Saturday 27 July 2019

Thoughts on money, work, gift economy, and inspiration

A young relative who's been struggling with depression and unemployment recently came to my parents asking for money. We talked it over and agreed to pay off her credit card debt. I then felt moved to share with her some of my thoughts and experience around work, money, and happiness.

I've never suffered from full-blown depression. And regarding money, have always had a safety net of money in my immediate family, not to mention my straight, white, able-bodied, cis-male privilege. Still, I'm very aware that as we hit the environment's limits to economic growth, the very rich are scrambling to grab what's left, saddling almost everyone else with increasing economic insecurity. The system is broken, forcing many to work thankless jobs that they can barely live on, while it continues to assault the Earth. It's no wonder that depression, violence, addiction, and other forms of mental illness are rampant.

In this climate, many are finding themselves less able to find time for things that they love,  nature, creativity, and community. But unlike money, these are the sources of real happiness.

My relative has been stuck in a cycle of despair, in which the longer she goes without work, the more depressed she gets, and the more depressed she is, the harder it is to look for work. But I don't think that cycle is the only source of her misery and stuckness. I think the society we're living in has become inherently depressing. If most of the jobs available to a relatively unskilled person are degrading, exploitative, or boring soul-crushers that contribute nothing truly beautiful to the world, who could blame her for not feeling motivated to seek one of them? The thought of my relative giving her life to that system makes me sad.

As most of you know, I've managed to carve out a spare but workable livelihood doing things that are meaningful to me—music and caring for my old parents. Many people ask me how I've accomplished this. I have come to see how much my various privileges play a role. But my courageous unwillingness to give in to the System, and my persistence in following my passions, are also important. I'd like to believe that no matter how much someone is struggling, creating some small amount of space to do things they love is key to staying sane and ultimately finding fulfilling work. And in order to create that space, a person must be willing to do and give things that at least for now, do not earn money.

Here's the letter I wrote to my relative . . .

I've been wanting to share some thoughts about work and money with you. I hope this is not unwelcome, and feels supportive. It comes from real care for you, and things that I deeply believe. Things that have made a real difference in my own life.

The first idea is simply that you offer to help your parents during your mom's post-surgery recovery, in exchange for some money. I just suggested the same thing to her. I'm sure there are a lot of things you could do around the house that would make their life easier. Having some extra money could help you to feel better about your situation, which might in turn motivate you to look for other work. I know it's a little odd for family members to pay each other, but since you both have potentially matching needs, maybe it makes sense. She told me that she is already paying for private help, and it seems like it would be better to keep some of that money in your immediate family. 

The second thing I wanted to bring up is a bit more philosophical. I'm really into this contemporary thinker named Charles Eisenstein, who writes a lot about work and money. He introduced me to an idea called "gift economy" which is gaining popularity. It basically means "what goes around comes around," but it can be applied quite seriously, with profound implications. It has actually had a big effect on my own life. 

In a money economy, we pay money for goods and services. In barter, we trade goods and services directly for other goods and services. In gift economy, we give goods and services away for free. Because we don't ask for something in return, the recipient is left feeling grateful, and may some day give something to us. Furthermore, when we give gifts within a family, community, or social network in which others know us and can see our generosity, even people other than the ones to whom we're directly giving, can end up feeling grateful towards us. They appreciate the good that we're doing, and the way that our generosity spreads good feelings, brings people together, and keeps the community strong. Then some day down the road when we are in need, any of those other community members may come to our aid.

A perfect example of this is the hosting that you and your husband do in your gaming community. You are not doing that in exchange for money, goods, or services, or even in the hopes that you'll get something back some day. Hosting game nights is its own reward, because it's something you love to do. But all the same, as you do it, you are also building community, and that benefits you directly. And you're also building "social capital"—everyone who participates is surely very grateful towards you, and some day might feel inspired to give something back, whether you directly ask for help ("calling in" or "collecting on" your social capital), or they simply feel like giving to you. Maybe one of them will have some good luck or create something valuable in the future, and be in a position to share some of that with you, and they'll do it because of their lingering sense of gratitude for all you've given.

We think our economy is based only on money, but the truth is that money, barter, and gift all play big roles. Any time someone says, "hey if I do this for you, will you help me with that," it's barter. And any time someone does something kind for someone else, it's gift, producing real value in people's lives. Women especially put out huge amounts of physical and emotional effort for their children, partners, parents, grandparents, animals, people in need, etc., and a lot of that is unpaid, done just out of love and compassion. And much of what activists, healers, spiritual practitioners, inventors, artists, and other creatives do never gets paid for. 

On one hand, we might have a much better society if all this beautiful and important work got paid for. The fact that it doesn't is a big form of injustice, and we should oppose that, such as by fighting for equal pay for equal work for women. But at the same time—and this is the most important thing I learned from Eisenstein—if we really want to do or make or give something and there currently isn't any money in it for us, we shouldn't let that stop us from doing, making, or giving it. To the degree that we can, we should follow our passions and inspirations, and freely exercise our talents (the things we have a "gift" for), even if we haven't figured out ways to get money in return for them.

Our society in effect says that no object is valuable, no activity is justified, and no project or effort is "work" or a "job," unless you get money for it. And that is a horrible, destructive view. Not only does it insult and devalue all the beautiful, important things people do that don't happen to fit into the corporate-dominated, capitalist market, but it discourages generosity, love, and inspiration, without which life would not be worth living. And it breaks down community and other relationships, because it is mainly the unpaid, generous things we do for each other that build them.

