More Than Money
Issue #36

Money and Work

Table of Contents

“Redefining Our Relationship to Work”

A Conversation with Vicki Robin

Based on an Interview with Pamela Gerloff and Mara Peluso

Vicki Robin, in her book Your Money or Your Life (updated edition, Penguin, 1999), describes how an inheritance of $20,000 enabled her to begin to redefine her relationship to work and, eventually, to create a life free from the need to work for money. Her book offers readers a process for doing the same. Here, Ms. Robin discusses some of the challenges of redefining our relationship to work.

Vicki Robin is coauthor with Joe Dominguez (now deceased) of the national bestseller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money & Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin 1992; Penguin, 1999). She is president of New Road Map Foundation, an educational and charitable foundation teaching people tools for sustainable living. She is also the chair of the Simplicity Forum and serves on the board of The Turning Tide Coalition. Ms. Robin is the originator of Conversation Cafés, a structure for facilitating community conversations in local communities throughout the world. Ms. Robin has served on the President's Council on Sustainable Development Task Force on Population and Consumption. She has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America , and National Public Radio. She has also been featured in such publications as People Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Mirabella, Woman's Day, Newsweek, and The New York Times . Ms. Robin was selected by Utne Reader to be featured in Visionaries: People and Ideas to Change Your Life and was honored by A&E Entertainment's Biography as one of ten exceptional citizens in Seattle. She has received awards from Co-op America and Sustainable Northwest for her pioneering work in sustainable living.

The Current Paradigm
There are some key ideas in our culture that make it very difficult to separate work from wages. Many of us make money after the point of sufficiency. After debts are paid off and needs are taken care of, we still make money. It seems to me that we have to keep spending it so that we'll have an excuse to make it-because if we get ahead of the game, we might be confronted with the dilemma that comes from affluence: What do I do when I have more money than I need? I think we keep spending and making beyond the level of what actually fulfills us because money is the way we keep score. Money is how we become a "player" in society. This means that, often, the nonmaterial aspects of life-like love; family; connection to humanity, to nature, or to God; and service to the community -have been pushed to the margins of life. We are in a social and political environment that makes it difficult to choose anything other than the dominant paradigm of profits as a primary value. If you choose to operate outside of the dominant paradigm, you're likely to lose your role as a player. You'll lose your status; you'll lose respect, either from others or from yourself; and you'll also lose income, which means you may no longer have a secure future. As long as you're a player, there seems to always be more-more money, more status, more power. As soon as you stop playing that game you wonder if there's going to be enough for you, especially when everyone else is still going after more.

Unlinking Work from Wages
Work is part of life. It's part of how we participate in our community. I think most people don't really want to not work. It's just that work and earning money are so often linked. When I tell people that it's possible to unlink those two, they fight, fight, fight for the idea that the product of work is a paycheck.

I, too, experienced the difficulty of unlinking work from wages, because a piece of my financial independence came from a small inheritance. Although it was not a large amount, for me, it was the start of my financial freedom. Yet, I still struggled with the fact that I hadn't earned the money. I wanted somebody else to say that I was worthwhile enough to be paid something. I thought that unless I was paid, I didn't have a way to measure my worth.

Developing an Internal
Measure of Self-Worth

One thing not having to work for pay can do is force you to develop an inter- nal measure of self-worth. It takes a psychologically and spiritually intact person to say, "No matter what the outside world thinks, I know who I am . I know that what I do has value."

It took me years after I left the earning and spending cycle to stop defining myself by my career. I had graduated at

Someday, My Prince Will Come.
Just as there is Prince Charming in our cultural mythology, there is Job Charming. We seem to have the idea that there is a Perfect Job that's going to lift us up out of our circumstances- make us more beautiful, more successful, and more respectable. We have this idea that the Job, like Prince Charming, will come along and rescue us. So, just as there is a pressure to find the perfect mate in our love life, there is a pressure to find the "perfect mate" in our work.

Though I had not been involved in the job market in the conventional way, I had actually created another context in which I was seeking to engage in my "perfect work." I had created the perfect "save the world" strategy. Then I realized that I don't have to do The Perfect Thing. I don't have to sit on top of a huge organization that gets bigger and bigger and influences more and more people. I just have to do what I'm called to do.

-Vicki Robin

the top of my high school class and was voted Most Likely to Succeed by my classmates. I graduated cum laude from Brown University. For many years, however, I chose not to pursue worldly success because I knew there was something else in life-and I knew that if I followed the conventional path to success, I would never get around to that something else. I would just never get around to it.

It was hard to give up my idea of "success." But I had a sense of purpose because I had had inklings from my life experience that there was a larger life, if you will; that there was something more expansive to be lived than just having a career. I didn't know what it was; I just knew it was there. So I started shooting for success in a domain where there was no recognized definition of success.

The Return Cycle:
Sharing the Wisdom

Through my quest, I started to discover that I had learned things that other people wanted to know. I had developed a store of knowledge from what I had thought was just me trying to figure out life and I found others looking to me as if I had some answers. So I started what author Ursula Le Guin calls a "return cycle."

In her book The Dispossessed [Mass Market Paperback, 1994], Le Guin distinguishes between adventurers and explorers. Adventurers just keep on going out having adventures. Explorers go out and then, at some point, return with their findings to benefit their people.

I had done my exploration. I now saw the culture as producing unnecessary suffering and I wanted to help. That became my new quest. That quest is not very easy, either, because now I have to ask: What is the match between who I am, what I'm good at, and what I know-in terms of what is needed in the world? It's not a simplistic "Oh, let me help you" kind of attitude. It's a very fierce living with a difficult question: How does who I am fit with what is needed? In my opinion, the dominant cultural paradigm says that you answer that question by getting a job. I'm saying that there is another adventure that is much more heroic.

Using Your Gifts
That adventure is figuring out who you are and where you fit. We all have gifts; not one of us is superfluous. There was a moment in my life when I discovered that I have a knack for standing outside mainstream society, looking at it, and asking questions. I can see what isn't there, which, if it were there, could make a difference. For example, I've recently started "Conversation Cafés," where people get together in local cafes and have conversations about things that matter. (See www.conversationcafe.org .) Conversation Cafés have taken off because people are dying to talk to others about what matters. It seems as if everybody is just waiting to be asked. All I'm doing is seeing that what people think is absent (like opportunities to connect to others), is in fact, present, and I start bringing it into being. To me, that's a great privilege. It's what I do. And I'll tell you, it's a great job.

Hearing the Call
Hearing our calling doesn't come instantaneously-and it takes courage to stand in the not knowing; the not knowing can be very uncomfortable. The way I see it, you just try to do pretty good things along the way that seem to tend toward your calling. It's like that guessing game where you find out whether you're getting hotter or colder. You do something and you think, Oh, I feel good or It's great to see that person smiling or Three hours disappeared and I don't know where they went and I couldn't be feeling better -whatever your indicators are that let you know you're getting hotter.

My own life is about moving myself in the direction of whatever it is that I am here to do in this world. I think that's the basic spiritual journey, and I think we're all on it. It's not easy, but I think it's the most worthwhile thing anybody can do."

-Vicki Robin


© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved