In my adolescent years, I lived the only way I knew how to live: by working hard. I excelled academically. I joined the band and honor society. I was editor of the yearbook. On top of all this, from ninth grade on I worked twelve to sixteen hours a week in the lab of our local hospital cleaning test tubes. I tried to pretend that my family had money but—even if I fooled my classmates—I knew deep down it wasn’t true.
I carried my money baggage into adulthood. I worked hard and put myself through college, got good grades, and found my first job soon after graduating. I was the ideal employee, working my tail off, coming in early, and staying late. I worked through lunch. My boss knew if there was a job to do, I’d get it done no matter what it took.
For me, that’s just what you did in life—work hard. It’s how life was. Working hard wasn’t a conscious choice for me. It was a given—no questions asked.
I didn’t notice I was still “driving the tractor” from sunup to sundown. It was so automatic for me to work hard that the thought of not working hard made me panic. I thought I could lose everything at any time if I didn’t stay at it.
Despite my hard work and the fact that I made pretty good money, I was always haunted by the feeling I’d have to make that drive to the bank for a loan. Deep down I knew there wouldn’t be enough money to get me through. So I worked even harder. I started a business consulting practice and worked sixty to seventy hours a week. I went in early, I paid all the bills, and I arranged all the appointments. I prepped for client pitch meetings or for the consulting work.
While I was doing all this work, it seemed that my business partner, Nita, was always in one of three places: getting her nails or hair done, playing with her kids, or working out. I’d pick her up, we’d do the two or three hours of consulting with the client, and I’d drop her off at home. Then I’d go back to work. This went on for a year and a half. Finally the day came when I said, “Nita, this isn’t working for me.”
Nita, looking a bit confused, said, “What isn’t working for you?”
“Our business partnership—it isn’t fair. I’m working all these hours, but we both get paid the same. I work before and after you, getting ready for our client work, doing all this extra stuff…and then you just waltz in to do the consulting work. I’m working way more than you are,” I snapped.
Nita wasn’t the least impressed. She said, “Karen, it’s because you have it completely wired up that you have to work hard. I don’t. And even if I did work harder, you’d find a way to work just as hard as you are now. You’d find something else that had to be done. I let you do all that work, because you feel like you have to do it.”
“And it’s even worse than that, Karen,” she said. “Some people make a lot more than we do and they work a lot fewer hours. Maybe it’s not all about working hard.”
“Of course it is, Nita. How else can we have a successful business and make enough to support ourselves?” I replied indignantly.
I didn’t want to hear any more. I drove her the rest of the way home in silence. After dropping Nita off, I started to argue with her in the empty car. “How dare you say that to me? How the heck can you make money and not work hard?”
But Nita’s words haunted me. I respected her and her opinion enough that, even though I didn’t like what she’d said, I knew there had to be some truth in it. I’d seen my mom and dad work themselves to exhaustion and, trusting in them as role models, I didn’t know any other way. If working hard was not the answer, then what was?
Soon after this conversation, Nita and I closed our consulting practice and I took a job as a human resources director at an ad agency. Guess what? I worked really hard and very long hours . . . and never had more than enough money.
To be continued next week … Part 3 of Discovering Your Own Money Baggage.