Years ago, having just earned a degree that brought along a $17.5K student loan, I broached the topic of money with my fiancé while on a coffee date. I shared my worries about my debt and wondered how I’d pay it off in under a decade with my pitiful post-college salary. She sighed, then revealed something that I should’ve been expecting: she had strong hesitations against marrying into my debt.

That hurt. I didn’t understand the weight of my debt at that time, so I launched into a barrage of excuses. I reiterated my worries about a quick debt payoff, but she stood her ground. Debt, for her, was painful. She’d seen it crush those she loved and desperately wanted to avoid the trap of money pain that’s so common in new marriages.

While it didn’t quite work out the way she planned — we married one year later, debt intact — we came together on a firm rule: there would be no settling into an expensive marriage, buying a house, or pumping out children. No — the first order of business was working together to pay off my student loans.

· · ·

At a recent money conference among colleagues, the speaker asked the small crowd what they think when about they think about money. One woman offered an answer: Stress. Others joined in around her: PressureNever enough. I couldn’t help but empathize. The money I’ve made later in life taught me that it’s true: money can’t make you happy. The bouts of depression still come around when life takes unexpected downturns, and that ancient Fear of Failure never goes away.

My wife tells me I have a signature look when I’m worried about money: I stare at our budget numbers, hunch over the keyboard, press my fist into my chin, and scowl. Sometimes, I think, the numbers just aren’t adding up. But then my wife — detecting the incoming breakdown — passes by my desk, grips my shoulder, and tells me what I’m hoping my budget will tell me: that everything is going to be okay, even when it’s not.

But to hear me tell you that money can’t make you happy is a useless sentiment. It’s like telling the friend in the plane not to be nervous, that there’s nothing truly dangerous about skydiving; you’ll never see the truth of the matter until you’re on the other side of that situation, i.e. when you’ve landed safely on the ground, or when you reach a new milestone on your net worth tracker and feel, at best, a brief rush to the head.

So, rather than pursuing more money, I’ve found there’s another, better route to financial happiness.

In sifting through those moments in my life that brought real, warm pleasure, very few of them involve large spending: the quiet thrill of a good book; a long drive along a remote beach with my wife; hamburgers with bacon and avocados; two matinee tickets to a critically-acclaimed indie movie. It’s not the experience of buying a car (I have the rare disease of having no interest in cars), the allure of a fancy house, or a new iPhone that makes me happy. As a member of the human race, I’m a world champion at Getting Tired of Things. But in those simple, cheap expenses, I find something real.

This, then, is financial power: knowing oneself enough to know when there’s enough.

If only we could turn inward, to that little self in there, and say, if you just learn to live without gadgets, fine dining, and all these worthless toys, all of this stress will fade away. But the little self inside rebels, and claims, surely, there’s a purchase out there that will bring greater satisfaction this time.

So, this is why we think about stress when we think about money. This is why, for some, there’s never enough.

· · ·

In the year my wife and I spent paying off debt, we lived as simply as broke college kids.

I remember the daily routine: I’d head off to my miserable job as a programmer at an insurance company, making what I assumed was a generous wage (it wasn’t). My wife worked part-time at a startup as a copywriter. She thought her job was miserable, too, but she had the pleasure of leaving work at 1pm, picking up sushi from the restaurant a few blocks from our apartment, and spending the rest of her afternoon sitting cross-legged in front of the TV — sushi in lap — rewatching Sherlock episodes.

At 5:30pm, I’d begin my long commute home, usually in the rain. But I remember how fun it was to walk into our small apartment on those evenings. The grief my boss had given me that day usually stayed behind in the mud I wiped on the door mat, and my wife and I would spend the rest of our evening watching movies and eating blue box macaroni and cheese.

Those were good days.

Happiness, for us, came cheap. Frankly, we didn’t have much choice; most of our money was being sent away to that debt machine. So we put our money into cheap food and cheap entertainment. And we got fat. But there was happiness, too.

· · ·

I’d like to tell you that becoming debt free was easy. But it was miserable. Our only focus during that time was watching a negative balance rise closer and closer to zero. And that was what was most difficult: working so hard — long hours in crummy jobs — just to get to zero. Most dream of achieving something great. We only dreamed of achieving “nothing,” so that then, we might turn zero to one and our life could truly begin.

