Home Education Magazine
September-October 2000 Issue
A conversation with Michael Fogler - Peter Kowalke
Unschooling Meets the Workforce
As a lifelong unschooler, I've grown up with the luxury of studying what interests me. Supposedly I should be able to make a living by following my interests, too. But what if my passion is writing well-researched stories about everyday people, something that isn't very lucrative? To answer my question, I visited Michael Fogler in his Lexington, Kentucky, home. Michael is a homeschooling father and author of the book, Un-jobbing: The Adult Liberation Handbook, which asserts that it isn't necessary to give up an interest in order to make a living without a job. His secret, it seems, is just using common sense.
Peter Kowalke: Unschooling is to learn without going to school. Is un-jobbing to earn without having a job? Could you explain what it means to "un-job"?
Michael Fogler: In a sense, Yes, if we define job as an activity we do for money which we really wouldn't be doing if it weren't for the money. That is what I see as so wasteful in our society: millions of people spending the bulk of their able-bodied lives in activities that they wouldn't be doing if they didn't need the money attached to it. Can we not do only activities which are in alignment with our values and sense of purpose, with some of these activities also bringing in income? I say yes. So, I see a life of un-jobbing as a life in which all of the activities that a person does are activities that the person really wants to do, whether they are income-producing or not. This person is doing what he/she truly wants to do, period. "Work" and "play" become blurred, virtually one and the same. They blend together into, simply, Life. John Holt once proclaimed that learning is not the product of teaching (something I have come to agree with). Similarly, living is not the product of "making a living" (i.e. the job) in our culture. So, my thing is to encourage (conscious) living in every moment and to change "making a living" (which should be more accurately called "making a dying") into "making a life."
Peter: The recent advertising campaign for the job site, Monster.com, points out that no one grows up wanting a bad job; we all want to earn money by doing what we love. But even career guides admit that we can't always do what we love without some sacrifice. Besides having a marketable interest, such as computers, how does one "make a life" by doing what he or she enjoys?
Michael: First, we might not grow up wanting a bad job, but we do grow up with the "realistic" expectation that you have described. So it doesn't matter what we want , we're "realistic." I believe that it's helpful to step out of the box of "realism" and into a more intangible world view. This takes faith and trust (ultimately, those things may be all that are truly real).
One of my major recommendations is to do a thorough self-inventory. This means answering , completely honestly , such questions as: Why am I here on Earth? What do I value? What do I find to be essential in my life? What are my talents and gifts? What activities do I find to be truly joyful (ones that I literally en-joy)? Getting clear about the answers to those questions is very important. This is a constant process that is not done just once, but continually , or at least periodically. It's important to note that there are no "right" or "wrong" answers to these questions , just personal truth. A good way to do this is to do it with a group of people who are also interested in moving in the direction of un-jobbing , to have a meeting and then, one by one, go around the circle and answer those questions out loud to the others. The people, besides the speaker, merely listen and do not judge; they just give their ears and hearts as receptors. I have done this in workshops and found that amazing things happen when people get together in groups and speak their heart-felt answers out loud to others who respectfully listen to them. People are often surprised by what they say when said in a more public way than just silently thinking to themselves. The latter can often keep a personal truth buried. If a person speaks his/her truth in public, then there is a stronger likelihood that this person will begin to act upon it.
Once questions like that are answered, the next step is to answer the question: What is my ideal life , without regard to money? Again, answering this question out loud in front of a group of respectful, listening others will have more empowerment.
Along with doing a program of what I call "conscious personal economics," working on the above questions can move a person in the direction of his/her ideal life. (One may never get there. Life is a journey, not a destination.)
There are ways of earning money that I have done since un-jobbing that I never would have predicted before I started. The major one is, of course, my book Un-jobbing! I didn't un-job with the idea of writing a book about un-jobbing. One day the book Un-jobbing will fade away and I will continue to be an un-jobber who is making ends meet. Don't ask me how , I have no idea! The point here is that we can't know how everything is going to work out. Do some good "homework"; keep taking some baby steps which feel good and make sense, and see what happens and where things lead.
