Money is a paradox. The more you have, the more you get, and the easier it is to get more and more. The less you have, the easier it is to lose everything and the harder it is to get any opportunities. I figured this out when I had a temp job at a (very very famous) bank, and one set of elevators stopped at the sixteenth floor, where the other set started. What a metaphor! I knew I was stuck in the lower-floor elevator and I had no idea how to cross over and get to the upper suites. All I knew was that it was there and I wanted inside.
I guess as a temp, it was even a better metaphor, because really I was in the metaphorical service elevator that ran back and forth from the lobby to the basement.
Looking back, it’s really easy for me to make a list of about a hundred things that were holding me back. I had no idea that I was doing anything wrong, and nobody was going to tell me, either. That’s the hardest thing about trying to change your socioeconomic status. Blue-collar people are very direct because we value authenticity. We’ll tell you to your face if you’re making a mistake, and we expect you to do the same for us. Don’t go talking to other people if you have a problem with me. Just come straight to me.
Middle-class and upper-middle-class people do not share this value of directness. It’s not that they just expect everyone to “know better.” They genuinely do not believe that their social code is something to be learned or taught. They believe this because they acquired it, in the same way that babies acquire language and the ability to eat with a fork, or chopsticks, or flatbread, or whatever is standard in their home. Learning the secret code when you didn’t acquire it as a child is exactly like a cultural exchange, where people dress and eat and sit and greet each other differently and you’ll never be 100% fluent in the language.
The trick to switching from one financial elevator to the other is in looking the part. The trouble with this is that it can feel like being forced into something inauthentic, into being something you’re not. This is repugnant to many people. We value self-expression, being able to dress and speak naturally. The only way this can lead into the “other” elevator is through the arts, sports, business success - essentially buying your way in rather than ascending through the traditional professional ranks.
Probably there’s a lot more money to be made that way, by taking the initiative and creating your own career. Unfortunately, it requires a great deal more work.
This is what I’ve learned on my mission.
When I was poor, the “budget” version always cost more. A single bus ticket costs more than one day’s worth of a monthly pass. The small package costs more per ounce or unit than the large package. The cheap apartment costs the most to heat and it has the longest commute. The beater car gets lower mileage and costs more in maintenance. I could never afford the “good enough” version of anything, anything I needed to pass the threshold, whether that was a haircut, an interview outfit, or a university degree.
As I’ve become more comfortable, I’ve noticed that the more you rise in status, the more people are constantly giving you free stuff. Free cookies! Upgrades! A suite instead of a room, a suite with a view, a suite with a view in the penthouse tower. Free desserts or appetizers! Reward points! More upgrades, upgrades to business class! Personal shoppers! Hot towels! Just every darn thing. Celebrities get even more, from gala outfits to cars, because everyone wants that face and that name associated with their brand.
It’s crazy-making. Where were all these freebies when I actually needed them???
I learned slowly although I studied hard. It was easy for me to learn the mannerisms and speech patterns, hard for me to learn to avoid taboo topics and speak in the secret code of tact and allusion. It was easy for me to exhibit the work ethic, hard for me to show up reliably due to transportation issues. There was nothing easy for me in learning the style guide, how to “pass” the clothing, grooming, cosmetic, and hair styling meters. I doubt I’ll ever get that right, which is why I always take the advice of my husband, personal shopper, stylist, or whoever. Just... have me not stand out or look weird.
This is the reason that college was so important for me. Having the degree unlocked certain doors, because there are many jobs only open to people with at least a bachelor’s. More importantly, attending university was like a foreign exchange program for me. I had the chance to surround myself with people who knew the code. Some of them were kind enough to carefully explain certain rules. Reading thousands of novels helped, too.
I look back at myself, age twenty, stuck in the short elevator, and I cringe a bit. Wrong haircut! Wrong clothes! Wrong shoes! Talking about unprofessional topics! Missing cue after hint after clue! I wish I’d had a fairy godmother to come along and tell me everything I needed to change. If I had, though, it would have hurt my feelings and I would have resented it. I needed to learn things the hard way, as usual, because I needed to understand why. Why is this dumb rule a rule?
‘Cause why, that’s why. Games have rules. If I wanted to switch financial elevators, I needed to follow those rules, or ultimately break them. I either needed to do the things that the other elevator riders do, or I needed to learn the rules to the other game, the entrepreneurial game. If I didn’t or couldn’t do either, then I was doomed to the short elevator. Nobody in the upper elevator would have even noticed me or realized I was there.
When I was broke, I did a lot of scutwork; took orders from incompetent, disorganized managers; and dealt with uncouth customers. As I earned promotions and title bumps and pay increases, the work got easier, the managers got smarter, and the customers became nicer. It’s not just the money that’s better, it’s everything about the nature of work. Figuring out how to switch financial elevators has a way of elevating all sorts of things.
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.
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