A lot of my blog posts this week had to do with money, wealth, and politics, so when I was searching for an old post to bring back, this one made me stop and reflect for a while.
My opinions and perspective have changed a bit since I wrote it, but the fundamental message is still one that I agree with. I’ve trimmed out some of the parts where I think I was wrong, and left the stuff that still resonates. Hopefully it resonates with you as well. Either way, feel free to let me know.
I’ve been reading in bed on my smart phone recently, which is probably a bad idea because it makes it harder to go asleep. At the same time, it tends to get my mind rolling, and at 3am my thoughts tend to go some really interesting places. Sharing those thoughts is probably going to get me into trouble, but hey, you might find them interesting, so why not?
When I was eight years old, I knew I was going to be a writer. There was never any question about that. I spent all my free time making up stories. However, I knew I never wanted writing to be my job, because 1) everyone hates their jobs, and 2) everyone knows that writers can’t make a decent living. Even at eight years old, I had bought into some of society’s most pervasive myths about jobs, careers, and how to make money.
Americans are generally horrible with money. We struggle to keep budgets and put all sorts of things on credit, and pay more than twice what our houses are worth by signing mortgages we barely even read. Because we’re so horrible with money, we tend to see it as a magical force, something that can solve all our problems and make us happy. Rich people are like wizards or sorcerers, so far above the rest of us that we can hardly fathom their ways.
Nowhere is this stupidity more apparent than in the fact that most of us spend our lives working for some sort of hourly or salaried wage. Wages and salaries are basically the same, in that they convert time into money. That’s why we all measure income in terms of dollars per hour, or salary per year. But for anyone who understands how money works, that is stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. Money comes and goes, but time? Time is one of the most finite and precious resources known to man.
All of us are going to die someday. Most people are scared shitless by that fact, so we try to ignore it or put off thinking about it until we have to. But not all of us get the opportunity to put our affairs in order before we die. And even if we do all live to be centenarians, our time on this Earth is still finite. It’s non-renewable, too—you can’t go back and relive that day or that hour or that minute once it’s passed.
Converting time into money is basically trading gold for lead, or wine for water. Yet that’s exactly what we do, because money is this strange, magical force that so few of us understand.
Questions like “where do you work?” “what is your job?” and “what do you make?” are much more common than “what do you do for a living?” That’s because most of us have bought into this idea that money comes from working for someone else. While we’re on the clock, the company owns us and anything we produce. That’s the pact we make in exchange for this magical substance we call money.
It wasn’t until college that I started to become disabused of my childhood notions about writing for a living. First, I came to realize that lots of people love their work—that just because you do something as a job doesn’t mean that you’ll come to hate it. But it wasn’t until I graduated unemployed in the middle of a recession that I was disabused of the notion that writers can’t make a living.
People say that about every career—that is, every career except accounting. That’s because accountants are the ones who count the magical money. They’re the ones who know where it comes from. Their jobs are the ones that the people with the magical money will always need.
But there are other ways to make money—thousands of ways. Millions, even. It’s not about time it’s about producing something that people want and need. But when you’re working for yourself, that’s hard. You have to own up to your work—the failures as well as the successes.
When you work for a corporation, it’s easy to shift the blame. It’s a rare case where one person is solely responsible for bringing down the whole collective enterprise. But when you work for yourself, you can’t blame anyone else when things go wrong. You’ve got to take the risk.
That’s why everyone says that you can’t make a living as a writer. They say the same thing about any career where you strike out on your own.
In the end, though, it’s all just silly. Money isn’t a vague magical force—it comes from the value you create. It comes from producing something that people are willing to pay you for. And you don’t need to sell your time at $11 an hour or $44,000 a year to do that. You just need hard work, a great idea, and the ability to learn from your mistakes.
So can you make a living pursuing your dreams? The answer to that question depends entirely on you.