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).
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:
But when I heard myself say that to Meg, I had this thought immediately following (and voiced it, as well):
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.
Are you ready for some real change in your life right now?
The Best Advice So Far is about choice. Filled with wit, humor and poignantly real stories, The Best Advice So Far shares collective wisdom through a new lens, as well as practical application for living like it matters (because it does).