“Are you an underearner?” The opening sentence of Earn What You Deserve should give you a strong hint as to whether you need this book. The rest of the first page should confirm it. For the right person, it could be galvanizing.
Jerrold Mundis is relatable, at least to broke people. He describes digging through his couch cushions for enough change to buy food for himself and his son. After years of recovery, and even years of being completely debt-free, Mundis keeps finding himself on the financial brink. He describes his condition as self-created lack.
Underearning, in this formulation, is something you do, rather than something that happens to you. It can apply to people from every field, every socioeconomic level, every educational level. It comes in three types: Compulsive, Problematic, and Minor. It can also be active or passive. The key is understanding that money alone can’t solve the problem of underearning. Pattern recognition comes first. What is it that we do that is different from what other people do?
Earn What You Deserve has enough practical financial advice in it to help even a complete novice figure out where to start. How do you set up accounts, categorize your expenses, pay off debt, negotiate a higher income? There are also some really excellent and even quirky ideas for negotiating with a partner. Apparently one of the chief signs of underearning is that we blame it on our mate rather than taking responsibility for our own end.
There’s no harm in exploring a book like this, even out of curiosity and skepticism. As Mundis explains, you don’t have to do anything or change anything. You can always go back. Why, though, go back to underearning? If you earn “too much” you could always slough it off and give it away, right?
No matter who you are or what your living conditions, this is precisely how difficult your own situation is—more difficult than some, less difficult than others.
Money is a highly charged subject. And most of the emotions people feel around it are negative: fear, shame, embarrassment, anger.
Worry and fret never swayed a single decision in your favor, paid off a penny of your debt, or brought in a dollar’s worth of income.
“If you lower your standards, then your standards are lower.” We were setting up for a day-long meeting and debating whether the nearest cafe was close enough to give us time to grab breakfast. One guy rejected the coffee at the event, saying he didn’t want to lower his standards. I responded in the manner above. We made eye contact, burst into simultaneous laughter, and instantly became friends.
I don’t even drink coffee.
The reason my new friend and I connected was that when you share a philosophy, it often takes only one sentence or one behavior to make that connection. A lot of people signal this sort of thing through their clothing, which is of course why they wear it. (Otherwise, wouldn’t jumpsuits, togas, or Star Trek-type uniforms be so much more convenient?)
Context says a lot all by itself. Here I am at seven AM on a Saturday, an hour before this day-long event, with maybe a half-dozen other lost souls. My very presence says a series of things about my commitment, interest level, ability to be organized, and willingness to volunteer for thankless tasks. Add in my wardrobe choices, facial expressions, vocal tone, posture, and mannerisms. You can’t tell everything about me, but you have a lot to go on. Maybe you don’t have enough information to figure out biographical details like whether I have kids or what kind of car I drive. You do know a few things, though, about my values and my behavior.
I was blind to all of this as a young person. When I look back, I can’t help but wonder how different my career path might have been if I’d understood at twenty what is now so obvious at forty-plus.
At that age, I would have been seriously offended by the implication that I had low standards.
As the Future Version of that callow youth, I can only laugh. Young Me DID have lower standards in all sorts of ways. Young Me was a terrible cook, for instance. Young Me accepted dead-end, low-paying jobs when she could have gone for more. Young Me neglected to advocate for herself in obvious situations when she could easily have negotiated better. Young Me tolerated shabby treatment from friends, coworkers, bosses, and boyfriends. Young Me wound up taking jobs, renting rooms, giving door keys to roommates, signing contracts, and doing favors for friends in situations that Today Me would never consider for five minutes.
Not only did Young Me have no clue how to negotiate, Young Me also had no idea how she constantly demonstrated that she was not a “first in line” first-choice kind of person.
Waiting by the phone for calls from a selfish, inconsiderate young man when we both should have known better.
Accepting the first offer from the first employer who called, with the first wage they suggested.
Being there, over and over, for friends who vanished rather than reciprocate.
Tolerating bad behavior, like stealing my laundry quarters or bouncing rent checks, not knowing what to do other than feel hurt.
Young Me saw a lot of specific incidents as misfortunes, rather than as indicators of an untrustworthy person or red flags for obvious behavior patterns. It took a lot of disappointment and a few very nasty surprises to start developing some street smarts and setting better boundaries. Today Me knows to ask more questions in the first five minutes.
Today Me still does favors for people, although usually they are different kinds of favors. Today Me gets asked to be a reference or review resumes for job-hunting friends. Today Me evaluates a lot of speeches and holds a lot of volunteer offices and staff positions. Today Me will still visit people in the hospital, help people move, pet-sit, or occasionally slip someone a secret envelope if they’re having cash problems. Having higher standards and better boundaries does not mean being more selfish, cold, or unkind. It means being more discriminating, offering help where it can make a real difference. Feeling taken advantage of can only happen if you have certain expectations or if you come from a position of scarcity. Offering a gift of time, energy, or resources comes from a place of love, and that means no strings.
