If you spend less money than you make, you'll have more money than you need.
A few years ago, on a hot summer day outside a cafe in Los Angeles, California, I met Lynn Fang1 in person for the first time and, after a stream of increasingly existential questions and cautious probes into each others thoughts on the existence of extraterrestrials (a stream dotted with moments of awkward silence), we found ourselves coining the term, and discussing the concept of, lifestyle support, the idea that people should be so transparent in their lives (online and offline) that their lifestyle would be an incentive for others to support their work.
By being honest and open about how we live, we can give the people who gravitate towards us (or who work with us by matter of happenstance) the ability to make a conscious decision about whether or not they want to support our lifestyle by paying for our work and doing business with us.
I had mostly forgotten about this discussion with Lynn until a few weeks ago when my friend Ali Dark2 recommended that I read Breaking the Time Barrier3, a free ebook for anyone recognizing that selling your time--one hour for X dollars--eventually creates a barrier to earning more income.
I’m not a collection of hours,” Karen said. “I’m the accumulation of all my skills and talents. I’m wisdom and creativity. I’ve stopped seeing myself as a punch card. My clients don’t see me that way either. Yes, sometimes, I’ve had to change my client’s mind-set. But it starts with me, first, just as it starts with you. You have to forget selling time. The best thing you could do for yourself is to get the concept of time out of your head.”
a value-based approach to pricing your services is a powerful way to break through the time barrier.
The book shares an empowering perspective and I highly recommend it. It's a quick and fun read that uses storytelling to convey knowledge.
While I found myself nodding in agreement to most the book, there was something on page 27 that caught my attention and reminded me of the meeting with Lynn a few years earlier:
"Should a client be asked which lifestyle they want to support?”
I believe the answer should be 'yes'. I believe that people should ask themselves what kinds of lifestyles they want to support. They should buy products and work with people who are in alignment with the values that lead to the lifestyles they agree with.
I don't believe in the lifestyles of "the rich and famous", the owning of multiple mansions, yachts, and private airplanes. I wouldn't want to work with people who follow those lifestyles or even seek them out. I wouldn't want to pay them money or buy products or services from them because doing so would be a vote for their lifestyle, a vote that says I agree to help support such a lifestyle (or the pursuit of such a lifestyle).
I realize, as I type this on my MacBook Air, that in today's world of monolithic corporations it's hard to know what lifestyles you may be supporting by buying certain products or services.
But corporations are nothing more than a big collection of people, so we can start there. If we start with the people first, then we have to start with ourselves.
Is the lifestyle of the people you do business with important? Absolutely.
Your act of doing business with someone else helps to support whatever lifestyle they lead. If they're not leading a lifestyle that you agree with--if your values and their values are not at least somewhat in alignment--then supporting their lifestyle will violate your own values by supporting opposing ones.
If someone else believes in the lifestyle you lead--if someone believes in the values that drive your lifestyle and the values that influence the choices you make both personally and professionally--then they will want to see more of those choices made in the world and that will be a big incentive for them to support you.
The more I think about this, the more I realize that lifestyle support goes way beyond business transactions. The emotional support you give others--spending time with them, meeting them for lunch, agreeing to attend parties, etc.--supports their lifestyle too. And perhaps that's why I'm so selective with my time and so careful about who I relate with.
The term "guilty by association" is usually used in the context of a criminal act, but when it comes to your lifestyle, you really are guilty by association. Your actions say a lot about your lifestyle and that in turn says a lot about what you believe and what you value, which in turn says a lot about you.
I met up with Lynn Fang after connecting with her online because I felt that we held a lot of the same values. I stayed with my friend Ali in Australia for a few weeks last year for the same reason.
The Internet opens the world up to us and lets us find people with similar values and similar belief systems, but we need to be transparent and open about who we really are for them to find us. Connecting with such people and openly sharing ideas and thoughts leads to discussions like the one I had with Lynn, which in turn leads to the development and sharing of more ideas and more discussions, thereby making the world a better place.
If you believe something--if you hold certain values close to your heart--then ask yourself if you're associating with and supporting people who hold similar beliefs. Ask yourself if you're leading a lifestyle that reflects what you truly believe.
Yesterday I walked to the Salamanca Market in Hobart, Tasmania, a street market that opens every Saturday. Much like everything else I’ve experienced here in Tasmania, the market had ‘calmly dramatic’ feel to it, filled with three hundred stalls and bustling with thousands of people, yet not feeling one bit chaotic or rushed.
There were lots of street musicians strewn about. There was a teenage girl on the flute, a young man singing to an acoustic guitar, an older gentleman attempting to play the ukulele, and another selling CDs.
After walking around a bit, I noticed the young man with the acoustic guitar had joined another young musician. The two men, who did not seem to know each other, started playing as one, carefully watching each other as they tried to find a rhythm.
A few of these musicians seemed comfortable performing, but there were many others who made it obvious they were struggling with stage-fright. I remember seeing a young man sitting on a bench through one of the stalls, set back away from the crowds as he quietly sang to himself and tapped on his guitar. I wondered what he was thinking.
At one end of the market there was a young girl, perhaps ten or eleven, holding a violin and glancing around nervously. She found the courage to start playing just I walked past her and several people turned as they heard the music, their faces going from curious to astonished when they saw her age.
Walking down Kennedy Lane, into Salamanca Square where families gathered to relax around a water fountain, there was a young boy band playing. One boy on the drums, one on the keyboard, and two more standing up with guitars. The lead singer wasn’t more than eight, his flushed red face and closed eyes telling me he didn’t want to see all the people stopping to smile at him. His singing was horribly off pitch, but his soul made that irrelevant.
Down the other end of Kennedy Lane, down the quiet narrow end with tall stone walls on either side blocking the already diffused sunlight, there was another musician standing in the shadows. I recognized him immediately from my walks around the city earlier in the week. But I had never seen his face. Or was it a girl? I couldn’t tell. He wore a expressionless white mask, baggy jeans, and a faded blue sweatshirt with the hood pulled over. The only thing more unsettling than his ghostly appearance was the tune that he added to the scene. Picking gently at a closely clutched guitar, he played with the sound of each string ever so carefully, clearly having more experience than a casual passerby would notice. Perhaps that’s why he wore an expressionless white mask.
I walked around the market a few more times, not really knowing where I was going or what I was looking for. Around the middle of the market, at the end of a closed street, there were two men playing music and generating a crowd. Not being much for crowds myself, I stepped off to the side, a bit behind the musicians. There I noticed several guys in black suits sitting on the ground, with bags of wires and instruments and other musical equipment sitting on the street around them. As they laughed and watched the crowd, I realized they were next in line, awaiting their turn in the spotlight.
It was here, facing in the same direction as the musicians, that I noticed a man in the crowd step up and throw some money into a guitar case. He smiled and stepped back into the crowd to continue watching. There was something about his posture that told me he was standing there simply to encourage others to step up and give. Not many did.
Every single one of the musicians I had walked by, from the young girl playing the violin, to the person picking at the guitar in a white mask, had a bucket or instrument case in front of them collecting donations. But I hadn’t given anything.
As I ate breakfast this morning, I reflected on all the musicians I walked by and I felt bad for not giving anything, especially not to the children. I realized that even if I had given money to every single one of the musicians, it wouldn’t have amounted to more than a few dollars.
But how much hope and validation might I have given in the process? What if my giving something meant that one of those children felt inspired to see their dreams through? How could any amount of money be valued higher than that possibility?
Perhaps the problem lies in my relationship to money. Perhaps deep down inside there is still a lot of insecurity and scarcity that I’m not recognizing, a part of me that is reluctant to give because I’ve spent so much of my life living in fear of not having enough.
I do have enough. In fact, I have more than enough.
