Conversation with Vicki Robin
on an Interview with Pamela Gerloff and Mara Peluso
Robin, in her book
Your Money or Your Life
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,
or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money
& Achieving Financial Independence
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
The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning
National Public Radio.
She has also
been featured in such publications as
The Wall Street Journal, Mirabella, Woman's Day, Newsweek,
The New York Times
. Ms. Robin was selected
to be featured in
People and Ideas to Change Your Life
and was honored
by A&E Entertainment's
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 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
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.
of my high school class and was voted Most Likely to Succeed
by my classmates. I graduated
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.
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.
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."
[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.
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.
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
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
to see that person smiling
Three hours disappeared
and I don't know where they went and I couldn't be
-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
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