There are, of course, many other areas where Today Me has higher standards. Young Me was a walking disaster in some ways, chronically disorganized, constantly late everywhere, and helplessly lost in the professional wardrobe category. These are not moral issues and they are not character issues. It still feels unfair sometimes to be judged by what are really superficial traits. They are, though, extremely potent signals that show whether someone is operating in the same system or not. I always believed myself to have a strong work ethic, to be committed and dedicated, bright and sincere. In some ways, it’s convenient to have ways to demonstrate that visually, just by walking in the door at 7 AM on a Saturday and making a single comment.
If you lower your standards, then your standards are lower, whether that’s your standard for how you behave, how you speak, what you believe is an acceptable work product, how you treat others or how you allow them to treat you. It’s also true that if you raise your standards, then your standards are higher. This is how you can personally contribute to a better world. If you raise your standards, you can improve your own behavior, speak kindly, influence and inspire others, create amazing, beautiful, and useful things, set the tone at an event, and ultimately contribute to the culture of a community or organization, however small. How you do one thing may actually be how you do everything. It’s an interesting project to see how raising your standards in even one area may affect everything else in your life.
It wasn’t a problem until it was a problem.
See, I have this crazy belief that as a citizen and taxpayer, I have the right to go about my business every day. I have the right to walk around town, engage in commerce, visit public buildings, and do whatever I want, as long as it’s legal and it doesn’t bother anybody. I persist in believing this even when I’m honked and shouted at by Rude People out of their vehicle windows while I’m running, bothered by barbarians on the bus, or pestered by perverts at the public library. What is a genteel lady of mature years to do?
Plan ahead, that’s what.
A lot of things changed for me when I took up martial arts. I started to feel more strength and self-confidence. I started to be more situationally aware in a new way. I also began to realize that the vast majority of belligerent people are shouting or posturing to appear threatening because they are afraid and don’t actually know how to fight. As I practiced various techniques like escaping from chokeholds, I started to watch action movies and crime shows from a completely different perspective. I began to reassess my assumptions about my public life.
That process is ongoing. It certainly wasn’t complete the day I realized I had a problem at my local cafe, a place where I do hours of work every week, a place I consider to be a safe haven.
The first time, I was deeply absorbed in my writing when another customer demanded my attention. I looked up, assuming he had some very important and urgent reason for interrupting me. “You look good,” he said, leering. Um, thanks? I didn’t ask? I’m a married, middle-aged person in sub-casual clothing, sitting in a back corner of a coffee shop. What about me says PLEASE INTERRUPT ME, RANDOM PEOPLE?
Okay, whatever. Back to work. Trying to flag down another train of thought since the first one has left the station and is no longer in view.
The second time, I happened to be sitting in the same spot doing the exact same thing, which was 1. Minding my own business 2. Not bothering a single soul on this sweet earth and 3. Obviously working. I had a timer to remind me that I needed to call a Lyft and get to a business meeting. As I gathered up my things, a voice came at me from my elbow. I didn’t even realize it was directed at me, because why would I? I was alone and the only people I knew were the staff.
The voice repeated itself. I looked up, only to realize that the same Interruptor from the previous week was sitting not an arm’s length away, turned sideways in his chair and spying on me. Possibly even reading my screen. He had a broad grin and looked delighted with himself.
I understood several things at that moment. 1. This person recognized me. 2. This person believed he had a right to interact with me, sit near me, speak to me, and press for an acquaintance. 3. This person may indeed have been on my turf hoping to run into me again. 4. I had no idea how long he’d been there. 5. This person now knew something about my schedule and habits. 6. If I wanted to avoid him, I’d either have to give up my cafe habit altogether or start going to the location two miles away.
I really did have to leave within a few seconds. I didn’t say anything; I did what I’ve done so many times and simply held up my left hand, showing my wedding ring.
“That’s good,” he said, “that’s good.”
I left, feeling flustered and grossed out and annoyed.
A week later, I realized that I had unintentionally upended my work habits. It clicked that I was creating reasons to avoid my natural stomping grounds. Since I had just come home from a lesson in advanced Krav Maga, I also realized that I was being dumb and that they call them ‘stomping grounds’ for a reason.
No way am I letting some old lecher scare me away from my three-square-foot corner of the neighborhood. No way am I letting this person establish himself as a behavioral norm. What if he moves on from bothering me to bothering someone younger and less secure? Or lots and lots of others?
See, this is more of a Boomer thing. I’m forty-three today, and over the past thirty years of my life, the vast majority of men who have taken it upon themselves to aggressively “flirt” with me have belonged to the same generation. There’s a certain cultural assumption about thinking you should shoot your shot with someone ten to thirty years younger than you. I had always assumed I’d eventually age out of this sort of thing, that I’d become blissfully invisible. Instead, it continues to happen, and all that changes are that both parties are incrementally older. I still think it’s presumptuous and annoying and they still think they’re doing me a favor by “flattering” me in some way.
I’ve had these conversations. If you get mad, they think they’ve got a chance because they’ve obviously aroused your tempestuous, passionate nature. Either that or you’re a bitch. If you ignore them, they think they should just keep trying, because you haven’t asked them to go away yet, and even if you did, well, you’ve noticed them and that means they have a chance. If you get nervous, that’s just proof of your innocence and purity, and boy could they change that for you. There’s no response in that echo chamber that comes across clearly as GO AWAY AND STAY THERE.