In about 2003, after having pursued a career within the music industry for almost 20 years, I came to a point where I recognized that it clearly wasn't bringing me fame or fortune. I wasn't "making it"; my "career wasn't taking off." I realized I needed to confront the possibility that I might never achieve any kind of large-scale recognition for my music, or make a living from it. I asked myself, "If I knew that would never happen, would I want to stop playing, composing, recording, and performing?" The answer that welled up was a clear "no." I think it was then that I realized why I actually do music. It's not for anything that I get in return from other people. It's simply for the love, the inspiration of it. So I decided to keep going. To keep giving

I believe I've actually achieved a fair amount of conventionally-defined success since then. I've made some money, at least managed to scrape by. Thousands have heard my music, and I receive a good deal of recognition for it. But that would have never happened if I'd required it to make money. And conventional success is not why I'm doing it. 

I've come to believe really strongly that what matters most in life is following inspirations. I'm not against money or asking for money. But I don't devalue things that don't make money, and I very readily offer a lot of things for free. I regularly challenge myself to do many new kinds of projects and work in my life, just because I want to. And when I do, I usually offer them for free to people, at least at first. This allows me to learn, to get great practice at them, and find out if I really like doing them. People become my guinea pigs and my teachers, so I really am getting something in return. Then when I've built skills and confidence in that new area, I can start asking for money.

So all this is to say that I would encourage you to not spend all your time thinking and worrying about how you can find "work" and "a job" and make money. Of course you should do some of that. But you should also make time for doing things you love, pursuing silly whims and attractions and hobbies, following inspirations. And doing or giving things away to others in your community for free. What are the things you most like or long to do or give? Don't worry if they seem too big to be practical, or too small to be worthwhile. Pursue them anyway. Be radically, unreasonably generous in terms of the things you give others—or outrageously selfish in terms of the time you spend on pet projects that nobody else might even see or benefit from. That's still giving: it's giving to yourself. And giving to yourself can lead to all kinds of great exchanges with others, because it feeds you, it adds to your "spoons," until your cup runneth over, until you actually have something to give others.

In my experience, this pursuit of inspiration is tricky, because it raises the questions, "Will doing this thing actually be healthy or unhealthy for me? Is this true inspiration, or just a craving?" Those questions are great, and you won't learn how to answer them right away. I've made a lot of progress on them, but I'm still learning. It helps me to ask, "Is this something I want to do for its own sake, or in order to run away from something else that's uncomfortable? Is it a simple, organic, natural desire, or something I'm doing just so that others will approve of me, or so that I can tell myself I'm a good person? Is it a spontaneous impulse, or a plan I've been figuring out in my head to prevent something bad I think might happen? Is this something I really want, or something others have told me I should do?" 

If I'm not sure, the best thing to do is meditate for a little while. Lie down, take my mind off the question, and focus on my breathing and my body, even just for a few minutes. Usually I get clear about what path actually feels right to take.

When we're unhappy and not a lot is going on in our lives, it's very easy to fall into non-productive, compulsive habits, entertainments, and pastimes. I think it's very important not to dismiss these things too quickly, or try to force ourselves to give them all up overnight. Firstly, they bring us a little pleasure, and may therefore help us to just get through the day. Secondly, some of them may actually connect or lead to our deeper passions and inspirations. As I said, it's not always easy to know what is a mere craving and what is an actual calling. 

I think the key is eliminating guilt, and practicing not beating oneself up—about anything. Instead of trying to kill the "bad habit," see if you can take away all the guilt about it. Give yourself full permission to engage in it, and even schedule time for it into your day. How can you ever get out of a rut if all you're doing is beating yourself up? That will just make you unhappy, and more in need of unproductive "comfort" activities. But if you fully indulge in them without guilt, then either you'll discover that you ACTUALLY LIKE one of them, because it connects to something meaningful to you, or you will come to a point where you realize you don't need it anymore, because you've actually, finally, loved yourself enough to let yourself have it without guilt.

Sometimes when I meditate and get in touch with myself a little more deeply, I realize that I feel called to do something new that I'm a bit afraid of. Then I notice myself wanting to run back to the old comfort habit. Maybe it's ok to do that a few times. But eventually, I try to have the courage to start the new thing that's calling me. This is subtly different from beating myself up and denying myself the old habit. Rather, it's giving myself permission to try something that deep down, I actually want to try, even if it makes me feel uncomfortable. And the more I do that, the easier it gets.

Anyway, I really believe that if you start asking what are your true inspirations (which, remember, can include small and silly things), and then you start following them and offering their fruits to others for free, this will lead you to good places. One thing leads to another. Smaller things lead to bigger things. Things you give yourself lead to things you can give to others. A singe instance of giving something you love can lead to doing it more regularly. A volunteer position can lead to a cool paid job. Giving of your inspirations (for me it is music, writing, food, community, and activism, for you it has to do with games, fantasy art, and many other things) can lead to money, but it can also lead to barter, and gift economy, where you are building community, in which what goes around comes around, in unexpected, beautiful, and very real ways. 

Love, Michael


  1. Great piece. (A couple of typos towards the end, by the way.) I prefer gift to barter for sure. These well-written words may help someone to find enjoyment, which is surely a better habit than self-destruction, a little of which most of us do, every day. It's hard just getting by and a bit of non-harmful self expression can go a long way. Good thoughts.

  2. Hey, thanks for the comment! Nobody every comments on my blogs! (-: Do we know each other? Did you know I have an album called Pilot Single?


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