Debt says, keep your attention on that thing behind you. It straps you to that point in time, back there, when perhaps you didn’t know as well as you know now. For some, that little self shows up to convince them that this new freedom from debt is a great opportunity to return to debt, if only for some very special purchase. But we were fortunate: the pain of that time taught us that, no, debt wasn’t worth the trouble.

Three years after making our final debt payment, we’re forever in a blissful loop, regularly recreating the simplicity of those early days with the sushi and Sherlock and silliness. We still enjoy cheap nights in with each other. Those times remind us that it’s not the cars and houses that we need. Rather, it’s a clear understanding of what makes us happy and how we define “enough.”

The way we saw it, it doesn’t take much to have everything you need. And that realization has made all the difference.

This article originally appeared on Smart Penny Institute.

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October 11, 2017


Paul’s descent into madness began the day he discovered a lump on the side of his neck. He assumed the worst, and thought back to sixth grade, when his teacher told the class about the time her husband found a strange lump on his scalp. Six months later, she told the class, he was dead. So, Paul resigned himself to a similar fate, dying at the young age of thirty-two.

At his wife Mattie’s insistence, he made a trip to the emergency room, where doctors poked and studied the formation on his neck. “Is it painful?” the doctor asked. Paul shook his head and provided a detailed explanation of the lump’s history. After a short time in the emergency room, Paul was diagnosed with a non-fatal case of strep throat and given a prescription for powerful drugs whose names he couldn’t quite pronounce.

“But remember,” the doctor told him before he left, “stick with bed rest for the next two weeks and avoid strenuous activity or the use of heavy machinery.” As the doctored listed a long string of potential side effects, Paul’s mind drifted elsewhere. He was happy to be alive, but secretly wondered if the doctor made a terrible mistake in his diagnosis.

It was four days into his bed rest that Paul felt he could take no more of lying in bed, sore from inaction, reading books his wife recommended to him — all of which he didn’t like very much — and wishing he’d moved the TV into the bedroom two weeks ago like his wife had asked. He needed some air, he decided.

Near Paul and Mattie’s house, there was a hill whose summit overlooked their small town. “Can we take a short walk up the hill?” asked Paul. Never one for rule following herself, she helped Paul out of bed and walked with him outside to the base of the hill. There, they found a flat patch of grass, laid out a purple and black serape blanket, and sat together. Paul took deep gulps of air, as if he’d been submerged in water for four days. Mattie pulled up blades of grass and tied them in tiny knots, a skill that Paul watched with fascination; he knew his fingers were too bloated and bubbled from his medication to handle such a delicate craft.

“I just want to feel better,” Paul said.

“Oh, don’t be a baby,” said Mattie playfully. “You heard the doctor. Give it a few more days of medicine and rest and you’ll be back to normal.”

Paul smiled. He thought of the advice he’d heard about flight attendants: if you’re scared of flying — which Paul very much was — keep an eye on the flight attendants throughout the flight. Their reaction will tell you if you’re in any real danger. Likewise, Paul assumed that Mattie had a clearer idea of his prognosis as an outside observer than maybe he did.

“I think I’d like to walk up to the top,” said Paul, wanting desperately to find his strength again. He ignored the chronic sensation of his head floating away like a balloon and secretly wondered if he’d taken too much medication.

“Do you want me to go with you?”

“No, I think I’ll be okay.”

“All right. I’ll head back inside and start dinner. Don’t be gone too long.” Mattie kissed Paul’s forehead, stood up, and walked back towards the house.

Paul paced himself as he climbed the hill, which started with grass and soon became a trail of sand and rock. He realized that the medicine in his system added fifty pounds to every step, and he almost lost his balance on two occasions from misplaced steps and shifting rocks. He considered turning back until he came to a tall tree that he hadn’t noticed before in previous hikes. It wasn’t like other trees: it had an uncanny facial structure formed into the bark at Paul’s eye-level and a branch in the shape of a muscular human arm.

The tree said to Paul, “Care to arm wrestle?”

Paul thought nothing of the talking tree, because trees are known to talk to those on the verge of insanity, and those on the verge of insanity are known to think nothing of insane things.

“Sorry, pal,” said Paul. “I’m on some pretty strong drugs. Doc said I can’t be doing anything too strenuous.”

