The Accidental Millionaire: How to Succeed in Life Without Really Trying

The Accidental Millionaire: How to Succeed in Life Without Really Trying

by Gary Fong


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The Accidental Millionaire is the memoir of Gary Fong, would-be slacker who revolutionized wedding photography, inventor of popular photography aids, entrepreneur, contrarian, bon vivant and a man who really, really didn’t want to become a doctor. A first-generation Chinese-American, Gary was raised in one of Los Angeles’ least-desirable neighborhoods and was forced to deal—in his own quirky and often very funny way—with the burdens of poverty, crime and his parents’ relentless aspirations. These issues almost overwhelmed him until he had a dramatic epiphany. Spotting a bumper sticker that read “Since I gave up hope, I feel much better,” Gary promptly did just that.

He stopped trying and started succeeding. At turns hilarious, insightful and instructive, The Accidental Millionaire is Horatio Alger-meets-David Sedaris. Turning the traditional self-help principles upside down, The Accidental Millionaire disdains the goal-oriented approaches of traditional self-help philosophies. Sometimes not knowing where you are going is the best possible way to get there.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781933771915
Publisher: BenBella Books, Inc.
Publication date: 10/06/2009
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


My Mom, the Guinea Pig

I'm convinced that an only child has formative experiences that are vastly different from those of a child with siblings. First of all, only children spend most of their time around adults, adults who lack the curiosity and sense of wonder that children have. Adults find the everyday world humdrum and mundane, whereas everything is fascinating to a fledgling human. When an adult and a child are constant companions, the child matures faster — and the adult is reduced to blithering infancy.

As the mother of an only child, part of my mom's job description was to be my primary playmate. She was a great sport about it. We would play army games for hours, wearing salad bowls on our heads as helmets or sitting under a laundry hamper and pretending I was in a car with a mesh cage. She was fun, and she never gave me the "Okay, that's enough" too soon. She played for as long as I wanted.

Little did she know, even after she fell asleep, she continued to be a great source of fun and experimentation.

We would take midday naps, and hers always lasted longer than mine. I would lie patiently beside her, waiting for her to wake up so we could play more games. Lying still in bed and waiting for her to awaken got old fast, and I would quickly run out of things within easy reach to play with. All I could get my hands on was this pebbly blanket covered with tiny sweater balls from the washing machine. I soon discovered that these sweater balls could be easily plucked off, and that there was an endless supply of them. No matter how many I plucked, I could not make a dent in the pebble population.

"When is Mom going to wake up?" I would wonder, as the sun streamed through the windows. I'd be hyper-bored and anxious to play. Mom's loud breathing through her nostrils would make a wheezing sound that was terribly distracting. Wind would rush in and out through those two air holes. In, out. In, out. Like the tide. So much wind! A veritable natural resource. What a shame it couldn't be harnessed ...

A light bulb ignited over my head.

I wondered what would happen if I held one of those tiny little sweater balls near her nostrils when the air was going in. Determined to find out, I harvested the perfect sweater-ball specimen — not too big, not too small. Pink and full-bodied. Holding it gently between my finger and thumb, my head cocked at a curious angle, I timed the release of the tiny fabric pellet to one of the "in" cycles of Mom's nostril wheezing.

Zoop! Like magic, the little ball was gone! Yay!

I plucked another ball, brought it up to her nostril and Bing! Just like magic, it, too, was gone! Now I was hoping Mom wouldn't wake up. I felt like a magician with a new disappearing act. The Vanishing Sweater Ball Trick became my secret ritual. It was endlessly fascinating. I would watch intently as each ball disappeared, wondering if I could predict its direction and velocity as it left my fingertips.

Years later, when I was studying quantum physics and learning about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (which says that you can't simultaneously measure both the location and momentum of a subatomic particle), I was able to absorb that confusing bit of theory by visualizing the sweater balls disappearing into my mom's sinus cavities.

Oh, the science I learned! One nostril invariably had more suction than the other, and from day to day they would switch roles. Would this be a right-nostril day or a left-nostril day? I couldn't wait to find out. The game just never grew old.

Eventually Mom developed sinus headaches. I remember her blowing her nose furiously and peeling back the Kleenex with a concerned expression when she saw her nasal output was so pink.

Poor Mom was an inexhaustible laboratory.

I can vividly remember back to when I was about nineteen months old. I know this because one day when we were in Seattle I pointed to an apartment building that I thought looked familiar. Dad said that we had moved out of there when I was nineteen months old. Yet I clearly remembered it. I also remembered that this was where I had discovered another ageless scientific principle: When you are in the shower with Mom and you turn the chrome lever to the left, it makes her scream.

When I was very young, Mom would sometimes take me in the shower with her as a matter of efficiency. I liked it better than being bathed. I liked watching her operate the shiny chrome lever. After careful study, I concluded that a turn to the left produced warmer water and right produced colder. Incremental changes in the angle of the lever would change the water temperature proportionately. This was fascinating to me. Of course Mom, being a grown-up, had lost all sense of fascination and scientific inquiry. She never tested the limits. That was my job. So one day while she was washing me, I waited until I was safely out of the stream of water and cranked the lever hard left. A full one-eighty.

