A little background on what qualifies me to write this. I was born in the projects. For those of you familiar with various hoods around the country, I was born in the Hill District and lived there until I was 9.

Life didn’t get much better at that point when I moved to an arguably worse public housing project across town called Northview Heights.. I lived there until I was 18 when I left for college. Since then, I’ve never lived there again and I’ve probably been back there less times than I can count on one hand.

Some terminology for the uninformed masses. The official term for where I grew up is a “public housing project.” Another official term is “subsidized housing.” I’ve been in a lot of different housing projects across the country and they’re all shit holes. In fact, most people refer to these places as the “ghetto” or the “hood.” That’s a correct description, but not all hoods and ghettos are public housing projects.

In this article the words “hood”, “project” and “ghetto” will be used interchangeably. All projects are ghettos and hoods, but not all ghettos and hoods are projects. There are lots of shitty neighborhoods in the country—these are the ghettos and hoods—but you gotta be a special kind of broke to live in a place where the government subsidizes your rent and utilities so anyone can afford to live there.

To me they all mean the same thing: a fucked up place that I would never want to live again. The projects destroy the future of most people. The following is a gross over simplification because I’m not writing a sociological essay, but the process goes as follows: People promote ignorant ass values, have kids early, those kids get indoctrinated with those same ignorant values, and the cycle repeats itself for generations.

But I made it out. Survived is more like it because there are many things that can imprison you in the hood forever. I could have got a girl pregnant as a teen, got arrested, or got killed. I managed to avoid all these things and flourish as an adult.

No matter what I do, there are some things I learned from living in that environment that I believe give me an advantage. Obviously this isn’t book learning, but rather the type of learning you can only experience, survive and say to yourself, “Never again.”

I give these lessons to you. These are 5 lessons I learned from growing up in the projects.

1. Good manners go a long way. I fought a lot as a kid. That’s just par for the course growing up in the hood. I would have fought a lot more if it wasn’t for one simple phrase: “My bad.” For those of you that don’t speak hood, “My bad” is the equivalent of saying “I’m sorry.”

You bump somebody in a crowd? ‘My bad’ goes a long way. Step on someone’s foot on a crowded bus? Dude might get mad, but you can cool it quick by just saying ‘My bad.’ Say something a little too offensive that gets guys in the mood to fight? Just say ‘My bad’ and dial it down. It’s amazing what an apology can do to cool tempers in the hood.

This dude just saved his cartoon life.

In the hood you never know who gives a fuck and who doesn’t. While a guy might not necessarily be carrying a pistol, he might not care about catching an aggravated assault charge and beating the shit out of you. And that’s assuming you call the cops, which we generally avoided because it increased the chance for retaliation. Since I didn’t know who knew who or who gave a fuck about staying clear of the law, I figured out pretty quickly to address everyone with basic respect.

Even if someone didn’t return the favor, it taught me to keep a cool head so I could avoid an unnecessary fight. I learned from direct experience with a very powerful negative feedback loop that it’s better to treat people with respect and keep them calm than not. Many people today don’t interact with others with basic respect because they’ve never been punched in the mouth by someone that felt disrespected.

2. Safety and security is an illusion. My house had doors and locks. That didn’t keep people from breaking in and stealing shit. School buses were places I remember fending for my life in fights. My mother kept food on the table, but her temper and physical abuse left me hurt as much some street fights. I never got comfortable thinking there was a such thing as safety.

I remember some kids broke into my locker in the dead of winter and put my coat in the toilet. When I was 11 I got robbed by a crackhead at knife point for a calzone. I could name many more incidents where something was taken from me, but I want to make a point. I internalized something about the world at a very young age that makes me cautious with everything and everyone around me: nothing is ever safe. People will take stuff or try to hurt you, even if you didn’t think they ever would.

Most people have trouble with this, and maybe it’s for the better but nothing in this world is safely and securely yours. It can leave you, be stolen from you, betray you or outright neglect you. Once you internalize this, you learn to value everything. 

