How To Start When You Have Nothing

Empty Bottle

Hi Celes, I was in a fairly negative place last year. My #1 goal was to get out of the place and now I am finally out of that environment. I’m now ready to heal and get on with my life, to start anew. Yet there are no positives just yet to build on. Where does one begin with nothing at all? – Melanie

Hi Melanie, thanks for your question. First off, I want to congratulate you for moving past the negative place in your life. It takes tenacity and strength to move past a negative stage in life, and you’ve successfully done so. You should feel proud about yourself. :)

A common question many of us ask ourselves is this – How do I get from where I am to where I want to be if there is nothing to build on in the first place?

For example, you want to start a business, but you have no experience in business development. You want to shift to a different career field, but you don’t have knowledge in the area. You want to be the top in what you do but you have no know-how. You want to let go of your past and start on a new journey, but there is nothing for you to start off with. It’s like a catch 22 situation. Like a potter who needs his tools and clay, you can’t create something if there is nothing. And if you can’t create something, you can’t get anything.

If you have ever felt this way about your goals, there are a few points which I want to share with you.

Everyone Starts From Nothing

The first thing I want to point out is that everyone starts from nothing. Rich people, poor people, successful people, non-successful people, top achievers, non-achievers – all these people start from a place where they had nothing. Forget about family background, because these aren’t determinants of success – there are as many successful people in this world from poor families as there are from rich families. Let’s focus on one’s personal achievements and knowledge, because these are arguably what one uses to build future success.

I remember when I was in secondary school, there was a group of PRC students who joined us in the upper secondary years. The school principal invited them over to study as part of a movement to attract foreign talents.

These PRC students were brilliant, particularly in Maths and Chinese. They would easily ace every single Math and Chinese test and cream the local students, without having to study. Over time teachers and students just took it as a given that they were the gods of Maths and Chinese, that they were born this way, and it was impossible to ever beat them.

Yet  if you were to break down their strong standing in the subjects, it was apparent that their knowledge of Maths and Chinese came from somewhere – specifically (1) their previous school, where their syllabus was a whole lot more advanced than our local syllabus, and (2) years of conditioning in a Chinese environment. And before they attended their previous school and before they were brought up in China, right when they were tiny little babies born into this world, would they know anything about differential equations, binomial theorems, partial fractions or Chinese poetry? No, they wouldn’t.

And if you repeat this exercise with any single person in the world, rich or successful, you’ll end up with the same finding – they all started with no knowledge of anything. Whether you are Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Tony Robbins, George Clooney or Brad Pitt, there was a point in the past when you knew absolutely nothing about your craft and you had to learn from scratch.

Suddenly, it doesn’t matter what others have or don’t have. Because everyone starts from a place of nothing. Everything is acquired through time, whether through formal or informal education, environmental reinforcement, etc. Regardless of whether you have something or nothing now, as long as you take the steps to put the pieces in place, you will get to where you want to be.

You Have Something

The second point I want to make is to invite you to rethink the whole notion that you have nothing. Because every time you think you have nothing, it’s likely the opposite. It’s the whole proverbial notion of whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. There is always something there. The pessimist sees the glass as half empty; the optimist sees the glass as half full. Have you ever considered that the glass has always been all full though? The bottom half is filled with water, and the top half is filled with air.

If you don’t see what you have today as something, that’s because you’ve been living in your own reality for too long, to the point where you take what you have for granted. You’ve developed a mental blindness to the value of what you have. It’s a matter of retuning yourself to recognize those things you have.

Try mentally swapping positions with someone who is in an objectively worse-off situation than you. It can be someone who just got robbed, someone who just got retrenched, a jail convict sentenced for life behind bars, a patient suffering from a terminal illness with a month to live, a vegetable, a person with anterograde amnesia, a starving beggar with no home to go to, a bankrupt, someone with heavy debt to clear, a famine stricken child in Africa, etc – the possibilities are endless. How would you feel? What would you become? How would life be like compared to what you have now?