“Suit yourself, buddy,” said the tree. “Where ya headed?”

“To the top.” Paul pointed to the trail ahead.

“Well, I don’t often tell people this, but there’s a shortcut to the top if you head that way.” The tree pointed his branch towards a new path, hidden behind a collection of bushes Paul had seen many times before, but never wondered what could be on the other side. “It should get you up to the top in no time. Fifteen minutes maybe.”

Paul had walked this trail dozens of times, and estimated another hour until he reached the top if he continued along the usual path. But he knew that he shouldn’t be out too long, so he accepted the talking tree’s advice.

“Thanks, pal.” Paul walked towards the newly-discovered path. The tree motioned for a high five with its arm-like branch, but Paul had already passed by him and missed the moment. The tree’s milky white bark turned a soft pink of embarrassment.

Stepping beyond the bushes that blocked the new path, Paul made his way forward sluggishly, feeling as though wet concrete was blending into the spaces between his toes. He once again considered turning back, but he knew that behind him was a foul-smelling bed where he’d been rotting slowly for four days in sick warmth, surrounded by glasses of half-drunk water and cough drop wrappers. Just a bit further, he thought.

After a short walk, Paul came upon an elderly gentleman with wooden poles for legs. Above those legs, the man stood proudly with a white beard and a brown golfer’s cap. “You there!” said the old man to Paul. “A fine evening, don’t you think?”

Paul made a concentrated effort to not stare at the man’s legs, and thought nothing of his ability to balance so seamlessly on them. “Yeah, it’s great up here. Who are you?”

“Aye, I’m the trail guardian. And who is this that walks my hidden trail this evening?”

“I’m Paul.”

“Ah, Paul. Herbert told me to keep an eye out for you.”

“Who’s Herbert?”

“The arm wrestler.”


“So, Paul, you’re very close to the summit of this ancient hill. I couldn’t imagine you’d come all this way and not want to reach the top. Am I right, my friend?”

“Right. How much further?”

“Not too far, Paul. But because I’m the trail guardian, there’s something I must ask of you before I allow you to ascend to the top of the hill.” From behind his back, the old man produced a small wooden box. It looked as if it had at one time been painted green on all sides, which had begun to flake over many years of being hidden behind the old man’s back. The man rested the box in one hand and with the other, he lifted the lid, which creaked slowly on its hinge. Paul stepped closer to and gazed into the box. He saw only darkness inside.

“Reach inside,” whispered the old man.

“What’s in there?” asked Paul, shivering. He looked back up at the old man, who gave him a warm and inviting smile. Flight attendants.

“Go ahead. Or you could just turn back. Not everyone has the stomach to reach into this box.”

Paul gulped. He wondered if whatever was in that box was worse than returning to his soggy sick bed. He decided that this trip to the top would do him some good, so he reached his hand inside.

He first expected to hit the wooden bottom of the box, which should’ve only been as deep as a hand length, but he found himself reaching deeper, deeper into the void. Then he inserted his full arm into the box and found himself able to wave it to and fro inside. A bottomless box? said a little voice in Paul’s head. He looked back up at the man, puzzled. The old man only smiled a toothy grin and nodded, go on.

Paul reached out his hand for something, anything to grip onto inside the box, but there was nothing. So, he opened his palm, and waited. After a moment, a strong hand gripped Paul’s. As he tried to pull his arm back out of the box, the grip grew tighter, holding Paul in place. “Help, I’m—something’s got me!” Paul yelped. The old man stood firm, smile unbroken, holding tightly to the box and its hinged cover.

Paul felt his arm begin to hinge backwards, an unnatural motion that led him to reposition himself to prevent his shoulder from snapping in two. He strained and twisted against the force of the strong grip inside the box.

“It’s going to break my arm! Help me!” Paul began to panic. He felt his shoulder tighten and burn, and when the pain started to grow unbearable, Paul felt the back of his palm being pressed against a solid, flat surface. Suddenly, the hand inside the box released Paul’s hand, freeing him. He jerked his arm out of the darkness and rubbed the painful knot in his bicep.

“What on earth was that?” Paul asked the old man, who had still not moved or stopped smiling through Paul squirming. The answer came from deep within the box.

“I win!” said Herbert from the void, as if calling from a distance.

