Tank."
Investor Matt Higgins with his fellow "shark" Lori Greiner on the show "Shark Tank."Courtesy Matt Higgins

 

Twenty years after my mom died, I walked onto the dais at her college — our college — to deliver the commencement address. As the Dean motioned for me to come forward to the podium, I wondered, “Would Mom believe that her son with a GED is receiving an honorary PhD?”  

 Then I smiled.  

She never doubted it for a second.