Privilege, luck, and work ethic

It’s really telling that the question of money is the very first thing to pop into folks’ minds when we tell them we are about to hit the road for 14 months. We have all of the United States rolled out in front of us like a wall-to-wall rug, the far reaches of Canada in which to play hide-and-seek, two whole oceans to dip our feet and buckets of water at hot springs and rivers and gulfs and bays and estuaries. Not to mention the Great Lakes and the Great Salt Lake and the not-so-great campground ponds. We have a vintage vehicle and a rescue dog. And the thing everyone wants to know about is money. And always with the question, “How will you make a living?”

Let me first say that I view “making a living” differently. I pulled down some great paychecks at my last two jobs (and I had career jobs where I could have retired, I suppose). But I was dying. Quite literally. It’s trite to say, but every day I spent behind a desk I could feel my mortal coil edge a bit closer to its end. I watched days pass from my window. If I lived, it was for the weekend—those two days that feel like just enough time to slog through another five days of the capitalism grind. I made money, but I did not make a living. 

I learned I could survive on much less. 

People of a certain stripe will tell you that hard work pays off. That’s largely bullshit. I worked hard, but it only helped a tiny bit compared to two other factors. Our ability to call it quits at work and take to road is the product of three things in this order:

  1. Privilege: I have lived a charmed life—starting from the moment I came into existence. Born into a stable household to two parents with college degrees in the midwest in the 1980s. Add in the fact that I’m a straight white man and the deck is already stacked in my favor. Some people don’t like hearing this. The ability to brush off the truth of birth status is also privilege and those folks want to believe they are self-made. They’re not. They’re lucky asshats.

    My parents taught me about savings accounts and impressed the value of education on me. When I made bad choices, I was held middle-class-white-kid accountable—meaning that I was given talkings-to by people rather than having the police called. Meaning that when my grades flagged, I was not written off by the school counselor. Meaning that my elected officials didn’t actively legislate against my identity. Meaning that the hurdles I faced were lower and I had the inside track.

    Here’s the deal with my privilege: I can drive most anywhere in the US and Canada and not worry that the police will shoot me when I reach for my license. I won’t be tied up to a tree and tortured because of who I love. It’s not so much that I am lucky (and I am!), but that the systems we have in place will continue to make our North American bus adventure less existentially frightening for someone like me and more welcoming.

    What’s this have to do with making some money while on the road? Well, I didn’t flip a switch one day and suddenly acquire the means to hit the road. There was a long lead-up to this moment and it was paved nice and smooth by privilege. The assumption I would go to school, the admission rates for someone like me into grad programs, the biases that play into job interviews, the seriousness with which a white guy is treated by a banking institution or a funder—all of this is privilege.
  2. Luck: I mentioned that I am lucky. The ol’ luck o’ the Irish. One twist of fate after another has simply worked in my favor. While I don’t subscribe to any ideas of higher powers, there is almost an unnatural, uncanny amount of luck in my life. (Cormac McCarthy talks about the mathematics of luck in his Oprah interview and, for once, I feel like McCarthy and I are on the same level. But only in terms of luck.)

    I was lucky to have an employer who gave us health benefits in the form of an HSA.* I was lucky they socked one-year’s worth of funds into it for us at the onset. I was lucky they offered a 2-to-1 match. I was lucky to be vested in Public Employee Retirement at age 21 (when it was easier to become vested). I was lucky to have a great tax preparer, who took an interest in the financial side of my writing career. I was lucky to have gone through what was at the time the cheapest state school in Ohio for undergrad and graduate with no debt.

    When I divorced, my luck never ran out. I didn’t carry any debt and she wanted the house. I was lucky to have friends who watched out for me, took me in, encouraged me to work on this silly bus project. I was lucky to stay debt-free and have a paid-off Prius that ran like a champ. My lawyer was terrible and I was lucky my ex was more interested in cash than my retirement…

    …Because that retirement skyrocketed when I left public employment. Like went absolutely bonkers. I had great timing with the pandemic and the window in which I reinvested my money. I had the great luck of meeting my financial advisor, Bob, many years before and letting him guide my investments.

    I was lucky with my final employer that they began the conversation of letting me go only a week earlier than when I planned to say it. That final twist of fate allowed me to negotiate my departure, which let me put a few extra dollars into my pocket as I had one foot out the door.

    *That employer, I should note, had a staff of 210+ employees with only two or three people of color on staff. The workforce was overwhelming women, but management (myself included) was mostly men. Only about 20% of the workforce was full-time and nearly all those positions were management. So, again, privilege, folx.
  3. Hard work: In order of importance, this one is last, my friends. Across seven years I taught at two universities—one is the aforementioned cheap state school; the other is considered the “public ivy league of Ohio” and is priced accordingly. I kept up with lots of students since my teaching days at these places. Privilege, it seems, has determined the trajectory of these students’ careers, not work ethic. Luck has maybe helped propel a few. But I have seen students from cheapskate state work their asses off to be in middle management, whereas I have had unimpressive students leave the public ivy and step through the door of a C-suite where they had family connections. 

    The truth is your hard work doesn’t matter that much in terms of promotion. I admire the bricklayers and the automakers, the short order cooks and servers, the baristas and window washers. They have incredible work ethics. I do not. Not anymore. When did I have my best work ethic? Pre-management days, pre-sit-your-ass-in-the-office-on-conference-calls days. I absolutely worked efficiently, tirelessly, and sometimes to my physical detriment as a short-order cook and a group home line staff. In those jobs I was paid $10.50 and $9.79 respectively. My last job I made roughly $40 an hour (less some weeks because salary). And I would not—absolutely not—do either of those lower wage jobs again, even for my higher wage. Because the “important” jobs don’t breed work ethic; they breed ego and greed. And boredom. 

    I don’t want to be greedy or egotistical or bored. 

Which brings me to this: I have the ability to do what I love—live in the world of stories.

Now, telling stories does not translate into dollars, but it is loads of fun for me. How lucky am I that I can sit in front of a keyboard—my old Macbook or my trusty typewriter—and I can plug away for hours and be perfectly content? How cool is it that when I visit someone the most valuable thing they give me is their story? And how awesome is it that I can turn around and tell that story—all the while the original storyteller and I are allowed to keep this thing for ourselves? It’s absolutely screamingly wild if you think about it. So few products can enrich so many lives and still be endlessly shareable. 

You know what it never feels like though? Hard work. The monetary reward is close to nil. Maybe there’ll be a book deal. Maybe we will find a sponsor for the podcast. It may not pay all the bills and yet I can “make a living” off telling stories. That’s privilege. 

And, yes, if you’re wanting to know the economics, the dollars-and-cents of how we make vanlife work, I will blog about that in the future. First, I needed to stand on my soapbox for a few paragraphs. But the question there is, “How will you make money?” not “How will you make a living?”

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