J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Month: January 2015

Living On One Dollar

Living On One Dollar (now available on Netflix streaming)

Living On One Dollar (now available on Netflix streaming)

Recently I watched and enjoyed the documentary film “Living On One Dollar” (available on Netflix streaming). Four American young men (two researchers and two filmmakers) live in rural Guatemala for a summer, strictly committing to a budget averaging US$7/week per person (randomized day to day to $0-$9 for the group). As you might predict, they have a hard time of it, and suffer from hunger, malnutrition, parasites, fatigue, and demoralization. On the brighter side, they form friendships with the locals, help others and are helped, learn a great deal about rural poverty, and produce a film well worth seeing.

Some things are cheaper in rural Guatemala than they are in the U.S. and Europe, but not by much. The men spent their meager budget on rice, beans, firewood, and transportation to and from the market. Bananas were an occasional treat. After weeks of near starvation the locals taught them to buy a small plastic bag of lard and add some to their mashed beans. They slept on a dirt floor and were bitten by fleas every night. At least one of them contracted both Giardia and E. coli. from contaminated water. For much of the time they were uncomfortable or miserable.

The locals seemed to live a little better. Some had saved up (by way of savings groups) to purchase wood stoves. One man in the village had a janitorial job in a nearby city and had used his regular income to improve his house and help his neighbors. Still, many of the locals suffered from this extreme poverty. One man described how when he had no money he witnessed his children stop growing. Some families had enough money to buy food for their children but not enough to buy them supplies for school. The film reminded me in a visceral way of something I already knew intellectually but had not considered in depth: very poor people have more choices, and much more difficult choices, than the top 80% (about 1 in 5 people around the world live on a dollar a day or less). A wrong decision has more serious consequences (like death); the very poor just can’t afford to take risks the way wealthier people can.


Many of the Guatemalan villagers had benefited from small microfinance loans (the local organization was Grameen). One woman borrowed a small amount of money to start a weaving business, and was thus able to resume her studies (she wanted to eventually become a nurse).

I was left with the impression that microfinance is a powerful and effective tool for alleviating poverty, especially when complemented by local savings groups. Any kind of financial flexibility is a huge boon for the extreme poor.

What Can the Top 80% Do To Help?

The four young men who made this film are big-hearted types, and care about the plight of their neighbors. During their time in the Guatemalan village they teach both English and Spanish (many of the locals speak only a Mayan dialect) and have since committed to continue making films to expose the plight of the extreme poor. This kind of film-making is important because it provides viewers the opportunity to get to know individuals who live in extreme poverty. We tend to feel more empathy when we get to know fathers, mothers, and children by name, people with their own dreams and aspirations, people just like us (as opposed to a monolithic group: people who live on less than a dollar a day).

So what can the rest of us do? At least four things:

1) We can support/vote for safety nets in our own country.
2) We can support/vote for universal benefits in our own country.
3) We can support microfinance organizations like Grameen and Kiva if we want to help internationally.
4) We can buy goods and services from poor countries (“Fair Trade” goods don’t necessarily help the extreme poor any more than goods without that label, but exports in general can truly boost national economies).

Poverty and Priorities in the United States

In the United States, many people are considered to live in poverty. However, we are a rich country, and most who are considered impoverished have a roof over their heads, have enough to eat, have access to emergency healthcare, and own a television.

After the Great Depression, the U.S. implemented safety nets, and they worked. Extreme poverty (living on a dollar a day or less) does not exist in the United States. Some among the chronic homeless in the United States arguably have a lower quality of life than the rural poor in Guatemala, but even the homeless in the U.S. have less food scarcity.

Our challenge in the United States is one of massive income inequality, and poor services for the most disadvantaged (such as the mentally ill). Some of these problems can be alleviated with expanding universal public services (such as preschool, higher education, and healthcare). Though the United States lags in these areas compared to Europe, there is reason for optimism. Oklahoma leads the way in terms of providing universal early education. Utah is solving homelessness with its “apartment first, questions later” strategy (drug and alcohol treatment programs turn out to be more effective if a person has a roof over their head). Even though our healthcare system ranks last among wealthy western nations, many U.S. citizens receive affordable healthcare via Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal programs.

Are we heading in the right direction in terms of social welfare for the poor? Conservative Americans are concerned about the immorality and unfairness of “government handouts,” but investing in early childhood education, making sure everyone can get basic healthcare, and getting homeless people off the streets are no-brainers; such “handouts” raise quality of life for everybody. We should prioritize these kinds of universal benefits; they are the low-hanging fruit in terms of alleviating suffering, investing in our nation’s future, and being the kind of country that inspires pride and patriotism.

Cult of the Individual, Cult of the Free Market

There is a brand of individualism and extreme libertarianism rampant in Silicon Valley, but also in other parts of the United States, fueled by the author Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand’s books are like Lord of the Rings for conservatives. They are pure fantasy. Utopian political fantasy, but fantasy nonetheless. Ayn Rand’s fiction exalts the power of the individual and the free market and vilifies collectivism to such an extent that residents of the fictional settlement Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged never even lend things to each other — instead they negotiate a rental agreement. Everyone must pay their own way. Rand’s books fuel the philosophies of dozens of influential U.S. capitalists and conservative politicians, including Peter Thiel, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan.