My husband offered to come down and “take care of things” for me. He didn’t take it well, the thought that random ruffians would bother me even though I wear the world’s most unambiguous wedding ring.
I told him I’ve got it. As soon as I realized I was psyching myself out and changing my patterns to avoid someone else’s inappropriate behavior, I knew I had to take a stand. I started rehearsing.
The truth is that this sort of thing happens to people all the time. It isn’t always an overconfident, entitled dirty old man. Sometimes it’s a rude sales clerk, a notorious gossip, a religious missionary, or an aggressive panhandler. The more timid among us retract ourselves, living in a smaller world rather than pushing back against the obnoxious behavior of others. We forget that in reality, there is always an ally nearby. A bus driver, security guard, waiter, or even a passerby will stand with you when you speak up. *Nobody* wants unacceptable behavior, especially if it might lose them customers or create a legal liability. If someone else is acting up, the majority will be on your side when it’s time to put an end to it. This may not be their first offense, but hopefully it will be their last.
There are a bunch of ways I can easily make it clear to the cafe creeper that he should probably get up and leave if he sees me coming.
I haven’t seen the cafe creeper in weeks now. I’m starting to relax and feel like maybe brandishing my wedding ring actually did the job. I still feel a little anxious when I think about going to the cafe alone on weekday mornings. Then I remind myself why. I’m a good customer, and, like the majority of customers, I spend money quietly without detracting from the atmosphere. I have the right to the occasional use of a table from time to time. If I need to, if it ever comes to that, I also have the right to cause a minor kerfuffle. If you don’t like it, then mind your own business and don’t interrupt people while they’re working and you’ll be perfectly safe, just like the 99% of other people in the room.
“20% off” is something most of us only encounter in the form of a sale sign or a coupon, am I right? We don’t think of it in terms of our income for a variety of reasons. One of these is that there’s usually a disconnect between what we earn and what we spend, because we don’t usually think of “things we are doing” as “spending.” Another reason we don’t think of our cash flow in percentages is that most people just don’t think that way. I know, because I’m not a numbers person. I’m not a numbers person in the same way that I’m not a maps person. That’s okay, because what we’re going to do right now is to tell stories and talk about broad concepts. I promise, few numbers involved.
This is basically how it works. Money flows into and out of our lives. We worry about it more when we have more bills than we do money, and less when we feel like we can relax a little. Few of us were really taught about personal finance, and even if we were, our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues are unlikely to compare notes with us. The only way we can really tell how we’re doing is by instinct and guesswork. Even married couples may not share finances, only discussing it at tax time and only when we can’t avoid it.
How many of these things are true for you?
Thinking of how much you earn in terms of your hourly rate
Thinking of how much you earn in terms of your annual (gross) salary
Thinking of how much you earn in terms of your take-home pay, paycheck by paycheck
Not having thought about it for a while
Honestly, none of this ever occurred to me when I first started drawing a paycheck. I thought of what I earned by the hour, and I had no sense of how much I actually took home in a month or a year. I knew how much my rent was, but it also never occurred to me to estimate how much I spent in a month on everything all together. I just did the best I could, one paycheck at a time. Life was hard, sometimes harder, sometimes even harder than that. Work hard, I thought, just keep working hard and things will get better.
Things did get better eventually, but not because I worked harder. In fact I doubt I’ve ever worked as hard as I did in the days when I was flat broke. What changed was just that I understood more.
I thought I would eventually get promoted if I just worked hard enough. Instead, it turned out it was completely up to me to choose a very specific career path, sign up for loans and earn an advanced education, and market and promote myself. None of the employers for whom I worked in the first decade of my career ever would have had a place for me. If I’d stayed, it never would have mattered how hard I worked, it would have gotten me nowhere.
I was proud of myself for not having a credit card. I didn’t realize how complicated it would be to have no credit history later on.
I took on bottom-dollar side hustles, not understanding that I would have been better off using that time to figure out how to earn more money for less effort. What I was doing was offering lower-value services, which effectually cheats people of my best contribution. Do what only you can do, not what almost anyone can do.
Okay, so the first reason you aren’t saving 20% of your income is that you probably don’t know exactly how much you earn or how much you spend. Cash flow is a metaphor in your life, not a highly specific quantity.
The second reason you aren’t saving 20% of your income is that you’re barely making it. You feel stuck and you don’t know what to do next to maximize your income.
The third reason you aren’t saving 20% of your income is that, if you have a partner (spouse, romantic partner, roommate, kid), you aren’t discussing money. Not if you can avoid it! Bringing up the topic is a source of stress, not power. You’ve probably already fought about it, and in fact maybe you fight about it every single day. Nothing productive is going to come out of this state of affairs.
Let me put it out there that for most people, what’s needed is a paradigm shift, or a completely different way of looking at the problem.
(Money isn’t a problem! Instead it’s a solution for nearly every problem that modern people face).
(For most of human history, your problems would have been stuff like siege warfare, plague, top-tier predator attacks, famine, and the million bajillion things that hadn’t been invented yet).
