The Business Rusch: Unexpected Gold in Self Help Books
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading on women, money, and power, for a project that I’m working on. Most of these self-help books, written by women for women, contend that women are socialized differently. We’re raised so that we’re afraid to stand up for ourselves, afraid to ask for something we need, afraid to acknowledge our own worth. We are consensus builders, so we are unwilling to raise our hands. Yet we’re the ones who step in when a job needs to be done, and will often do that job without compensation, because—
Ah, hell. I don’t know why. These books are really written in some kind of foreign language. Or maybe I’m not a real woman. (Do not go there, internet trolls.)
What I’ve realized as I read this stuff is that most of these descriptions do not apply to me. I stand up for myself. I hate asking for something I need, but I’ll do it rather than go without. I’ve always loved to raise my hand. I let other people do—or not do—their own jobs, and I rarely work without compensation, whether that compensation is financial, emotional, or intellectual.
I am, according to all of these self-help books, a man.
(Hey, internet trolls! I already said don’t go there. So stop it.)
Yet these books are valuable because they do describe behaviors that I see over and over again. Only the books ascribe it to something inaccurate, like gender, when really the behaviors are motivated by a complex group of things, not all of which are the same for the same people.
Although the cause of those things is the same: It comes back to socialization.
For some reason, I rejected all that passive socializing my mother tried to shove down my throat about being female. She wanted me to be coy. That’s not a word anyone would ever use for me. She wanted me to be indirect. I prefer direct. She wanted me to manipulate others to my point of view. I prefer logic, reason, and the occasional raised voice. She wanted me to build communities with my diplomacy. I figure if people don’t like me, they can leave.
Does this mean I didn’t get properly socialized? I don’t think so. I can still fall back on my Midwestern politeness to get me through any tough situation. But mostly, I have a strong sense of self, a belief in honesty as the best policy, and a real preference for blunt truth-telling. This makes me unsuited for politics, most corporate jobs, and any place in which “You’ve got to be kidding,” is an unacceptable response to a command.
As I read these books, however, I realize that I have watched a lot of people—male and female—act in the ways described inside. Many of these folks come from solidly blue collar backgrounds, good salt-of-the-earth types, who do something extra and don’t want it noticed or figure it was just part of the job.
Two weeks ago, Dean and I had a flat tire on our way to Reno. (We actually had two flat tires about an hour apart, but that story belongs in another piece.) We stopped at a service station in a small Oregon town. The attendant there removed our tire, looked at it, and declared it unsalvageable. (Boy was that an understatement.)
He did not have the proper tire, so we called ahead to the next little town, more than an hour away, to the Les Schwab franchise there to see if they had the tire. They did, but they were closing in forty minutes. We were sixty miles away and our rear tire was one of those little donut things approved for no more than forty miles per hour. Okay, former algebra students, do the math: Your tire will implode if you drive it more than forty miles per hour. The next town is sixty miles away. How long will it take you to reach the next town, if you want your tire to remain on the car?
The Les Schwab guy said he’d wait for us. Big city girl me, I had my doubts. But when we pulled in, he was there, service bay ready, and the proper replacement tire leaning against a wall.
He did a tremendous job and got us out of there in less than a half an hour. The tire guy expected nothing more than a thank you. Hell, he might not have even expected that. But Dean has a trick in these circumstances, one I’ve seen him use a dozen times.
He pulled out his wallet, found a twenty, and as he took the bill out, he said, “Let me buy you dinner.” The tire guy, like every other person I’ve ever seen Dean do this with, was flustered, and said no. So Dean added, “Look, you saved our trip. It’s the least we can do.”
The tire guy took the twenty. It was not a tip. It was not a bribe. It was a thank-you, the only way we could give it to him.
The first tire guy didn’t want payment either for pulling off that tire and inspecting it, but we paid him anyway—only that time, Dean gave him enough for a “cold beer.” (Apparently, my husband knows how to judge his audience; or maybe it was just the time of day involved.)
These guys didn’t know us at all, and yet they were willing to do some extra work for strangers who crossed their path. I got the sense from these guys that it’s a way of life for them, going the extra mile without asking for an extra dime.
For years, we had maintenance guy who used to go above and beyond every single week, and who got insulted if we even noticed that he had done extra work. We’re still benefiting from all he did, even though he passed away years ago. He was one of those guys who would bristle at being called female, yet the trait that he exhibited—doing a job without compensation because the job needed to be done—was something that these self-help books called a gender-based behavior.
These behaviors might have their roots in class, in ethics, in income level, in gender, in religious upbringing, in culture, in personality type or in all of the above. My own non-scientific theory is this: that these behaviors are based on socialization combined with a value that the culture in which the person belongs to places on that socialization.
Let’s be clear here: I’m not saying that people should be mean. In similar emergency situations in which my expertise is valuable, I’ve been known to give my services away. That’s what people do for each other.
It’s okay to behave like this once in a while, but it can’t be a way of life. An employee can’t continually give things away to a customer and expect to keep his job. (And believe me, that first tire guy gave his time away, time I’m sure the service station owner wouldn’t have been pleased about. I have no idea if the second guy charged his employer for the overtime. I hope he did, but doubt that he even considered it.)
Yet as I was reading these books, I wasn’t thinking about women or Les Schwab employees or our former maintenance guy. I was thinking about writers. You could easily take the word “women” out of these books and replace it with the word “writers.” (Of course, if you did so, you’d have a self-help book with a much smaller target audience.)
What exactly am I talking about here? Let’s pull some bullet points from these books to show you what I mean. (I will replace the word “women” with “writers” to make my point.)
•Writers undervalue themselves
•Nice writers don’t get rich (this works better in its original form: Nice girls don’t get rich. The whole nice girls concept became a book for one smart writer).
•Writers are uninformed about money
•Writers want to be hands-off with money
•Writers are afraid of what other people will think of them
•Writers strive for survival, not wealth
•Writers don’t have financial goals
•Writers don’t know their worth
•Writers don’t play to win
•Writers listen to naysayers
•Writers manage egos not wealth
•Writers trust the wrong people
•Writers give away their time
•Writers fail to negotiate
•Writers don’t get rich because they don’t envision themselves rich
•Writers suffer from learned helplessness
•Writers lack a sense of entitlement
•Writers fear calling attention to themselves
•Writers rarely speak up for themselves
•Writers rarely defend themselves
•Writers expect to be ignored
•Writers give up too easily
•Writers expect to be screwed as a cost of doing business
•Writers refuse to learn when and where they have power
•Writers let emotions get the better of them
•Prince Charming will never ride to the rescue. (In a woman’s world, apparently, Prince Charming is a husband; in a writer’s world, Prince Charming is an agent.)
•Inheriting wealth is not an investment strategy (or in writing world, counting on a bestseller is not an investment strategy).
•Learn to say no.
•Risk is not a synonym for loss
•There are no secrets
•Learning takes time and dedication
I could go on and on and on. These books abound, and their relevance to writers should be clear from the list above.
As you can probably tell, I’m going to mine that list for some pieces in the next few weeks.
But I’m doing this series now for a reason.
Publishing is changing. There are a few writers who have always known that writing is a business and have acted accordingly. In the past, we’ve been outliers, people who often get criticized for being difficult or demanding or hard to work with. Mostly, though, our counterparts in publishing have shrugged and tried to accommodate us, because the publishers realize they have no business without the goodwill of writers.
I’ve been one of the outliers, probably because it’s not an unusual position for me. It’s been more difficult for me to be a woman who is outspoken than it has been being a writer who asks for fair compensation for her work.
But most writers have never done that, and have often been told (usually by agents) that such things are impossible. This is why so many writers had shorter careers. The average length of a writer’s career was about ten years. And then the writer tired or had trouble getting a book deal or decided to teach or just plain gave up. (I can list dozens of writers whom I know personally who had ten-year careers.)
Now, however, the paradigm has shifted dramatically, and writers who understand business are standing up for their rights. These writers are making news by asking the right questions of publishers: What can you do for me?
Barry Eisler made news when he decided to self publish his next John Rain novel. When Amazon swooped in and took over the deal, it wasn’t because Eisler had lost faith in self-publishing, it was because Amazon could answer the question to Eisler’s satisfaction.
John Locke asked the same question and got a great answer from his new publisher. Recently, I asked one of my editors the same question. We’re currently in negotiation about what’s best for us as well as the readers of the series he’s publishing.
Right now, we’re still outliers, but we shouldn’t be. All writers should be asking that question because it’s part of the whole financial picture that I’m painting above.
Writers have an obvious opportunity to take control of their careers right now. We’ve always had that opportunity, but now the path is obvious. Too many writers—like the women these financial books are directed at—are afraid to take control. Writers are afraid they’ll be blacklisted or “disliked” or unable to work in this town again.
Here’s the thing, though. What town? New York (London, Paris, Munich) is no longer the only place writers can go to get published on a national level. Now writers can do it themselves.
The question is: should they?
And that’s a question each writer must answer for herself. But first she needs to look at that list and see if it describes her. If it does, then she needs to do some serious work on changing how she approaches her career.
The fact that you’ve just read a list does not enable you to change your behavior. We’ll look at each item separately in the coming weeks. If you can’t wait, I suggest you look at my Freelancer’s Survival Guide, which has chapters that cover some of these topics. The Guide is available for free on this website or you can download it as an e-book (as a whole or in sections) or buy the entire damn doorstop in paper.
But the Guide won’t answer all of your questions. If it did, I wouldn’t be embarking on this new series. I got inspired reading these self help books. And while not everything from these women and money books are applicable (not all writers have to worry about “the mommy track”), some things really are. I’ll mine what I can, and see what I can come up with.
So stick around, and if you have anything to add to the list, let me know.
Speaking of valuing your time and asking for what you need, I have included a donate button. I make my living at fiction and am writing these nonfiction blog posts on the side. If you find today’s blog of value, please leave a tip in the jar on the way out. Thanks! And thanks for the ideas, comments, and e-mails. I appreciate them as well.
“The Business Rusch: Unexpected Gold in Self Help Books” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.