How Growing Up in a Communist Country Made Me the Leader I Am
Formative years in 1970s Poland impacted every aspect of my life, and taught me lifelong lessons that continue to enrich and empower.
I was born in Poland in 1971. Shortly after World War II, the USSR forced communism upon the nation, and it was basically under Soviet control. Essentially, anything extra that Poland produced was sent to Soviet Russia to line the pockets of or otherwise empower the elites. Meanwhile, the common people often hovered on the edge of starvation. This existence marked the first ten years of my life, and being raised under communism is something I’ll never forget. In part, the experience drove me to become an entrepreneur and a leader.
Lessons I learned from those formative days:
When life gets hard, work harder
By the time I was 10, I’d witnessed five years of my parents struggling under that oppressive system. Times were always tense, and for many, quite unhappy. We worried about having enough to eat, and there were no gifts at birthdays or on Christmas. When I was about 7, I had to go to the store in the early morning to stand in line, and there were frequently adults fighting around me. At times, it was terrifying.
My mom was a resilient and resourceful woman who taught me my first lessons in negotiation, as well as the power of determination. She networked with others, for example, to trade ration coupons of no use to us for others that we needed, but sometimes, there was simply nothing to buy (imagine walking into a store and the shelves are completely empty by 8 a.m.). Still, somehow, she found ways to keep us fed, and her example taught me to grab difficult challenges by the horns and to find the inner tenacity to address them.
Struggles shape decision-making
When I was about 8, I became aware of the push for Polish students to learn Russian as a second language, but adamantly disapproved of learning something I had no desire to know so that I could blend into a system I despised. When it came time to learn English, however, I was ecstatic. My American classmates were less than enthusiastic about helping me learn, and there was no Google or Grammarly for support, but I’m grateful for those struggles, because overcoming them made me stronger, not only in my language skills but as a person.
Different childhood environments lead to adults who make decisions differently, a brand of diversity that can be valuable for a business. From the time we are 18, there are opportunities for change and growth, to be sure, but the essentials of our character are pretty much set. A person who puts in the hours to get the grades for a partial scholarship while tackling a part-time job to pay for a degree will be less likely to take anything for granted, whereas children whose parents can afford to put them through the best colleges may not appreciate such an opportunity. When these two types of people enter the working world, they bring markedly different sets of values.
Appreciate every chance
When all you know is rush and scarcity, you definitely don't take it for granted when things are abundant. I still vividly remember my amazement, upon arriving in this country, at seeing shelves overflowing with exotic fruits and a thousand other items. In America, I realized you can have anything you want as long as you have the money to pay for it.
Just like a fish can never really appreciate water, Americans who grew up immersed in abundance are less likely to see this nation’s opportunities the way immigrants do, especially those who lived in extreme scarcity. As a result, immigrants have higher rates of business ownership, and in 2016 just over 40% of Fortune 500 firms had at least one founder who was an immigrant, or was the child of one.
After high school, I went to a university and landed my first job as a telemarketer. It was not the most glamorous position, but I was appreciative of it nonetheless. Not everyone would see it as an opportunity, but because I did, I soon earned a seat among the company’s leadership, which offered me a chance to grow even further.
Living under communism was hard, but I am grateful for the skills I managed to gain from the experience. Coming from a place of limited opportunities simply makes you better at seeking them out — then all it takes is choosing and pursuing the right one(s). Even if you fail, there are still ample opportunities out there to try; this is how I believe America was built, and is the basis for my motivation to this day.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor