poor me

glass piggy bank with change inside

No, really – I’m poor. The question is why?

Let me begin by telling you something about me that not everyone knows. During my recent YouTube interview with Facilitation XYZ, I was very open. At one point, I revealed that most people see me as extremely open and honest; and as far as that goes, it’s true. But what people don’t always realize is that I’m perfectly willing to talk about just about anything after the fact – a year or a month or a week after a hard thing is over.

After I’ve answered my own questions.

After I’ve worked through my fears or feelings of hurt.

After I’m already back to “me as I know me.”

Granted, this is more than most people are willing to do. So, when I do talk with people openly about what they see as “recent events” that were difficult, they feel I am unusually candid and emotionally open. Again, to some extent, that is absolutely true. But I know me better than anyone else knows me. And I know that my tendency is to close down the fortress while I’m going through trying times, feeling the raw pain or struggling with the live questions.

Give me even a day or two, and I’ll tell you all about it; that’s generally all it takes for me to move past the “messy middle” and into that place of 20/20 hindsight.  You may even see my eyes well up as I tell you about “what happened then”; but the best I can explain this is that it is more an expression of empathy for my past self than evidence of any current conflict.

All of this isn’t really the point of this post. But I give you this peek behind the curtain so that you understand what comes next, which is that I am about to let you in on a live question I’ve been pondering – one about which I have not yet come to any set conclusions – which is a rare occasion, indeed (not having question, which I have all the time, but sharing one before I’ve already had the time to work through it to a satisfactory solution). No, it’s nothing earth shattering; but it is perhaps something life-changing. And, hey, it’s a step, right?

So, as I said at the start, I’m poor. But the question is … why?

Part of this answer, to be entirely truthful, I already know. It’s the part I haven’t yet resolved that is the crux of this post. But let me first briefly tell you about the parts I do know.

I am poor due to – you guessed it – choice (because, after all, you always have a choice).

best advice so far - you always have a choice - tweetable

Let me explain.

First, I’ve chosen to live simply. I started life in what I can only call poverty. Yes, I always had a house and clothes (hand-me-downs though they may have been); but my mother somehow fed, clothed, drove, washed, entertained and otherwise cared for four kids on a budget of about $22 a week for a while. In contrast, I also lived part of my later growing-up years in a sort of Great Gatsby world of excess (though it was really just an illusion that Peter and Paul wiled up robbing one another). And what I found, what I remember from having experienced those times both in childhood and adulthood, is that I was always happier when I surrounded myself with less.

As a child and teen, there were times when I’m sure my weekly income exceeded that of my parents. I was a bit of a wiz with computers (and Rubik’s Cube, which I don’t suppose is entirely dissimilar to programming) and made a relatively high rate writing custom office programs for businesses, before any such software existed on the market. And to my knowledge, I’ve never worked an actual job during my adulthood where I’ve  made less than $25.00 an hour, though my standard hourly rate has typically been somewhere between $75 – $200 an hour, whether that be for music lessons, specialized education instruction or advocacy, musical skills like playing piano for high-end weddings, branding and graphic design, etc.  In fact, though certainly anomalous, my highest pay rate to date was over $5,000 an hour (feel free to ask me about that if you like).

So, with earning potential like that, why the heck am I poor?

Answer #2: I chose a calling that pays far less than I am capable of earning.

You see, I’ve mentored my entire life. Even as a teen, I was mentoring younger teens. And I spent much of my adult life looking for employment that would allow me to mentor as I see mentoring and make a living at it. So I did psychiatric care with suicidal and self-harming teens. I did rehab counseling with addicts. And I did education with specialized and marginalized students.

But in each case, while I loved the kids and made a real difference, I was only ever able in each position to address one facet of a whole person. So if Israel showed up for his reading lesson and I knew his mother had just died at home three days ago, I’d be told, “Your job is to teach him reading. You can’t spend class time talking about the death of his mother; that’s for his counseling time.” Or if I were caring for a suicidal teen who was interested in singing, I was frowned upon if I built upon that interest or passion if it wasn’t part of “the prescribed plan.”

At some point about eight years ago, I made the atypical (and certainly risky) decision to step out of traditional work and into full-time mentoring. The thing is, not only did it not pay well – it didn’t pay at all.

This was largely choice, as well. I didn’t want there to be any barrier to kids receiving mentoring. I didn’t want the kids from means and the kids from poverty to see any differences between themselves, either. And so I offered all mentoring free of charge, surviving solely on the generosity of people who believed in what I was doing. And there were surprisingly many who did. In fact, it was such friends who talked me into making the strange leap in the first place.

I never advertised, announced my needs, sent out letters requesting support or any other such thing. People from across the decades just knew, and the money came in. Never more than I needed – but never less, either. I was never so glad that I’d learned to love simplicity!  It was scary at first, but then rather thrilling. Many of my first year of blog posts here celebrated the love and growth I experienced due to the creative care and support of people who simply appreciated greatly my place in their lives and their children’s lives.

Individual mentoring grew and found me facilitating small and then increasingly larger groups, and more of them. The next natural outcropping was then to write a book. After all, mentoring is essentially helping people find and internalize truth toward progress. And I realized I would only ever be able to have a personal impact with a limited number of people; so I set about to increase that sphere of influence, writing down the advice that people had recounted to me as having had the most profound or life-changing effect in their lives. In fact, the title comes from direct wording I began to hear often at that time: “Wow, Erik, that last thing we talked about? I tried it and it worked amazingly! It was the best advice you’ve given me so far.”

So now, I continue to mentor. But I am also a writer and, officially, a speaker and facilitator. However, this new role, while it stemmed from mentoring, is not mentoring. The principles are true for teens and their parents, but also for businesses and entrepreneurs and government agencies and educators … and everyone … because it’s about choice, about living like it matters. And that matters to us all.

And this new role as author/speaker has changed the landscape.

You see, I love writing and speaking, and helping people to tackle life problems and to see the world through new eyes. It has been a huge part of my success as a mentor. But it is not mentoring. It’s now become something other.

In last week’s post, I told you about the trouble I’d gotten myself into in the latter half of 2015, living as though putting everyone else’s goals ahead of mine was right and nice and what good people do – at the expense of investing in and living out my own goals and dreams to potential. And that has led me to this week’s dilemma, the part of my question – Why am I poor? – that I am still wrestling with.

Somewhere along the line in this stretch of bad thinking, that “nice people” do lots of stuff for everyone else all the time, I also got the wacky notion that “nice people” … do it for free (or, as they say here in Massachusetts, “wicked cheap”). And you’d be surprised (maybe? maybe not?) at the number of people who ask/expect me to do things for free (e.g., “Hey, can you get me a couple free copies of your book? I really want to read it, but I don’t have $15.00 to spend on it. I want to give one to my friend, too,” etc.).

I was just talking with my new friend Meg this week about all of this. On one hand, I told her, I feel like this:

I’m unusually good – some might even say better than most – at communicating and connecting with people, and I have the ability to help them to live significantly better lives with that gift; so how can I withhold that kind of potential help if people aren’t able or willing to pay for it?

But when I heard myself say that to Meg, I had this thought immediately following (and voiced it, as well):

I’m unusually good – some might even say better than most – at communicating and connecting with people, and I have the ability to help them to live significantly better lives with that gift; so why shouldn’t that be valued highly by recipients and compensated accordingly?

Like I said, I’m still not settled on this question. Both feel somehow “off” to me; but I have a hunch that is only because of a whole ball of “me stuff” and not because of anything based in reality.

Earlier, I told you that my highest pay rate thus far was over $5,000 an hour. I told you to ask me about it if you were curious. But I’ve decided to just tell you (even if, for some reason, you have absolutely no shred of curiosity about the matter).

About two years back, around this time of year, a called me on a Friday. He’s the supply chain director for a large biopharmaceutical company, and the artist they’d hired to draw a simple medical drawing had not come through for them. The worldwide distribution of a new drug was scheduled for midweek the following week, and the package needed that simple graphic in order to illustrate to speakers of over 80 languages how to take the pill. My friend knew I had artistic and graphic design skills and asked if I thought I could whip something out.

Thinking I was just helping my friend out of a pinch, I did whip something out. From the time of his call to the time I submitted the drawing was under an hour. After I submitted it, he ran a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo by me and said someone would be in touch over payment. Payment? I though. I told my friend that I had no idea what to charge (honestly, I thought it might be a couple hundred bucks).  He said he’d take care of it.

A few weeks later the check arrived: nearly $4,000.

For one picture.

That took me 45 minutes to draw and render.

Now, I know a picture is allegedly worth a thousand words. But it’s also apparently worth four thousand dollars (divided out by a whole hour, it comes to over $5000 an hour).

And if a picture is worth that much, why do I have any second thoughts at all when setting and feeling good about a rate commensurate with the value I bring by way of potential life change (which, by the way, is not $5,000 an hour)?

In completely uncharacteristic form for me, I’m going to leave that question hanging (though I welcome your thoughts – on this question, on your own situation, on similar thinking you may have had along the way, on answers or conclusions you’ve come to, on whatever you’d like to share!).

P.S. This is a philosophical dilemma more than anything. I am not starving. I am very fortunate, I enjoy life and plenty of “extras,” and I’m eating just fine. Please feel no compunction to drop canned goods off on my doorstep.

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

14 responses to “poor me

  • 1GloriesWriter (@1Glories)

    Wow Erik. I found myself in your head for much of this post. Or maybe it was you inside my head #$%^. Just this week, I had felt my heart break a little bit when I had to force myself to say no to something I really wanted to pursue. I knew that doing so would have stretched me even thinner and it would have made the end result less than stellar (not to mention drain resources from the other things I am pursuing). Wonderful post. thanks for sharing. Blessings.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik

      Hey, Chad. Yes, it’s (sometimes) tough to say no to good things. But I have to keep reminding myself (and to be reminded by others) that there are endless “good things” to be done in the world – all things which, theoretically, I could do – and which practically, I can’t. My best friend helped a lot during this round of “no saying,” when she reminded me that I help by nature. Every time I’m with someone, I help them, if only by using their name, giving them my full attention, offering support or ideas or the right questions. There’s no need to continually extend that to more. Sometimes? Sure. But as the exception. There’s only so much gas in the tank. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Like

  • Jed Jurchenko

    Great question Erik,

    I’m saving my pennies too and also dislike charging for my work–which explains why I am so much better at giving books away than selling them. I have no doubt that the books add value and wholeheartedly believe in the message. Yet it’s so much nicer to hand out a book, blog-post, webinar, speaking-engagement, etc, than to try to make a sale.

    You have some excellent thoughts though, and have gotten my wheels turning. Why feel ashamed or hesitant about charging? I think there is a balance to be found. I like that you’re sharing your journey in this, because I’m right there with you 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Erik

      There’s that word again: “nicer.” Do we think doctors and counselors and teachers and personal trainers – and other people who are “helpers” – are only “nicer” if they don’t charge for what they do, if they do it well? Again, it seems to me that maybe if you aren’t yet good at what you do, that’s the time to give more away, so that you can hone your skills and get some experience (like an intern). But if you are truly able to add something unique and excellent, that seems the time to start realizing that you can help in that unique and excellent way and make a fair living from it.

      And, man, I know you’re right there in the boat! (I think we’re facing opposite directions though in our dingy right now. Time for another catch-up session!)

      Liked by 1 person

  • Sean P Carlin

    You know, Erik, I don’t have the answer for you — and I know you weren’t looking for that from me or any of your readers, necessarily — but all I can say is this: These issues are thorny because, at their core, they implore us to ask, “How much do I value myself?” That’s a complicated philosophical question, and putting a number on it — a dollar value, that is — seems to reduce it to a crass capitalistic equation. And though this example isn’t perfectly analogous with your particular circumstances, I was discussing the subject of self-worth with two fellow writers a few months ago when one decided to launch his own Patreon page to support his content-rich blog on the craft of fiction. He wrestled with the emotional complexity of this decision, but ultimately decided that the respect he sought had to start somewhere, so he got the ball rolling by respecting himself.

