Knowledge is Power

There’s a thread on Kboards right now where someone posted about how anyone can make a living self-publishing and then shared that they were making $4,000 a month with minimal advertising (they had some free titles) off of approximately a thousand 10,000-word erotic romances.

That’s 10 million words of content. The OP stated that they’re working 15-18 hours days to do this and don’t mind because they come from a background of having to put together a bunch of minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

I admire the OP’s work ethic and what they’ve accomplished for themselves. (At my current writing rate it would take me another twenty years to hit 10 million words published. I currently have about 2 million.)

But what it really made me think about was class differences and knowledge and opportunity and how incredibly-hard-working people can almost kill themselves working hard for small rewards simply because they don’t know that there are better options out there.

For example, I took a year off in college. I had this notion that I’d become a stockbroker and earn enough to go back to Stanford and pay for it with cash if I could just work as a stockbroker for five years. (Turns out I hate selling people things and would almost try to talk them out of investing with me since I was twenty years old at the time and it made no sense for someone to trust me with a hundred thousand dollars they’d worked hard to earn for decades.)

When I went back to college the next year I needed a job to make ends meet. (Kids, check the cost of living where you go to school. Seriously. Palo Alto is not cheap.) As a kid from a lower middle class family my immediate instinct was to go get a job at the local mall. Which I did. They were happy to have me and to pay me some amount a little above minimum wage, but not that much above minimum wage.

Which meant that while I was completing that triple major I’d decided on, that I was also working forty plus hours a week to pay my rent and car payment and put food on the table.

But there were so many other choices I could’ve made that would’ve made my life easier. I ended up getting fired from that job about two months before graduation. (About a week after I’d complained about being made to feel very uncomfortable by the manager’s brother who followed me around all the time and then got into a shouting match with the manager over the fact that I was wearing shorts and he was wearing shorts but she said I wasn’t allowed to while he was, but that’s another story for another day.)

When I lost that job, I learned a few interesting things that I wish I’d known earlier.

First, I was working enough to earn vacation time at that job but had never been told about it. So on my last day they handed me a check for something like $400 I hadn’t even known I was due.

Instead of working through finals week because I needed the money, I could’ve taken a few paid vacation days. Who knew? (My manager…)

Second, turns out I was able to go down the street to a temp agency and immediately get a new job that paid me twice as much as the bookstore had. For stuffing envelopes and updating a database of customer addresses. Brainless work.

I had grabbed the first opportunity I found because as someone who came from my background and had no financial reserves to take the time find “the best job” and no one to tell me there were other options, I didn’t know I could do better than that almost-minimum-wage job at the mall.

(Honestly, if I’d been really thinking about how to make the most while working the least I would’ve taken one of those “we’ll pay you $25K for your eggs” ads in the back of the school paper seriously and not had to work at all. But, ya know. Hindsight. And growing up with a mindset that expected to work hard for what I received.)

What’s interesting is that I almost fell into that same mistake again when I graduated. Working full-time to barely make ends meet while trying to complete a degree like that meant that I hadn’t followed the proper path to get a consulting or investment banking job. (Or to prepare for grad school.) I had no clue how any of that worked, so I failed all those interviews.

Which meant after college I found myself back in Colorado with no access to the fancy campus recruiting options and no job prospects.

Not knowing what else to do, I applied for a manager position at a local ice cream shop. The salary was enough to pay my bills and I was qualified for it. Not based on my degree. Based on my prior experience managing the cashier’s office at an amusement park for a couple of summers.

But that manager did the biggest kindness to me that anyone has probably ever done me. He told me they were willing to hire me and that they’d give me the job if I really wanted it. But he also told me that he thought I could do better than that job and encouraged me to keep looking.

So I did.

And about a month later I was able to get my first regulatory job which ultimately led to my consulting job.

That one difference in which job I took after college meant the difference between working sixty hour weeks to earn $40K a year with minimal benefits and working sixty hour weeks to earn $160K with good benefits and promotion potential.

(Not immediately. We’re talking ten years out. One job had career potential with an upward trajectory, the other did not because it was a small family-owned business.)

I was lucky. Because a complete stranger was kind enough to share with me that broader perspective that they had but I didn’t. No one in my family had been down that path before. My brother and I were the first to go to college straight out of high school. And I was certainly the first to end up with an “elite” degree.

(One I still didn’t leverage properly even where I ended up. Starting i-banking salaries plus bonus the year I graduated were probably more than that $160K. But coming from where I had that wasn’t even something to imagine let alone expect.)

So bringing this back to that post on Kboards.

I see this woman who is happy with her accomplishments and happy with her income and I think of how many people come from those environments where you have to work tremendously hard to stay above water. And where it never occurs to you that you can work in a different way to accomplish that same goal. And where you don’t have the time or energy or connections to show you that easier path or to even tell you it exists.

A part of me wants to take that woman aside and say, “work smarter”. Write longer. Advertise.

But I don’t know that that’s an option for her. Maybe the quality isn’t there for that to help. Maybe it will just destroy what she has created.

So instead of reaching out to her, I wrote this blog post. To say that if you feel like you’re working at your max to barely get by that maybe it’s worth taking just a moment or two to look around and see if there isn’t a better option out there. If you’re good at what you do, see about a raise. If you’re not using the skills you trained on, see what’s out there job-wise. Ask yourself if there’s something else you could do that would pay more for the effort you’re putting in.

It’s too easy to get a little bit of something and cling to it when you’re right at the edge. But that can keep you at the edge.

Sometimes head down, full speed ahead isn’t the best choice. It got me a lot of what I ended up with, but looking back I know there were better choices I could’ve made.

Maybe that’s the case for you, too…