"Ayyyyy Da Ka Daaa!!!!" shrieked Mom at an ear-piercing volume. This was the first Korean phrase I had heard in my life. I still don't know what it means, but I suspect it may be something like, "Do I look like a fucking lobster to you?!!" I remember being juggled wildly about in a flurry of fleshy motion, hot steam filling the room and Mom's skin turning pink. Eventually she got control of the knob and returned it to its boring old predictable position. She didn't even get mad. I tell you, they ought to give out medals.

What's Behind the Mysterious Window?

My habit of testing the extremes got me sent to a special school for gifted children when I was in third grade. Their mistake was telling me I was going to a school for smart kids. Not being particularly well socialized, I proudly announced to all of my classmates that I was going to Genius School and bid them a civil adieu.

The new school was weird. At first I was put in a room alone with a nice man named Mr. Lynne. I remember his name because he looked like Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares. During our sessions, his eyes would always wander toward a mirror on the wall. Something was really strange about that mirror — it was darker than any mirror I'd ever seen. One day I scooted out of my chair, marched up to the mirror, cupped my hands around my eyes to block out the ambient light, and saw two people wearing headphones.

These people were spying on me from another room! I confronted Mr. Lynne about it and he was forced to sheepishly acknowledge the two-way mirror to me. Evidently I was "under observation." This violation of my sense of privacy gave me two-way mirror paranoia for a long time. For years, I would go into bathrooms and cup my hands to check out the mirrors. The thought still crosses my mind occasionally.

At home, I started to have behavioral problems. Like when I told my mom the story of the "see-through" mirror and she said she had never heard of such a thing. I responded, "Well, I'd explain it to you, but you're too stupid to understand because you don't go to genius school!"

That endearing attitude kept getting worse until one day everybody agreed that while the school for gifted kids was stimulating my intellect, the risks of my developing a socially disastrous superiority complex far outweighed the benefits. So they sent me back to public school.

"Ha ha ha! Look at the Genius School dropout!"

"Did you flunk out of smarty-pants school?"

After one day of such treatment, I lost my superiority complex pretty much forever. I never mentioned anything about being smart again. I settled into being a quiet and happy member of the pack.

Then, when I was eight years old, I got yanked out of this comfort zone without warning. My dad was an electrical engineer for Boeing and they had no job for him anymore due to the loss of a major contract. So we had to leave our comfortable house and move to a small courtyard apartment in Los Angeles.


My family's little two-bedroom apartment — six hundred square feet of concentrated paradise — always had a thick odor of sticky, semi-dried hairspray. My mom sold wigs, and you can't just sell wigs straight from the manufacturer. Wigs need work. Mom bought them un-styled, then mounted each one on a gray pincushion head, combed it into a style, doused it with hairspray, then plopped it on a broomstick stuck into a plywood table.

The pincushion heads were cartoonish, with painted eyes and lipstick and fake eyelashes. It was very eerie whenever Mom completed a style job. She'd just take the head and stick it on a pole, where it would sit among a forest of others, looking like the severed heads of the French aristocracy.

Then she'd start in on another one.

Halloweens were good for business because people bought lots of rainbow-colored afro wigs. They looked like furry snow cones, with assorted neon colors sprayed into a rainbow pattern. Very stylish. Since we sold wigs at the Compton swap meet, most of our customers were black women. Accordingly, those rainbow afro wigs were always mounted on black mannequin heads. Some with blue eyes. Some with blue eyes and fake eyelashes. And all of them thick with the acrid smell of lacquer hairspray that permeated everything in the house.

Our food tasted like hairspray. My fingers smelled like hairspray. When I put on sunglasses, it was like looking out of a windshield after the wipers have smeared it with bug juice. To make matters worse, the glasses would stick to my hair. They were plastic, and believe me, nothing could remove that lacquer from plastic.

I often wondered: If everything in the house was coated with lacquer, what was happening to our lungs? I blew my nose and smelled lacquer. All of our dishes were filmed with lacquer. The chopsticks. The toothbrushes. Even the television set had a dull and uneven surface that made I Love Lucy look faintly brown and ripply.

We lived on the third floor of a courtyard apartment complex. The building was basically a trapezoidal three-story building surrounding a kidney-shaped pool. The sign that permanently read WARNING: NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY made me feel lonely whenever I walked by it. For some reason the Beatles' song "Revolution" was always playing in one of the apartments, and you could hear it throughout the courtyard. The name of the building was depressingly misleading: Palace Court.

On the rare occasions that I would invite friends over, nobody said anything about our living conditions. Dozens of lifeless heads frozen in lifeless shock, staring like a jury of C3PO's peers. The acrid smell of plastic and lacquer everywhere. My mom's desk with its adjustable roller-ball headstand where she would tease furiously and joylessly at wig heads, for a styling charge of $6 per crispy hair-hat.