With Paul’s arm freed, the old man snapped the box closed. “No one’s ever beaten old Herbert at arm wrestling,” he said, shaking his head. “You look a bit sickly, so I didn’t expect much from you, lad. But to pass my test, you didn’t have to win. You only needed to play.”

Paul blushed, happy to have completed the test despite his terror. The old man slipped the box back behind his back, and an empty hand re-emerged. He stepped to the side of the dirt trail and waved his hand down the path, urging Paul onward. “Happy trails, my friend. Pass on now to the summit.”

Paul continued on, smiling bashfully and rubbing his shoulder, ironing out the ache.

As he walked, he felt the recent surge of adrenaline begin to drain from the soles of his feet, leaving him violently weak. He stumbled over the stair step arrangement of rocks that led to the summit, nearly losing his balance once again. Don’t give up just yet, he thought.

When he reached the top, Paul took a deep breath and scanned the surrounding landscape. He could feel his energy waning, and regretted his decision to come to the top of the hill, but felt a sense of empowerment returning to him. He looked near the head of the trail and spotted a rock where he could sit and catch his breath. No strenuous activity, he recalled.

As he sat down, he realized that he hadn’t thought much of the lump since beginning his walk, and he felt proud of himself. He reached up to feel it, and suddenly realized it had grown considerably since his visit to the emergency room. It now had features — new contours and bumps on its surface. Then he felt a bite on his finger as he rubbed the lump. A small bubble of blood appeared on his finger. And with that, the leaking kettle in Paul’s mind finally tipped, spilling boiling absurdity deep into the cracks of his brain.

“Why did you bite me?” he angrily said to the lump.

“Because I don’t like you,” said the lump in a small, bitter voice. It sounded like it was coming from Paul’s own mouth. “You’re making everything worse. I showed up to help you.”

“That’s not true. You’re trying to kill me.”

“I’m not trying to kill you, Paul. Your wife’s right, you know. You really are a baby. Those antibiotics in your system are working on making you better. But you’re not helping right now with your big-boy hike up the hill. You need to get back to bed.”

“Am I going to die?”

“No, but that would certainly make things much easier, wouldn’t it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Dead people don’t have to worry about dying.”

Paul felt something form in his throat, a new lump. “I guess I’m just not ready to go.”

“Nobody ever is, Paul.”

Paul sensed the last of his energy begin to leave him. He coughed and rolled onto his hands and knees, producing a splash of vomit onto the rocks and sand. He then heard a familiar voice coming up from the trail below.

“Paul! Honey, are you okay?” asked Mattie, as she ran up the hill. “I shouldn’t have let you come all the way up here!”

Paul noted his wife’s worried look as she approached and he wiped the spit and vomit from his chin. His arm still ached as he reached up and felt the lump on his neck again. It hadn’t changed in size, but the little mouth had shut up tightly and the blood on his finger had become a dry red dot. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m feeling much better now.”

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Years ago, I watched a relationship dissolve over dinner.

My wife Ashlee and I were still dating, and one night we stopped by our favorite seedy hibachi restaurant — one of those where a chef grills and serves food to you there at the table. Seating allowed for up to eight guests, but that night, we were joined only by a young couple, seated next to me. The four of us ordered drinks and I scooted my chair closer to Ashlee.

The grill master stopped by to cut on the grill and collect our names. I caught theirs — Joe and Melissa. I overheard Joe tell the chef they were recently engaged, and he grinned as he fingered the white gold band on his finger. Melissa flashed a smile that died quickly. The four of us exchanged nods, and I turned to watch the chef as he organized his workstation and gave the salt and pepper shakers a flick over a bed of sizzling rice. Ashlee smiled at me between sips of Diet Coke.

“You going to save some for me tonight, or are you planning to clean your plate again?” Joe asked Melissa. I noticed Melisa grimacing in the corner of my eye.

The chef broke the sudden tension with a loud crack of his blade on the grill, signaling the beginning of his knife twirling routine. He waved his spatula around his finger like a propeller as if his finger was magnetized. He flipped the knife from behind his back, over his shoulder and caught it gracefully. I reached over and held Ashlee’s hand. She squeezed mine back like a stress ball, even though she’d seen this routine dozens of times.

“How much college did you have to go through to learn to do that?” Joe asked the chef. Melissa ribbed him. No one laughed except for Joe, but the chef was a good sport and smiled. I wondered if he’d ever let his knife slip in the direction of rude guests.