Peter: You've hit upon the connection between un-jobbing and unschooling, in my opinion, and why un-jobbing is a particularly salient idea for the unschooler. Unschoolers follow their interests and learn by living life. Un-jobbing is merely an extension of the unschooling philosophy, carrying the concept beyond the school years and into the working world. Basically, your message for the unschooler is to stay the course and continue doing what they love. But as I intimated before, sometimes it is hard to be financially secure if your interest is art or something less able to generate money. What is "conscious personal economics," and could you talk a little bit about how you've translated your own interests into an economically feasible lifestyle?
Michael: You've asked two distinct questions. What I call "conscious personal economics" is a program of awareness about the money that flows in and out of a person's life. This is similar to most of what is recommended in the well-known book, Your Money or Your Life. It involves keeping track of expenses, categorizing them into groups (such as housing, food, transportation, children, entertainment, whatever) and making value judgments about the expenses. It involves asking, "Is this in alignment with my values?" for each expenditure. To do this, one must carry around a little notebook everywhere to immediately record all expenditures. The categorizing, summing, and evaluating can be done monthly. There should also be graphing of expenditures and income to visually see trends over a long period of time. To complement this, it's a good idea to calculate how much one's employment actually costs. These costs of employment include transportation, time-saving machines, and other conveniences, restaurant eating, certain clothing, etc. The point here is to have a true, accurate picture of the "profit" made by a job. (It's much lower than most people realize.)
The main point about a program of conscious personal economics is this: Once a person (or family) monitors their expenses, they will begin to see their expenses going down. This happens quite naturally due to the constant asking of the question: "Is this in alignment with my values?" Then, with lower expenses, the person or family will have lower income needs. (Also note that this happens, when done properly, without a feeling of sacrifice or deprivation.) With lower income needs, pressure to bring in income is lower and there is, hence, more freedom (of time) to be and do what one truly wants to be and do.
Okay, now to your second question. My interests are diverse. One of my main interests is music. I'm a "professional"-level classical guitarist (thanks to about 20 years of hard practicing). As such, I make some income with private lessons and from playing gigs. This income fluctuates. I also like writing/speaking/communicating. I've been a peace activist for many years and am hired to produce a newsletter for a local peace and justice group. I also have done workshops on nonviolence, conflict resolution, and cultural diversity. As I said before, I am now promoting and selling my self-published book. Once I learned to do a good newsletter (editing and layout), I've been hired to do other newsletters and brochures on a one-time basis. Word gets around.
A main point, though, is that all of the things that I have done for money have also been done for no money; I will sometimes play guitar as a donation, lead a workshop as a volunteer, or write an article for a magazine without pay. What matters to me is that I'm doing what I truly want to do with my life. Sometimes I'm paid, sometimes I'm not. I keep doing what I want to be doing and in the last 10 years or so, my expenses have always been met.
Peter: It took about a decade before I was certain that unschooling wasn't some colossal mistake. In many ways, un-jobbing requires the same leap of faith. One area about un-jobbing that still has me concerned, however, is healthcare. Healthcare can be devastating to a small bank account. Your personal answer to the healthcare question is skip medical insurance and cut down on visits to the doctor. My sixty-year-old grandmother has gone through both breast and brain cancer without insurance, however, and I must say that the going can get rough. What do you say to those who are skeptical of the ability to un-job and still pay medical bills?
Michael: First things first: Having health insurance and un-jobbing are not mutually exclusive! If you want to un-job and still have health insurance , go ahead! This is possible, and it's your choice. If you are going to have health insurance, that will simply have to be a part of your budget, part of the expenses that will need to be met.
Health insurance is expensive. There are premiums and there are deductibles and co-payments even when things are "covered." When I crunched all those numbers, considered my proactive, health-conscious lifestyle (I'm in good health to begin with, eat a vegan diet, drink lots of purified water, am regularly physically active and have a relatively low-stress lifestyle) and looked at health insurance from the perspective of my values, I personally and consciously chose not to have health insurance. You have cited my choice, but it is only my choice. I say over and over again in my book that everyone and every family is in a unique situation, that my choices are only my choices.