It’s like this. If you make a certain amount of money and you spend all of it, you’re saving zero. If you make a certain amount of money and you also put a certain amount on credit cards, you’re spending more than you earn. You have your reasons, yes, and unfortunately banks and creditors don’t care about those. Future You is the one who’s going to have to deal with it, and Future You is NOT going to thank Today You for passing it on.
If you spend 20% more than you earn, you can’t just save 20%. That only gets you back to saving zero. (This is the numbers part, but hang on, it’ll be over quickly). You have to do 40%. Right? And a little more than that to take care of the interest charges, fines, fees, and every other way the banks like to pull things out of your wallet.
This is why you aren’t saving 20%. Because if you’re like most Americans, you can’t even save zero. You’re going under a little bit more each month, and the process is so gradual that you don’t even feel it happen.
It doesn’t have to be like this! This isn’t a cause for being scared or angry or hopeless or defeatist. It should be more like the day I accidentally pumped liquid hand soap onto my toothbrush and noticed right before I put it in my mouth. Wait! Toothpaste isn’t pink! As long as we’re paying attention and we’re aware of what we’re doing, there’s always time to make a change. We can figure it out.
Step one: Make it as fun and relaxing as possible to hang out at home, with your friends, at the park, at the public library, at the beach, or anywhere else that doesn’t cost money. Nap, read, have long conversations, draw, stretch, listen to music, make art, learn to cook, and remind yourself that contentment is free.
Step two: Tell someone. Our culture is super-freaky-weird in that we’ll be totally open and honest about, say, ingrown hairs, or embarrassing first dates, or our sexuality, but not about money. Wouldn’t money seem to be the least intimate and least personal of these things? It’s just numbers, after all. But no. It IS weird. That’s why it’s an act of real bravery and courage to tell the truth about your financial anxieties and confusions. Guaranteed, you’ll find someone else who feels the exact same way you do. Maybe you can work together to learn more, or at least work together to hang out and not spend money together a lot.
Step three: Think of some ways you could radically restructure the way you live, at least temporarily. As an example, my husband and I sold our car and moved into a studio apartment, at least for a year. We’re saving 40% of our income, and working on increasing that number. It isn’t all that bad because we’re usually working anyway, because it helps us feel like a team, because we got rid of most of our stuff, because it makes a good story, because the apartment has a pool and a hot tub, and because eventually we know we can move into a bigger place again. If we want to. More money, in our society at least, means more options. More choices, more freedom.
If you’re curious and the spirit moves you, maybe you could get a sheet of paper or set up a spreadsheet. Maybe you could work out your net income and your average monthly expenses. Maybe you could make a list of how much you owe on all your cards, car loan, student loan, personal loans, or anything else. Maybe you could look at that number and just... feel it for a minute. Feel that you are part of a world of infinite choices and possibilities, and that a year from now, everything about that number could look and feel completely different.
It’s just a number, after all.
I’m putting Mark McGuinness’s book Productivity for Creative People on the exalted but brief list I call One and Done. If you are an artist and you struggle to get done everything that you want to do, you can read this book and find out everything you need to know. I’m telling you, it’s all right here. I should know because I read all of these things; some of them are outright wrong, some are clearly written by methodical yet non-artistic people, and the rest take twice as long while getting across fewer truly helpful ideas. Productivity for Creative People is both insightful and realistic. If your art has been languishing these days, try this book.
If you’re feeling desperate, just go straight to chapter 3, Reduce Overload.
McGuinness clearly has experience with all the variations of workday that a creative person may face: Work on demand in someone else’s company; managing other creatives; working at home for oneself or others. He shares the example of having to meet a heavy deadline while planning his wedding. The basic strategy is to 1. Examine your assumptions about your workflow; 2. Spend the maximum possible amount of your time actually doing creative work; and 3. Find a way to deal with Resistance, distractions, and mundane tasks. In my experience, where we usually fall down is on that first step, plunging in without a strategy and then constantly stumbling on everything from the third step.
This is partly why I’m so enamored of the Reduce Overload chapter. It asks fundamental questions that seem obvious, yet that I haven’t seen in just this way in other organizing or time management books. “Is this a temporary state, or is it likely to continue (or get worse)?” McGuinness divides workload into four categories:
Another very helpful concept was to distinguish between open lists and closed lists, recognizing that open lists (such as laundry or email) will never be done, while closed lists can have a firm deadline. Combine this with the concept of distinguishing between background tasking and task switching, which both supposedly fall under the fallacious premise of multitasking, and suddenly a rational schedule starts to arrange itself.
There are some tips here that could be revolutionary if only they caught on in the traditional workplace. Managing interruptions, meetings, and email all come to mind. For the brave, it might be good to go over Chapter 7 and see if you can enlist an ally or two in your office to adopt some (or all!) of these practices. I’d lead my pitch with “Let’s try this for a month, and if it doesn’t improve efficiency, then we can always go back to the usual chaos.”
As a former chronic procrastinator, I found the advice to Panic Early quite brilliant. In fact, it’s the only way to start to learn the skill of estimating timelines on projects. A lot of us think procrastination is a charming feature of creativity, when really it means we get much less done than others. Productivity for Creative People is another way of saying “make art and don’t let it die unexpressed.”