“I don’t know why you brought me to this place,” Melissa said . “You know I don’t like Japanese food.”

“Well, I like it. I hear this place used to be a strip club,” said Joe. “Tell you what. If you promise to put out tonight, I’ll pay for your dinner.” He laughed. I couldn’t tell if it was a joke. Melissa stared into the rising grill flames, expressionless.

We all sat quietly as the grill master prepared onion volcano: he stacked layers of onion one on top of the other and filled the center with oil (or maybe lighter fluid). Steam whined from the onion stack like a tea kettle. The chef lit a match over the top, and the steam morphed into flame. Then came my favorite part: the chef sliced into the onion volcano with a knife large enough to chop down a small tree, and the stack collapsed into a boiling stew of oil and milky steam. For a moment, I’d forgotten about Joe and Melissa.

“Why are you being such a bitch tonight?” Joe asked Melissa, as if this was something he asked her often. I turned to Ashlee and gave her a look that said, did you hear that? But she returned a look that said, hear what? and sipped her Diet Coke peacefully, lost in the white noise of chatty restaurant guests and sizzling fat. I realized that I was alone, a voyeur, in this little hell with Joe and Melissa.

“Excuse me?” asked Melissa. She waited a moment for a response from Joe that never came, then said, “I’d be fine if you shut the hell up for the rest of the night.” Joe heaved a sigh and took a long drink. I started to look in their direction out of instinct — like watching a tornado touch down outside a window — but I overcorrected by looking down at my crotch for no reason in particular.

“Look, ever since we got in the car, you’ve been acting like a terror. What’s going on with you?” Joe asked.

“Now’s not the time or the place, Joe,” said Melissa. I gulped my drink and focused on the grill master like a hungry dog as he sliced freshly grilled chicken into cubed chunks.

Joe replied, “I don’t care, Melissa. Tell me what your deal is.”

“Right now? Seriously?”

“Yes. Right now.”

And then Melissa said in a curt whisper, “I’m cheating on you.”

I coughed up flat Coke and soy sauce. The grill master flipped browning scallops; they smelled burned. Ashlee sipped the last of her Diet Coke, which bubbled: more, please. I wondered if Melissa and Joe noticed my reaction, but they gave no indication.

After a hellish pause, Joe asked, “How long?”

“Eight months.”

“It’s with Reggie, isn’t it?”

Melissa, seemingly by accident, nodded.

“Melissa, my best friend? What the hell? And you waited until tonight to tell me this?”

Melissa sat quietly. “It’s funny,” Joe said to fill the silence. “When we walked in, I bet everybody in here wanted to be us.” I wondered if it was bad timing to roll my eyes. “Now nobody does.”

The chef inserted himself into the conversation as he shoveled steaming food onto the four empty plates. I ate three bites and retired my fork. Melissa thanked the chef, then calmly placed her napkin on her plate and walked out of the restaurant. Joe remained, stupefied. He motioned for the check, paid, and left the table quietly, ashamed.

More surprising than the cheating was that the tone of my neighbors’ conversation hadn’t risen above a mild exchange: no yelling, no tears, no violence — two composed adults just casually ruining each other’s lives over dinner. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if it was all a sick joke, some perverted public fantasy.

Ashlee held a fork of rice and shrimp up to my mouth. “Try it,” she said. I bit down, closed my eyes, and thought, thank you for Ashlee.

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If you were trying to solve a riddle, would you want me to tell you the answer before you had a chance to figure it out for yourself?

If you were putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and I offered to finish the rest of it for you, would you let me?

If you were assembling a Lego set, would you accept a fully-assembled version if I offered it to you?

There are many people who will offer you answers to your most challenging problems in life. Their answers might be wise with good intent, but being handed the answers ruins the game, spoils the ending, and prevents you from learning important lessons.

Maybe ask for hints instead.


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I’ve heard it said that when a good leader is faced with something alarming or unexpected—whether overhearing gossip or weighing a difficult decision—they first take a deep breath. They think. They reflect in silence and allow fear and confusion to pass, as they often do with time.

Good leaders remain calm. They avoid the temptation to react, and simply breathe.

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It’s my belief that most of the people you encounter each day are starved for praise.

