I write a lot about how people need to make decisions for themselves, work extremely hard, and get off the beaten path. Inevitably, people ask about normal people or people who don't have all the advantages that I have. Let me address that.
Any struggle I've had in my life is a joke. I was born into a great family who never had to worry about putting a roof over my head or food on my plate. I felt (and feel) loved by every member of my family, from my great grandparents down to my siblings. Any danger I've ever been in in my entire life was danger that I willingly put myself into. I was in good schools, had great friends, and was supported by everyone I knew. I've taken medicine once in my life, and it was 15 years ago for strep throat. I have had it incredibly easy.
The challenges in my life have been created by me. I have the incredible privilege to pick goals, set my own timetable, and then try to reach them. I don't have to worry about food or shelter or... really anything. So although I do try to challenge myself and work extremely hard, I am always completely aware that the level of challenge and effort I put out will never reach what some people deal with on a daily basis.
I watched a documentary called Inocente last week, and it made me cry. It's about a homeless teenage girl named Inocente. She was born into a destitute illegally immigrated family with an abusive alcoholic father. Her father beat both her and her mother. They left and became homeless. Her mother was so desperate that she tried to convince Inocente to jump off a bridge and commit suicide with her. Inocente lives by herself, in the park or in shelters, and spends every last free minute she has painting. Her biggest dream in life is to get married and have a house.
Sometimes I rant about marriage and houses and how those are crappy goals. But you know what? That's for people like me who have been spoon fed success from birth. I don't have issues like violent parents and homelessness to deal with. The journey Inocente has already taken, especially in terms of self development and unraveling issues that were forced on her, is probably tougher than anything I can hope to do in my life.
Maybe that's hyperbole, but I don't mean it to be. I have no conception of what it would be like to deal with stuff like that, and although I'd like to think that I'd be strong enough to deal with it-- who really knows?
I use Inocente as an example, but there are millions of people who have really tough lives. There are single mothers who have to work three jobs just to make rent and buy food. There are kids born into neighborhoods in Chicago where violence is a way of life. Babies are born addicted to drugs that their mother used. These are all struggles that I will never have to deal with, and chances are you won't have to deal with either.
Do I think that these people should be getting off the beaten path, eating healthy, and trying to impact the world? Well.... I think that they don't have time to deal with that stuff right now. They're struggling for the basics that were dropped in my lap, and that's the first step. You have to be able to eat before you can eat healthy. You have to have firsthand knowledge of the beaten path to know it's not for you. You have to have some stability in your own life before you can systematically plan to impact the world around you.
I have all of the respect in the world for people in these situations. It's partly because of them that I feel so motivated. Everyone's entitled to their own opinions on the subject, but personally I think it would be embarassing for me to not try to work as hard as these people. Can you imagine what a struggling single mother would think of me if I sat around watching TV all day? No appreciation for what I've been given-- what an insult!
How big is the gap between where Inocente was born and where she wants to go? From being homeless in an abusive family to being in a stable relationship and owning a house-- that's huge. I'd better be setting goals that span about that range and working as hard as she is.
So when I say things like "Weekends are a joke", people like Inocente already know that. She doesn't get two days a week off to do nothing, so I figure I don't either. When I try to rally people to action, I'm directing that towards people who have won the genetic lottery as I have, and feel like they aren't doing enough with what they were given. We may not have to hustle to survive, but we can benefit by acting as though we do.
Photo is a marble statue near the entrance of the MFA in Boston.
This false debate inevitably always comes up between the individualists versus the collective. One side argues for personal responsibility and that anything is achievable. The other side argues about the structural and situational, unjust challenges involved for the non-privileged. I take a middle ground approach personally.
On one hand, I think American culture tends to teach a false truth that everyone's is equal and can accomplish anything. That old dictum, "You can even become President." No, no you can't. People are in different living situations, that's just a fact.
On the other hand though, we always do have a decision we can make. Whatever our starting point is right now, we can decide what our next immediate action is going to be. And bit by bit, we can accomplish some great feats.
It's not so much that everyone is free and equal to accomplish anything in the world. It's that we do always have some amount of choice from where we are right now to where we want to be. It's a pseudo Existential approach to life.
Of course, the amount of will power and actual opportunities we have can vary. And for some people at some times, the pressures probably overwhelm and crush people. Where just making it through the day is a success in itself.
Also, I tend to favor asking what a person's problems or goals are right now. Preaching to a person never works. But if you can help them transform just one part of their life, it'll naturally extend to other parts of their life too.
But I would say for a lot of people, especially those reading this blog, most of those structural problems or disadvantages they think they have are probably exaggerated in their mind. I've spent a lot of time just realizing a lot of the obstacles I thought I had were self-induced.
Completely agree with this. When politicians and others harp on how poor people "have no chance," they are in effect creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Great post Tynan, which seems to me much more mature and compassionate than the one you did several years ago about libertarianism. Personal responsibility is important, yes, but there are also structures (economic, cultural, social etc.) which provide people with widely different opportunities in life. In order to be a person who eats well, is into personal development, and so on, one needs to have the basics secured and to have a basic level of education. Social science also very clearly shows how people's choices are determined, to a large degree, by their socio-economical background (and, I would add, by their genetic makeup). Freedom is an accomplishment, not a starting point for everyone.
