What I love so much about Maya Stein’s musings on this week’s Money Talks, is that reading her words felt like looking at a wide, blue sky. It felt like diving deep underneath the sea and bumping elbows with colorful, exotic fish. I could feel myself breathing more deeply and looking around with new eyes. I slowed down. I paused often to think, “What do I see about this for myself?”
Many of us who are reading this column know Maya’s work as a poet. And if you do, you might agree with me that there is a kind of poetry to what she says about money. See for yourself (read on, read on!) but here’s what I think it is: I think one of Maya’s strengths as a writer is to gently point out some places that we could travel to upend some of our staid, stale beliefs. Maya’s always all about helping us notice what more we could see. One of the places that she does this so well is in this line: “I don’t tend to rely on the dollar amount I’m making as being indicative of my worth. In fact, I vehemently don’t let it do that, because I notice that when I do, I lose the connection to that deeper value I’m seeking.”
There are so many more lines I could highlight. But I am going to stop right there and give us all a bit of time to think about what deeper value we are seeking. Yes, we all want to make a good living and be paid fairly for our work. But beyond that, what drives the creative work we are doing? What is that deeper value? Are we connected to that value, even as we head to the bank?
I’d love to hear what you think. If you read something here that sparks you somehow, please comment below. Join the conversation.
See ya next time. Remember, Money Talks posts on the 2nd and 4th Friday of every month. Thank you, Mabel!
Maya Stein is a Ninja poet, writing guide, and creative adventuress. Among her latest escapades are a 1,200-mile bicycle journey with a typewriter, a launch of a French crepe stand at a Massachusetts farmers market, a relocation from San Francisco to suburban New Jersey, a collaboration —“Food for the Soul Train” — with her partner, turning a vintage trailer into a mobile creative workshop space, and, most recently, marriage and step-motherhood. Currently living in Northern New Jersey, she can also be found wandering the back roads by tandem bicycle, writing poetry for strangers on index cards, and online at mayastein.com or food4thesoultrain.com
1. Are you earning what you’re worth? What I love about this question is that it reminds me to look beyond the superficial and into the metaphorical. It’s impossible to answer otherwise — there are so many variables regarding the dollar amounts I assign to the things I create — what I am able to earn for something in San Francisco isn’t the same as what I can expect to earn for it in suburban New Jersey. It just isn’t. The market is different. The audience is different. And the offerings, I think, must vary accordingly. That’s the part where I put my focus on, and where I also can have the most control — creating classes, experiences, retreats, and merchandise that correspond to the financial bandwidth of each distinct audience.
But back to the metaphor part. To me, “earning” is really about what the “return” is, which goes way beyond what appears on my bank statements. The return is about engagement with and impact on the individuals and community I work with. The return is, ultimately, about being and feeling of service. It’s about soul nourishment. It’s about the total quality of life, not merely the numbers. It’s about knowing that I’ve done something that matters, that has meaning. And right now, I can say that I am definitely earning what I’m worth. It doesn’t mean I don’t think money is important or that I don’t stress about earning it. I absolutely do. But I don’t tend to rely on the dollar amount I’m making as being indicative of my worth. In fact, I vehemently don’t let it do that, because I notice that when I do, I lose the connection to that deeper value I’m seeking.
2. What does the expression starving artist bring up for you? My sister suggested to me once years ago that if I wasn’t doing everything I could in the name of my art (or writing, as the case was), then I couldn’t really call myself an artist. I see now that it’s possible that I may have misinterpreted what she was saying (and I’m pretty sure that she has since changed her tune), but what I remember is the feeling I had in response to her words. I fundamentally didn’t agree. My stance was — and continues to be — that we don’t always have the luxury of devoting ourselves to our art-making 100% of the time. We don’t live in the world of patrons, although there are certainly changes afoot happening in that direction. But regardless of that, I don’t buy into the concept of the starving artist. I think it’s a tidy and misguided romantic ideal that someone who’s at the very beginning of life as an artist carries as a way of either rebelling against responsibility or justifying their frustration that they haven’t been successful in the way they’d hoped.