In the career world, most bosses rarely compliment the good work employees do each day. Some even waste no time pointing out areas of weakness in their employees.

In relationships, we tend to overlook the kind things we do for each other out of habit. I sometimes overlook the fact that every time my wife takes a trip to the gas station, she buys me a pack of M&Ms. She’s awesome.

Take the opportunity to compliment someone today. But remember: to give meaningful praise, you should know the person and understand what makes them praiseworthy. Don’t give hollow compliments; don’t make a show of it; just share a word of kindness, send an email, or even write a letter. You’ll be glad you did (and so will they).

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A bit of friction sharpens the claws; too much friction dulls them.

A bit of friction within a team strengthens a project; too much friction stalls progress.

A bit of friction in communication can reveal a deeper meaning; too much friction creates separation.

Don’t eliminate it. Just reduce it.

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In the past few years in my field, I’ve found a common thread that defines true professionals.

Pros don’t get cocky. They don’t complain. They show up each morning and serve. They serve their teammates by delivering quality on time and under budget. They serve their clients by maintaining a kind demeanor and patient attitude. They serve their leaders by being reliable and professional. For them, the value they provide with their craft is their act of dignified service each and every day.

Another quality of pros: they know that to be truly effective at providing service to others, they must put in the time and learn to do the work properly. I, as a web developer, can’t walk into an operating theater and perform open-heart surgery. If we can’t meet people’s needs effectively, we’re not providing real service.

Pros also approach career advancement cautiously. They know that as our careers advance, it’s not an opportunity to wield more power; it’s a call to greater service. It’s why we uses phrases like “serve as President” or “serve in the military”; these roles require extraordinary sacrifice, and when those in power act as servants, they inspire and enrich those around them.

Lastly, pros have a mission. They understand why they carry out the service they’ve committed to, and this makes them highly effective. Service without a mission is an act of self-service.

At every point in your career, ask yourself: what service am I providing to others? Is this work valuable to anyone but me?

We are all servants, but pros truly serve.

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June 21, 2017

What I Learned from a Pyramid Scheme Indoctrination

"What is it you do, exactly?"

I was sitting at Starbucks across from a slick-haired salesman when he opened his notebook, clicked his pen and asked, “So Brian, have you ever heard of multi-level marketing?”


He continued, delicately, “What are your thoughts on it?”

“Honestly,” I replied. “I had a pretty bad experience with an MLM company.”

“Gotcha. Well hey, will you do me a favor? Will you forget everything you know about MLM for fifteen minutes? This is an exciting business opportunity that Josh shared with me, and he wanted me to share it with you, too.”

I knew what was coming next, and I had a plan.

“Sure,” I said.


I met “Luke“, the salesman, months before at a gas station. We were both standing in line waiting for our fast food orders when he walked up and said hello.

A friend once told me that I’m terrible at networking. In the spirit of personal growth, I’ve looked for opportunities to build a more solid network since moving to California. As Luke and I exchanged short stories about our lives, jobs, and the weather, I sensed an opportunity to learn from a fellow young professional and maybe make a friend in the process.

Luke struck me as a pretty nice guy at first, and we concluded our chat on a positive note as we exchanged business cards and planned a non-committal coffee meet-up.

A few weeks later, Luke and I met for lunch. I asked him about his job as a salesman, what he’d learned from it, and what his goals for the future looked like. He asked me the same, and I shared with him my visions of writing books and starting a business later down the road.

“Oh, that’s awesome,” he said. “Hey, do you happen to know a guy named Josh?”

I know “Josh” from the local tech scene. He’s a bit older than me, mid-thirties. We’ve travelled in similar circles but never officially met. From my understanding, he has a good reputation, the kind of guy I could trust.

“Josh happens to be my mentor,” Luke added, proudly. “He’s taught me so much about business and personal growth. He has it all. I kind of envy the guy. You know what? You, me, and Josh should get together to talk business sometime soon.”

“Sure, let’s all grab some coffee,” I said, suddenly feeling nauseous and but not knowing why.

And then Luke said something that surprised me. “I’m excited—it’ll look good to Josh if I refer you to him.”

That’s strange, I thought, The only time I’ve ever been “referred” to someone, I’ve been a customer. After our lunch, I decided to lay low and not press the meeting.

