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Innovation Blog

From Homeless to Harvard: The Story of Liz Murray

By Shlomo Maital



from the movie: From Homeless to Harvard

 Innovation, ultimately, is about resilience and the ability to overcome huge obstacles. Perhaps the remarkable story of Liz Murray, as told on BBC’s World Service Outlook program, can help inspire us.  Few have overcome obstacles as great.  What are the odds that a homeless virtually-orphaned child, whose parents were both addicts from the time she was three, could graduate from Harvard University and become a top motivational speaker?

   Liz’s parents were both severe drug addicts, injecting heroine into their veins, often in Liz’s presence, from the time she was three years old.  She recounts, in her book, that they were always loving parents, despite the addiction.   But they lived in filth and hunger, because the monthly welfare checks were spent on drugs, leaving her and her sister to scrounge meals from neighbors. She recounts,  “We would do things like eat ice cubes, or chapstick or toothpaste. We would knock on our neighbours’ doors.  But everyone in the neighbourhood was living off government cheques.”  Her father was an ABD (all but doctorate) in psychology and read voluminously, using New York City’s famous Public Library (often under pseudonyms, because he failed to return books); Liz, thus, read widely too.

   Liz’s mother was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1990, and she died in 1996.  With a mother in and out of hospital, and a father who was still heavily addicted to heroin, Liz eventually ended up on the streets, homeless. 

    Despite being homeless, she went from high school to high school, seeking admission.  After many rejections, she was somehow accepted to an  “alternative” high school – Humanities Preparatory Academy in Chelsea, Manhattan.  She did homework at friends, in school, even while living on the streets.  She had an inspiring teacher, who chose her as one of 10 students to go on a field trip to Boston  — her first time outside of NYC.  They visited Harvard University. Liz recounts she could not take her eyes off the Harvard students, clean, neatly dressed, wearing Harvard sweatshirts. 

   Back at high school, she began looking for college scholarships.  She spotted, in The New York Times, a full $12,000/year scholarship for four years.  Some 21,000 students applied.  She made it into the last 20.  In her final interview, she was asked about her ability to overcome obstacles – and told her story about living on the streets, homeless, while attending high school. She got the scholarship to Harvard.

       According to her account on the BBC,  “while she was at Harvard, she began public speaking – helping people who, like herself, had an almost impossible mountain to climb to succeed in life.”

       “Now, today,  she makes her living as a motivational speaker and founder of Manifest Living, a company which offers workshops for people wanting to change their circumstances.”

     Liz’s father also contracted AIDS, and she returned to care for him.  “Just before he passed away, he wrote me this card,” she recounts.  “He wrote in the card, ‘Lizzy, I left my dreams behind a long time ago. But I know now they’re safe with you. Now we’re a family again.'” 

     The next time you encounter an obstacle, big or small, to achieving your goals, remember Liz Murray.   With determination and courage, the human spirit is capable of anything.


Global Crisis/  Innovation Blog

More Stuff, Less Happiness – Something Is Very Wrong!

By Shlomo Maital



  Tammy and Logan Strobel:  Live on Less!

For years, as an economist, I taught students about something called a “utility function”.  The inputs were material things or income. The output was “utility” or happiness. And of course, the more stuff, the more income, the more happiness.  It was always, everywhere, a rising function.


   U.S. per capita income went from $24,079 in 1980 to $40,454 today. This is a steep rise of 100 per cent (double), despite the global 2007-9 crisis.  Did Americans’ happiness double too?  Or even rise?   I doubt it. 

     Economists (quoted in USA Today, “Is our standard of living better than ever?” , Feb. 4-6, 2011, p. 1)  say, “people grossly underestimate our progress over time because of technology”.  Ohio State economist Richard Steckel urges people to shut off their electricity and plumbing, to see just how great things are now, relative to the past.

     In other words, we’re just dumb. We’re way better off, but we just don’t realize it. 

   “People earning $200,000 a year are feeling and behaving like those with half that income,” says the CEO of First Command Financial Services. 

     The USAToday article describes an Oregon couple, that asked themselves seven years ago, how much does it take to live comfortably these days?  Their answer:  $20,000 – $25,000.  Result:  Tammy Strobel gave up a job in an investment firm, cut her income in half and chose to live cheaper and simpler.  She and her husband limited themselves to 100 “things” (possessions) each.  “Taking a step back from materialism helped me understand the big picture”, she says. 

      According to a USAToday poll, only 3 per cent of people think it is possible to be comfortable on less than $20,000 a year.  Nearly two-thirds think $50,000 a year is the minimum, and 25 per cent think $100,000 is required.  Ten per cent think $150,000 a year is the minimum!

    There are two strategies in life. One is to constantly boost one’s income to match rising spending.  A great many people find this is not the road to happiness, because the added ‘stuff’ the income brings is not the source of wellbeing.  A second route is to spend less and less, to adjust spending to income, and to treat non-work time as ‘income’ by giving it a value, often very high.  Very few people even consider this option.  No sane business or politician would encourage it.  But it may be the route to true sustained happiness, for individuals and for our planet.   

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
February 2011
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