Suddenly, it’s apparent that there are so many things in your life you didn’t realize. All the things you have from before that you saw as nothing suddenly became something. Things like your 5 senses, your health, your freedom, your livelihood, your rights, your friends, your family, your knowledge, your skill sets, your abilities, your intellect, and many more. All these are real things, real tools to your possessions. They are assets beyond any doubt. There are many people who wish they have these, yet they don’t. Realize it or not, you are in a better off place than many people in this world. And focusing on the things that you do have now and making the best out of them are surer ways to move you forward in life than not recognizing them.

Your Problems Are Somethings Too

In fact, everything you have in your life now are all somethings. Including your problems, contrary to what many would think. I know many of you might be thinking – “How can my problems be of value? They weigh me down. I wish I can get rid of all my life problems  It’s weighing me down. I wish I can get rid of immediately.”

There was something I read in Think and Grow Rich 2 years ago which I want to share with you. Many people always see their problems as liabilities, and things they have as assets.

However, have you ever realized your problems are actually your assets too – in fact, bigger assets than you realize? Because for every problem you face, hundred thousands of people around the world are probably facing it too. And if your problem is so huge that it’s weighing on you, imagine how many other people would want to know the solution to this problem. Who is a better person to discover the solution than you, the person who is in the middle of it all?

Once you find the solution, imagine how invaluable this solution will be to others who have the same problem. It’s a huge asset! Your problems are really your assets in disguise. They are your hidden gold mines waiting to be mined and converted into gold. In fact, you should be grateful you have such problems because they are your keys to abundance. It’s with these problems that you become a richer person (not just in physical wealth, but also emotionally, mentally and spiritually).

I was brought up in a family where money was not abundant. I wouldn’t exactly say my family was poor, but we were not well-off. Working class would be an appropriate classification. Since young, we lived in regular HDB flats and didn’t own any cars (Cars are considered a luxury item in Singapore, unlike the States where it is a staple). My parents worked very hard to put me and my brother through education. (That said, they dote on me a lot – They almost always bought me everything that I wanted too, so I never felt like I was in lack or anything like that.) When I was a young kid, I had classmates whose parents were very well off. They lived in bungalows, semi-detached, etc and many of them had cars. At that time, I wondered why my family was not as rich as others’. I wished my family was more well off.

Then one day, I came across this quote, along the lines of “Those who are rich will never know how expensive it is to be poor”.

It was then that I realized that it was a blessing that I was where I was, because I could never appreciate wealth (of any kind) the same way if I already had it to begin with. That was one of the times when I had a paradigm shift about my reality.

I’m not saying that others who are already born materially rich can’t appreciate their wealth, but they would never do so the same way compared to if they never had it in the beginning (this is the same for every other situation in life too). It’s from a place of lack that you truly appreciate something when you get it. It’s also from your problems that you grow and become better, just like how your disappointments make you a stronger person.

And Then There Is Something Else

And then even beyond your problems/liabilities, assets/possessions, knowledge, abilities, skill sets, there is something else that you have. Even if you have nothing to your name, even if you’ve been declared bankrupt, even if you’re in $100 million dollars in debt, even if everyone has left you in this world, even if you are to lose your job/status/knowledge/achievements, even if your life has been decimated, you still have something.

You have you.

And that, I’m telling you, is the most powerful thing you can ever have in your entire life. It’s the one thing you ever need in your entire life to create the life you want. Because you have more power in you to create than anything else in the world that you can acquire. It doesn’t matter whether you are $100 million dollars in debt; you have the ability to reverse it and earn more. (Which was exactly what Donald Trump did – He was $0.9 billion dollars in debt in the 1990s and reversed that in a year, to emerge a billionaire with $3b in net worth – 3 times richer than his highest point of wealth before his debt.)

It doesn’t matter if you have no friends now to speak of; you have the ability to get out there and make new friends. It doesn’t matter if you have nothing now, because you can get out there and create something for yourself.  Whatever static object/asset you can acquire is nothing in comparison with you – the dynamic being who is able to create, synthesize thoughts, break down problems, form solutions, build structures, move mountains, and more.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the answers now, because you have the eternal connection with your subconsciousness, which has all the answers you need. You also have the unlimited potential and capacity to do whatever you want.