Next week I’m going back to the Salamanca Market. I’m going to give something to every musician that I can find. In fact, maybe I should make this a permanent habit, to always give something to street musicians. Unlike beggars, they’re clearly offering something in return. Instead of just asking, they’re creating something and hoping that you’ll find value in it.
But more likely than not, they’re also asking for you to support their dream, to show them that it’s a dream worth working towards.
All dreams are worth working towards and I believe there is no better way to invest in others than to help them achieve those dreams. What’s your dream and how are you working towards it? Let me know and I will send you something. (Please include your PayPal email address.)
Congruency is compatibility, agreement, and harmony. If we're living in congruence with ourselves, then our actions are in harmony with our beliefs. Things we want to see in others, we consciously strive to exude from ourselves. Our actions reflect a commitment to our values.
If we’re not living in congruence with ourselves, then we will say one thing but do another. We will seek things in others that we ourselves fail to strive for.
I’m always looking for ways in which my actions are not congruent with my beliefs. I ask myself, am I acting the same way I would want others to act? Am I making choices that I would want others to make?
I recently realized that my Journal offering — a $7/month subscription — was not in alignment with what I look for in other subscriptions, nor was it compatible with the way that I make monetary contributions to others.
Recognizing this, I’ve made a few changes to the Journal that are going into effect as of today.
There are now monthly and yearly subscription options, along with a one-time donation page. If you make a one-time donation of at least $7, you automatically receive access to the Journal; the duration of access is determined by the amount of your donation.
For the monthly and yearly subscriptions, the minimums are $7 and $40 respectively, but those amounts can be adjusted as long as they remain above the minimums.
Of course you can choose to do nothing and keep your current monthly subscription. However, you now have the option to switch to the yearly subscription, or cancel your recurring subscription and make a one-time donation. Whatever you decide, I’m very grateful for your support. 🙂
So far this year I’ve made monetary contributions to [person requested name be removed], Joy Holland, Sui Solitare, Lynn Fang, Niall Doherty, Thom Chambers, Ando Perez, and Earl Baron, along with several other donations to small independent software developers.
In each case, I might not have made the contribution if I wasn’t able to choose the amount of my subscription or if I wasn’t able to make a one-time contribution.
The freedom to choose, I realized, is quite important to me. I also realized that despite its importance in my life, I wasn’t holding myself to the same standard.
The options for subscribing to my Journal have been, until now, quite limited: you could subscribe for $7/month or not at all. Even the donation button was removed from my site in early 2011.
However, with these new options in place my offering now feels congruent with the rest of my life; I’m now presenting things in way that I would want to see if I visited a site and felt the desire to make a monetary contribution.
Do you have any thoughts on living in congruence with yourself, or on the power of choice? Is there anything in particular that you wish you saw more of, whether from me or from others that you follow?
Will our successors, perhaps hundreds of years from now, better understand the link between art, life, emotion, and economics? This article on money, metaphor, and the invisible hand offers a hint at that possibility.
"If you were to trace the separation of art from life historically," says the poet Etheridge Knight in an interview, "you would trace it back to the Greeks when Plato and others made the 'head thing' the ideal... There was a separation between reason and emotion."
"Generally speaking, a people’s metaphors and figures of speech will come out of their basic economy," Knight continues:
"If somebody lives near the ocean and they fish, their language will be full of those metaphors. If people are farmers, they will use that kind of figure of speech. Metaphors are alive. When they come into being, they are informed by the politics and the sociology and the economy of now. That’s how language is."
That's how economic language is, too, but with a surprising difference. And this is where poets can help to fix the economy. It turns out that economic theory is overly dependent on fictional devices, whereas poetry, as Knight shows, trucks in the real.
Mark Silver writes in Is It Possible to Do Financial Harm to a Client? about a problem with inspirational businesses:
"When your business combines transformational, spiritual, or aspirational work of some sort, there's an inherent risk. If you have a mission, something you care deeply about, and your business is a vehicle for that mission, you have a slight problem.
The problem is this: while any purchase you make is at least partially an emotional choice, your business means that there can be a real tangle. It becomes all too easy for someone to conflate their aspirations, hopes and vision with purchasing what you are offering.
Is it manipulation? Is it just good business?
Let's make it real. You have someone interested in one of your programs. They are totally excited about it, it seems perfect for them, it tackles something they really need to handle in their life.
And this person doesn't have the money. Their income is very low, and somewhat unstable. They'll be adding significant debt to work with you.
Is it okay to sign this person up and take their money? Is it totally their responsibility or do you bear a part of the karmic implications?"
I believe that we do play a part in the karmic implications and that we have a responsibility to work towards equality (as opposed to living and working in a manner that encourages inequality). This belief is what led me to write my latest essay, Permission Pricing for Digital Work.
Dwolla is a tiny 12-person startup founded by 28-year-old Ben Milne. The company is looking to change the way money is being transferred by sidestepping credit cards completely. This is different than what PayPal offers and incredibly more powerful.
I really love the ground-up approach Ben employs, the way he disregards the status quo that others have avoided questioning for over 30 years. Here's a snippet from an interview with the founder:
Why hasn't anyone side-stepped the credit card companies before?
I think a lot of it is timing and luck. And a little bit of getting your foot in the door. One of our investors is a $1.8 billion financial institution. That's atypical anywhere, let alone in Iowa. Having them on board allowed us to get into a lot of rooms.
We serve everyone from the landlord taking in one payment to the individual buying a coffee with their cellphone, to billion-dollar corporations. Because we're so atypical and look at mobile payments differently, we got in the room with the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury who allowed us to have a conversation, not only from a corporate standpoint, but from a government monetary distribution standpoint.
All banks are connected by one ACH system. Credit card companies utilize that same system to pay off your credit card charges. Banks internally set along that same system to move money in their own banks. This system in its own right is riddled with flaws — tons of fraud issues and waste and delays. If you've ever had a payment take a few days to clear, its because they're waiting on that ACH system.
We want to fix that system between the banks, take out the delays and make it instant. If we can create this ubiquitous cash layer of distribution between consumers and merchants and developers and financial institutions, that actually fixes the problem.
No one has built a payment network in 30 years — since credit cards. Everybody has concentrated on how we build a portal for credit cards, from digital wallets to Square.
We don't believe in credit cards. We believe in authorization and in lower cost transfers. Our generation actually understands that when you buy sh*t, it comes out of your bank account and you have to pay for that.
As someone who admittedly knows very little about economics, government, capitalism vs socialism, or the financial industry, this bit on what Mark Jeffrey's thinks Occupy Wall Street is really about was enlightening.
Over the last several days, there has been a lot of talk about OWS being socialist, un-American and about 're-distribution of wealth'. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In a capitalist system, if you make a product or service the world finds of value, you are rewarded. Sometimes, you are rewarded with an obscene amount of money. As you should be: this is what God intended when he invented capitalism and opened the stock market on the 8th day. If you are Steve Jobs and you make insanely great products, everyone runs out and buys every newer, smaller more awesome version.
If you suck, or you operate your business like a fool, or you're just plain unlucky timing-wise, you are rewarded with going out of business. Every single Internet entrepreneur knows this. In fact, we all know people who've lost companies or sold them for crappy valuations: I lost a company myself back in the crash of 2000.
Again, God looked down and lo, even this was good. All Internet entrepreneurs would also (eventually) say this is a good thing: you get your head snapped back, you learn about business and yourself. You come back twice as smart. The market benefits eventually with renewed strength: everyone actually prospers in the end.
But in 2008, when the banks failed, this did not happen.
The banks -- who either ran their businesses like fools, or who intentionally created a bubble (and if this is true, I would go so far as to suggest this may be labelled Financial Treason, since they hurt America on an epic scale with full knowledge of what they were doing -- and didn't care) -- the banks should have gone down in bankruptcy. Their assets should have been sold in auction, and a thousand new creative business opportunities would have been created. Startup people from the Internet world would have descended on the carcass of Wall Street with insanely amazing ideas.