I think this was the guy, but he’s a little too white.

3. Money is not the root of all evil. Not having money is. No one broke into my house, robbed me, or jumped me because they were bored from too much money. I didn’t have bullet holes in my door because things got a little too heated in a civilized game of water polo.

I’m not saying that people with money don’t do malicious shit, but I am ABSOLUTELY saying that they do less of it. While there are some evil people in the world that just want to fuck shit up and cause harm, most crime—and especially victim/violent crime—is committed for monetary reasons.

That drive by that claimed an innocent person’s life? Probably got started over drug dealing turf. That armed robbery at the convenience store for 400 bucks that cost some dude his life? 400 bucks ain’t shit—unless you’re super broke. I once watched a pizza delivery boy get the shit beat out of him along with his pizza and money taken on Christmas Eve! That’s gotta be worth 100 bucks, tops. In fact, beating the shit out of food delivery drivers is such a common occurrence that most delivery places didn’t deliver to the projects. The few that did sent two people—one to carry the pizza and the other to carry the gun.

There probably is some middle class kid in a low crime neighborhood that does the same shit, but he’s just crazy and likely not trying to survive. Everyone’s gotta make their own way and that means people do far more harm when they are broke than when they are not.

Crime does pay. That’s probably why the threat of prison rape doesn’t stop it.

4. It can ALWAYS be worse. My home situation was slightly better than average when compared to the typical ghetto home life. My mom didn’t always work, but she took temp work when she could and I was never hungry. I didn’t live with my dad but he was in the picture—he’d moved to Philadelphia in pursuit of a better life (which he eventually did make for himself). After a run in with a serious asshole that hurt me and my sister pretty bad, my mom didn’t really bring any men around. Life wasn’t good, but I could look around me and see it could be a LOT worse.

The thing about living in the projects is that everyone knows a lot about everyone. You know who’s mom is a crackhead, who’s mom is a ho that has a bunch of different kids by different men, who’s selling drugs or involved in prostitution, etc. You know who and by how much someone is fucked up. While everyone in the projects obviously has a fucked up life situation, some people are WAY worse off.

When you don’t live in a community like a housing project, it’s easy to believe that everyone around you has a better life or has less problems than you. But if you live in the hood, you know everyone else in the hood is fucked up and you really learn to appreciate little shit.

For example, I used to have a friend that had all the newest video games. That can make a kid jealous, but we also had to eat at my house. My mom decided to spend money on food rather than games—a wise decision. That’s the type of situation that makes you appreciate something most people take for granted, like food. Living close proximity to other people with problems can drag you down if you let it, but it can also foster gratitude and make you aware that your situation isn’t that bad.

5. Life is about how you play the hand you’re dealt. Of course good starting cards help, but they won’t determine how much you’ll win or even if you’ll survive the game. There are lots of people born in the ghetto every year. Most continue the cycle and don’t make it out. A few do a little better but only barely and still have their ties to the ghetto . Then there are the few that get so far out that the ghetto is barely a distant memory and they go on to make massive changes. I can proudly say that I am part of this last group.

He had a good hand, but got distracted by pussy. Now look at his stack!

But that shit ain’t easy. On top of the physical dangers you have to navigate, you also have to undo lots of damaging programming. Like attitudes about money. My dad died when I was 18 and left me $55,000. No one ever taught a broke project kid how to handle money. In 18 months I was broke as hell and over drawing my bank account. Overcoming these challenges takes time but once you beat them, you are invincible.

There’s another guy that grew up on my street the same age as me that managed to get in Cooper Union college. On my first romp in college I got into Georgetown and University of Rochester. None of those places are slouch schools and we’re both doing fine today (though oddly enough, not as a result of where we got into college) but we both started out living on the same street in the same fucked up ass public housing project.

It’s not easy, but anyone can change their life.

For more life lessons, grab my book.