When I started this blog in Dec ’08 (less than 2 years ago), I had nothing (so to speak). I had quit my job, I had no income; I was a nobody as far as the personal development world was concerned, I had no domains, no websites, no hosting, I had no idea what Twitter was or any of the jazzy Web 2.0 social media for that matter, no knowledge of the workings of the blogosphere; I had no experience in creating a personal development blog and I had never written a personal development article in my entire life. I had never done life coaching, didn’t know what life coaching was; I had never trained before, I had never spoken in a workshop or seminar; I never read personal development books nor had interest in them; I had no idea who was who in the personal development circle/community nor was I in the loop of happenings in the area.

Yet did it matter? No, it didn’t. All these were absolutely irrelevant in whether I was going to achieve my dreams. The point was that this was (and is) my passion; This was my dream. I knew that as long as I put my whole self into achieving the goal, I would achieve the goal. It didn’t matter what I had or what I didn’t have. If there was something I had that could help to achieve the goal – then great, I would leverage on it to achieve the goal. If there was nothing, then sure, I would just figure out how to get it, or if it wass not possible to get it – create it myself. Everything else was just riff-raff, peripheral nothings that played no role whatsoever in the outcome (achieving my dreams). And while everyone was expressing fear about my situation and how it was risky and what not, these were more like noise to my ears. Their fears were more projections of themselves than of my situation. In my mind, it was starkly clear. The outcome was fixed. The question was merely how to get there.

Today after 2.5 years, PEB has over 200k pageviews/month 1 million pageviews/month (as of Oct ’11), is one of the top 25 personal development sites in the world - and we’re growing stronger every day. I have received nearly 20 media coverages over 30 media coverages (as of 2011) in over 20 prominent media/press outlets, including CNN, Asia One, Today and 938 Live Radio. I’m a personal coach to very smart and talented people from different walks of life, whether in their 20s, 30s, 40s or teens, helping them to achieve success in their lives. My posts have been featured in the biggest personal development blogs online, including, DumbLittleMan and Zen Habits (top 25 blogs in the world as rated by Time Magazine).

Last month I just launched Personal Excellence Book, exceeding pre-sales in just the first hour. (If you haven’t gotten the book, you really should — one of my readers, Bailey, shared with me on how he boosted his business revenue by 30% in just two weeks after he bought the book!). I have bigger goals for Personal Excellence in the next few years to come, and I’m excited to see them unfold.

Did it matter whether I had something or nothing in the beginning? No, it didn’t. Again, it’s irrelevant. Whatever it is that you have or don’t have now doesn’t matter. The outcome is fixed. Having something or nothing only affects how and what needs to be done to achieve your desired end outcome, but not the end outcome itself.

Focus on What You Want, not What You Have Now

If we always base our decisions on what we have or don’t have in this moment, we’re never going to get far. Because we’re limiting ourselves based on our history. You become a function of your past. You become a shadow of your past. That’s just surrendering yourself to what you had in the past, which is a very disempowering way to live. It merely serves to reinforce the status quo. Your current state is not a determinant of who you can be or what you can have. Remember, you have unlimited power in you. Focus on your WHAT, not your HOW.

Now if you instead, focus on what you want, what you really want, that’s a whole lot more empowering manner to live. What do you want in your life? Identify what you want, figure out your strategy and your plan, then get there.

My personal 5-step ESPER goal achievement series will help. When you’re inspired by a vision that drives you, you reach that goal no matter what. Your obstacles are only what you see when you take your eyes off your goal. Pick the skills, learn them, put in your 10,000 hours and more, and you’ll be there faster than you realize.

Everyone starts from somewhere. It doesn’t matter what you have or don’t have now. It’s more important that you get clear on what you want and move toward there.

The interesting thing is, when you start doing that, you’ll realize you had a lot of things all along. All of a sudden, the past skill sets that you acquired comes in handy. Your past knowledge becomes applicable. People you knew before fall into place one way or another to aid you. And even if you don’t, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a matter of creating the connections to drive you forward.

