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What Would Happen if We Weren't Forced to Help Each Other?

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When I was laid off in 2010, the first thing I did was apply for unemployment. In my state, they have a program that lets you start your own business without getting in trouble.

“Nice,” I thought. “That’ll buy me some time.”

And it did. More than 6 months of it, to be exact.

Brilliant! There was just one, small problem. For nearly the whole time I was collecting unemployment, Riskology.co made almost no money.  Initially, this was by design—”I’m waiting for the right time to monetize,” I told myself. But then it wasn’t.

Early this year, I started having a motivation problem. I wasn’t feeling excited to work on the business like I had been at first. Demotivation is the kiss of death, so I sat down to take a good hard look at what could be causing it, and I came up with the only answer that made any sense:

I was getting enough in unemployment benefits to get by, so there was no urgency to make the business really work. Despite the great opportunity I’d been given, I’d simply become dependent on the free checks rather than use them as intended.

When I realized what was going on, I quit accepting the money and, within a few months, Riskology.co was supporting me full-time.

It was a case of mismatched incentives—I knew that as long as I kept taking the checks, I’d have more incentive to keep taking them and less to make my business actually work.

Things aren’t easy now. I work hard and if something goes wrong, there’s no safety net to fall into. But at the same time, I’ve never been so motivated to make things work and keep improving.

Should There Be a Safety Net?

Stories like this seem elicit the question: Should there be a safety net? I think that’s an interesting question, but I also think it’s the wrong one.

Of course there should be a safety net.

Our society is only as good as the least among us, and people do end up in tough situations through no fault of their own. The real question, I think, is who should be responsible for the safety net? And how should it be applied?

If you live in the U.S., how do you feel knowing that your money went towards helping me sit around? Are you fine with that? Do you feel mad but understand it’s a consequence that comes with taking care of people who really need it?

My friend, David Cain, wrote an interesting article about why you should be forced to help other people.

I agree with the sentiment—your life improves when you help people who need it. But I disagree with the rule that your life improves when you’re forced to help others.

The mistake I think David makes is a common one—that you have to make a choice between doing the right thing and having the freedom to make the choice to do the right thing.

I think you can do both.

When you give people the choice, though, not everyone will make the right one. And that’s what’s frightening. It’s risky and uncomfortable.

What I find frustrating about the other perspective, though, is that it requires us to believe we’ll only take care of each other if we’re forced to. It makes us look at people as inherently bad and that we’re only good when we’re made to be.

That’s not what I choose to believe. And I think reality bears it out. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I do know that while the U.S. government is one of the least charitable, the individual people here give more than anywhere else in the world. And a few years ago, 38 billionaires even signed a pledge to give away at least 50% of their fortunes.

And while I prefer to stay as far from politics as possible, I can’t help but point out that recent research shows people who don’t support social welfare via taxes freely donate to social charities almost twice as much as those that do support it despite earning around 6% less (that figure doesn’t include churches).

Who Should Get What?

When someone gets hurt and they don’t have insurance, should they be taken care of? Of course they should. Should they receive the same level of care that anyone else would? Absolutely.

Should a single parent with two children and no job get some help so that they can take care of their kids? You bet.

But should you be forced to pay into a system  you don’t believe is capable of doing a good job of giving that help, or should you be free to give that money to charities you think will do a better job?

Would a small, local charity have given me a free check for months, or would they have given me what I really needed: a push out of my comfort zone?

Would I have even gone to a charity? I don’t feel like I deserved any charity, but my unemployment assistance was something I was entitled to, even though I probably didn’t need it. Why not take it? It seemed like the smart thing to do at the time.

Does our social contract say that we have to help everyone in a specific way, or just that we must help each other in the way that we think best? Is it really good to believe that a small majority of us can say what’s best for everyone?

The argument against my perspective is two-fold.

The first is that I’m just an example of someone who took advantage of the system, and my opinion isn’t worth listening to. But I didn’t realize I was taking advantage of it. I thought I was just being responsible. Sometimes I wonder how many others there are like me.

The second argument is that if you take away the safety net that guarantees help to everyone, then we take a step back as a society and some people will fall through the cracks. But people are already falling through the cracks in the system we have now, and it’s not getting better.

Would the people who truly need help get less of it if we took away the default safety net? I don’t think so. In fact, I think more people would benefit. We’d take more personal responsibility and work harder to make sure the people who really needed help got it, and the people who needed something else got what they needed as well.

When it’s not everyone’s responsibility to help others, it feels a lot more like my responsibility.

Of course, it’s risky. We wouldn’t all do the right thing—that’s the cost of being truly free—but I think enough of us would, and that would be a big improvement.