But Luke persisted. He left multiple voicemails and sent follow-up texts saying things like, Brian, call me back as quickly as you can! Considering I’d only interacted with Luke for a combined 60 minutes since meeting him, this felt intrusive.

I continued to “miss” his calls for the following week, until one evening while my wife and I were at dinner. She saw his name buzzing on my phone and urged, “Just answer this time. See what’s up. No harm in it.”

Luke began, “Brian, where have you been? It’s like you dropped off the Earth.”

This gave me a sour, stalker vibe.

He continued, “Anyway, I talked to Josh about you, and he’d like for you and me to meet up to go over an exciting business opportunity.”

At that point, I anticipated there would be some sort of pitch during our meeting. In the spirit of curiosity and networking — ugh — I ignored my internal warnings and agreed to coffee that Friday.

I met Luke at a nearby Starbucks. We exchanged small talk for a bit, when finally I asked, “So, what’s the story? What’s Josh’s business?”

Luke smiled and pulled out a notebook and pen.


It was there at that table in Starbucks when I finally started to put the narrative together: the seemingly random interest from a salesman at a gas station, the insistence on connecting with Josh, and the pushy phone calls. Of course—I’d even talked to him about my desire to start a business on the side. I’d painted a target on my back.

“So, let me tell you a bit about this opportunity,” Luke said as he began his pitch.

He turned to a blank page in his notebook and started drawing crude illustrations: a four-step analogy on the concept of a scalable business, two squares to represent concepts he referred to as “suppliers” and “builders,” and a dozen arrows pointing to the various diagrams. Nothing made sense to me. After he finished, I took advantage of the pause.

“Let me stop you here for a moment,” I interrupted. “Tell me this: in one sentence, what does your company do?”

He paused, thought about my question, then began the pitch again. He used more than one sentence, but this time, he added an ingredient I was anticipating: the vague emotional hook.

“Our goal is to serve people and help them achieve their dreams,” he explained. “Imagine making more money. Imagine making your marriage better. I’ve seen the people our company has helped. I’ve seen the tears in their eyes as they share how they’ve achieved everything they’ve ever wanted. Look, I know you’re passionate about service to others, Brian (read here), so what do you say? Are you ready to learn more?”

“Hold on,” I said, “you didn’t answer my question. In one sentence, tell me what this company does. What do they sell? What service do they provide? Just humor me and try to explain it in one sentence.”

I could tell he was puzzled, so I elaborated, “If we look at a company like Amazon, you could describe them in one sentence by saying, ‘They provide a high-quality e-commerce experience for a variety of products and services.’ You could describe Google by their mission statement—‘To organize the world’s information.’ So what’s your company’s core mission? What do you do?”

He reached to his pocket for his phone — I assumed to text Josh and get an answer from him — but he put it back in his pocket. “I’ll humor you. I’d describe our core mission around integrity, passion, and great service. Great relationships. Family-oriented. When Josh showed me this opportunity, I asked him, ‘Why me?’ and he told me, ‘If you had the cure for cancer, wouldn’t you want to share it with the world?’”

I pressed. “So in that analogy, what’s this ‘cure for cancer?’ I’m not asking for your company’s secret sauce. I just want to know what you guys do.”

We talked for forty-five minutes, yet I never got a name of the business or a clear understanding of the business model. It was a black box, and Luke was struggling to entice me to look inside.

There’s a common thread with the more nefarious MLM companies: those involved refuse — or can’t — describe the business in a simple way. Like the floor plan of Ikea stores, confusion is part of the indoctrination process. They keep you engaged with frequent meetings to discuss the business, but most of the initial pitch is built on the emotional hook. By the time you get into the details of how to get involved, you’re emotionally invested; you believe this business opportunity will solve all your problems — no more debt, a happier marriage, no more pain or illness.

“Would you be willing to talk about this another day?” Luke added, “Maybe you just need some time to let what I’ve shown you sink in. I wish Josh was here to help explain.”

I was thrilled Josh wasn’t there. “Luke, I have to be honest with you. I don’t think I want to be involved in this company if it’s this difficult to describe.”

What bothered me the most was the feeling of being used. MLM businesses empower their customers to view everyone as a customer, a perpetual cycle that turns friends into dollar signs and causes money to flow up to those who do the most recruiting. This is where MLM gets its common name: a pyramid scheme. I realized that Josh indoctrinated Luke as a customer and profited off him. Luke was now on the hunt for customers of his own.