I’ll end off with this quote:

“It’s not what you’ve got; it’s what you do that makes the difference.”

All the best in achieving your goals and dreams and let me know how it goes :).

Image ©

  • RevMelanie

    That was amazing, Celes! Thank you so much, I’m copying and pasting this blog entry into my life handbook under the “inspirations” tab. :wink:

    • Celes

      hey Melanie, I hope you find my reply helpful :D All the best and keep us updated on how everything goes :D

  • Ashna

    This is a wonderful post Celes! Very inspiring..:)

    • Celes

      Thanks Ashna for your support! Very much appreciated :D

  • Vincent

    Hi Celes,

    I have seen you rise up from nothing to prominence. You deserve a good pat on your back. Keep it up and I wait to hear more success stories from you.


    • Celes

      Thanks Vincent. Look forward to seeing more from you too :D

  • Harry


    This is a very insightful post. We all must start from nothing, put in the required amount of effort, to become good at anything at all. So called 10,000-hour “talent”, from the book Outlier, which makes this point very clear.

  • Bailey Ing

    Hey Celes,

    What a timely post you have here. What you talk about is so true. The correct mindset is so important when you start out with nothing. It’s the classic is the glass half full or half empty mindset that makes the difference.

    However, as you pointed out to me before, knowing “what” you want is much more important than the “how”. I think so many people get stuck at wondering how, it makes it so hard to move from the place of being stuck and not being able to achieve their goals! If anything, I will always remember that point as that alone kicked my butt into gear and got me moving forward – FAST.

    Thanks for the great work Celes,


    • Celes

      Hi Bailey, thanks for your comment and for your wonderful review of PEBook! I received your email and I’ll love to do the interview. Let me work out a time slot and I’ll get back to you in a day’s time :D

  • Christopher Lovejoy

    Hi Celestine, I recently discovered your blog and I like what I’ve seen and read so far.

    In this post, I like your take on problems, as in “opportunities disguised as problems”. I mean, what better way to connect deeply and meaningfully with others than through our “problems”.

    Your journey of ascendance since Dec ’08 inspires me.


    • Celes

      Welcome to Personal Excellence and thanks for your support Christopher :D I look forward to connecting with you more here :)

  • Debra Green

    This is amazing – thank you so much, you have put so much of yourself into this and my goodness it is inspirational.
    You are truly a blessed person to be able to do this and to help so many people. I am going to start a life handbook now with this and I will make my dreams come true.

    Thank you.

    • Celes

      That’s great Deb!! I’m planning a 30-day challenge to live a better life in Sep, and it’s going to be very exciting! I’ll be rallying all readers to join in and I hope you join in too. More details in an upcoming post next week so stay tuned :D

  • yom

    :wink: “千里之行始于足下”,thank you for your posting and i like you blog , i think everyone is unique even you have nothing ,which no one can take the place of .you are also able to achieve your goal if you have.

    • Celes

      Thanks a lot yom :D. The chinese idiom you wrote basically captured the essence of it all. For those who don’t know chinese, it means a journey with a thousand miles begins with the first step. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!)

      • phani

        i would like to change it like this,



  • Chris


    The was a great post and I’m sure it will definitely help Melanie in her journey. And I agree 100%, a person can feel as if they have nothing and it is very easy to get “stuck” in that mindset, but I have found that if you just focus and keep pushing toward what you want it all becomes clear and simplified in no time. Focus on one small step at a time that ultimately leads to the goal.

    And I wish Melanie all the best in her journey!

    • Celes

      Thanks so much Chris for sharing your support! :D You’re definitely right that it’s about focusing one small step at a time. They all build up to bring us to the bigger vision in the long-run.