McGuinness also suggests that we “Use templates for different types of day.” I do this, after trying several other methods of managing my time, and it works. There are no two days of my week that match, due to a few externally imposed time blocks. Oddly enough, I get more done under this schedule than I did when 100% of my time was my own. Structure always helps.
Read Productivity for Creative People. Do what I did, and bookmark the holy heck out of it. Then keep it near to hand and flip it open for reminders from time to time. I’m going to have to insist upon this, because if you’re an artist, then we need your art, and that means you need a way to bring it into the world.
Do you see organization as soulless and uncreative or as a necessary, helpful part of your creative process?
What do you like about chaos?
“Can I afford to wait another minute before getting started?”
We didn’t spend our anniversary together this year. How could we, when my husband was off on a business trip? It’s hardly the first time this kind of thing has happened: he’s been sent on travel on our anniversary, on his birthday, on Valentine’s Day, and he was even in China on my birthday one year. That’s okay. At our stage of life, we fit in marriage where we can. We’ve been together long enough that we’re clear on our priorities and how we fit together.
There’s a bit of a lie in the previous paragraph. True, we weren’t together on the date of our anniversary, and it’s also true that we barely saw each other the last half of the month. First I was out of town, then he left a few hours after I got home, and there hasn’t been a 24-hour period where we were both at home together for two weeks. We did, though, take off for a two-day weekend in Las Vegas - before he had to leave again the day after we got back.
Why Vegas? That’s the first place we went on our first trip together, and we’ve gone back every year, either for our anniversary or his birthday or something. We know our way around. We have favorite restaurants and shops. There are memories behind practically every doorway. The rest of our vacations are all about adventure, but Vegas is where we go to relax and play. We remember ourselves as a newly dating couple, as newlyweds, at all the milestones of our time together.
We celebrate that we still enjoy each other’s company. We celebrate that we still have chemistry together, that we’re at least as physically attracted to each other as we were when we started dating, and possibly more so. We celebrate that we agree on how to save and spend money. We celebrate that we can plan and carry out trips that we both anticipate.
After nine years, we’ve learned to appreciate more and more how rare it is for a middle-aged married couple to continue to have fun together.
We don’t fight - we make policies. For instance, I made us late for dinner reservations because I took too long to get ready. (Step 1: Be the first to take ownership when you are at fault). Then we reframed it. Policy: When we go out for a special occasion, I need an extra 15 minutes for hair and makeup.
We divide the labor. I’m in charge of researching restaurants (because of my fringe diet) and choosing shows (because let’s face it, I’m the best). He’s in charge of choosing our seats because 1. He cares more and 2. He has an easier time reading the seating chart.
We pack light. We’re both one-bag travelers. We help each other pick items for our respective capsule wardrobes. We backpack together. On Vegas trips, we check an empty suitcase, because this is where we do the majority of our clothes shopping for the year. Also, we both believe in the possibility of carrying an empty suitcase without encroaching on it.
We help each other put on our sunblock. That’s an especially big deal since his squamous cell carcinoma! I guarantee that nobody else would be as careful in applying *my* sunblock as *he* is.
We budget. OUCH, right? Not really. We save 40% of our income, and that’s after factoring in our vacation splurges. We’d simply rather live in a dinky, no-frills studio apartment on 20% of our income, and go on the occasional lavish vacation, than the alternative of paying double on rent, being in debt all year, and having to pinch pennies.
I have this thing about the hedonic treadmill. That’s what they call it when you adjust to a lifestyle upgrade, it becomes your new normal, and then you don’t even find it fun anymore. It’s really important to me not to become jaded or to expect luxuries as my baseline. I want to make sure I ENJOY THE HECK OUT OF my splurges. I’m pretty sure I can remember almost every dish of our fanciest meals, even years later, and that’s because we only indulge like that two or three times a year.
Frankly, this is part of why I’m married. Once I asked my husband why he married me, expecting that he would choose my sense of humor or my sweet nature. “Your frugality,” he said. Respecting your partner’s financial efforts, concerns, and priorities is the bedrock of marriage, unless you’re so rich you literally don’t have to care, which, that isn’t us or 95% of the world probably. Showing you don’t care about your spouse’s money worries is a fundamental rejection of what matters to them. Would you feel the same way about their health, their family relationships, their dreams, or their friendships?
That’s the other thing. We care about each other’s personal life, and we believe that we’re each entitled to one. We’re entitled to visit our families by ourselves. We’re entitled to have our own private friendships. We’re entitled to travel alone. We’re entitled to our own work projects and side hustles. We’re entitled to equal physical space in our home for our personal interests. We’re equally entitled to make requests about how we spend our time and resources as a couple. We support each other, because we each want the other to have the maximally fulfilling, fascinating life.
This is why it doesn’t bother me that I’ll spend my wedding anniversary alone. Our wedding day wasn’t our marriage, and neither is our anniversary. We’ll spend the day doing all of the things we’ve agreed on. He’ll give his utmost to this, his favorite and most interesting job of his career. I’ll bust my rump at the gym with my gym friends and work on my public speaking challenge. We’ll be faithful to each other and our budget. We’ll send texts back and forth throughout the day and discuss pictures of our pets. We’ll plan our next vacation and our next project together. We’ll try to decide what we want to do on our next milestone, our tenth wedding anniversary.