Well, I completely agree with your premise that it is totally different for someone like you or me to be a "minimalist" etc.. However, at the same time, what these unfortunate people need more than anything is someone to inspire them. Someone to say hey you can do this! Because in their world, most people are worn out, broken down, negative, cynical, toxic...Even small choices like hanging out with more positive people and eating healthier are small steps to fulfill any goals they may have.
I've never had it as bad as a struggling single mother, but I would honestly say my hardships are the greatest gifts I have been given. I have met a lot of people who have had it made or had really rich parents and I wouldn't take their situation ever.
I was beat up and abused by my older brother who later died, right after he died my divorced parents abandoned me, I went down a dark road and lived all over the place when my only real family (friend I knew for 17 years) passed away.
I had depression for 11 years and had to go through tons of stuff (such as healthy eating) to learn how to combat it.
I wouldn't give that up for ANYTHING. Sure I'd love to get those people back, but the experience have had are invaluable. There is nothing else that could have happened to me to give me the knowledge I gained trhough overcoming those obstacles.
The scary thing is if you can't overcome them or are like Inocente and you literally don't have the resources. But I would say there is a great advantage to having hardship and a great disadvantage to having comfort. The people I knew who had it all while they were growing up don't take risks and seem to become upset much more easily.
I wouldn't be so hard on yourself, I think it is amazing you were able to do the things you did. You had to give up comfort and a lot of other things to get to where you are.
A good friend of mine started a youth run supper club in the
Bayview district (poverty / high crime) area of San Francisco. Her goal is to
get the kids out of poverty/trouble by helping them develop skills (i.e.
waiter/waitress, hostess, chef, etc.). Once I asked her why she didn't
push them to become engineers, doctors, accountants, etc because they were
easily smart enough to do it. Her response surprised me and changed the way I
thought. I'm paraphrasing, but it similar to what you wrote above. "Most of
these kids just want to have their own apartment some day and live to see
25." Huge gap for them.
Check it out (http://www.oldskoolcafe.org/)
Hi Tynan. I haven't commented in some time because I deal with the issues you talk about here rather than the stuff you address most of the time. I am the only one of seven children who graduated from high school and eventually got a bachelor's degree. The bachelor's degree is a massive waste of money. I had no way to understand going in what the term "communication" means to those in charge. For me, it's exchanging information, feelings and ideas with others. For the people designing the courses, it means a form of marketing (lying, basically). I never made a worse financial move. Of course, my non-understanding goes back to my background (poverty, alcoholism, etc.). I really like the comment someone made about people like me needing mentors, but I would expand that role beyond moral support to helping us understand the world people have made.
I count it as survival, not virtue, that I presently ride the bus 3 1/2 hours a day to do a temporary assignment using skills I acquired during my earlier college work, which involved effort but no loans. I lucked out on that one, although I'm the "wrong" gender for the Secretarial Science courses I took. I really don't see others as obligated to use their backgrounds, skills, etc., especially well. I know a wide variety of people, and I think some of them basically deprive themselves by staying in misery or inertia, but I don't seem them as harming me. Its serious enough that they harm themselves.
Some people criticize the venture into simpler living, minimalism, or leaving set careers for more fulfilling ones as attempted solutions to "first world problems." There are many books geared towards citizens of developed countries who have never had to deal with many real struggles, yet are unhappy and looking for something different in life. Critics say that these people are simply not appreciative enough,that they simply whine too much about their privileged surroundings.
While this is true in many cases, those who seek a life away from set job paths and money and possessions aren't just being unappreciative of what this comfortable life provides. Instead, I firmly believe that the only way to truly honor our privileged circumstances is to be truly happy with our lives, and seek out what makes our time on this earth meaningful and enriching. It's quite difficult to affect positive change when you feel miserable about yourself and your situation. When you're truly satisfied with your own choices and successes and failures, you can most effectively give to others in very impacting and supportive ways.
It would be such a disrespect, such an injustice to those who struggle to find food, shelter, and safety, for us to live our lives of excess with every amenity guaranteed, and not be happy with our lives. The only way to truly appreciate what you have is to find value and meaning in all that you do and experience. If we all work in a cubicle for 40 years of depression and misery, what have we achieved or offered to the world? I saw we follow what we love most, and pay respect through our passionate efforts to those who are fighting to survive.
A while back I read something about desire in the Judaic sense of the word. I'm not Jewish so I can't confirm if this is true or not and I read this many years ago so anyway this is how it goes.
According to what I read the Jewish have 2 meanings for the word 'desire'. The first interpretation of 'desire' is the one we are all familiar with - a longing for something. The second interpretation deals with the desire to give back to the world due to overwhelming abundance (a concept not many of us are familiar with). They gave an analogy of the first meaning of desire being the cup half full and our desire in this case to fill the cup to fullness. The analogy for the second meaning of desire was a cup running over it's edge and our desire in this case to pour the surplus our cup cannot hold into other people's cups so they may enjoy what we cannot make use of.