I bring up Rand because many people influenced by her actively campaign against social welfare programs that alleviate poverty. If they had their way, safety nets would be abolished and life for the poor in the United States would much more resemble life in rural Guatemala.

The free market creates wealth; few dispute that. What it doesn’t do is distribute wealth, and as it turns out the wealth doesn’t “trickle down” at all. Instead it tends to concentrate at the top. Technology accelerates that process; technology increases productivity and makes most jobs redundant, but that productivity boon only benefits business and capital owners (not workers). The Ayn Rand fantasy of pure individualism and an unregulated free-market, once conceived as a bulwark against totalitarian communism, now does more harm than good.

To hear how the average European perceives this insanity, listen to Tim Ferriss interview British polymath Ed Cooke (I think the Ayn Rand exchange is in part 2 but both parts are worth listening to). If the libertarian conservatives increase their political power (and they might), the United States could see a dangerous acceleration of income inequality, a gutting of social safety nets, and a dramatic rise in homelessness. Cooke deconstructs the “cult of the individual” quite eloquently.

Let Them Eat Cake

Yesterday on my way to the bank I walked through an intersection in Oakland. Every lane divider was occupied by a man with a sign asking for spare change (if you’re curious about the demographics, two were young and white, one was middle-aged and black). Later I drove to San Francisco and saw at least half a dozen people sleeping in doorways.

The local situation is mirrored globally. 80 people now own as much as the world’s bottom 50% (each of those extremely rich people owns as much as about 44 million other people in the bottom half). According to Piketty the situation is heading towards even more dramatic wealth concentration.

How does it end? There are two ways … the wealthy and middle classes find ways to push opportunity and quality of life down the economic spectrum, or …

Take your pick!

Improve Your Human Operating System — Consciously Reorder Your Values

Values ... but which ones? What would Mr. Rogers do?

Values … but which ones? What would Mr. Rogers do?

Recently I read Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. I’d been curious about the book for a long time but I’d been reluctant to buy it … somehow I didn’t want to succumb to the Robbins money-minting self-help machine. On the other hand Robbins has worked for decades to develop and share a complete life system (something I’m also interested in). However when I realized the book was both available for free download and for sale on Amazon.com for $0.01 (used), I realized I didn’t have an excuse. I picked up a used paperback for the cost of shipping.

A Message From the Nineties

Awaken the Giant Within was first published in 1991, and the book shows its age. Many of the heroes and exemplars of the book have either died tragically, fallen into disgrace, and/or committed heinous crimes (Robin Williams, OJ Simpson, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Ross Perot). Of course these names leap out with hindsight, but it’s enough to question Robbins’ ability to judge character. Robbins also had trouble thinking of women to either quote or use as positive examples (the book was written before the Oprah/Robbins alliance).

Values as a Decision-Making System

These criticisms aside, the exercises themselves hold up well. The book contains many useful personal development tools*, but one stood out in particular and using it has already changed my behavior and quality of consciousness for the better. The tool (described in Chapter 15) is a series of simple exercises that includes:

  1. Values inventory (listing your values — what’s important to you — in order of most important to least important).
  2. Considering if that order is working for you in terms of what you want out of life, and changing the order as a way of shaping your own decision-making system.

Everyone has values, whether or not we’ve considered them or not. We inherit values from our family (especially our parents), peers, and culture. When we make decisions we consult these values (usually subconsciously) to guide us in one direction or another. Sometimes the values we hold are in active opposition to each other. We might value both earning money and spending time with our family, but these two values can pull us in opposite directions.

In the first version of my values list my top value was creative work (fiction writing, music producing, etc.). Also very high on the list were love/friendship, vitality/health, and kindness/compassion.

The flip-side of the exercise is making a list of what Robbins calls “moving-away from values.” These are the things you actively avoid in life. My initial “moving-away from values” included poor health, depression/hopelessness, boredom/stagnation, and being cheated/taken advantage of.

Both lists included many more values, and the more I thought about it, the more values I added.

Creating these lists, and even more so ordering them, was mentally strenuous. What was more important to me, health or creativity? Where did one value end and the next one begin? What does love as a value mean exactly?

It helped to remember that it was just an exercise, and I didn’t need to make a perfect list. The process was the important part.

After I made the initial lists I reflected on the question Robbins asks on page 363: “In what order do my values need to be to achieve my ultimate destiny?”

Ultimate destiny. Hmm … not sure I have one or want one. Don’t we all have the same ultimate destiny? But I got the point — Robbins pushes the reader to go beyond “What is important to me?” and to consider “What kind of person do I need to be to have the kind of life I want to have?” It’s an important distinction.

After a few days of reflection and list-editing, I ended up with these as my top five “moving towards values”:

  1. love (friendships and family relationships)
  2. quality of consciousness
  3. creative work
  4. vitality/energy
  5. kindness/compassion/empathy

Following these top five were an additional 32 values (loosely prioritized), and the very last value in my list:

  • luxury/being rich

Yes … I admit it, I’d like to be rich and live a more luxurious life (like flying first class once in awhile, traveling without extensive budgeting and cost-optimizing). But it’s the very last value on the list (financial well-being is much higher).