Both risk and faith are involved in any lifestyle. It's impossible to see how one can be totally safe and secure through any and all imaginable scenarios, given any choice about health care and health insurance. I recommend to people about health care or any other issue: Do the homework, evaluate according to your deepest truth, make a conscious choice. You cannot be "wrong." With any choice, you also have another choice that goes along with it: to be at peace, or worry about it.
Peter: How long did it take for you to find peace with your lifestyle? Aside from the uncertainty of wandering off the beaten path (something with which many homeschoolers are already accustomed), what, in your mind, is the most common difficulty associated with un-jobbing?
Michael: I don't know if I can say that I have found peace. It's more that I am constantly finding peace. I keep seeing over and over again that life is not about finally getting to a destination or a point of arrival; it is about consciously going down a path. It's all in the journey.
The most common difficulty associated with un-jobbing is dealing with our well-conditioned fear. We're all very well-trained to fear the future. That's how education (which is supposed to lead to employment) is dangled in front of us. We are told that we will live a life of downtrodden poverty if we don't take certain steps. All of us buy into the conditioning on one level or another. At this point, what's helpful to me is that I have been un-jobbed for almost 10 years. Ten years is enough history to see that things have worked out no matter what life has thrown at me. The longer it's been since I began, the more confident I become. I have no reason to think that things won't continue to work out in the future.
Peter: Let's talk about moving towards personal values. How have you dealt with addressing different value systems among friends and family? What did your wife think when you decided to un-job? If your spouse has a high standard of living, for instance, how do you cut things from the budget, like eating at restaurants, without imposing sacrifice that is perceived by the spouse as unnecessary?
Michael: This is an important, and sometimes sticky, question. Many times, one spouse is more interested in un-jobbing than the other. While I certainly don't claim to be a relationship counselor, I can offer some suggestions. First, communicate fully and respectfully. Don't hide what you're trying to do, but be totally open about it, sharing all the details of the process with your spouse. At the same time, if your spouse is not as interested in un-jobbing as you are , respect that. Make it clear that, at any time, your spouse is invited to join in; but if s/he doesn't want to join in on the un-jobbing, that's okay, too. If done with the proper spirit, the person doing the un-jobbing process is likely to become happier/more satisfied/more fulfilled. S/he will likely be seeing a larger gap between income and expenses (toward the black, or course!) and s/he will likely be seeing some time freeing up to do things which are important. The non-participating spouse will see how things are progressing and may begin to move more in the same direction. The proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes.
On the other hand, this may be the avenue that causes a difference which is intolerable to the people in the relationship. I don't wish such conflict on any relationship, but it can happen. Ultimately all of us make choices, weighing the value of the relationship with the values of the lifestyle. There are homeschooling parents who have differing views about homeschooling, for instance, where one parent is more into the formal, structured way and the other is more into the informal, unstructured way. Such differences would produce a similar, equally serious situation where reconciliation, compromise, living with differences, and so forth need to come into play.
Peter: One last question. You have a 12-year-old son with whom you homeschool. How does he view the family frugality? Does he look at your added free time at home as a blessing or resent not having a better computer and more "stuff"? As someone who has grown up around the concept of un-jobbing, what are Benjamin's views on getting a job and earning money?
Michael: Sometimes Benjamin complains about our family frugality, but not very often. He does live in this culture, after all. But, at the same time, he's never been to school. So he's immersed in the culture quite a bit less than the typical child who attends school (which I think is a blessing for both him and us).
As far as I can tell, Benjamin has little concern at this point about getting a job and earning money when he's an adult. I'm guessing that, since he sees his dad being around home a lot, he has taken on a more relaxed attitude about getting a job. Personally, I think that's great. He has plenty of time , later , when he can think about employment.
© Peter Kowalke
September-October 2000 Issue
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