    • RevMelanie

      Thank you, Chris! :)

  • Wilma Ham

    The main thing I found when I burnt all my bridges to start anew is to pay attention to the environment you are in. When you are in such a vulnerable position, you need to be careful for people who can knock you off your perch. You need all the encouragement you can get, so avoid people who are making you fearful.
    When I gave up my job, fearful friends could easily upset me and make me fearful too and thus I wasted time to overcome my fear and get my courage back up.
    There is a biological explanation why the environment is important and it sure worked for me to pay attention to any toxins that could stop my progress. Following and learning from people like you is therefore a great strategy. xox Wilma

  • Gemma Opolentisima

    Hi Celes,

    I am very much glad to have come accross your blog site… I am your new fan and everyday I can’t let the day pass without reading your blogs. They are very empowering and inspiring that I can’t help myself read three to five articles a day. Specially this blog it’s mind blowing and full of realizations that the power to create something is within us… More power and success to you…

  • Yap

    Hi Celes,

    Congratulations for your achievement on being listed as one of the top 25 personal development blogs. You are just fantabulous! You have excellent work ethics, I shall model after you when I join the workforce.

    I find article is very consciousness-raising. I’m glad that I read this at this juncture as I have just graduated from my degree study. Being someone fresh with no work experience, I used to think that I’m not skillful enough for the workforce.

    But hey, after reading this, I’d say heck, let’s learn it…and then do it!

    With love,

  • John Sherry

    Celestine, you’ve proved that nothing is only the hero in zero waiting to be established. Everyone has to start somewhere and when you have very little there is also very little to lose. You can only gain, grow and develop – from acorns great oaks grow. Congratulations on your nothing to something journey as such but I’m sure you agree we are all someone with something to bring to the world so nothing is merely the starting point to paint your own blank canvas all over the planet. Blessings.

  • Desmond Greer

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you for sharing your personal experience, the perspective it gave me was very helpful. I have always found that I am more likely to take risk when faced with adversity. When everything is comfortable there is not a real motivation to walk through the temporary discomfort that comes along with making changes. It’s like draw poker. With a mediocre hand like two pair most people tend to hold onto a sure thing and only trade in one card. With a completely useless hand, maybe one ace, most will trade in all the cards they can giving them a shot at a much better hand than two pair. Many times the adversity, or the perception of having “nothing” motivates us to take the risk that pay off.

  • Roy

    Good stuff. Very inspirational.

  • Elisha Batuncang

    This post has really inspired me. Actually, we all knows that each and everyone of us starts with zero. When we see other people is successful while we are just on the average line, we tend to blame our environment, but one thing that we fail to see was the tenacity of the successful people.

    The problem is that we always seek for shortcuts, expecting to get from 0 to 100 the easy way.

  • Kariuki

    Hi Celes,

    Thanks a million for this post. You may never know what it has done to whip some of us to reality.

    Self-pity (that poor-me syndrome) continues to pull a lot of us down. We tend to, as you’ve aptly pointed out, blame our environment and circumstances and somehow feel our failure is justified.

    I may now claim to be newly-empowered, and from my position down in the dumps I’ll do everything possible to lift myself. I now know that zero is where most of the successful started. And what an inspiration from your own story, Celes!

    I’m from Kenya, a small country in Africa, where we are used to blaming everything on the colonial experience, our governments–everything but ourselves. I’ll pass your post around, and I’m sure it’ll inspire many.

    I thank God for landing on your blog. May you continue to enlighten us.

  • Martin White

    Hey, here’s a bit food for thought

    You should consider having a small webinar on the same topic. I’m sure that there would be quite many interested people :)

    All you need is a computer, a webcam and a platform via which to stream your webinar. Websites like ustream, livestream or offer these services.

    If you decide to do it then let me know, I’ll be 100% there to see your show :)


    • Celes

      Thanks Martin for the suggestion :D I’ve in mind to start online seminars/courses in the future; will update accordingly on the blog :D

  • Aimee

    Hi Celes!

    You have such a brilliant mind! Thanks for this very inspiring post :wink:
    Your site is indeed the best place that I can turn to when I have questions, doubts, fears in whatever situation/feelings I may be/have.

    You inspire me that and a thousands of people out there! I super like your PE!!!

  • syaz

    hi there, stumbled upon this.
    Needed the pep talk as i’m currently stuck in the ‘how.
    Cheers! :)