Chinese New Year is coming in 48-hours time and so I thought I'd try and get any gloomy thoughts I might have out of my system this evening - a case of purging myself of awful luck and making sure I am somewhat happy for the New Year.
This is going to be a tough year for many around the world. Thanks to the sub-prime crisis in the US of A, banks have run out of money and businesses are jammed by their cash flow or lack of it. People are being slowly eased out of jobs and suddenly the thought of not having money for basic necessities, let alone luxuries has become a reality.
So, I guess that leaves me to blog about one of the few things I'm actually very experienced at being - broke and unemployed. I've been broke and unemployed for the better part of 8-years, that I am ironically, probably better off than my peers - I've always been too broke to hold a mortgage or car loan and so, as the down turn gets worse, I'm spared the worry of "What if...I lose my source of income?" Being a poor businessman, I'm spared having to worry about paying salaries or most importantly, office rent. It's ironic that my failures for the past few years may mean that I enter a bitter period of history free of allot of worries and I could probably start a new industry - consulting on the joys of being broke
I think the key thing about being broke is the fact that its psychologically damaging. Not being able to do things your friends take for granted is bad for the ego. Having your friends "treat you" all the time sends the message to you that you are a useless worm and so when that message is repeated often enough, you actually start to act like a worm, lying around, hoping for someone to throw you a crumb once in a while.
So what can one do to stop feeling like a worm? I've realised that in my perpetual bouts of poverty, I've been fortunate for two things.
1 - I've avoided placing my self worth in things. In our "buy-more" society, you get the idea that you need certain things to be of any worth. A successful man for example is supposed to be drive a Mercedes and live in landed property. As a guy, you can't help but notice that the guy in Daddy's flash car is the guy who gets the most chicks and if you don't have all those things, you are a worm.
I have my father's father and my mother's mother for showing me that status symbols don't actually make you feel better. My grandfather understood that as long as you had the capacity to love, you were no different from anyone else, even if you had less money. My grandmother happily downgraded her material goods according to her lifestyle needs. To her, life was good as long as she had a roof over her head and enough to eat.
This is not to say that material goods are unworthy. Money should be enjoyed and having beautiful things is enjoyable. However, money and possessions should not dictate ones happiness or self-worth. I remember my father saying that when he suffered a reversal of fortunes and had to sell possessions, I suddenly started enjoying what he had.
2 - I've kept busy. To most school kids being able to sleep in all day and play video games for ever may sound like eternity, but like all good things, if carried to an extreme is exceedingly damaged. If you don't have anything to do, you get the idea that nobody wants you and sooner or later the imagination becomes reality. My father, when he was starting out would make it a point to put on his shoes everyday just to make sure he never feel into the trap of thinking he was trapped at home.
What can you do to stay busy? For most people, getting another job becomes a priority, after all one needs money to survive. However, in a tight job market, the period between jobs becomes longer and employers become very picky about who they pick. So what can you do in between the job interviews?
In Singapore, the government has rightly encouraged people to go for retraining and upgrading. Unlike "the dole" this is not about giving people money to do nothing. It is about helping people to help themselves - we help you if you do something.
My main reservation with this, is the fact that "upgrading" only seems to hit the national agenda in down times. Lifelong learning should be a perpetual habit - when people hit the downturn, they're less likely to go for upgrading and employers are less inclined to give employees time-off for training.
Another possible opportunity for people is to pick up free-lance work. Such jobs don't provide job security and as my father once pointed out - "nobody respects free-lancers." Having said that, when permanent jobs are hard to come by, project work fills gaps in the CV and more importantly your skills get used and you get income - even if it is not what you were used to. I started out because as a friend of mine said,"Why spend resources looking to work for someone when you can get the money directly."
Having said all of that, free-lance jobs are not necessarily more available in downturns. When work is not there, it really is not there. So, you get to creative in what you do. I've become a bit more open to the idea of bartering and I suspect I may be doing more of it in the coming year. Cash is a rare commodity and so if you can provide for your basic needs without having to expand cash, why not? I'm not the only one who barters from time to time. I recently met an accounting firm that barters it's IT requirements - Still - Cash is KING and when certain people like landlords and government services do not accept barter as payment.
My former Commanding Officer, Colonel Toh Boh Kwee used to have a mantra, which became something of a joke - "Nobody owes you a living." We laughed at it when he used to repeat it to us - I guess it was because we lived in the good times - all you had to do was to get a degree and there would be tones of high-paying jobs waiting for you. It's different in a recession. You're forced to be creative if you plan to survive and perhaps grow from the experiences that you have. It's a choice of letting inertia destroy you or liberating yourself from old notions.