“Well, okay,” he said. “Listen, I understand you might not be ready to dive in yet, but I have a book in my car that does a better job than me of sharing this vision. Then, how about you, me, and Josh get together next week to talk more about it. How does Wednesday sound?”

I pulled out my phone, miming productivity (and a “yes” to his invitation). But I knew what I needed to do. I switched off my phone and slipped it back into my pocket.

“No. I don’t want to read the book, and I don’t want to move forward with discussing this with you and Josh.”

His face tightened. “So, what you’re telling me is that you’re not willing to forget your past experience with MLM? You’re not willing to be open-minded here and take the time to learn something new?”

“That’s right.”

He shrugged condescendingly. I expected a salesman to handle rejection better than he did, but I soon realized how deeply he’d entrenched himself. He started to open up, and I watched another layer of the narrative reveal itself.

“Look, I believe in this business,” he said. “I’m looking to make a lot of money in just a little amount of time. I have a ton of debt,  and I just want to hit it big and be significant. Josh has all that: the great life, the great finances — everything I wish I had. And he’s showing me how to do it. I shared all my financial information with him, just like he asked. And then we shook on it .  I dedicated the next five years of my life to him and this business. But yeah, honestly, Brian, this is just a means to an end.”

It was all coming together: the desperate kid, eager for a quick buck and an escape from debt and obscurity, finds a mentor who takes him in and tells him that if he just pledges his loyalty, all his problems would be solved. It was an unsettling story, one that I’d seen and heard many times before, and it never ends well.

“A means to an end? So, what’s at the end for you?”

His tired expression gave way to a pained response. “I… don’t know. I don’t know my end goal here.”

“Have you considered using some of the skills or knowledge you have to start a business of your own? If you could share a skill or service with a group of customers, what would it be?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I would do.”

Luke and I parted ways, and I wished him well. But what he failed to realize is that he had nothing valuable to offer me in all his promises of success and fortune. I’ve found my richness in life, and it has very little to do with money.

He also couldn’t have known that when I was 19, I was him.

I came home from a MLM conference and met with my first potential sale. I told her how I could show her how to make her dreams come true — travel, money, success — and all it would take was fifteen minutes of her time. After explaining the concepts, she said she didn’t understand and it all sounded like trouble. I got defensive and frustrated, just like Luke did. I’m still ashamed that I once viewed the girl I’d go on to marry as a potential sale.

These days, I stand beside a vow that I never want to be involved in something that causes me to view those I care about as dollar signs.

As for Luke, I have no hard feelings towards him—how could I, knowing that we were once in the same shoes—and I hope he finds the significance he’s looking for, one way or another.

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June 15, 2017

Avoiding the downhill

I sometimes think about dying. But not in the suicidal way. I wonder what it’ll be like in the end; will I die in a fiery, explosive exit, or will I wither away from disease or old age? Will I leave life fully spent, having given away everything I can?

If life is a mountain, I’m on the climb: I’m enjoying my career, I started a new company, I love the life that me and my wife share (and our travel wish list continues to grow).

But I sometimes wonder what the downhill will be like. Is there an age when I’ll look at a problem or an opportunity and think, no thanks, I’m too old for that? Will there be a day when I decide not to learn something new because I can see the end ahead of me, and maybe I don’t feel like it’s worth my time? Will I choose to make my way down the mountain and retire quietly, having never reached the summit?

I hope not.

But then I remember that this mountain’s peak is as tall as I want it to be. I can keep climbing. Maybe the summit could reveal a new, taller mountain. But in the end, I can choose to keep going. I can choose to keep learning and setting new goals. When I’m 80, I can decide to write that next book or song, and maybe it’ll be my best.

Consider the story of a woman named Audrey Crabtree. At age 99, she finally received her high school diploma, 80 years after leaving school one credit shy of graduation. There’s a very cynical part of me that thinks, “but why bother?”, but I realize that people like Audrey, no matter their age, are climbers. Audrey’s early life regret turned into an opportunity to plant her flag late in life, and she didn’t turn to head back downhill and abandon her dream.

Be like Audrey. There’s a mountain ahead of you, so climb. Also, don’t look down.

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