Better get it in the calendar now, or otherwise, who knows what we’ll both be doing?
Pick Three is the answer for anyone who feels constantly busy, burned out, and utterly confounded by the concept of “work-life balance.” When I first saw the cover of this book, with its cheery sticky note implying that Sleep is something optional, I scoffed at it. Ha, if other people think they can have a happy life by just sacrificing sleep, then good for them, but not me! I gave Randi Zuckerberg a chance to make her case anyway. Now I agree with the book’s subtitle: You Can Have It All (Just Not Every Day).
There is great good sense behind the suggestion to Pick Three. The “three” are: Work, Sleep, Family, Fitness, Friends. (Or, you can choose your own, such as: Netflix, School, Tacos, Dating, Yoga). Trying to make equal time for all five every single day will lead to doing poorly at all of them. Zuckerberg offers ways that different people have structured their lives and made decisions about their big three. We’ll recognize ourselves here, as different people are profiled who have had to work around disability, addiction, major illness, losing their parents, relocating, having a disabled child, and other serious challenges. This is real life we’re talking about here.
For instance, I’m a Sleep person because I have to be. I feel lucky that this is my biggest health issue, but it still is one! I have a parasomnia disorder, and when my sleep starts getting messed up, I quit functioning. Not only that, but anyone who sleeps under the same roof as me is impacted, because with pavor nocturnus I flail in bed, sleepwalk, scream in my sleep, and even run through the house opening doors. I feel irresponsible and unfair when these symptoms resurface. I see others with garden-variety sleep procrastination who are irritable and snappy due to their VOLUNTARY sleep deprivation, and I shake my head. This is manageable. Leave sleep out of your Big Three only for brief periods when you know you usually get plenty of rest. If you usually don’t, then why?
There are ways to combine some of these elements. In my personal life, I’ve chosen Sleep, Work, and Fitness because I keep having to relocate, and my oldest friends all live hundreds of miles away. When my Family needs me, I drop everything to travel to them, and my main three get put aside until the crisis has passed. This is part of why I work three weeks in advance and mostly outside the time dimension. My projects can keep going even if I lose a week to something urgent. Most of my social life happens at my gym, because that’s where I’ve made most of my local friends.
Pick Three is a book about self-forgiveness and self-compassion. It’s also a book about being good to the people around you. When you feel a sense of purpose and that you’re making strong choices, it helps you to be fully present with your loved ones and give your utmost to your most important contribution. Feeling overextended and under-appreciated leads directly to resentment, hostility, and low quality of life. A book like Pick Three can help to reevaluate and check in with yourself to see if you really are living your values.
Done right, mentoring can be one of the most fun, intriguing, and satisfying ways to spend time. Unfortunately, there are a million ways to mess it up. I try to always be in both the teaching and learning positions here, to remember how much there still is to learn and how tricky everything is before it becomes obvious. Which is better? Hard to say. Best to keep on trying at both.
Anyone who reads any business book will see a lot about how important it is to choose a mentor. LIES! The person you want for a mentor is most likely far, far too busy to spend time actually mentoring someone. Worse, the more successful this person is, the more people will chase after that elusive mentorship opportunity. What makes this person great is the ability to focus on a few very important things. There are plenty of successful people who enjoy mentoring, and you’ll know because they’ll single you out. They come to you.
The way you get the attention of your potential mentor is by:
What you’re trying to do is to demonstrate as much commitment to the project as your mentor has. This can be quite shocking. Trying to show up as early as they do and stay as late as they do is a project in itself. Successful people tend to put in very long hours behind the scenes. You have to know what it is that you think you’re asking for, and if it’s a responsible position with real leverage, then you may as well start training yourself for the endurance aspects early on.
“Pitching in” almost always means doing menial tasks. That could be anything from rearranging tables and stacking chairs to passing around sign-in sheets, with every administrative task imaginable in between. This is how you learn what’s involved. It’s also how you develop a keen eye for detail. A single mistaken date, forgotten object, or misspelled name can make the difference between sale/no sale or success/fail.
As a young office assistant, I once got reprimanded because I had collated a stack of documents, and the copier punched a staple that stuck out funny. I didn’t notice. The court clerk cut her finger on it and bled on a document. I wasn’t even there, but I got to hear all about it. From then on, I flipped over every stack of copies I ever made and checked that the staples were pounded flat. Still do.
The most important thing I learned from doing menial service work for so many years was to BE KIND when explaining anything. I would do anything for the staff members who were nice to me, and I never forgot a moment of rudeness or impatience from those who had less self-control.
I’m also remembering, now that I don’t have to sort other people’s mail or run other people’s errands any more, that people are the only reason to do anything. Any product or service is useless unless it benefits someone, somehow. There’s never any point or any excuse to berating or chastising an “underling,” because it sets you up for an inevitable slip if you think your “people skills” have a limited field of application. If you think there’s such a thing as a peon, move back to square one.
These are the things I keep in mind when I’m mentoring someone. If I can explain things well, then my young friend may be able to skip through years of servitude and move straight to a more impactful role.
