Broke is Beautiful


Yesterday, I wrote about Failure Lab, an event coming to the Detroit Opera House on November 21.  I discovered the event through a tweet by Focus: Hope, which I retweeted. Focus:Hope asked if I would be attending and I replied that I would love to, but don’t think I can afford it right now.

This morning a success coach tweeted me.  “…please don’t be offended but I cringe at ds ‘can’t afford’. Try it is not in my budget right nowBetter message 4U!”

So I have been thinking about the subtle difference between these two statements.

Imagine a scenario in which you go into a store and ask how much it is for a candy bar. The clerk says “$1.” You rifle through your pockets and come up with only 50c.  Doesn’t it seem woefully euphemistic to say “It’s not in my budget right now” rather than, “Sorry, I haven’t got that much.”?

The coach did not say why “it’s not in my budget” is better 4 me.  It was a tweet, after all.  So let me try to parse it.

My first reaction was that it implied that it would be shameful to admit you did not have enough money.  Instead, you imply that you have enough, you are just not making that a priority in your budget.

I won’t go into all of the reasons again why I think concealing poverty is unhelpful and leads to a cycle of shame.  (I wrote a whole book on the subject, after all.)  There is another aspect to this that I find more interesting.

Indeed, the success coach is right, studies have shown that a key to happiness is a sense of having control of your life and your environment.  Perhaps you can achieve that, at least temporarily, through thinking of yourself as being able to do things but not prioritizing them. “I could if I wanted to, but I chose not to.”

You can carry this further by saying, “I could be making more money, but I have prioritized living in the area where I grew up” or “spending more time with my children” or whatever it is. So everything is still your choice that you do not have a lot of money. You feel you have agency. You feel more content. So if you make it a habit of framing things in a way that gives you agency (even if it is something of an illusion) you feel better about yourself.  This was, in fact, a point I made in my book. Don’t think of yourself as a loser, think of yourself as an artist of life who has prioritized the non-financial.

If you think of my message to the organizers as being only about myself then it makes sense that it would be better for my self-esteem to word the message as the success coach suggests.  My tweet, however, was not primarily about conveying information about me, it was about a relationship between myself and the people who came up with this creative project.  Communicating with other people is not only about self-esteem, it is also about other-esteem.

If I want to express how much I love the idea of what Failure Lab is doing, is it better to say that I would love to go if I had enough money or to imply that I do have enough but that their show is not enough of a priority for me to budget for it?

When “and Then I Got Rich” Doesn’t Happen

As part of my ongoing exploration of failure, I wanted to embed a video from the local news station on a an upcoming program called Failure Lab.  I failed. Follow the link to watch.

In Failure Lab, which will be presented at the Detroit Opera House on November 21, is described as “an intimate evening showcasing personal stories of failure.” The catch is that none of the speakers frame the stories in terms of stepping stones to success. They do not follow up with lessons learned or how they went on to great things. They just contemplate the experience of failing.

Three years ago (on another Detroit television station) I explained the reason I wanted to write Broke is Beautiful.

“You can find lots of stories about broke people doing well but they always end with ‘and then they got rich.’  And I wanted to talk about living a good life if ‘and then they got rich’ doesn’t happen.”

Why should anyone want to do this? Isn’t it dwelling on the negative? Shouldn’t you be striving for success?

Only discussing failure as part of a success narrative isolates people. It doesn’t give anyone an opportunity to share the experiences that are shaping their lives until after the fact, and only after some sort of “happy end” has been achieved.  It blinds us to the fact that our stumbling, bumbling, awkwardness, and the pain of falling short of great dreams unites us as human beings.

The British, I think, have much more of an understanding of this. As an illustration, here is clip of Stephen Fry talking about the difference between British and American humor:

In this clip he talks about our self-help culture and the American “idea that life is refinable and improvable.”  What I would add is that not only do we think we can improve our lives we feel that we must improve our lives.

It is important to expand the narrative about success and failure to include empathy for those who do not reach the top (and recognition that they are us). Then we can give each other a pat on the back, a helping hand, and laugh at our foibles and theirs.

I have a sense that perhaps our narrative about failure is changing in the wake of the Great Recession.  The limits of our control in the universe have been made clear.  This is related (in a way I hadn’t expected until I started writing this) to my post yesterday on having only one narrative in popular culture.  The problem with the narrative failure as a stepping stone to success, the self-made man, always winning in the end is not that it is a bad story. It can be motivating and uplifting, and sometimes that is just what you need. But it is not always what you need. Sometimes you need to be reassured that we’re all a bit screwed up and we’re all in this together.