In a proper capitalist system, this is what would have happened. And we all would have benefitted! Even the idiots at Goldman Sachs, etc. who got us here: some self-reflection would have done them good.
The state stepped in. The state funded the banks with our money, yours and mine. A full 20% of the valuation of the United States of America was annihilated by these morons, and we simply funded them back up from the Treasury (actually worse: from the non-federal Federal Reserve -- which I won't even get into here).
You know what that's called?
Socialism. The fusion of the state and corporation is called Socialism. And this is what OWS objects to. That's what they are angry about.
(One of the best comments I read on this is 'Capitalism without the possible consequence of bankruptcy is like Christianity without Hell.')
Some argue that the banks were 'too big to fail'. I say that's bullshit, but let's let that stand for now. When an Internet company is on its last legs, and is almost dead, they do generally have at least some options. They can raise additional capital, but usually at egregious terms: the new investors want to wipe out the old investors percentage-wise, they want 2-5x liquidation preferences, they want control of the Board, etc.
And the almost-dead company has to accept these terms: they have their hat in their hand and have no choice.
This is where the banks were in 2008. Except: we never forced terms like this on them. We should have. That's what you do in Capitalism.
As American Citizens, and bailers-out-of-the-banks, you and I should have had pro rata stock shares in every bailed out bank. You and I should have pro rata dividends that come to us quarterly, it should not go into the pockets of the bankers as immense bonuses. And you and I should have pro rata voting rights on Board issues.
You want to be too big too fail? Fine. Here's the term sheet from the American People, who are now forced to be venture capitalists and should at least reap the rewards of investment. Yes, our terms are egregious, but We, The People are saving you from bankruptcy.
This is called Capitalism. We didn't see that happen with the banks. Instead: we saw socialism happen, we saw redistribution of wealth alright: we saw the bankers get our money! (And for those of you who argue the banks paid it all back you're wrong; and even if they did, the Fed printing more money in massive quantities creates inflation which effectively robs us as well).
The State did not do its job. The State did not protect We, The People. Instead, it protected the corporations at the expense of the people.
And we know it happened, and we're pissed off. And we don't believe that anything has actually changed, and we seem to be powerless through our existing political system to do anything about it: both Democrats and Republicans are on their side, not ours, so even voting doesn't matter like it should in a real democracy. We can't vote on who runs the Federal Reserve (hint: he's ex Goldman Sachs, so who do you think he sides with?)
That is what OWS is really all about. It's about true democracy, true capitalism, and America.
A few weeks ago I was approached with a job offer. I turned it down. That's not to say I didn't need the work. Money was very tight and there was no income in sight. I had maybe a hundred dollars in the bank and I needed every job I could get.
In fact, I had been browsing the "gigs" section of CraigsList to see if there were any easy manual labor jobs that I could do. I'd even thought of applying at Starbucks or the grocery store.
Sure, working a "normal job" wouldn't be interesting or challenging, but it would give me a consistent income and allow me to continue working towards my real income goals (to earn a simple living through my writing).
Since quitting my job almost two years ago, I've been using my technology skills to earn income through accepting any freelance work that comes my way. While the work is generally easy and pays very well, it is in no way consistent.
And that's no surprise because I've been relying entirely on word-of-mouth referrals. I refuse to market my services because that's not the direction I want to invest my time. I want to earn a living through my writing, not through my tech skills.
So when a client asked to hire me on a monthly retainer basis, it sounded like a good fit. The work was relatively straight-forward and it would give me a regular income.
But there was a catch: The client worked for a global network of non-profit organizations whose mission was the opposition of civilian militarization.
In a Skype call the client warned me I might be watched and questioned by the FBI. I would be helping manage the organization's servers and if I was pressured by the government, the organization needed to know that I was "on their side".
On their side? I don't pick sides.
But I needed this job.
What if I did some quick introspection and picked a side so I could get this job and return to focusing on my writing? What if I quickly figured out what my beliefs were and dealt with the repercussions later?
These thoughts felt wrong. They felt alien, like little monsters quietly being directed by a greedy overlord. I knew that intelligent decisions were never made by greed, so I put off making a decision to distance myself from the whole situation for at least a day.
During this time, a friend stepped in and reminded me that I don't compromise my values for anything. She knew me as that person. She knew me as someone who doesn't bend their values just because the circumstances call for it. And she was right.
That was the reminder I needed to gain clarity.
I emailed the client and politely turned down his offer. I wouldn't compromise. I'd rather live homeless on the street than bend my values to greed. If I was meant to have money, the universe would find another way.
So I turned my focus back to making a living with my writing. I knew it wasn't realistic to expect overnight success once I put out an offering, but I had to get started. I had to keep moving forward.
I had my first offer in mind, a monthly subscription to my Journal, and I just needed to work out the technical details.
Instead of outsourcing the distribution of my writing to services like Letter.ly or MailChimp, I wanted to publish everything on my site and simply hide it from the public until I decided to release it (as part of my income ethics, I'm releasing all paid-work within one year of its publication).
I also wanted to keep the entire payment process on my site and leave room for growth when I start offering other products.
I looked around the web for a WordPress plugin that I could use and after a bit of searching, I found a plugin called s2Member, provided by a company called WebSharks.
The free version had everything I needed to get started and the Pro version, which cost $69, had all the features that would allow me to grow with my paid offerings.
Community involvement is a big thing that I look for when choosing software. I like to know that lots of people are using the software and that any future bugs will be addressed. The s2Member community forum was very active, so I registered for a free account.
A note on the registration page caught my eye: Help out on the forum and you may be selected to receive a coupon for a free copy of the Pro version.
Since money was tight, this sounded like an excellent opportunity. Many of the questions on the forum were related to WordPress and I was fully capable of answering them. So over the next few days (in between setting up and learning s2Member for my own site) I answered a dozen or so questions on the forum.
A few days later I received an email from the lead support guy at WebSharks, Inc.
He wanted to know if I was interested in being hired to help out on the forums. No commitments and no minimum hours; just do my best to learn s2Member (which I was doing anyway) and spend some time helping out on the forums (which I was also doing).
WebSharks would pay me a weekly salary and I would receive a free copy of the Pro version of s2Member.
I accepted! After signing an NDA and faxing over a W9, I was hired.
For the first time in two years, I have a regular income again. Not only is it regular, it's an income that allows me to work wherever and whenever I want while also learning a piece of software that will help me move forward with my own business goals.
The small team at WebSharks is friendly and lead developer shares many of my values.
I couldn't have asked for a better fit. In fact, I couldn't even imagine a better fit. Had I taken that first job a few weeks ago -- had I compromised my values and bent to monstrous will of greed -- perhaps the universe wouldn't have offered this to me.
Instead of settling for something that would've been good enough, I chose to continue climbing towards something better, towards the path that I knew my heart was set on following.
I had no idea how I would continue on that path with no income, but when I put my trust in the universe, it presented me with exactly what I needed, when I needed it.
“Know your value,” everyone told me, “don’t undervalue yourself.” I was creating my first digital product and I began hesitating when it came time to choose a price. But the advice I received from friends led me to realize there was more to my hesitation: something was amiss with the status quo.
Using my perception of value to control the pricing process just felt wrong.
What good was 'knowing my value' if my audience perceived the value of my work differently? If I thought my work was worth X but you felt my work was worth Y, then how could I create an offer that made sense for the both of us?
'Knowing your value', I realized, is a broken method for pricing digital goods. The intangible nature of digital work makes it easy to impose prices based on the creators' perception of value, but that's an outdated system that ignores the Internet's potential to create global equality.
Rather than arbitrarily choosing a price, I put together a survey describing the offer that I was creating and asked everyone on my email list to share their opinion. Who better to ask about the value of my work than those who had given me permission to send it to them?