As a mentor, it isn’t up to me who is tuned in to my channel. I’m not always going to know how much a younger or less experienced person knows. I’m not going to know how far this kid is going to go, or whether she or he will ultimately stay on the same career path. Those things are none of my business. They don’t belong to me. They come and go on their own schedule and their own agenda.
When I’m working with teenagers or college-aged kids, my main value is as a warm, friendly non-parental adult. Parents tend to go temporarily nuts when their kids reach adolescence, and they can become unrecognizably critical, emotional, and erratic. Strangely, the same kid whose parents think he’s incorrigible and headed straight to a penal colony will cheerfully wash dishes and take out the trash at my house! The same girl whose mom wants to put her in an ankle monitor will sit at my table and pull out her calculus textbook. Part of what works when mentoring young people is to have a group of them. They’re highly attuned to peer pressure at that age, and they teach each other the house expectations. (No talking about post-industrial politics, no dating within the group, no insults, eat your vegetables, everyone helps clean up). They also peg their progress against one another, barely noticing that they’re surrounded by high achievers.
They laugh three times more than middle-aged people. They’re idealistic, passionate, curious, and quirky. They keep us up-to-date on slang terms and pop culture. They help us set up our electronics. This is part of the secret to attracting a good mentor: be useful and fun to have around.
The stuff that young people want to know can cover a really broad range. How do I choose a major? What field do I want to work in? Should I date this person? How do I know when I’m in love? How old should I be when I get married? Should I go on the trip or take the job offer? What is the stock market? Do I enlist or get my master’s? Is it worth applying for this patent? Can my friendship survive renting a house together? Does this sound like a viable business plan? How do I make a soup?
Over the years, my young people have gone to boot camp and grad school, gotten married and started families, adopted dogs and cats, bought trucks and motorcycles, relocated, traveled the world, and surprised me a thousand ways. Over the same time period, I’ve sought out mentors and learned about publishing, screenwriting, podcasting, product development, branding, event planning, management, and a variety of athletic endeavors. Mentoring is mostly a way to make friends of different ages and keep life interesting.
Q: How do you know it’s time to level up in your career?
A: It’s always time.
Most people hate updating their resume, applying for jobs, and going on interviews. These are reason alone to avoid thinking about a career change, retraining, or aiming for a promotion. Unfortunately, coasting is not a permanent option. The workplace is always changing, and not just job positions but entire industries can quickly be made obsolete.
I was 19 the first time I became aware of this. It was my first day on a new temp job, at a time when I thought of myself as “a data entry clerk.” My trainer walked me through the forms I would be typing into the system, and offhandedly explained that they were transitioning to a bar code system. “One day all of this will be done by computer.” Huh. I grew up in Oregon, during the recession of the early 1980s, and even as a teenager I was aware that a lot of loggers lost their jobs when the trees went away. Not much left to log! I also knew that a lot of people had new jobs in the tech sector, not that I knew to call it that back then. I just shrugged and accepted that it would be easier to train for a new job than to try to hang on to one that was going away. As a 19-year-old, it felt a bit like a continuation of high school.
Of course, there were other reasons to think about leveling up and doing something other than data entry. One, the poor pay. Two, the chronic pain of repetitive stress injury.
The path upward was confusing and not obvious, not at all. In retrospect, I can say that my biggest hidden obstacles were my wardrobe, grooming, and chronic punctuality problems. It truly didn’t matter how hard I worked, how much I improved my skills, how many operating systems or software applications I mastered, or how many degrees I got, because I didn’t look the part, didn’t know it, and didn’t care. I didn’t understand that for the clock-obsessed, being five minutes late is proof of moral dissolution, and being fifteen minutes late is like setting the building on fire. I felt that my low income trapped me at the level of wearing thrift store clothing and relying on the bus to get to work. It is what it is, right?
The real problem was that I had a subservient support role. Nobody else was ever going to pull me up, create a position for me, or even explain what I needed to do to climb up a rung. I had to figure it out for myself.
As a young woman, I took whatever job I could get and did my best to flail along. I thought I’d be fine if I followed orders, worked hard, and shared my ideas on how to improve anything I could. Then I’d be stymied when I constantly had to answer the question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Um, making more money? All I knew was that I wanted something more, and I’d certainly take it as soon as someone offered it.
What successful people do is to set their sights on something extremely specific, figure out how to get it, and then work on those steps.
This is how my husband did it, and it still boggles my mind. He 1. took a career assessment at school 2. Looked at the results and compared the incomes of ‘history teacher’ and ‘engineer’ 3. Applied to engineering school, figuring he could study history on his own time 4. Got in and crushed the work, even as 80% of his fellow students washed out.
...Doesn’t it seem so... OBVIOUS? So... STRAIGHT-FORWARD???
(I took the same test and it gave me ‘massage therapist’ and ‘cab driver.’)
Where we get into trouble is in trying to form the initial vision. What DO we want? What WOULD we be good at?
Please won’t someone just tell me exactly what to do so I can do it?
