Monday, February 11, 2008

My Journey with Money

Feb 9-17 I'm teaching (with Rich Ruster and Maggie Seeley) the Economic Dimension of the Ecovillage Design Education course. As part of the training, I've prepared the following summary of my personal history with money

• • •
I grew up in the Republican suburbs of Chicago, and have an extreme amount of privilege in the mainstream culture (I'm white, male, well-educated, articulate, successful in business, happily married—I've got everything but hair). My father was financially successful and I was raised to be so myself. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt about whether I could make lots of money if I set my sights on that goal (that is, I could “win” in the current system).

I did not grow up rich, but comfortably middle class. The most important thing I got out of my upbringing was a strong sense of self-confidence. As I understand it today, this is the result of: a) my privilege; b) feeling secure in my parents’ love; and c) my never having experienced any serious deprivation growing up (my basic needs were always met). So the first piece to understand is that I had serious advantages.

While my father had plenty of money, and seemed to enjoy making it, it was also clear that he wasn’t happy. In fact, I came to understand by the time I went to college that he was profoundly lonely. It was a wake-up call of profound dimensions to see my father—who was clearly a success by societal standards—not happy. I wanted no part of that experience. So my second piece was that I understood early on the limitations of what money can by.

I went to college from 1967-71, during the height of Vietman protests. It was a period of unprecedented unrest on campus and I was smack in the middle of it. I exploded out my conservative cocoon and started questioning damn near everything. I loved the intensity of the inquiry and what I now see with hindsight were my first tastes of community—dormitory living with my peers. These were exciting times. It was during this time that the next piece emerged: I was drawn to doing social change work (and I knew that I was going to be a builder-upper rather than a tearer-downer: I had seen both roles showcased in those years of protest, and it was quickly apparent to me that I enjoyed putting together solutions more than I relished tearing the scales from others’ eyes.)

Coming out of college, I knew I was supposed to get a job (in the same way that I knew that I was supposed to go to college after high school). Already oriented toward wanting to make a difference, it seemed a good idea to explore public service, and for two years I worked for the US Dept of Transportation in DC as a junior bureaucrat. As it’s turned out, it was the only regular 9-5, M-F job I ever had. I worked for the then-magnificent salary of $7,000/year, and saved money. (The two main components of this were shared housing and not owning a vehicle; it’s incredible how much you can save that way.)

While it didn’t take me long to grok that this would not be my most productive environment (too much bullshit, not enough action), it was a valuable experience. It was, for example, highly instructive to see that I was the lowest paid person in my division (12 professionals and seven secretaries), and yet I was the only one not reporting a shortage of disposable income. People in that office spent to the limit of their income (or beyond). Sure, they had nicer houses and nicer clothes, yet they didn’t seem happy. This reinforced my inclination to not enter the consumer rat race. What was the point?

I also realized that I had lost that excitement and stimulation of college days. Maybe I’d made a mistake. Instead of focusing first on career possibilities and rebuilding a network of relationships in whatever job came along, maybe I should have done it the other way around: focus first on the people and let the job follow. In February 1973 I was in a public library and happened across the current issue of Psychology Today. It included an excerpt from a new book by Kat Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment. It described the first five years of Twin Oaks Community in central VA, and it changed my life. “Community” was the label I was searching for to describe what was precious to me about my college experience. So now I had another important piece: people first; money second.

By August I had “retired” from public service and began serious conversations with friends from college days about starting our own community, to recreate that special environment. By the following spring, we had founded Sandhill Farm: four people willing to try to make that happen.
Because Twin Oaks was the inspiration and because I’d already done a fair amount of work to reject materialism, we set up Sandhill as an income-sharing community, where all earnings would be pooled. We still operate that way today.

The four of us were able to buy the land and expand the housing to meet our needs with cash (about $20,000). A significant fraction of that was saved from my two years in DC. I was 24 years old and had just jointly bought land in northeast Missouri. I had no job (or even an inkling of how we were going to make the finances work), but we also had no debt.

The Community Years
From this point on, I began seriously working on developing a viable economic model that was quite different than any I had known before. Here are the components of what I’ve done:

—Drastically reducing my need for money to supply basic needs, by living in a homesteading community that shared income.
—Working consciously to expand the pool of things that give me high satisfaction (essentially this is about cultivating curiosity).
—Insisting that the highest possible fraction of what I do is things I love doing.
—Defining work broadly (hint: value both domestic and income-producing activities as “work”).
—Blurring the line between work and play.
—I work when I want to work.
—Brining my full passion into everything I do.
—Defining success as loving the process, not the number of projects completed.

To the extent I’ve succeeded at this, I don’t track how much I work, and work doesn’t tire me. (Top Secret: clients feel this from me—even if they don’t know where it comes from—and it positively affects their experience with me, making it all the more likely they’ll want to work with me again. It’s a tremendous positive feedback loop.)

By having lots of things that attract me, I have a wide variety of work. Because I also have considerable control of my time, this affords me an important degree of flexibility. Whenever I get tired of one thing (or seem to have lost my creative edge), I simply lay it down and do something completely different. By this method I am able to maintain an unusually high degree of enthusiasm for what I do, and rarely get run down.

Pricing Myself
I do a lot of things that make money. Yet money doesn’t drive me. By having a low need for cash (by American standards) it gives me considerable leverage in the market place. As a process consultant (my most remunerative activity currently), I know that my services are valuable (I price myself as worth $1200/day, plus expenses) and that’s what I invariably say whenever prospective clients ask what I charge. However, in the same breath, I tell them that I don’t want money to get in the way of the work and that I’ll agree to do the job (assuming I’m interested in it) for what they can afford. That is, I tell them that I’ll say “yes” to whatever amount of money they put on the table, without quibbling. The only requirement is that they have a conversation (without me present) about what they can afford. What I don’t do is offer discounts up front. I insist they have the conversation about what the work is worth. And then I trust their answer.

In consequence, I get paid all over the map. Sometimes I work for a pittance, or even pro bono. In the end though, taken as a whole, I get paid plenty and I am able to ignore the paycheck when doing the work.

One last piece. I’ve derived considerable satisfaction out of making jobs up (rather than out-competing those already in the field). That is, on multiple occasions I’ve cooked up an idea for a job that hasn’t existed previously—something that really excited me. I’ve talked people into supporting me as a volunteer long enough to demonstrate that job’s worth, and then gotten the job funded. After a while, my interests invariably evolve, I find someone to replace me, and I create a new job. I’ve done this about six times, and I can feel the next shift coming.

After firmly establishing myself in the field of intentional communities as a process consultant (my most remunerative career to date), I am poised to leave that to others and focus instead on bringing the lessons and tools of cooperative dynamics into the wider culture—among neighborhood associations, churches, and the workplace, where the commitment to community and cooperation is softer, yet the numbers yearning for something better are exponentially higher.

1 comment:

Daisy Bond said...

Hey there, just wanted to tell you that I'm a reader of yours and I love your blog; thanks for writing it. My best friends and I are planning to start our own community some years down the road, so I appreciate the lessons I learn here. So far, your experiences all seem to corroborate our intuitions, which is both reassuring and exciting.