I included in the survey a range of subscription options (based on what I would personally pay) and then asked everyone to share what resonated with them. Here were the results:
Using these results, I then calculated an average price and used that to set the monthly subscription for my Journal, which I'm quietly launching with the publication of this essay.
Will this average price make sense for everyone? No, probably not -- the price will be too high for some, and too low for others. But will the price be fair? Yes.
In allowing your collective voice to set the price, I'm able to guarantee that your opinion overrides my own, even if that means using a higher price than I'm comfortable with (I was in fact going to use a lower price before I conducted the survey).
Asking permission before pricing my work gave you, my audience, a platform to participate in the pricing process and ensured that your opinion played an vital role in the valuation of my work.
What is Permission Pricing?
Permission pricing uses the privilege of an audience to understand what that audience would pay for our work. It recognizes that equality cannot be achieved through imposing our individual sense of value on others, and it uses the power of gift-giving to create a sustainable mechanism for increasing both awareness and perception of value.
There's a good chance you're already familiar with permission pricing: When you ask a friend how much he'll give you for something that you want to sell, you're employing permission pricing. You're offering your respect by understanding the other persons' perception of value and then doing business accordingly.
A similar concept you may be familiar with is that of permission marketing, which recognizes that treating people with respect and getting their permission before marketing to them is the best way to earn their trust and attention.
But if we build an audience with permission marketing and then turn around and sell to them without employing 'permission pricing', we're effectively communicating that we will do business, but only with those who agree with our perception of value.
That method of pricing degrades the trust we build through permission marketing. It's like asking for permission to speak with someone and then ignoring them when they give it to us.
Not everyone in our audience will want to buy from us and that's OK. Some people only come for our gifts and they will stay for our gifts as long as they remain genuine.
Using gift-giving, we can increase the perceived value of our work while also increasing the awareness around it. This method isn't as lucrative as imposing our own prices, but it is a method based on equality and it ensures a truer valuation of our work.
Using Gift-Giving to Increase Awareness and Perception of Value
Gift-giving is the act of offering something of real value without strings attached. The more true gifts we give away, the greater the number of people we will attract who will appreciate the value of our work.
When we attract people who appreciate the value of our work, they will talk to others about the gifts we're giving and upon receiving those gifts, they will want to give something back. This simultaneously increases the awareness around our work and adds to our perceived value.
There's one reason this works: Everyone who receives a true gift wants to give something back.
But the key here is to give away true gifts. What's a 'true gift'? True gifts are just as valuable -- if not more valuable -- than the products we sell.
An easy way to tell if we're giving away true gifts is to consider our free work. Could we sell it? If not, then there's a good chance it's not a true gift. It's probably wrapping paper, a cheap attention-getter that serves no purpose but to increase the statistical probability that we'll make a sale or attract more traffic.
If the gifts we're giving are nothing more than wrapping paper, our audience will eventually notice and we'll lose their trust. We want to be giving away true gifts, not bogus gifts. True gifts get people talking to other people about the quality and remarkableness of our work and they add to the perception of our value.
The Industrial Death of Permission Pricing
The concept of permission pricing certainly isn't new. In fact, it was once far more common than it is today. Its unfortunate absence in business can be attributed to the factory-based methods of the industrial revolution and the culture that has emerged from it.
As products became cheaper to manufacture and the cost of production dropped dramatically, the need to involve customers in the business process dried up. Instead of using human relationships to create a shared understanding of value, businesses began imposing and adjusting prices based entirely on earnings.
Products were now made in factories -- not entirely by humans -- and the human element quickly disappeared from business. Everything became about the numbers. Doing business wasn't about providing quality and value or developing relationships with people. It was about production and sales and making money.
If sales were low, business owners dropped prices (or ran a 'sale') to increase the numbers. If sale-volumes were high, they produced a new product (or simply renamed an existing one) to keep people interested while they experimented with raising prices until sales slowed again.
With the digital revolution, it became easier than ever for this culture to change. With digital products that could self-replicate and technology that allowed for connecting directly with customers, businesses had an opportunity to create and price products based on the shared collective.
Unfortunately the old methods of doing business were too entrenched. Now customers were literally just a number on the screen, a traffic statistic or a conversion rate in a report.
If nobody was buying a digital product at whatever price was set, all they needed was more traffic; all they needed was more numbers. Even if the product had almost no value, the human element of curiosity combined with the unfortunate ignorance that accompanies any big transition, statistically guaranteed that sales would eventually come.
But all hope wasn't lost.
A Digital Rebirth of Human-based Transactions
There were a few business leaders who recognized the importance of customer involvement and used the Internet to create popular companies: eBay created a platform that allowed people to voice their opinion by placing a bid on products. Amazon employed mechanisms that allowed people to share their opinion through product reviews.
CraigsList circumvented the equalizing nature of the Internet by creating a platform that allowed buyers and sellers to connect offline, thereby using their geographic location to build trust and a create sense of equality.
In a world where the human element of business had been corrupted with greed, deception, and a relentless desire to make more money, these businesses made people feel human again. They gave people a voice and generated a sense of equality, empowering people and giving them respect.
The true potential of the Internet lies in its ability to create equality and facilitate human-based transactions. Thankfully, we're already beginning to see a shift in business towards utilizing this potential, despite its absence in the prevailing culture.
Market trends like nichification refocus businesses on people. Instead of pumping out products and hoping that someone buys them, businesses are now learning to understand what their audience wants and then delivering value directly to them.
The opportunity to capitalize on the humanizing nature of the Internet is huge and the people at the forefront of this movement are the individuals who seek to involve their audiences in the decision-making process. They are the ones who continue to experiment and push the edges of what it means to do business.
This is Our Digital Revolution
To step towards a sustainable future, our archaic methods of doing business need to evolve. We need to recognize the significance of this digital revolution -- our revolution -- and work towards creating a culture of equality where the work we do matters.
"It's hard when your mother-in-law doesn't buy into what you're doing and it's hard when the economy is going through a transition, to understand this - but this is our revolution.
This is the industrial revolution of our time; we are living through the death of the factory, and it is being replaced by something else. And the people who are on the cutting edge of that are the people who are inventing the next thing and talking about it with clarity.
So when this revolution slows down, we're going to look back and we're going to say, 'so, what did you do?'. And I guess what I would say to the listener is, 'do something that matters'.
This is too important for you to do some little scam, or some little affiliate deal, or some little way to make money tomorrow.
This is the time to do work that matters, to do something bigger than you think you're capable of, and do it in a way that makes a difference." - Seth Godin
The way we choose to do business today will influence the way business is done for generations to come. We need to embrace the fact that we're now living and working in a global society. When it comes to things like pricing our work, we need to recognize that it's no longer just about us, it's about our readers and our customers.
When we price our digital work, we don't need to impose our perception of value and expect other people to agree; there are better ways of approaching pricing. Ask your audience what they will pay. Ask them for their opinion and seek to understand their perspective. Converse. Listen. Ask permission.
This is the conclusion of a four-part series on income ethics. The series describes my discovery of a need for income ethics, explains why we need to define our enough, discusses the problem with art and equality in the digital age, and lays out the income ethics that I have defined for my own creative work (this essay). You can read the entire series on one page here.
In my life, there are many things that are important to me but nothing is as important as upholding my personal values. In reflecting on how I could uphold my values while earning an income from my creative work, I looked around to others who had chosen similar work so that I could understand how their values had influenced their income ethics. What I discovered surprised me.
Personal ethics were practically non-existent. There were no value-systems in place for handling income and the capitalist society that surrounded me even seemed to encourage a disconnect between our values and our income. This left behind a sea of irresponsible individuals who worked and lived with open-ended or non-existent income ethics.
The resulting consumerist culture expressed no expectation of us to share, provided us with no inherited sense of responsibility for giving, and did not encourage us to think beyond ourselves or towards a future where we no longer existed but where the results of our actions continued to reverberate through time.
