When my computer died and I had to ship it away for three weeks, I went to my first 12-step meeting for debtors in May of 2015 and then I hit my first meeting for underearners on July 12, 2015. Coming out of that latter meeting, I checked my phone and saw that I had received a $50 donation from my blog. “This program really works!” I thought.
Until 2016, I’ve never earned more than $45,000 in a year. I’m a chronic underearner and under-achiever.
I started doing daily chores around age five. We lived in a cold house in Manchester, England, at the time, and I volunteered to do the dishes because it gave me an opportunity to soak my hands and arms in hot sudsy water and that took away the pain of the cold.
I got hit a lot by my step-mom, who was depressed at the time and struggling with being a wife and mother for the first time, and so I learned to lie to try to reduce the beatings. Lying remains an instinct for me whenever I’m in trouble. I want to try to lie my way out of things, but whenever I’m caught, just like when I was a child, I make a full confession to try to reduce the beating. I learned early on that it really takes the anger out of people when you make a complete confession.
Every day my parents would put me down for a nap after lunch and I’d scream bloody murder until falling asleep. During this time in England, I developed an addiction for this toxic stew of hatred I directed against my parents and all authority. I learned to love hurting myself because I saw how much that hurt my parents. I learned to glory in my hopeless and pain. I got addicted to collapsing. I got addicted to losing. “I’ll bloody show them,” I kept thinking.
To escape from my misery, I took up daydreaming. I learned to daydream my days away. Around age seven, I took up pornography, another intense and wonderful escape. I loved excitement. I loved excessive exercise and excessive reading and excessive eating, particularly of forbidden foods such as candy. I’d steal money from my parents and buy candy until a fourth grade campout when the teacher caught me with a big candy stash and reported it to my parents who were very upset and I got a hiding and I learned to stop stealing from them. I never stole from other people. I never developed that habit. I only stole from my parents and only for a couple of years (ages 7-9).
I was an indifferent student. As with work, I didn’t put an effort in unless the topic interested me.
I didn’t like the reality of my life and so I sought out every opportunity to escape from the humdrum of Cooranbong.
I was the class clown. I thirsted for attention and acted out until I got some. The more secure I felt, the more I would make subversive jokes. I gloried in provoking some of my teachers into hitting me and when they did, I felt like a victim.
We moved to California in the summer of 1997 and in September I began sixth grade. I saw that many of my classmates had jobs, so I asked for a job from a family that admired my father’s teaching. The father was white and the mother, a doctor, was black. I worked in their garden and did various chores for about six months for about $2.50 an hour until they fired me for not putting much effort in and for not following directions and for just being a lousy worker. I was humiliated, particularly when the black lady doctor came to our home and explained to my parents in front of me why I was let go.
The same tunnel vision I displayed in that first job, that same reluctance to look for things to do beyond what was assigned, that same lack of interest in my tasks, that same boredom with taking directions, that lack of empathy, all of those character defects still challenge me.
I did other odd jobs over the next four years and I got fired from every one after a time because I was not willing to put the effort in to do the jobs right.
The summer of 1982 was great because I fell in love for the first time with a girl, Rainy, who reciprocated my affection to a degree, and I had my first job I liked — as a summer camp counselor. I only earned $400 for the entire summer but it was fun work. I only got reprimanded once — for getting my kids out of the pool early so we could all get first dibs on the hot showers. I felt great at the end of the summer that I had held down a job and enjoyed it and wasn’t fired, though they did not hire me back the next summer.
In the summer of 1983, I worked as a janitor at Pacific Union College, and earned close to $2,000, and I didn’t get fired. My job review was mediocre.
There are some incidents I remember from that summer. I asked a Vietnam vet on our crew if he was a baby killer. I alienated much of the crew and they took to tearing me down until some latino immigrant said that was unChristian of them. I remember walking back from one task, seeing some friends, sitting down and chatting with them, and the boss walking past, noticing me and saying nothing. I remember sitting in the office with my crew after the day was done and my telling jokes and hanging out on the clock until we all finally punched out. I didn’t have a strong work ethic, though it would never have occurred to me to steal anything. I’ve never been a direct thief (except from my parents for a couple of years). I’ve never lifted money or things. I was a thief in the sense that I didn’t feel much obligation to work all the time I was on the clock. I often had that intention, but my flesh was weak, I hated working, and I looked for every opportunity to tell jokes and to enjoy distractions. I particularly liked romantic intrigue on the job and sexual tension. That was my favorite form of distraction.
Not satisfied to be a worker among workers, either I get attention or I lose interest in my job, a yearning for distraction, looking to have conversations and intrigue and fun in the office, getting interested in everything but my work, all have been characteristics of my work life over the decades.
As I write this retrospection on my underearning, it is stunning how the same character defects have been with me from the beginning.
“Don’t take the easy way out,” my parents often admonished me because my tendency is to do that very thing. I’d rather watch football and think about football than work or study. It’s always been easier for me to numb out to distractions than to do the hard work necessary for me to create an honorable life.
I graduated from high school in 1984 with a 3.3 GPA and an 1135 SAT score. I hadn’t learned to put an effort in on topics that didn’t interest me.
I went back to Australia for a year to live with my brother and to work. It took me a few weeks to find a job and that wait was devastating to my sense of self. I felt useless. I finally landed a job as a shop assistant at KMart (GJ Coles), probably because I was the only job applicant who wore a suit to the interview, and because I stopped telling the truth about my intentions to return to America after a year.