“Creative work” dropped from first to third. Ultimately my relationships and my state of mind are more important. Probably, putting those values ahead of creative work will improve the work itself. For me, inspiration comes when I’m feeling good, and I don’t feel good if my relationships aren’t going well or if I’m not making meditation and other practices that improve my state of mind a priority.

Vitality/energy also dropped a bit as a value. Having experienced poor health, I know the value of taking care of oneself. But excellent health is not that closely associated with happiness and life satisfaction (jump to 2:00).

Life Changes

So what difference did listing and then consciously considering and reordering my values make?

In the weeks following the exercise, I’ve done a few things that I attribute to this exercise, including:

  • Resetting my relationships with my daughter (age 6). I felt like I was too much in the “rules enforcer” role, with not enough fun times. We’ve been enjoying each others’ company much more since the reset.
  • Raising my consulting rates, which has reduced the number of hours I need to work, allowing me to spend more time with family and friends (and also on writing and hobbies).
  • If I find myself in any kind of negative mindset, stopping whatever I’m doing and taking whatever steps I need to get in a better place. Sometimes this is an honest, non-accusatory conversation with a family member, sometimes taking a walk or lifting weights, sometimes meditation, or sometimes doing some work that I’ve been putting off.

In addition to these specific changes, I’ve noticed a sense of clarity in terms of decision-making. Should I do x? It’s easy to evaluate if the activity in question supports or detracts from my top values.

Moving Away From Values

Listing and prioritizing my “negative” values was just as useful and revealing. After the listing and reordering process, my top five anti-values are:

  1. cruelty/evil/maliciousness
  2. depression/hopelessness
  3. loneliness/isolation
  4. chronic pain or disability
  5. poor health/low vitality

Another twenty-five follow. The very last item on the “moving-away-from” list is:

  • brief discomfort/pain

In other words I don’t generally want to be uncomfortable or feel pain, but I’m not going to work hard to avoid it, especially if the benefits are great (like brief discomfort from cold water immersion, which can have positive health benefits). Another item low on the list is waste/inefficiency. I don’t like to waste or be inefficient, but it’s way more important to be a good person, to not be depressed or lonely, etc.

Working on the negative values list brings up some hard questions. Would you rather experience chronic pain or be lonely and isolated? Neither, obviously, but which one are you going to more vigorously avoid? Don’t want to be broke, humiliated, ugly, and ignored? Neither do I, but I’d rather be all those things than be a cruel, lonely, depressed person.

The result of the negative values listing and ordering was greater clarity in decision making, especially in terms of avoiding behaviors that I know from experience send me into a negative spiral.

 Is Personal Development Narcissistic and/or Another Form of Procrastination?

To some extent, yes to both questions, but that doesn’t mean selected exercises aren’t worth doing. The values listing and prioritizing is a good one.

I chose to do ALL the exercises in the book, and it took a long time. I didn’t get as much done in other life areas while I was spending hours listing and reordering my values, and engaging in the fifty or so other exercises the book recommends. The values prioritization exercise was one of the most helpful; others less so. At times I felt guilty of navel-gazing and over-self-analysis. Would I be better off using my time to be productive or have fun?

There is a definitely a point of diminishing returns in regards to self-help work of this nature. I’m glad I did the values listing/reordering exercise, but it’s not something I would feel a need to repeat more than once a decade or so.

For someone facing difficult decisions, or in the midst of a big life change, a values inventory could potentially serve as a powerful compass to guide decision-making and set a new course.

Expectations vs. Results

I expected that reading Awaken the Giant Within might motivate me to work harder and reach higher in terms of professional and financial goals. While I did end up strengthening my commitment to goals in these areas, the more significant life changes I made were in the areas of emotional processing and family relationships. Working on the values exercises in particular, I could feel my emotional intelligence increasing.

The net result is that I feel more aligned in my intentions and motivations. Now that I’ve explicitly decided which motivational substructures have priority over the others, the “wars within” have subsided.

*Other Tools and Exercises

There are some other techniques and tools in the book worth mentioning:

Neuro-associative Conditioning or NAC
Consciously associate massive pain with behaviors you don’t want to continue (like smoking or eating junk food); associating massive pleasure with behaviors you want to encourage (exercise, meditation, whatever you feel you need to be doing to improve your life).

Control of Attention and Focus, or “Manipulating Submodalities”
Changing the intensity of our emotions by manipulating aspects of our thoughts as if we were editing video or audio (brightness, contrast, color, zoom, amplitude, etc.)

Modulating/Changing Vocabulary and Metaphors used to Describe Feelings/States
For example instead of habitually saying “I’m furious” experiment with saying “I’m miffed.” The more ridiculous your language, the better (in order to break up your habitual emotional reactions).

Asking the Right Questions
Use question-asking as a tool. Don’t indulge in unhelpful questions (“Why me?” “Why do bad things always happen?”) and build a toolkit of helpful questions such as “What is helpful about this problem?”

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