Financial Origin Stories | Generation FIRE Episode One

by The Darwinian Doctor

In this post, I break down the concept of “financial origin stories” by sharing the story of how I became a surgeon and real estate investor. Let’s go back to the beginning…

This post may contain affiliate links.

Editor’s note: If you prefer your podcasts in written form, this post is for you. This is episode one of the Generation FIRE podcast, lightly edited for clarity. It’ll explain the concept of “financial origin stories” and share a lot of details about my own story.

Make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel so you can watch or listen to the complete product!

— The Darwinian Doctor


Welcome back to Generation FIRE, where we bring the goal of financial independence to all generations.  Last week, we introduced the concept of this podcast and in today’s episode, I want to go into detail about my financial origin story.  

Again, I’m your host, Dr. Daniel Shin.  I’m a board certified urologic surgeon and real estate investor.  I’m both an active and passive investor in real estate and have over a hundred thousand followers on social media.  

Cereus Real Estate

This episode is sponsored by Cereus Real Estate, a real estate investment firm created by physicians to help doctors and professionals achieve financial freedom through cash flowing real estate. 

Back to my story.  

The Financial Origin Story

Of course, I didn’t start out as a real estate investor and influencer. In fact, less than 10 years ago, I was in tons of debt and trapped in a job where I felt overworked and severely burnt out.  To understand how I got there, it’s important for you to understand my financial origin story.  

First of all, what’s a financial origin story?

Well, we all have a history that affects how we think and act in the present.  When it comes to money and our beliefs about financial freedom, this is heavily affected by your experiences with money from your childhood.  

And when it comes to my childhood, money was a source of fear and anxiety.  

The early years

I was born on the East Coast of the US in New York City.  For the first few years of my life, we lived a humble existence.  My family lived in a little apartment above the dry cleaner that my parents owned.  After a few years, my parents decided to make a change and my father became a commercial real estate broker. We moved across the Hudson river to New Jersey and got a house on a hill in the suburbs.  

I had an older sister and after a seven year gap, my younger sister was born.  We had a pretty idyllic early childhood:  my mom stayed home with us while my dad commuted back and forth to Manhattan in a big diesel Mercedes.

At least on the outside, it looked like we had the perfect life:  the car, the house, and the once yearly vacation to the Jersey shore.

The trouble starts

This all changed in the early 90s when a recession wiped out the real estate industry.  At the time, I was in middle school.  From my perspective, it seemed like all of a sudden, our perfect lifestyle crumbled overnight.  

We started getting these strange phone calls to our house. After a while, I figured out that they were creditors, trying to collect on debt payments.  I still remember hearing them leaving these horrible messages on our answering machine, calling us names and leaving insults.  I learned to dread the sound of the phone ringing.  

It got worse

It also was in middle school when we suddenly had to pack up and move across town to a rental one weekend.  This wasn’t a planned and orderly move.  All of a sudden, we were just throwing things into boxes and a moving truck, and leaving the only house I’d ever known.

After that weekend, we entered into a period of financial scarcity and instability that left deep scars on my psyche. 

Middle school is also that time when kids start becoming acutely aware of things like fashion.  And in our family, I quickly learned that we couldn’t keep up with fashion.  Things like buying new sneakers or new clothes for the school year were a source of anxiety and frustration because of the cost.  Even having sunglasses was out of the question.

Dad had to leave home

My dad left home to run a real estate development business in Puerto Rico.  This didn’t produce a ton of cash flow at first though. During this time, my mother sometimes struggled to put food on the table for dinner.  

I remember one night overhearing her crying on the phone to a friend about how hard it was.

To make ends meet, my mom had to go back to work.  She had gone to cosmetology school, so she started a hair salon with a loan from her aunt.  

No money talk

During this time, things were really confusing from the kid’s perspective.  We didn’t talk about money in my family, so my sister and I knew that something was wrong, but we also knew that we couldn’t really talk about it.  

But it wasn’t too hard to figure out that money, or lack of money specifically, was the source of a lot of our issues.  

Asking to get fast food like McDonald’s was enough to make my mom mad.  I didn’t understand it at first, but she was angry and frustrated because we couldn’t afford to get food there.  It was far cheaper to cook at home.  

We got by

Somehow we scraped by, and I’m so grateful to my parents that we were able to get through these hard times.  I don’t know how, but they managed to keep us all fed, clothed, and educated, despite the lack of money. 

But my memories from that time taught me that money is scary.  And if you don’t have it, life becomes very difficult. 

My plan

As I entered high school, my plan was pretty clear:  I needed to get good grades so I could go to a good college and then become a doctor.  I didn’t really know what doctors did, but I knew they helped people, were well respected, and made good money.  At that time, that was enough for me.  

So I did it.  I worked hard in school.  I was valedictorian of my class and went to an Ivy League college.  Then I went to medical school and matched into a surgical residency in Los Angeles.  

This was a really challenging education journey, which I’ll talk about in the future in depth.  But after about 15 years of higher education, it worked.

It worked?

About 7 years ago, I became an attending surgeon and my plan was a success.  I had a stable income that was large enough where I didn’t have to worry about buying food and clothing.  I also had a lot more:  I was married, had a nice car, and had moved into a big house in Los Angeles.

After a year or two of making attending level doctor money, I finally was able to relax a bit in regards to finances.  All of a sudden, my family was in the 1% of income earners.  We were able to pay all our bills and still save money in retirement accounts and put away money for our kids’ college funds. 

But I also was working like crazy and was incredibly burnt out.  I wanted to cut back and work less, but every time I considered this, I broke into a cold sweat at the thought of making less money.  

Despite our high income, I felt anxiety at my $300,000 of student loans and our huge mortgage.  We also had a lot of recurring costs related to childcare, private school, travel, and supporting my parents.

I realize now that a lot of my fear and emotions around money at that time came from my financial origin story, which was characterized by fear and scarcity.  

Enter FIRE

I also came to the depressing conclusion that I had no more goals to focus my energy.  Ever since high school, I had the goal of becoming a doctor to guide my life.  But all of a sudden, I was done!  And for the next 30 or 40 years, I was just supposed to do the same thing, day in and day out.  

Now medicine is a noble profession and I still enjoy practicing medicine, but there were a lot of parts of my job at the time that made being a doctor very tough.  I’ll go into detail about all of this in later episodes.

The bottom line is that I wanted to work less, but I was scared to earn less money, and I didn’t know if we’d be able to maintain our quality of life if I cut back.  I realized I was trapped by golden handcuffs.  

After I realized this, I knew something had to change.  

The commute becomes my sanctuary of learning

So instead of being bored out of my mind on my 10 hour weekly commute, I decided to convert my car into my sanctuary of learning.  I listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts about personal finance and investing. 

Eventually I found the FIRE community – people dedicated to financial independence and freeing themselves from the rat race.  I instantly felt at home.  

When I saw that a lot of them were also real estate investors, I was even more intrigued.

The decision

I eventually decided that my new goal would be achieving financial independence so I could break my golden handcuffs and live a life of purpose and intention that was under my control.  

I started writing about my progress at the Darwinian Doctor blog so others could learn from my journey.

The present

It’s been about six years since I started my journey to FIRE, and my life has changed dramatically.  I now spend more of my time as a real estate investor than I do as a surgeon, though I still value the practice of medicine.  

I actively own a portfolio of about 30 units of real estate and have invested passively into hundreds of more units.  Along with our other investments, my family is now about halfway to financial freedom.  

I’m happier, healthier, and living a life of purpose once more.  

This podcast is for you!

If you’re burnt out but financially handcuffed to your job, this podcast is for you.  By listening to or watching this podcast, I expect that you’ll gain the tools to objectively analyze your financial situation.  With this information, you’ll have more insight into your options.  Can you cut down on your work hours or even quit your job entirely?  We’ll find out.  

If you are just floating along in life without purpose, this podcast is also for you.  I hope to arm you with the ability to start seeing the bigger picture; how to change your mindset and enjoy the satisfaction of once again working towards worthy goals.  

And finally, I hope to use my adventures and experience with personal finance and real estate to show you a path to a life where you are moving closer and closer to financial independence

I want you all to have the gift of two of the most precious things in this world:  time and freedom of choice.   


I hope you enjoyed this episode of Generation FIRE, where we bring the goal of financial independence to all generations.  If you did, make sure to hit that like button and subscribe.  

Next episode, we’ll be talking about the FIRE movement. 

— The Darwinian Doctor

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Rikki Racela
Rikki Racela
6 months ago

Dude, awesome story man! Congrats with all your success dude and I look forward to actually listening to your podcast on my commute although I don’t think you’re up on Apple podcast yet. How much do you think that the financial detriment to your family was because you lived in New Jersey? I too live in New Jersey and seems to be a place that’s toxic for wealth as a doctor but even worse for a low income family.

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Since everyone is different, it may not be appropriate to generalize my doctorly advice to your own situation. Please run all medical, life, and financial advice by your own physician or financial professionals before applying it to your own life! Consider all information for your entertainment only!

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