Wisdom from the other side of the hill

Body: 

It has been more than two years since the big corporation laid me off. My quest to find my place in the community feels like it has only begun.

I feel great about having written the book I had always dreamed to write, but the financial return has been minimal. Placing my story into the hands of readers, however, has enabled me to see how rewarding it can be to enter directly into the economy by selling a product I created.

Employees are generally involved in just a tiny portion of their company's product. Enjoying no relationships with consumers, they are insulated from direct involvement in this dynamic ecosystem of economic transactions by their employer.

Since I can only produce a book every couple of years at best, I am striving to produce a salable product that will forge more relationships built on a foundation of mutual benefit. It is profoundly gratifying to actually enhance somebody's quality of life through something you created. That person's happiness and satisfaction becomes supremely important.

This summer I have wrestled with rocks and heavy clay to establish an urban farm. Growing a consumable good has customers returning to me each week rather than only a few times a decade. Seeing their eyes regularly lit up with excitement about the taste and tenderness of something I produced is intensely gratifying. Next year I hope to sell vegetables, books and my wife's artwork at the downtown Duluth Farmers' Market.

Painting houses is what currently pays the bills. Though it is tedious work, it is often surprisingly rewarding. I have been involved in the lives of families for weeks at a time and have left these jobs with friendships that otherwise would not exist. Occasionally my customers are going through profoundly difficult circumstances such as divorce, which enable me to put my own crisis into perspective. Simply being present in their lives, while making a small portion of their world beautiful, seems to be helpful to them. It's an honor to be there with them during what may be their darkest hour.

I cannot even begin to describe how difficult it has been to pursue sustainable self-employment at the age of 40 with my skill set. Honestly, I've been working as hard as an immigrant and life has gotten out of balance.

In the days leading up to my 40th birthday, I scrounged up the cash to pay off our student loans. Like an increasing number of people, I haven't received any additional income from having these advanced degrees.

Rather than incurring crippling student debt, many young people would be better off considering alternatives. Parents could even provide a safe environment for business incubation. If, for example, you were planning on contributing $10,000 toward your child's education, this would be ample seed money for establishing a new business. Barriers for entry into sustainable self-employment have never been lower. That kind of money, along with providing them a place to live with very few financial obligations, might be just what they need.

Being younger, more resilient and not having to feed and care for a family and mortgage, they are far less likely to end up crying in the fetal position over the stress of starting a business (not that I've been there or anything). Even if the business fails, or if they choose to do something else, the lessons learned will last a lifetime.

It is very realistic that over four or five years they could earn $100,000. The same amount of money could be spent on a college degree, at which point they are already $200,000 ahead of their peers who took the more traditional route. Now their business is likely at the point of sustainability and they could be on the cusp of financial freedom with absolutely zero debt.

There is no reason a 16-year-old couldn't get started with their own business today. In fact, my 11-year-old daughter, who desperately wants our family to purchase an expensive puppy, will soon be launching her own startup on Etsy to help pay for it. Anybody with drive can do this.

Trust me, their 40-year-old self will thank them.