Making it

By Megan McArdle

Get Rich Slowly interviews Adam Shepard, a young guy who set out with $25 in his pocket to see how far he could get in a year. In it, he hits on the central problem with Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed:

Well, first of all, I’ll say that Ehrenreich is a very talented journalist. From the point of view that she writes well, Ehrenreich is okay with me.

But the thing about Nickel and Dimed that is so depressing is Ehrenreich’s attitude. Forget politics and economics for a moment. She had an agenda, and she wrote along those lines. She had a point to prove and she proved it. (Of course, the same can be said for my side of the story, although I’d like to think I went down to Charleston with a little bit more of an open mind.)

She wrote about how tough and depressing poverty is. Really? Tough and depressing? Of course it is! I wanted to believe that there were people living in these tumultuous circumstances who weren’t living the life of cyclical misery that Ehrenreich was writing about. So I sought a discovery of my own with this project.

The economics side of Ehrenreich’s story didn’t make sense to me from the beginning and she never proved her point. To me, anyway. She lived in a hotel, ate out, didn’t look for ways to really save money.

In the end, I discovered that both Ehrenreich and I have valid points. But there is a stark difference in her attitude. She postured to fail, and she did. I postured to succeed, and I did.

If you set out to prove you can fail, you will generally find it is not that hard. That failure is therefore not good evidence of the impossibility of success. The problem is even more pronounced in her follow-up, Bait and Switch, in which Ehrenreich attempts to land a mid-career job in PR despite the fact that she has not worked in PR before. Ehrenreich spends most of the book acting like a total lunatic. Journalism is a career that is highly, highly dependent on networking and self-promotion, yet in the book she comes across as someone who has never mastered the rudiments of personal contact, like not gratuitously insulting people with whom you are trying to secure employment. It doesn't help that her contempt for the business world seems to have convinced her that it ought to be easy for someone with absolutely no experience to secure a well-paying job in a competitive field. The book mostly serves as a poignant reminder that yes, there really are intellectuals so provincial that they seriously believe the business world is run something along the lines of the presidency in Dave.

It's fair, of course, to be skeptical about Shepard's story. Playing poor is not the same thing as actually having to spend the rest of your life in a housing project; and didn't his social capital help out a great deal? But Shepard makes a convincing case that he acquired most of his survival skills from the real life low-wage workers around him:

Of course it’s easy for me to say it was easy. I had a goal. I was out to prove a point. I had the mentality and I knew what I had to do to get the results I wanted.

But what surprised me most, and what makes my story so fascinating, is that so many people around me were doing the same thing. It was most prevalent in the shelter (where some people had spent a lifetime learning from their mistakes), but it was just as prevalent outside of the shelter with guys like Derrick Hale, who emerges as the hero of my experience in Charleston.

Derrick was a guy I was working with at the moving company. He had come from rural Kingstree, SC, and he truly knew what poverty was like having grown up in a world of bologna and pickle sandwiches and maybe the lights will turn on, maybe not. And there he was in Charleston, saving his money just like I was. Actually, that’s cocky of me to say, since I was learning so many lessons from him.

Derrick was unique in that not only did he have a goal, but he had a vision for achieving that goal. There’s a monumental difference, and I really learned that throughout the course of my time in Charleston. Everybody knows what they want (nice house, car, vacation money, etc.) and many people know what can get in the way of achieving those goals (see poor spending habits above). But! Some people really struggle with the discipline of their vision. Derrick wanted a house, and near the end of my time in Charleston, he moved into a brand new 3-bedroom, two-story house, with a patio and a fenced in yard for his daughter and dog to play. He was 25 and he worked as a mover, but he knew how to handle his money.

So, is it realistic to set goals and save your money and make worthy investments? Of course it is! Are people doing it? Of course they are, just as there are people that are squandering their money to bad habits.

. . .

I was complaining about my woes in the workforce one night with a couple of the guys at the shelter. One of them, Phil Coleman, and I had a pretty colorful exchange where he essentially told me that I needed to be a whole heckuva lot more assertive. “You think managers are going to call here, eager to hire a homeless dude?”

So, he gave me the secret. To paraphrase, he told me to go to these managers and tell them who you are, that you are the greatest worker on the planet and that it would be a mistake not to hire you. If they take you on, great. If not, move on down the line. By day’s end, you’re gonna have a job.

So I did. The next day, I went to see Curtis at Fast Company, a moving company where I’d already applied. “Curt!” I said. “I’m Adam Shepard, and I’m the greatest mover on the planet. It would be a mistake for you not to hire me.” He looked at me across the table and smiled, knowing I was lying like hell to him. But he liked my attitude – especially after I offered to work a day for free – so he hired me on the spot.

Again, it’s interesting that I needed a boost from a comrade at the homeless shelter. I would have gotten a job eventually, but Phil Coleman gave me a hand up.

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