Instead of recognizing the value of what we have now, we are instead encouraged to live in a state of fear for what we might not have tomorrow. Instead of accepting the fact that we could die tomorrow and then sharing more with those who will still be here when we're gone, we instead choose to be selfish, egotistical, and stubborn to the reality of our mortality.
But without the help of others, there is very little we can do to change this culture. As long as the machine of consumerism stays oiled and running, there will be no societal incentive for us change.
However, if our society doesn't expect us to be responsible, that doesn't eliminate this responsibility: the individual simply inherits it. When we as individuals accept this responsibility, we work towards creating a society that expects us to be responsible.
It was a deep philosophical shift towards minimalism that helped make me aware of just how entrenched in consumerism my society had become and it helped me view and understand income and personal responsibility from a different perspective.
It became clear that if my society was not going to hold me responsible for using my income ethically, I needed to accept that responsibility to create and share a set of guidelines that would uphold my values.
My Ethics for Generating Income from Creative Work
- All non-free creative work will be made public domain within one year
- All gross annual income exceeding $15k USD will go to charity
- All expenditures will be documented and published annually
- At least 25% of every sale or transaction will go to charity
Each of these guidelines addresses a specific area of importance to me in relation to generating income: Freedom of art (1), defining my enough (2), transparency and accountability (3), and showing up for what matters to me (4).
Note that I'm calling these my ethics. I feel that every individual needs to recognize their enough and then work from there.
I spent weeks muddling over these points and tweaking them until my intuition told me they felt right. It wasn't until I recognized and defined my enough that I was able to use my core values and my sense of planetary responsibility to guide the rest of the process.
I'll go into detail and explain my reasoning behind each guideline:
1. All non-free creative work will be made public domain within one year
If I'm going to release non-free creative work -- that is creative work whose access is restricted by monetary value -- I want to ensure that all those who cannot afford the work, or who are not interested in supporting my work, still have the opportunity to access, build upon, and learn from whatever I create.
My personal philosophy has been heavily influenced by the hacker ethic, the key points of which are access, free information, and improvement to quality of life. An example of this philosophy can be found in the open-source community, where sharing and openness ensures that everyone can build upon previous work, thereby creating a continuous cycle of learning and improvement.
To pay-forward everything this philosophy has awarded me, I will release all non-free creative work into the public domain within one year. If you cannot afford something that I create, all you need to do is wait until it becomes free.
This guideline also protects me as an artist: As a creative worker, my ‘work’ should never stop. My job isn't to create something and then go have it manufactured like a product and sold over and over. The digital nature of my creative work (primarily writing) allows me to do this with the Internet, effortlessly replicating and distributing my work over and over. But as an artist, that’s not my ‘work’.
When a digital artist forgets that his or her job is to produce art, they can get wrapped up in the potential of this technological machine (the Internet) to replicate and distribute their work. As a result, they might stop creating new work and instead focus on maximizing the use of this machine to generate income from existing work.
This one-year lifespan on non-free work ensures that I'm always looking forward, always focusing on creating and always treating my work as art, not spending my time tweaking existing art to maximize profit or finding ways to imitate the success of other artists.
2. All gross annual income exceeding $15k USD will go to charity
In the past year, I've traveled across the planet, sailed on the Pacific ocean, piloted a small airplane, watched a space shuttle launch, and trekked up into the Himalayan mountains. And I've done all of that and gained a lifetime of experiences on less than $15k USD. This is my enough.
If there are billions of people on the planet who survive on $4 a day, then I can certainly find a way to thrive on $40 a day. For the foreseeable future, I see absolutely no reason for keeping more than $15k USD per year to myself, so anything I receive over that amount will go towards charitable work.
I've seen how money can change our perspective and quietly inject greed into our lives. When we're poor, sufficiency appears one step ahead. When we're rich, sufficiency still appears one step ahead. No matter what we do, sufficiency always appears out of reach and we never seem to have enough.
Instead of chasing sufficiency, we need to recognize that it's already here; it doesn't change or move, we do. By setting a limit for my personal income and committing myself to donating the rest to charitable work, I'm recognizing sufficiency and choosing to live within it. I'm ensuring that the more I earn, the more I'm reminded of, and contributing to, my planetary social responsibility.
3. All expenditures will be documented and published annually
With transparency comes accountability. I want to be held accountable for my income ethics. I want to hold myself accountable and I want you, and everyone who helps support me, to also hold me accountable.
By documenting and publishing my expenditures for all the world to see, I'm providing you -- whether you choose to support my work or not -- with a full view of where your support is going and where the charitable portion of my income is being donated.
Since the beginning of 2010, I've been documenting and publishing my expenses. Going forward, the frequency of these reports may fluctuate but they will always be free, always as detailed as possible, and always published at least once a year.
When I publish these reports, I don't feel like I'm doing it to justify my expenses to you. Instead, I feel like I'm doing it to justify them to myself. In creating this transparency for you, I'm forced to be transparent with myself.
4. At least 25% of every sale or transaction will go to charity
By having a portion of every transaction go to charity, I'm ensuring that no matter what I earn, there will always be something given back. That means if I only earn $100 a month from my creative work, $25 of that will always go to charity.
Giving a portion of every transaction to charity is important because it acts as a commitment to a sustainable future. It acts as a continuous reminder of the importance of sharing and the role charity plays in fulfilling our planetary social responsibility. It's a way of always 'showing up' for what matters.
(Income tax should be the answer to this, but until our leaders have their priorities straight, I'm creating my own self-imposed income tax to work towards what I feel is important.)
A Note on Charity and Charitable Work
I use the words 'charity' and 'charitable work' interchangeably throughout this essay, but since a large portion of my income will be donated I should clarify what I mean by "going to charity"
I want to dedicate a portion of my time every year to doing charitable work. However, until I'm in a financial position to take things into my own hands, I will simply make regular donations to charitable organizations. As my ability to spend more time and money on charity increases, some of the charitable income will go towards charitable endeavors of my own.
The charitable portion of my income will be kept in an interest-bearing account separate from my personal accounts (earned interest will always go to charity) and the balance of that account, as well as the donations that are made, will always be disclosed in my published financial reports.
It's the Universe or Nothing
Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together -- surely a humanizing and character building experience.
If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing. - Carl Sagan
I embrace these income ethics because I feel an inherent planetary social responsibility. I feel that if I'm able to generate income -- potentially large amounts of income through the Internet -- then I need to commit upfront to being morally responsible with that income. It's a commitment to myself, yes, but it's also a commitment to you, to the future, and to the world that supports us both.
Is your work important to you? Is the freedom, longevity, and legacy of your work of any significance? What does your 'enough' look like? Have you made the conscious decision to live and work within your enough? Where does your excess abundance go? How do you hold yourself accountable for ensuring that your work and your lifestyle reflect your core values?
Are these questions important? I believe they are and I encourage you to accept responsibility for equality and seek to achieve balance through understanding your enough. When we pay-forward the abundance that we receive and keep the cycle of giving alive, we will fulfill our individual roles as curators of sustainability and custodians of human solidarity.
This essay is the third in a four-part series on income ethics. The series describes my discovery of a need for income ethics, explains why we need to define our enough, discusses the problem with art and equality in the digital age (this essay), and lays out the income ethics that I have defined for my own creative work. If you'd like to follow my work, please subscribe or check back here for updates.
The art of expressing and conveying ideas through the medium of writing wasn't something I consciously learned, but rather it was a seed that sprouted inside me at an early age. Up until recently, I had only treated the growth of that seed as a passionate hobby, a fun talent that I would enjoy when I had the opportunity and the inclination to do so.
But the transition to simple nomadic lifestyle combined with the experience of traveling through developing countries had not only opened my eyes to a planetary social responsibility, it also allowed me to recognize the full potential of my creative work in a globally connected society.