Incidentally, if the premise of Broke is Beautiful sounds interesting and you would like autographed copies for the people on your gift list, you can order directly from the author (support a starving artist) by following the link.

“The Poor”

An interesting thing happened a couple of years ago when my book Broke is Beautiful came out.  The book, about living a good life even if you don’t have money, generated a number of angry comments from people who said I was making light of being broke, that I didn’t know what it was like to really be broke.

At the time I was rolling pennies to buy ramen noodles, or hoping I could come up with enough change for a box of generic pop tarts at the dollar store.  I was turning down social invitations because I didn’t have enough gasoline to get there and back.  I had one pair of jeans with a hole in the knee and I wore them every day because I didn’t have money for another pair.  I skipped meals because I had nothing to eat.  I was broke.  In fact, I was officially poor.  If you were to take all of the people whose incomes fell below the poverty line that year, I was toward the low end of that!

I guess I didn’t sound like it to the people who left angry comments.  I had a book out, so I must be doing OK.  Poor people do not produce things, they don’t publish books, they are not articulate, educated, capable.  They don’t drop references to Shakespeare.  (Any writers out there will back me up on this: given the rather complex system of advances, royalties and so on, it is absolutely possible to have out a book that is getting some attention and to still not have enough to eat.)

Anyway, I couldn’t be a real poor person.  I am from the suburbs.  I have a college education.  I am white.  (According to a 2000 CBS News poll, only 18% of Americans know that most poor people are white.)

At least, I assume these were some of the things that convinced people I couldn’t know their pain.

As a “starving artist” I have lived below the poverty line many years.  The artist’s income goes up and down and I have better years and worse years.  Over all, there have been more of the not-so-much-money years than the flush ones.

This is one of the important things to bear in mind when thinking about “the poor.”  The poor are not those other guys.  They are not a social class.  They are not the same people from one year to another.  The poor, that is people who fall below the poverty line, are a diverse group of people who are in a particular situation.  There is a long post on the blog Your Life is a Gospel that shows all of the statistics.  Even though there may be a similar number of people in the category of “poor” each year, they are not the same individuals from year to year.  People lose jobs, have down turns in their small businesses, suffer medical problems and they fall below the line.  The next year their situation improves but someone else’s worsens.  For most people being poor is not who they are.  It is what is happening to them.

Still most people when they are in this situation do not claim the mantle of “poor.”  The poor are other people.  The poor are the ones who were born that way and stay that way.   The poor have to be other people, of course, because they are not like us.  They are lazy, less capable, they are the ones we help with our charity.  This mentality often keeps people from seeking the help they need lest they have to admit being “poor” and a “charity case.”

“I am a middle class person, I just happen to be having a rough time now.”

One of the things that I discovered while working on Broke is Beautiful is that people who have college educations are more likely than others to build up debts they can’t get on top of and to be hounded by creditors.  They don’t talk about it, and they feel great shame in their isolation.  Being hounded by creditors is supposed to happen to those other people– the poor ones. It becomes a cycle, they try to avoid anything that might harm their stellar credit.  They get loans to keep up appearances until they are so far under everything falls apart.

The idea that we are all part of the great “middle class” fudges a lot of real differences.  It means there is supposedly no difference between the guy on the factory floor and the guy in the management office.  Both are “middle class” people.  So what type of policies benefit the “middle class?”  The one that gives a better wage to the laborer or the one that keeps more of a profit for management? 

The sense that the poor are other people– a class of people who are different from us– affects how we think of the social safety net.  Various studies have found that the more ethnically homogenous a nation is, the more amenable people tend to be to social programs that benefit everyone.  They are more likely to think of the people who would benefit as being “like them.”  Whereas in countries with sizable ethnic minorities, people are more likely to think of social programs as helping “others”– those poor people.  (The stereotypical African-American welfare mother.)

I came across an article recently on the site Everyday Feminism that made the same argument that I did in Broke is BeautifulIt is time for the broke to come out of the closet.

Being honest about our needs is the only way we can stand up for ourselves.  It is important to let the world know that, indeed, the face of “poverty” includes educated, competent, creative people.  It includes hard working people.  It includes the risk takers who try to launch businesses, but fail.  It is not only the rich who are “risk takers,” and it is not only the wealthy who can claim to have among them the “best and brightest.”