What I know now is that my super-skill is ideation. It’s something that most people don’t particularly do well, and I’m quite brilliant at it. My natural state is to wake up in the morning with my brain already churning out ideas. Inventions, song lyrics, ad campaigns, B-corp structures, business plans, articles, book titles, limericks, workshops, recipes, cartoons, futurist predictions, you name it! The problem is more slowing down or stopping the flow than trying to get started.
How would I have figured this out, though? What convergent path could I have followed in school or entry-level service positions that would have indicated: ‘YOU have a rare and valuable talent!’?
I also know that I’m extremely productive, as long as I can work on my own priorities. I published over a thousand pages in 2017, in addition to other writing projects and articles that went into the Ready to Post folder. The week before this post, I had six meetings, gave three speeches and wrote another, formatted and scheduled two weeks’ worth of blog posts, produced a newsletter, worked on our new podcast, deep-cleaned our apartment, worked on my headstand, passed my three-hour Muay Thai belt promotion, and still managed to get my hair cut. On Tuesday, I walked 6 miles, rode my bike 4 miles, and did two back-to-back martial arts classes, followed by walking 7 miles on Wednesday and carrying four loads of laundry up and down a flight of stairs. Nothing can stop me when the plan is my own.
The signs of burnout, stasis, and stalling are feelings of low energy, frustration, sadness, resentment, and dread. Sleep procrastination - staying up late even when you’re chronically exhausted because you feel owed more personal private time. Recreational eating - eating snacks and junk food, especially late at night, because it’s one of the few pleasures in your life. Money worries. Envy of other people, because their success feels unattainable, and why should anyone get anything when your life is so hard? Fixating and perseverating on wretched things that happened at work, because you can’t shake it and even thinking about your boss or your customers makes you want to cry. Just feeling stuck and having no idea what to do.
If any of that feels familiar, hey, it’s okay. It doesn’t have to be that way. Staying at a job you hate, a job that’s beneath your abilities, isn’t doing anyone any favors. You deserve more, your coworkers deserve someone who actually wants to be there, and your customers and clients - well, who knows what they deserve, but surely someone out there deserves your best, not your mediocre most average. What would you do if you had something awesome, a job you loved, a job where every time you finished something, someone was excited? What if that someone were you?
Time to level up!
I have a box and a half of business cards that have my name and the job title: COACH. I ordered them in a fit of enthusiasm and blind optimism two years ago. As far as I know, they have resulted in zero hires and zero pennies of income. They were my first-ever business cards, and I put a huge amount of thought into their design, but now they sort of just annoy me. I’m done.
Let me first say that coaching is obviously a poor fit for me. That’s enough reason right there not to keep doing it. Other people may thrive on their coaching work, and I wish them every success! It’s definitely better for everyone if there are fewer, better, more dedicated and highly skilled coaches reaping a greater concentration of the available pool of clients.
That being said, I have some pretty strong suspicions that there are methods and philosophies of coaching that basically just don’t work for anyone.
I’d love to be proven wrong! There’s very little I enjoy more than watching someone break through a limiting belief, change an unhelpful behavior, open up to a special someone, start a new career, blast into excellent physical transformation, or otherwise fall in love with life all over again. Anything that moves people in that direction is great.
Okay, so my personal issues, in varying order:
This is what I think. I think that ‘coaching’ is like ‘massage therapy’ in that it feels like a very beautiful, fulfilling way to make money and help people. It’s a vision-board kind of thing. (Just like every little kid wants to be a marine biologist). Yet, when it’s among the most obvious choices for anyone who wants to push away from traditional employment, it becomes over-subscribed. Everyone wants to do it, and that drives down the rates. For instance, I can get a massage in my area for $30 an hour, which is ludicrous, because in a foofoo salon it can (AND SHOULD) cost $100. For a coach, that would start to put it in the area of “how can you give me life advice when you would earn more as an office assistant?” (I say that with great respect, and pragmatism, because it’s what I used to do and at least it offers predictably free evenings and weekends).
For someone who has felt a firm, lightning-bolt inner conviction that It’s Time, it’s definitely worth paying for value and hiring a coach in an extremely specific specialty. For instance, working with a personal trainer who focused in recovery got me answers about my persistent ankle pain that an osteopath, two MRIs, and six months of physical therapy never did. Then just a few sessions with a trained shiatsu massage therapist actually resolved it! In future, I would go directly to the shiatsu table. When I started paying 4x more for gym classes instead of a commodity gym membership, I started getting 10x results. Same thing in other areas: I’d hire a certified dietitian, a tax accountant, a fiduciary financial planner, a professional editor, or the most highly rated business coach I could find. I’ll never waste my time shaking the trees for discount bargain cut-rate professional advice in any area again. I’d sooner get a side hustle to pay for a top-level professional opinion, knowing it always pays for itself, saves huge amounts of time, and usually results in my ability to earn more.
Here’s my best advice, free and worth every penny:
What I have learned to do is to ask myself, “What would a coach tell me about this issue right now?” (As I wrote those words, a large flock of chattering wild parrots flew past my window, which I regard as an omen that I am onto something). The answer always seems to pop up immediately, an unattractive and awkward answer, something that is Not Me, something that I feel deeply reluctant to do. The more it feels like I Do Not Want That to Be the Answer, the more likely it is to be. Approach it with curiosity in a sense of adventure.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.