    With regard to the work that goes into putting out a quality blog, all I know is it’s a whole new world now — a democratized world in which we all have a voice online… but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to monetizing that as of yet, no step-by-step guide like you might find at the library if you were looking to, say, open your own small business. Basically, we can’t poll the wisdom of antecedents, because the paradigms we once relied upon no longer apply. So, there’s opportunity, but there isn’t any roadmap. And that only makes the question of figuring out what we’re worth all the more arduous. I’m working on it myself…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik

      All good thoughts, Sean. For me, monetizing the blog is not an aim. That’s a “free” I’m happy to give; I was just pointing out that it does take time, and not a little. The things I’m tossing around in my head are more along the lines of speaking engagements, group facilitation, presentations, that sort of thing. Most people in and around the field (e.g., life coaches, motivational speakers, etc.) don’t seem to struggle with setting a price and just expecting that the value they will bring is worth that amount. I do believe what I offer is on par with those who charge hefty fees for such things. My present struggle seems to be centering on how to get to the place where it isn’t a struggle to know the value I bring, deliver on what I offered – and set a rate that feels commensurate.

      Doctors and counselors help people greatly, but don’t seem to sweat about payments. I’m also helping in real ways, and able to do so with an expertise that is not easily come by (like a doctor or counselor). I’m just not at the place where I’ve settled that in practical terms.

      Liked by 1 person

  • D. Wallace Peach

    Interesting post, Erik. I left a high-paying directorship in the corporate world after 18 years to go back to school and become a pastoral counselor. Talk about a drop in pay! Yet, it was a decision that I’ve never regretted. It set my life on a new course that I thoroughly enjoy despite the financial de-escalation. The things that I value can’t be bought with money, and the belief that money is the key to happiness can be a recipe for disappointment.

    As an author, I often have to look at what I do in terms of its value and my long-term goals. What’s more important to me? Readership or profit? How are they connected? Do give-aways undervalue my hard work or are they a necessary marketing step? Would I write books simply for the love of it? The answer to the last one is “yes,” which answers some of the previous questions.

    At the same time, I do think it’s important to value what we do. If we don’t, why would anyone else?

    And then, I go all woo-woo with my belief that what I put out there energetically comes back to me. If I value what I do, others will too. If I welcome abundance into my life, somehow my bills get paid. If I love writing and put my best into my work whatever that is, there will be readers. At the every least, I’ll enjoy the journey.

    So, my best advice so far (ha ha) – Set a fair price, but let your heart lead you too. I have no doubt that you’ll know when to stay firm and when to let go. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Erik

      As ever, Diane, your personal and insightful thoughts are welcome. I don’t think my dilemma would ever be charging too much. And I have a giving heart. It’s knowing what to give and what to charge for. I know there is a difference. In short, just because I can do something and it’s of benefit on a deeply human level (rather than, say, just a product or extraneous service) doesn’t mean it should be perpetually free in all contexts. It’s hard to get the details and differences across in a post; but really, the details weren’t the point. It was the overarching question for all readers: How to we ascribe value to and make a living from an unusual ability to help people on a deep level?

      If I were writing novels, this question would be super easy to answer, because novels are an extra. At the core of my book, blog, speaking and facilitation, however, is life change. Therein lies the only complication for me; but the input of several people even today, including yourself here, are already clarifying things for me. So thanks!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Jed Jurchenko

      Diane,

      I didn’t know that you were a pastoral counselor. I could see you being excellent at that. You’re great at encouraging others! It was fun to learn something new about you.

      Liked by 4 people

  • dustinfife

    I have a similar dilemma. I’ve had several people suggest I monetize my blog, but I feel like doing so would be “selling out” (at worse) or ruining the reader experience (at best). I also think it’s the nonconformist in me (well everybody else is monetizing their blogs so I’m not!)

    But, it would be nice to make some money for putting all this work into my blog, right? But then am I being disingenuous if I do? Am I then only doing it for the money? Or will it become that way?

    Many questions that have plagued me. Wish the answers were easy!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Erik

      That’s an interesting dilemma, Dustin – one that hadn’t even crossed my mind until now. Thanks a lot, man, for adding to the conflict. 😀

      No, but really, I hadn’t yet ever considered that one. But what I do know is that writing a blog post takes me 3 – 5 hours. Right now, that is a 3 5 hour gift to readers. I guess I also see it as “monetizing” in the sense that I do advertise myself (my book and speaking availability) through the blog; so visitors are seeing that information as they read. But, as I said, writing a blog (and keeping one up consistently) is a lot of work and commitment.

      Best to you on figuring that one out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it!

      Like

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