“It’s particularly important that poor people who have some aspect of privilege – be it racial, gender, sexual, educational or otherwise – realize that their silence is a form of complicity that reinforces the lies about the poor used to justify the denial of their dignity,” wrote Jeff Nall in Everyday Feminism.  “The time has come for poor people to stop letting other people speak for, and about, them; to stop letting others define who they are.”

I recommend all the articles that you can find via the links in this article, but I will leave you with a quote of a more theological bent from Henri Nouwen:

“When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs… Just as we are inclined to ignore our own poverty, we are inclined to ignore others’. We prefer not to see people who are destitute, we do not like to look at people who are deformed or disabled, we avoid talking about people’s pains and sorrows, we stay away from brokenness, helplessness, and neediness. By this avoidance we might lose touch with the people through whom God is manifested to us. But when we have discovered God in our own poverty, we will lose our fear of the poor and go to them to meet God.”






The Anti-Climax of Paying Off Debt

Paying off debt is one of the most anti-climactic things you can do. This summer I was fortunate to receive a decent advance for a book with Reader’s Digest. It allowed me to pay off four credit cards that had been dragging on my life for years. It was a silent baptism, washing away my sins in living water, allowing me to be reborn to a new life– a life without fear of the ringing telephone. A life that consists of more than looming financial deadlines.

And yet, I say it was a silent baptism because there was no celebration, no supportive community gathered to sing hymns, just a check that went into my bank account, and was sent back out and then was gone. Everything went on pretty much the same way as it has. I’m still a starving artist, broke and beautiful.

A couple of weeks later I got a letter from Citibank. “Congratulations, this is the culmination of years of effort. We know how hard this was to do– you could have written your debt off, declared bankruptcy and left us with the loss, but but you didn’t. We admire you. Over the years you paid us $x0,000 in interest. Amazing but true! Thanks to fractional reserve banking, this allowed us to issue $x,000,000 in loans to start-ups like x, and create many jobs. Thank you, job creator! You were a great customer for us. Sorry about that whole punative interest thing and that time with the rude call center lady. Hope it didn’t erode the quality of your life too much.”

That’s what I wanted it to say.

Instead, it was full of threats for “canceling my payment program.” It spelled out all of the horrible things that might befall me if I failed to reinstate it. So that is the kind of congratulations they actually send. Or they just quietly remove your account from the online system. Log in and see the zero balance, log in next time and they say you’re not a customer. That’s it.

The other thing that happened almost immediately was that my credit rating plummeted. You heard me right. Paying the cards off made my credit rating go down. It has something to do with length of credit history and available lines of credit I suppose.

The fact of the matter is, I don’t care that much. Let it sort itself out. A credit rating is part of the debt purchasing game, and one that I no longer want to be part of. I don’t want to figure out how to “rebuild my credit.” I don’t want to play.

Yes, it would be nice if the impersonal world of banks that had such a profoundly personal effect on my life was able to acknowledge this milestone, maybe send a thank you note for years of business. It is better still to be free of them.

(This article originally appeared on my non-fiction blog Broke is Beautiful)


Art of Manliness has a feature today on vintage business motivational posters.

“Two (now defunct) printing companies — Parker-Holladay Company and Mather & Co. — were at the forefront of this burgeoning motivation business. Both companies created a line of motivational materials that business owners could subscribe to (new posters and cards would arrive each month) and hang up and hand out in the workplace. The two companies hired some of the best illustrators of the day such as Willard Frederick Elmes and Hal Depuy to create these handsome motivational posters.”

The “now defunct” part struck me as pleasingly ironic.  (I did write a book once called Schadenfreude, Baby!)

Anyway, this particular poster brought to mind a section of the book Broke is Beautiful that praises “groping.”

Gordon MacKenzie wrote a wonderful little book called Orbiting the Giant Hairball.  The titular “hairball” is the corporate group-think that grows in an organization over time.  Corporations don’t begin as giant hairballs.  They begin life as simple, effective concepts, one or two strands of the ideas that will produce success.  As success builds on success, more and more strands of “things that have worked in the past” get woven together.  Next thing you know, you’ve got a giant hairball.

“It is a common history of enterprises to begin in a state of naïve groping, stumble onto success, milk the success with a vengeance and, in the process, generate systems that arrogantly turn away from the source of their original success: groping,” MacKenzie wrote.

Picture Michael Douglas delivering this line:  “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that groping — for lack of a better word — is good.  Groping is right.  Groping works.  Groping clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.  Groping, in all of its forms — groping for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.  And groping — you mark my words — will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”