The combination of feeling a planetary responsibility and recognizing the potential of my creative work necessitated the need to dedicate more of my time to sharing that work and contributing to the world in a way that best utilized my skills, talents, and passions. It was no longer enough that I dabbled in creativity when the urge presented itself.
Living as a nomad and focusing on creative work required very little income, but after a year of living hand-to-mouth and leaning on the goodwill of friends and family, it became apparent that even a simple lifestyle requires some income, a means of supporting oneself and obtaining the ability to redirect abundance to those in need.
If we're not able to fully take care of ourselves, we cannot fully help others. When our needs are met, we can serve others, and when we have more than we need, we can do more to serve.
Note: In the context of this essay, the terms 'art' and 'creative work' are used to represent a tangible manifestation of creative effort; the terms 'artist' and 'digital artist' are used to represent the individual doing the creating. There is a difference between knowledge work and creative work: the former involves the skill of understanding and working with information and the latter involves the creation of new and unique things.
The Missing 'Enough' and a Broken Status Quo
As I began to think about how I could earn a simple living through my creative endeavors, several things felt wrong about the way others were currently monetizing their creative work. I found there were no limits in place. There was no monetary ceiling, no way to be held accountable, no definition of 'enough' and no dedication to maintaining that enough.
This lack of knowing what's enough often led in one of two directions: 1) the artist stopped creating art altogether, refocusing their monetary efforts away from creating the art they loved because 'their' art didn't seem to sell, or 2) they became so successful that their work stopped being about art and instead became an automated system of receiving income; their work transitioned from the creation of art to the art of managing the flow of income.
In addition to this risk of being distracted by income, it also troubled me that putting a price on my work seemed to create and support the global inequalities that I wanted to help eliminate. For example, if I sold a piece of work for $20USD, people in the more affluent areas of the world might be able to afford it while someone in a developing country might need to spend all their wages for an entire month to make the same purchase.
As soon as I put a price on my work, I effectively caged it and created walls that many people would never be able to climb. The work would eventually disappear into a monetary black hole, dying a quiet death in the shadows where a large percentage of the world would never see it.
Isn't the point of creative work to create something that can outlast us? Isn't the reason we create to share an artistic expression of ourselves, to create a tangible manifestation of our creative effort? And if so, why would we release and share our work in a casket?
The problem of pricing digital art intrigued me the most because it was such a fundamental problem. Every digital artist I had met spoke of the difficulty in finding 'the right price' for their work. There are all kinds of strategies and tactics that can be used to gauge what prices our audience will tolerate, but that seemed like a bandaid to a bigger issue.
Pricing Digital Art in the Global Marketplace
It's only in the past twenty years that the human species has started publishing creative work en masse to a globally accessible digital medium, so I decided to think about how art in the physical world compares with art in the digital world. It's likely that the problems with digital art originate from our inexperience operating in a global marketplace and from the unconscious application of methods used for selling non-digital art in localized marketplaces.
If you want to buy an original oil painting from a well-known artist, it will cost a lot of money because that piece of work required a huge time investment from the artist. The artist is only one person and they only have so much time available to create new work.
In the digital world however, if an artist creates a piece of digital art (i.e., creative work of any type: writing, audio, video, or graphical art), they can sell as many copies of that work as they want with no additional effort and essentially no additional cost.
When it comes to pricing that work, this causes all sorts of problems.
If a non-digital artist allows his physical artwork to be copied, pricing can start with the current valuation of the original and then, based on the quality and number of copies being created, a logical price per copy can be achieved. These prices can then be based on the geographic location they're being sold to accommodate for differences in local currency.
However, on the Internet there is no such thing as an 'original' piece of artwork (original in the sense of not a copy) because all art published online is essentially a copy. And there is no quality differential per copy either, as all copies are identical in quality to the previous. Geographic location is also irrelevant as the Internet is flat and each 'netizen' is equal.
So, the price of digital art largely becomes arbitrary, based on whatever the artist feels the work is worth to them. That 'feeling of worth' is entirely relative to the local economic status of the individual and to their own valuation of money. But both of those are irrelevant online because the Internet is a global community and a global marketplace.
If we walk outside and ask our neighbor how much $1USD is worth to them, there's a good chance we can reach a mutual agreement on its worth. But if we go from a developed country like the United States to a poor country somewhere in Africa, we'll be hard-pressed to find someone with which to reach a similar agreement.
On the Internet, someone from a poor county in Africa is essentially just as close to us online as our next door neighbor. And as a result, using localized feelings of value cannot be applied online unless we're willing to exclude certain people based purely on where they were born.
For a global marketplace to exist, there needs to be a common currency. There needs to be something that everybody agrees is worth the same no matter where they're from. Without that, a global marketplace could not exist. Right now the common currency we share is the currency called 'free' and that's why the growth of the Internet can be correlated with the amount of 'free' stuff available.
But free isn't really a currency. It has no monetary value and it can't buy us food or shelter. I realized that if I chose to solve the problems of pricing digital art using the currency of free, I would need to rely on donations and/or give up the full-time creation of art to do other kinds of work.
When pure survival is at stake, a donation-based living doesn't feel right to me. Working and receiving something in return for that work feels more ethical than simply existing and asking others to support my existence. So, I needed to find a compromise that would allow me to create art full-time and still make a living.
Crossing the Bridge of Art, Income, and Equality
For over a year now I've wrestled with roadblocks related to the generation of income from creative work. I've spent months contemplating and reflecting on the crossroads of art, income, and equality and I've exchanged dozens of emails and held many conversations with friends.
But several questions remained unanswered and I refused to even attempt to earn a single penny through my creative work until I came up with at least some sort of solution that felt intuitively correct.
- How could I put a price on my work without simultaneously caging it indefinitely?
- How could I monetize my work without risking the distraction of income?
- How could I ensure that all of my work remained free and accessible to everyone?
- How could I maintain my enough and always give something back to those in need?
What I eventually arrived at was the conclusion that to cross that bridge -- to personally feel at peace with generating income from my creative work -- I needed a framework, a system for giving back, for holding myself accountable, and for ensuring that my values were not compromised.
Creating this framework meant clearly defining my 'enough' and stating upfront my commitment to giving back everything except what was needed for the lifestyle I chose to live. It meant creating a way that would ensure everyone, including those who could not afford my work, would still be given the opportunity to access, build upon, and benefit from that work.
What I needed to do was to define my ethics for generating income from creative work.
Until global equality is a closer reality, it is up to the individuals who are creating, publishing, and selling digital creative work in the global marketplace to accept the responsibility for creating their own set of ethics to ensure their art remains ethical.
This essay is part two of a four-part series on income ethics. The series describes my discovery of a need for income ethics, explains why we need to define our enough (this essay), discusses the problem with art and equality in the digital age, and lays out the income ethics that I have defined for my own creative work. If you'd like to follow my work, please subscribe or check back here for updates.
When we came into this world, our hands were open. We live, our fists clenched, struggling to hold onto anything we can, but when we leave, our hands will once again remain open.
We come with nothing, we leave with nothing, and while we're here we own nothing. Every person who lives will go through this cycle, no matter who they are, where they're from, or how much they inherit.
Everything we have is borrowed, a temporary resource to use on this journey through life. We take nothing with us, and yet we are given so much while we're here. The whole world, all of life, is one big family, yet many of us ignore it and forget that it exists.
Distracted by the fleeting impermanence, we futilely clench our fists to that which surrounds us, focusing so much on protecting our so-called assets that we inadvertently damn others in our family to an inhumane and immoral standard of living. The current state of our human family isn't sad: it's disgraceful.
Some of us are fortunate enough to have the ability (the time) and the resources (the wealth and knowledge) to choose how we live and to make a difference in the welfare of our family. Unlike those who struggle every day to simply survive, there is a select few of us who get to choose.
As a member of that group who can choose and who, for most of his life, did nothing with that choice, I can say that many of us in the developed world are not using our free choice to change the state of our human family. Instead, we're living in luxury and aspiring towards extravagance, selfishly consuming more and more and not really thinking about where it leads.
We eat more than we need to, we spend more than we need to, and we hoard more than we need to. We play games with our resources in the 'financial markets' and acquire unnecessary junk in the 'supermarkets'.
Instead of deciding what truly matters to us and then releasing everything else to those who need it, we allow fear to guide us. We embrace scarcity because others are embracing it. We unconsciously spend our life doing things that ensure the poor remain poor, the rich remain rich, and everybody in between suffers for as long as possible.
Where does it stop? At what point do we recognize our enough and start giving back to those in need? When does our time and money cease to represent a vote for poverty and instead become a vote for equality?
We create budgets for reducing debt and achieving long-term goals, but have we created a budget for humanity? Have we created a budget for serving our human family with the limited time we have available? Have we taken the time to assess what we have and asked ourselves if we might be holding too much?
If you can afford three meals a day, you are in the top 15% of the wealthiest humans on Earth.
What are we doing with all that wealth? Are we hoarding it like paranoid pack rats, padding our bellies and bank accounts and chasing the volatile and impermanent equity of our physical assets?
Or are we living within our means, recognizing what is really necessary to achieve our goals, and then searching for ways to redistribute excess so that we may contribute to the betterment of all life?
Throughout history, the wealthy members of successful societies acted as the caretakers and custodians of their community. They used their wealth to ensure a moral, just, and dignified standard of living. The societies that failed? They had one thing in common: the wealthy hoarded.
For the first time in written history, a global society is emerging. We are in a transition that ends with each individual representing one member of a global community. The biggest mistake we can make as individuals is to remain blind to the individual responsibility that comes with the privilege of having access to this global community.
What Does It Mean To Accept This Responsibility?
Our planetary social responsibility is a responsibility to protect our home (Earth) and our family (all of life). It's a responsibility to ensure that our actions, as both individuals and groups, support the continued welfare of this home and family.
Accepting this responsibility doesn't mean that we should neglect ourselves or throw away our ambitions or personal goals -- it doesn't mean we should become martyrs for the greater good. What it does mean is that we should recognize the treasure that is this human existence and accept the responsibility for the potential that it awards us.
It means that we should ask ourselves how our work (the activities undertaken with the intention of achieving specific results) and the output or return of that work (the results, whether direct or residual), affects our home and our family.
It means understanding how our work relates to our goals and to what extent that work utilizes our unique potential. (If we are, as groups or individuals, not aiming to use our unique potential to the fullest extent, then we're doing a disservice to ourselves and to the world.)
Accepting this responsibility also means understanding how our lifestyles -- the things that we consume, the groups that we relate with, and the leisurely activities that we partake in -- affect the world and its people, and it means taking an active role in changing our habits to improve our lifestyle.
It means asking ourselves how our personal priorities and goals, both of which direct how we spend most of our life, affect the future home for our children (all children are our children) and whether the long-term affects of those priorities and goals will contribute to a net-positive or a net-negative future for our human family.
Wouldn't you want to know if your work or your lifestyle was somehow contributing to the deaths of 17,000 children every night? I know I certainly would. The answer to that question isn't easy to find, but it should still be asked; it should still be something that's on our mind when we make decisions about our work and our lifestyle.
Fulfilling our planetary social responsibility will inevitably look different for each individual and fulfilling it won't change the world overnight. But there is one thing we can all remember: Equality cannot be maintained for a few at the expense of the many. As Martin Luther King observed, "where there is injustice for one, there is injustice for all."
This essay is the first in a four-part series on income ethics. The series describes my discovery of a need for income ethics (this essay), explains why we need to define our enough, discusses the problem with art and equality in the digital age, and lays out the income ethics that I have defined for my own creative work. If you'd like to follow my work, please subscribe or check back here for updates.
A few days after returning to the United States from my first trip to India, I found myself in a movie theater, leaning back into a comfortable chair and quietly feeling the tears roll down my face as I looked around the dimly lit room and watched people stuff their faces with popcorn and slurp on giant cups of soda. I couldn't help but think about the millions of starving children on the other side of the planet who, while I was enjoying comfort, would be going to sleep later that night hungry and cold on a concrete sidewalk.
A few months later I was invited to attend the last launch of NASA's Space Shuttle Discovery. As I watched the spaceship blast off into outer space, I was again flooded with emotions as I realized how in such a short period of time I had observed the poorest of humans barely surviving in the slums of India to seeing firsthand evidence of the incredible technological advances our species had achieved.
Almost a year after my return, the bulk of these emotions seemed to have all but disappeared, numbed away by the time spent living again in a privileged and abundant society. But, as I walked down a beautiful pathway in California one sunny day, surrounded by perfectly landscaped gardens that wrapped me in pink, yellow, and blue flowers, their petals lazily swaying in the wind, I caught myself once again choking up.
What did I do to deserve so much beauty? Why did I have so much while millions of others lived in heaps of trash, scrounging around in the filth in search of food? And what right did I have to ask for more, to seek an income and ask others to give me more when I already had so much?
Whenever I thought about how I could earn an income through my creative work, I felt embarrassed to even be considering it. While billions were trying to feed themselves, I bathed in the luxury and the privilege of being able to create income streams with virtually no limit on growth and no need for accountability. It felt irresponsible, selfish, and wrong.
I have not always felt this repulsion to asking for more or this difficulty justifying an income. For most of my life I lived with more than I needed. I worked towards goals that were not really my own and I spent the majority of my time doing things to afford stuff that I thought I wanted but didn't need.
When it came to my career, nothing I did ever felt purposeful to the bigger picture. My potential always felt grossly underutilized and I never felt satisfied. But instead of doing something about it, I unconsciously contributed to the continuation of this dissatisfaction by telling myself that I needed to stick with whatever I was doing, no matter how rote or routine, because the next great opportunity might be just around the corner.
Instead of living life guided by my heart, I was living life guided by the fear of missing out on the next big thing, the thing that everybody had convinced me I would be foolish to throw away. Time was a cheap accessory and I was always willing to sacrifice today in return for the security of knowing that tomorrow would bring something I could expect, something that was already known and easily handled.
It didn't matter that I was quietly suffering inside. I willingly accepted suffering in my career and in my life because everybody else was suffering too, and sharing that suffering felt easier and more logical than standing out as the person who gave up everything in search of a better way.
But all of that changed last year when I made the decision to rid my life of all that fear and all those external expectations. I voluntarily gave up my attachment to the achievements, the accomplishments, and all the positions and career advancements. Saving myself from the decay of the status quo became more important than all the golden opportunities I might miss in the process.
From that moment forward, I committed myself to living a simple, more purpose-driven lifestyle and proceeded to wipe the slate clean of all my material possessions so that I could discover my enough and allow my heart the freedom it needed to guide my life.
I began living with only what fit on my back and in the process I discovered that letting go actually decreased the sense of scarcity and fear of not having enough.
Instead of being scared to miss opportunities, I began to feel a sense of abundance, a sense of absolute contentedness that came with the knowledge that I had recognized my enough and that I had the freedom to focus on the soul-empowering creative work that I now fully recognized enriched both my life and the lives of others.
But with this freedom came something very unexpected: An unbelievably strong sense of responsibility for using my time and my resources to help rebalance the global inequalities that were brought to my attention by travels abroad.
The decision to travel the world had opened my soul to a feeling of being inexplicably connected to everyone else on the planet. Earth had become my home and everyone on it genuinely felt like family. It became clear that whatever lifestyle I led and whatever work I did, my existence needed to contribute in some way to the well-being of all. I now felt an inherent planetary social responsibility.