Anyway from my experience it seems like all of us have our own battles to face no matter where on the socioeconomic strata we fall. We like to think people richer than us are just rolling around in pure bliss all of the time with no problems at all in the world as they have all of their material needs taken care of. They have problems just like the rest of us and while they may be more mundane they still generate the same amount of pain and negativity that problems from lower wealth classes do. Given that I think you've hit the ball out of the park with this one. Only by being happy with our lives can we hope to invoke positive change into our world. Our cups need to run over with satisfaction and happiness to the point where we desire to help others out in less fortunate situations.
I think it is important to remember that, while a life of material gain is important only as a foundation, without the foundation, nothing can be built up. It is only after you know you will have a reliable source of food, shelter, clothing, and the relative certainty that you will not have to pick up and vacate the premises unexpectedly, that you can plan ahead and start to put the pieces in place to achieve larger goals using any surplus you might be able to create.
I will be unveiling a revamped version of my website in a few weeks called workercapitalist.com, the motto of which is, Vulnero nemo; succurro alius procul sulum vicis. That's Latin for Harm no one; help others at every opportunity. In order to do that I must proceed from the premise that I will not make myself a burden to others if I can possibly avoid it. Thus, I work first to provide for myself. If I am not self-sufficient, I will be in no position to provide for others. If I were married, that would be first to provide for myself and my family. In fact I would advise most people not to get married unless they are already each able to provide for themselves. It would be difficult to be equals in the relationship otherwise. It is only after those needs are met that any surplus can be used for the betterment of others.
If not, your largess is dependent on the generosity of others, and dependency offers neither freedom nor security.
To even start down this path requires one indispensable tool to be had first in modern society: an income stream. One of the great values of the kind of minimalism you advocate here is that it makes the amount of income necessary to provide the basics of survival for yourself as low as possible. With that, the willingness to learn, the willingness to do some hard work, and the ability to be honest with yourself as to your progress, everything else becomes possible. In that regard, I think this blog and others like it may be indirectly helping far more people than you know.
A bunch of people e-mailed me about the Drop Out and Grow Rich article I posted yesterday. A friend of mine pointed out a few things, most importantly that I failed to give the college grad interest on his money. Fixing that (and making him pay interest if he was negative, but only after the first 4 years of college) put him very close to the high school grad with private school money. Never charging him interest for being negative got him slightly above that same person.
Then it was pointed out that the difference in earnings wasn't 900k as the college-mongers claimed. It was more like 1.3mil. I had no good data on salary increases, so I assumed the inflation rate. I guess it stands to reason that after a while job experience means more than the degree, so the gap gets smaller.
If I fudged the grad's income to equal a 900k lifetime earnings difference, the Dropout with Private School money is again the winner, but is still followed closely by the grad. If I fudge the dropout's starting income (to $29,692) to get the 900k difference, the grad still beats the dropout with public level money, but only by 300k. Also, the dropout would be beating him until age 58.
“Most days, I try desperately to forget my childhood. There are tiny, nagging things that have settled just within the back of my mind, and no matter how hard I try they will not relent. Most of it is related to my original home, the one I was raised in. I pass it quite a but, and though it is vacant more often than not it is the exterior, choked by vines, that continues to keep it where it stands. It has become part of the landscape. But for me it will simply be my former home. I don't think many people live to see their homes turn into legends, but for me there is little I have gained from this. If anything, people who know the history of the place choose to avoid me when they can. To the rest, I can at least be some semblance of normal
My father and I lived in the home nearly twenty years ago. My dad got it cheaply, shortly after my mother passed away. I was born at the local hospital, and had plenty of friends. Yet I spent most of my time in my room on the bottom floor. Even back then the vines were thick on the home, and I can recall my room being bathed in green light even during the brightest days. I would hole myself up in my room for what felt like weeks, and during the summer that was likely the case. All that time I would spend just trying to stay out of the way of my father.
I kept my door closed most of the time, but it didn't always help. Late at night I would lay awake in my bed, the streetlamps lighting up the leafs of the vines. In the other room I would hear my father talking to someone, though there was never anyone there. It was never anything clear, but it was certainly his voice with breaks in conversation for someone else to speak. This would continue late into the night, and if I was lucky I would be asleep before he started crying.
I was not ashamed of my father, and I didn't think poorly of myself for him being like that. He would still take me to movies, to plays, and would even on occasion take me out to the woods for camping. The camping trips were the thing I most looked forward to. The house seemed to have a bad influence on him, and it was only when we were outside and far away from that building that he seemed to be himself. At times like that he could talk about my mom freely, and though some might think that as morbid, it was actually comforting. I loved my father, and losing him was something I have really never worked through.
As the years passed, he continued to get worse. At dinner he would insist that I set an extra place setting. The few times I refused he sent me to bed without dinner, though he would ultimately show up later with a small plate. Often we would just have a normal dinner, but sometimes my dad would suddenly get quiet, and the conversation would stop. He would just mumble the whole time, and I would have to grab his rapidly cooling plate and put it away so he could have it for lunch the next day.