I hated the humdrum job. I got admonished for talking too much to girls and for calling my boss, “Mate”. I told my aboriginal superior that the best way to get an abo girl pregnant was to cum on her shoe and let the flies do the rest.
After a few weeks of this work, I resolved to study hard when I went to college.
Four months in, a friend of my brother’s landed me a great job for three times the pay (I made about $25 an hour) — a contract to clean and maintain the Boyne Island Shopping Centre. As long as I showed up and did the work, I was my own boss. I was on contract. And I got to read on average two hours a day or more in my little shed.
I must’ve done a lousy job because the shopping centre never again did such a contract.
I came back to California in June of 1985 and started a full-time unpaid internship at KAHI/KHYL radio in the news department. After a month, I got hired (following my pulling an all-nighter covering a story) at minimum wage ($3.35 an hour) for 16 hours a week (for anchoring the news on the weekend). I never had any doubt that I would rather do work I loved at little or no pay than work I hated at solid wages.
I bought my first car that summer — a 1968 VW Bug — and totaled it in September through my own carelessness. I had to rely on rides from my mother for a depressing couple of months until I decided to spend the $900 to repair my car. I never felt the same affection for my car after that crash.
I had mono from January to May of 1986. They were miserable months. I pushed through with my obligations. That June, I looked for work (in addition to my radio gig). It was depressing that most of it paid around $4 an hour, after I had made about five times that in Australia. I couldn’t find a steady job on my own, but after I registered at the California Department of Employment, I got a landscaping job right away but it only paid $4 an hour. The work was very tough until the third day when we worked at the home of this real estate titan, Doug Hanzlick, and Mr. Hanzlick and his family were so nice to me that day, that I fell in love with them and with my job. It was that little bit of recognition, that touch of human kindness, that completely changed the way I felt about my job. In the ordinary job situation where the boss gave me a task and I did it and that was it, I dreaded my work. When I received some recognition from people I liked and respected, however, my work gave me meaning and pleasure. It gave me so much meaning and pleasure that I quit most of my classes at college that fall (only took two instead of the scheduled five) so that I could work more.
Working in landscaping in the Sacramento winter was miserable. I had a familiar feeling — that people my age were excelling me. They were moving ahead with their education or they were working in higher paying jobs. They had girlfriends. And I felt like I was lagging behind. I felt out of it. I felt isolated. I felt sad. I had a sense that there was something wrong with me, but felt like if I just made better decisions, I would get out of this mess.
In the Spring semester of 1987, I returned to school full-time, I got close to straight As, and in addition I worked about 30 hours a week in landscaping and in radio. I felt like my life was on track. I was accepted into UC Davis and other colleges. I decided instead to attend UCLA and got accepted there. I spent almost all of my time either studying or working. I didn’t socialize much. I felt like I had finally got my life on track.
Then in February of 1988, disaster struck in the form of an illness later diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which would keep me in bed about 20 hours a day for the next six years. That hellish time convinced me there was something wrong with me beyond my illness and I converted to Judaism and hoped to remake my life followings its principles and practices.
After making two-thirds of a recovery, I moved to Los Angeles in March of 1994. I was social, going to every interesting Jewish event I found, and checking out as many synagogues as possible. I dated widely. It was an exciting time with a lot of emotional and spiritual highs, but it had many stunning lows as well. I lived out of my car from June of 1994 until February of 1995, when I met an Israeli guy at shul who offered me a place to stay in exchange for helping him with a script.
I wasn’t interested in taking a regular job or in going back to UCLA to finish my degree. I wanted to blaze new ground. I thought I could work as an actor or model. I had a few auditions. I got some extra work. I went through all of my savings and then started living off credit cards while I devoted myself for about a year (September of 1995 to June of 1996) to writing my first book. Upon hitting my credit card limits ($20,000) and forced to find a new place to live (I got a room with a Holocaust survivor with two dozen cats, in exchange for cleaning up after the cats, I only had to pay $200 a month rent), I started working as a temp secretary (earning about $12 an hour on average). There were a bad few days when I was too sick to go to work and I was late with the rent on this one occasion, the only time in my life I have been late with the rent.
I got fired from three temp job for inappropriate speech. I got kicked out of three acting schools for the same reason. When I’d land a temp job, I’d use much of that time to research and edit my book. That would usually get discovered and I would get in trouble, but in many cases, I didn’t get fired because my temp employers liked me. A friend gave me the wise counsel, “Work only one job at a time”, but I wasn’t able to live up to that advice.
Beginning in March of 1998, I began earning about $3,000 a month from my writing and my financial situation stabilized, and over the next two years, I paid off all of my credit card debt.
From 1998 to 2015, I never made more than $45,000 in a year, and never less than about $25,000. From 1998 to 2007, I made most of my money doing what I loved — writing. In 2009, I went back to school to study for three years to become a teacher of the Alexander Technique. I found the first 18 months so exhausting that I couldn’t work much. I limited my earning to things I could do from home, such as SEO (Search Engine Optimization). My credit card debt maxed out at about $52,000 in early 2012 when I took some office work and began slowly paying it down.
In February of 2013, I bought my first luxury car (a 2004 model for $4200 total, meaning monthly payments of $150 for three years).
Through working my various 12-step programs, 2016 was my most prosperous year ever and 2017 looks even brighter.