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Your Neighbors Are Retiring in Their 30s. Why Can’t You?

Even before he really knew what it meant, Allen Wong wanted to be rich. As a kid, he didn’t yet equate the word with “luxury” or “status” or “expensive things.” He didn’t think wealth would bring him 85-inch televisions and Jacuzzis, a one-of-a-kind rose-gold Lamborghini in the garage, a wearable Iron Man suit that shoots lasers — though he does, actually, have all of that now. What “rich” seemed to dangle was something simpler, more elementary, more a feeling than anything else: freedom from pain.

Wong’s parents had fled poverty — at one point, his father used tennis balls as flotation devices to illicitly cross waters from Guangzhou into Hong Kong — in order to raise a family in a more opportune land. But growing up in New York City, Wong watched one parent peddle medicinal herbs all day long while the other toiled away in a Chinatown sweatshop. They barely had time to slough off one workday before trudging into the next.

“I didn’t want my life to end up like that,” he told me. “I didn’t want to be absent from my family and only show up a few hours each day after work. I didn’t want my life to be monotonous and stuck in a repeating loop until I die.”

Then, in 2008, right as he was graduating from college, the family convulsed. Wong’s father was ousted from his business, sank into a depression and committed suicide; his mother tripped down a spiral of mental illness. Suddenly, Wong’s entry-level computer programming job was the household’s only source of income, and there was a world financial crisis going on. He had always dreamed about digging out of the middle-class quagmire — striking gold, pulling in enough money from a one-off idea that he would never have to work the way his parents did. But it was now, as anxiety and medical bills piled up, that those idle daydreams began to feel urgent and necessary. So he turbocharged his ambitions. He started coding around the clock, tinkering on D.I.Y. software ideas whenever he wasn’t at work, barely sleeping. He doggedly pushed one project after another to the App Store, praying for something to take off.

Eventually, one did: an app that let users tune in to police scanners around the world. Then another. Their runaway success took even him by surprise. By the time his peers were splurging on their first West Elm sofas, he was a self-made multimillionaire.

Wong found his day job interesting enough, and he liked his colleagues. But submitting himself to a boss’s whims, spending his days trapped like a houseplant under corporate fluorescence, grated at him; it reminded him too much of his parents’ suffering. What, he wondered, could a so-called career really offer him if he had already secured enough money for a good life? The whole point of working was to get what he had just gotten. So, at 25, he bought a $250,000 sports car painted a shimmery lime green — it wasn’t so crazy a purchase, he reasoned, because his police-scanner app was by then generating that amount of revenue in a single month — and announced that he was retiring forever.

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