What I can say, however, is that there have been times when I’ve been starving for art. When I’ve been so focused on strategic pursuits that there’s been an emptiness of creativity and open space to just….muse. And I believe that if your life needs that kind of nourishment (and hey, whose doesn’t?), then our mechanisms for that spaciousness inside of ourselves required for creative fulfillment can certainly get rusty…and hungry.
3. Do you have any childhood money stories that have to do with making a living from work you love? When I was 11, our family moved from the central coast of California to rural New Hampshire. We had moved before, and to equally disparate places, so I kind of knew that I needed to gird myself emotionally for the change. But what was different this time was that I had a spontaneous burst of entrepreneurial energy — I wanted to have some spending money for the trip.
So I put these handwritten flyers in our neighborhood offering car washes. “Maya’s Car Wash Crew” they read, even though I was only a crew of one (my sister didn’t want in, and my brother was too young to help). I charged $2.50 per wash. I remember feeling very proud of myself when I got the first call, and washing that car with incredible earnestness and focus. I don’t remember how many cars I washed before the move itself, but seeing myself move from the germ of an idea through to its execution was wildly inspirational. That’s something that has absolutely followed me to this day. It reminds me a little of that line from “Field of Dreams” — “If you build it, they will come.” It’s really about trusting that your inner resources and capacities are enough — more than enough, in fact — to accompany you on that uncertain journey from thought to action.
4. What’s your biggest money story currently? My partner, Amy Tingle, and I co-founded a mobile creativity business called “Food for the Soul Train” in late 2012. We design and facilitate creative experiences for children and adults and frequently travel with our vintage caravan to deliver them. I was doing our taxes this past April when I discovered that the IRS considers businesses that report a loss for three years in a row to be considered “hobbies.” While I get the idea behind that in theory, in practice it can be really hard to get a business off the ground — much less turning a profit — in a relatively short amount of time, especially when you factor in the life expenses that we incur as a couple and as a family (Amy’s got two teenage boys from a previous marriage, and they live with us.) But the thought of downgrading our business into a “hobby” felt so wrong to both of us that it’s spurred us into action to make sure this doesn’t happen.
So in the past couple of months, we’ve devoted a lot of energy to doing this, including clarifying our mission, streamlining our offerings, changing our fee structure, overhauling our website, hiring a business coach, seriously considering a name change, and more.
In retrospect, I think we leapt into our business with our passions leading the way — not a bad thing at all — while a few crucial underpinnings (like having a business plan) were left pretty loose, and in some cases untended altogether. As two right-brained people, I’m certainly not surprised that we sort of side-stepped the more businessy aspects of our business, and in some ways, because of this we were able to offer so much up front without reservation as to whether or not it made “sense” for our success.
So now, we are doing some adjusting — some of it minor, and some of it structurally significant — and I think these refinements and changes are going to go a long way toward improving our future, both to the IRS and for ourselves.
5. Do you think the expression, “Do what you love and the money will follow” is accurate? (Would you add anything to it?) Frankly, I could do without the second half of that sentence, mostly because the emphasis on it feels inaccurate. It suggests that there’s a symbiotic relationship between love and economic success, and they are — in my mind —a bit like those proverbial apples and oranges.
The irony of being a creative entrepreneur is that the words “creative” and “entrepreneur” don’t always play together very well. That phrase can mostly feel like an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp.” It’s hard to keeps tabs on the money part and at the same time engage fully in the “love” part.
For me, there are periods of dreaming things up, and then there are periods of executing those things. Ideation followed by action. And honestly, it’s rare that they are in equal parts. The expression “Do what you love and the money will follow” presumes a cause-and-effect scenario — if this, then this — but my experience is that it’s a much more stilted, staggered process. Three steps love, one step money. Half-step love, four steps money.
But over time, I’ve just gotten used to that a-syncopated rhythm. I don’t expect that doing what I love will lead to more money. And, conversely, I don’t expect more money to diminish or disrupt what I love. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about what I earn, or that I don’t want what I do to be successful. My definition of success simply isn’t dependent on a dollar amount. So unless the larger culture of economics assigns a consistent dollar value to creativity, I don’t expect it to.
Money Talks with Sherry Belul appears here on the Mabel blog every 2nd and 4th Friday of the the month, meet us here!