Read the next part of the series: Income Ethics: Planetary Social Responsibility
At the end of every month, I publish a financial report stating my income and expenses for that month. I do this to help show what it’s like living the lifestyle of a digital nomad and to keep myself accountable for my spending. If these reports don't interest you, you can safely read the first and last sections and skip the rest.
The sun warmed my skin and the wind challenged my face. My feet pedaled at a leisurely pace as I looked around: metal boxes with rubber wheels transporting seemingly lifeless figures.
The weight from the bag on my back -- filled with food from the supermarket -- seemed to tug me back to reality, reminding me of the moment and pulling me into the present. Everything felt so raw, so authentic. A sense of awareness permeated every passing moment.
It was my first day exploring the neighborhood in Florida where I will be living for at least the next month. My roommate let me borrow his bicycle to get around and I had gone out to buy groceries at the supermarket.
Never before had I used a bicycle to transport groceries. For my entire life, groceries purchased at the supermarket were always transported using a vehicle, a lifeless hunk of metal on wheels that assisted us in movement, taking away a piece of reality.
Is that why we so often feel disconnected from the moment? Have the machines and routines that make up our daily lives ripped away our connection to the present?
As the following report will reflect, I spent most of March bouncing between places, riding machines with wings and wheels, watching machines with rockets and boosters, and otherwise not being very mindful of the present.
Using my feet for transportation and spending a lot more time in one place, my lifestyle for the month of April will be much different as I settle into a new apartment in Florida. I'm looking forward to a less machine-dependent lifestyle and a more mindful existence. I'm looking forward to more living.
At the beginning of the month, I shared a house in Florida with several friends who were there for the NASA Tweetup. When they left, I decided to stay for an extra 10 days to watch the Space Shuttle Endeavor roll out to the launch pad and see an Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rocket launch. I was fortunate enough to have my new friend Chris offer me a place to crash while I was here.
I spent about two weeks at my parents house when I got back from Florida and instead of paying rent I helped them out with a few house bills. At the end of March, I flew back down to Florida and now I'm renting a room in my friend Chris' house for the month of April.
Food expenses this month are the highest they've been all year. That is largely due to all the socializing and eating out I did with my house members during the NASA Tweetup. Our house did some grocery shopping, but we definitely ate more meals in restaurants.
The "cafes" category only contains expenses incurred while sitting in a cafe using my laptop and the groceries are a combination of shared expenses during the NASA Tweetup and food shopping I did while working at the office in Boston.
For the month of April, I'm setting my budget at $250. Now that I'm renting an apartment and have access to a kitchen, preparing my own meals will be easy.
I was in Florida at the beginning of the month for the completion of the STS-133 NASA Tweetup and the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery. Several members of the house I was staying in split a minivan rental to save on car costs (expensed last month) but when everyone left and I decided to stay longer, I needed to rent my own car.
Changing my return flight at the last minute so that I could stay and watch the roll out of Space Shuttle Endeavor meant paying almost a hundred dollars more for the ticket. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so a no-brainer as far as I was concerned.
Once I was back in Boston, I took public transportation (train and subway) to and from Boston and my parents house. When you look at the cost to distance traveled ratio, it's amazing how expensive public transportation can be.
The auto gas expense is a combination of the 10-day rental in Florida and borrowing my parents car to run errands. Car expenses can add up really fast: I spent $570 between the auto rental in Florida, the auto gas for the rental and my parents car, and parking meters, parking tickets, and tolls (see Other Expenses below).
I also try to track the number of miles I traveled for free, through friends and family giving me rides. By subtracting the expensed distances from the total distance traveled, we're left with 165 "free miles".
For the month of April, I will be using my feet and my roommates beach cruiser bicycle to get around.
I always try to keep the Other Expenses category to a minimum, but this month a lot of little things added up rather quickly.
When I rented a car in Florida, I needed to stop at an Internet cafe to print out proof of a return flight so that the rental car agency would allow me to use a debit card.
Late in the month I decided to buy a travel charger for my camera to reduce the weight in my bag and eliminate wires. I also picked up a remote shutter to use for when I watch the next shuttle launch.
When I got back from Florida, my old boss bought everyone at the company skiing tickets and he invited me along. I sold my snowboard last year, so I needed to rent one for $20.
I received the parking ticket in Florida when I went down to the beach for 30 minutes. Ironically, I had a dozen quarters sitting in the cup holder. Lesson learned.
I accidentally left behind my headphones when I returned the rental car. After going through my backpack a dozen times, I picked up the cheapest pair of Sony earbuds I could find at the airport. It was an impulse purchase and definitely unnecessary, as they turned out to be very uncomfortable and I later ordered a new pair of Apple earbuds from China for $3.
The dentist appointment was a huge expense this month but I'm really happy with my dentist and I'm hesitant to switch solely based on cost. I'd rather just work harder at taking care of my teeth!
Overall, March has been the most expensive month this year. I spent $290.20 more on housing, $95.07 more on food, and $634.71 more on travel than I did in February. Other expenses is the only category that was less, with a difference of $176.40. Housing would have been similar to February, except that I didn't help my parents with the bills that month.
At the start of the year I made a note to remind myself that my spending throughout this year should reflect a focus on two things: travel and fitness. I'm happy the biggest increase in expenses this month came from travel and not in anything unrelated to my goals.
For the month of April, I will be aiming to keep my total expenses under $1,000.
While my income was lower this month than last, I worked on a greater number of small projects with several new clients. The big projects that I was doing for my previous job are largely complete, so moving forward I will be relying more heavily on an increase in smaller projects.
The smaller projects in March included several blog migrations from WordPress.com to self-hosted domains using WordPress.org. I've also had a few requests for making adjustments to WordPress themes and enhancing WordPress security.
If I can help you with any WordPress-related work, please contact me.
Towards the end of the month I sold a hiking backpack for $75 that had been sitting at my parents house.
As I mentioned briefly at the beginning of this post, I've decided to move to Florida for the month of April so that I can be here to watch the Space Shuttle Endeavor launch. It very well could be the last launch of the shuttle program (NASA may not have enough funding for the launch in July).
While I'm here, I will be living as frugally as possible, using a bicycle for transportation, and spending a lot of time working from my new apartment. I will also be heavily focused on fitness and I've already begun running every day (you can follow my runs on RunKeeper).
At the end of every month, I publish a financial report stating my income and expenses for that month. I do this to help show what it's like living the lifestyle of a digital nomad and to keep myself accountable for my spending.
This past month has been a whirlwind of amazing experiences. Witnessing the final launch of space shuttle Discovery changed the way I view life (again) and put me in a deeply reflective state; it left me speechless and struggling to compose my thoughts for weeks (which explains the lack of new posts).
Attending the second NASA Tweetup and reuniting with everyone who helped me discover that love really is enough has been just as amazing as the first time we got together.
Their collective passion for space is incredibly contagious and their ability to see beyond the weird quirks and extreme contrast in personalities -- accepting each other for who they are -- speaks directly to the humanity in every single one of us.
This blog isn't about personal finance but having promised to publish this monthly financial report, I felt it holding me back from publishing anything else. I'll be writing more about my experiences in the coming weeks.
My time in India last year showed me how little humans actually need to survive and how little we need to experience real happiness. I was traveling with just one backpack and a few hundred dollars in my bank and yet when I was in Nepal, standing in front of those one hundred school children, I felt more alive, more rich, and more full of potential than any other person alive.
Then I returned home to the United States and felt incredibly homesick in what suddenly felt like a strange and privileged land. As weeks turned into months, those feelings of extreme appreciation began to slip away. But I vowed not to forget. I vowed to continue living a simple life so that I could focus on what mattered.
That life-changing experience tugged at layers and layers of materialistic complexity and egotistical naivety, accumulated as a result of growing up in a middle-class society and having everything. My journey through rural parts of India, Vietnam, and Nepal cut life down to the core, leaving in its wake a stronger, simpler, more compassionate human being.