Friends wouldn't say anything, but the next time we'd get together, we'd always meet at their house.

Declaration of Independence

Eventually other kids' homes became my home because I basically forced their families to adopt me. I was the kid who came too often, stayed too long, and invited himself to dinner. Oh, and by the way, can I spend the night? Thanks — I brought my sleeping bag. Don't worry about breakfast; I'll help myself to the cookie jar.

I spent so much time at the Ciaobella household, I became fluent in Spanish. They were an Argentinean family whose grandmother lived with them and spoke no English. So the entire household spoke Spanish. As a self-adopted member of their family, I did as the Argentineans did.

As a result, I don't speak Chinese or Korean, the languages of my parents. I grew up speaking Spanish with a Castilian dialect.

My parents grew up in two very different cultures. Although both were Asian, and to the untrained eye they looked as if they were from the same country, there is a world of difference between the Korean and Chinese cultures. Language, for instance. When they got married, neither could speak a word of the other's native tongue. While some might see this as a marriage made in heaven, others might point out the obvious impracticalities. How did they get around it? By using the small pool of broken English they shared.

But language was the least of the problems in my parents' house.

Whenever I was home, I felt like I couldn't breathe. There was no real space for a kid. My parents had their hands full with their own concerns. My mom often had health problems and would spend long periods of time in the hospital. When she wasn't sick, she was flailing at the wigs. My dad struggled with unemployment as an electrical engineer and worried. Tension and financial concerns filled the air like hairspray fumes.

I felt despair for my future and fretted about it constantly.

I've kept a journal for as far back as I can remember. (That's where all these stories come from.) One day, when I was ten years old, I wrote an entry called "My Declaration of Independence." It had become abundantly clear to me that my folks had their hands so full with life's struggles that I could no longer entrust my care to them. It was too risky a proposition. I realized that under their emotional umbrella I would forever be unable to relax and grow into the person I needed to be.

So on that fateful day, I resolved that I, Gary Fong, being of sound mind and body, would become the commander-in-chief of my own destiny. I elected myself to the position of self-parent. I became my own custodian. I would keep me off drugs. I would ensure that I would study hard, get enough sleep, and use self-discipline to make myself not only a survivor, but an achiever. I would be responsible for realizing my full potential. Everything — I repeat, everything — was to be completely up to me from that day forward.

After writing my declaration, I felt liberated. I had issued myself a daunting challenge, but now I was in control. At least of my internal world.

As a ten-year-old child, of course, my external world was still very much under the control of my parents. But now I knew that it was up to me to take care of inner business and make sure I was always getting what I needed.

That was when I started living a dual existence — always doing what my parents required of me, but also finding ways to do what I required of me. This continued until manhood.

Zen and Karate

When our country declared itself free and independent, it took steps to insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense. Likewise, as soon as I wrote my own Declaration of Independence, I began to make plans for my own self-defense and survival. How? I decided to take up karate.

There were many different karate schools in the Yellow Pages to choose from. One ad in particular caught the eye of this independent, self-empowered ten-year-old. It was from a studio that taught the Zendoryu style of Karate. Zen-do-ryu literally translates into "The Zen Method." Of karate.

Putting the silent art of Zen together with the cinder-block-smashing art of karate might seem an odd pairing at first glance. Kind of like the SPCA hosting cock-fighting tournaments. Of course, I would learn that it wasn't very odd at all.

The ad for this particular school said, "Offers solutions for childhood bullies." How wonderfully ambiguous. Did that mean it was designed to help bullies kick even more ass? Or was it a self-defense against bullies? Or did it give students the inner calm and self-confidence they needed to quell all desire to fight? Needless to say, reason number one held all the appeal for me.

I was a childhood bully, of sorts. Not that I picked on helpless kids per se, but I did buy into pack behavior. Our school was very into meeting at the flagpole at 3:05. Rather than pick fights on the playground and risk suspension, we would declare a fight, and fighters and spectators alike would meet at the flagpole, then migrate to a fighting ring outside of the school's direct jurisdiction, usually some vacant lot or alley. We'd have to rotate the fight venue often because we didn't want to get busted.

I was the new kid in town. Being a complete unknown evokes a lot of mystery, which is heady stuff to a ten-year-old. I'd also had an early growing spurt, so I was 5'5" in fifth grade. If I was going to play up this mystery thing, I wanted to be Bruce Lee. Being the biggest kid and knowing karate was my one-way ticket to becoming the new alpha male.

The karate school had a different idea. Their basic message was "walk away." Walk away from confrontation. Walk away? I had to pay $29 a month to learn that?

Yup. Every week my karate class received very profound, very Eastern-sounding lectures on why the karate way was to disengage and invite peace. I shut my brain off during these lectures. I wanted to win fights and be an ass-kicking master.


Excerpted from "The Accidental Millionaire"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Gary Fong.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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