At least that’s what I think. What do you think?

~~~~~

Postscript: I’d be remiss not to point out that if you agree with this point of view, then it’s your responsibility to give what you can to charities you believe in—no need to wait for things to change to do the right thing.

Image by: Steve Rhodes

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What smart people are saying about this...

  1. Thanks for having the courage to admit that accepting unemployment checks demotivated you from really pushing your business to the next level. That takes a lot of courage to say.

    When a situation is tolerable — when a situation is acceptable, even if it’s not ideal — people tend to stay in it. Its only when situations become intolerable that people force dramatic change.

    I see this happen in an enormous variety of examples: Tolerable romantic relationships. Tolerable office environments. Tolerable commutes. People aren’t living optimally, but they’re living acceptably, and so they keep the status quo.

    It’s only when the status quo becomes awful — a miserable relationship, a miserable office environment, a 3-hour roundtrip daily commute — that people go through the uncomfortable pangs of change.

    • Thanks, Paula. I’m not sure how everyone will react to that information, but hey—honesty is *usually* the best policy.

      I see what you see also: that people are willing to accept “tolerable.” Most prefer the devil they can see to the devil they can’t.

      The problem is that in real life, things are a bit more complicated, and not everyone is like me—there really are people who desperately need help and can’t get it anywhere else than from others.

      The question then, in my mind, is how do we balance those two realities?

  2. I always like the “help up not a hand out” approach to helping others in times of struggle and strife.

    If we did not provide some sort of safety net, then the catastrophic events of that happen would turn the world into chaos.

    The question that you posed is what’s enough help. That’s where I think the “help up not a hand out” approach works the best.

    • I generally prefer that approach as well, but in my opinion, sometimes what looks like hand out really is the best “hand up.”

      And “how much is enough” is a good question, but it’s not actually the one I pose; at least not on the greatest scale. I don’t think that’s a question we can all find an agreeable answer to.

      My question is that, considering we don’t all agree, what if we didn’t have to?

  3. Your right to a point Tyler and really that is the problem i think. There is only two outcomes 1) you get all the help even if your not sure what you need.

    2) you get no help, So who fault is it? No ones it more about perceptions. I can not do this etc, I will use what you said Tyler you where unemployed BUT you started a business.

    There it is I’m not sure IF people can not think on there own I really find that hard to believe or if the system will not let them think?

    Any more im very selective about what i give time energy and money too. For instance I’m currently looking at helping a village with a clean water source.

    Why because the people want to work and the system does seem to work. Well that my long winded answer does it make sense?

    Steve Ward

    • Well, I do think that it can be hard to think differently when the prevalent system is designed to have you think a certain way. But then if it changed, that problem would still be there, only in the other direction.

      Finding the “right” answer, I think, is a never ending dialogue between competing ideas, but the closer we can come to not having to force any specific idea on any person, the better I say.

  4. Many people game the system. The people who make their living administering these social programs see to it. We have these enforced charities because churches and secular charities have failed the poor,sick, weak, young and old. The evidence is so glaring and obvious you miss it if you don’t look for it. If private charities are so great why are people in America homeless and their children going hungry? There are many factors besides lazyness. So many in fact I could not begin to name all of them in the comments. We are part of a system and as Edwards Demming pointed out in his research. If the system is corrupt by accident or design it is going to generate more failure than success and all the effort in fhe world won’t create enough winners to sustain it. Their will be a few, but not many. That is why we have the public safety nets.

    • Joe points out what I struggle with. I work with several charitable organizations in my area (on the Board of one) and to be honest the way they are run is not impressive. I realize the people who work there are not paid very much and not perhaps highly skilled but there are many things they could do, ideas to be implemented that would really help. And seeing all the money coming into the various organizations and no progress made (except the Humane society spay program) drives me a little nuts. I really want to help people but feel its so hard to find the right avenue you can believe in….

  5. Joe, I can sympathize with your point of view, but it forces me to ask you the same question you just asked me, but in the opposite direction:

    If the public safety nets are so great, why are so many people in America homeless and their children go hungry?

    You’re absolutely right that the more corrupt a system is—regardless the reason *why* it’s corrupt—it will produce more failure than success.

    One reason I believe the system may be flawed is that the more responsibility we share collectively for the welfare of others, the less of it we take on ourselves.

    It’s basic psychology, really. When someone is in trouble, you’re far less likely to help if there are 100 people around you that are just as capable of helping as you are. When you’re the only one, you jump into action and do what it takes to help.

    The one thing we know for sure is that the system we have is failing people, but as long as everyone knows that their neighbor is just as responsible for it as they are, there’s not a lot of motivation to do much about it.

    It seems unfair to say that we have to take away a public service to make it better, but it might be the most humane way to fix it at all…

    • I totally agree with this response. Most people don’t act on an individual basis because they think that others or “the system” will take care of the problem. If we didn’t have a system, I think more people would help others on an individual level.

      I focus my financial giving on micro-finance organizations and organizations like Heifer Intl. that help people to help themselves. As you experienced, handouts only go so far. By teaching people how to not only help themselves but also to help their own communities, the giving continues.

      Like many things in our world, the more we localize the process, the closer the people feel and the more they support each other because they all feel connected to each other.

  6. [...] What Would Happen if We Weren’t Forced to Help Each Other? | Riskology.co But should you be forced to pay into a system you don’t believe is capable of doing a good job of giving that help, or should you be free to give that money to charities you think will do a better job? [...]

  7. On the unemployment front…I know I got really serious the one time I was unemployed when the end of my term was upon me. Thank God I found a job before it ran out. Good article Tyler, got me a thinkin :-)

  8. This was something I hadn’t really thought about before. I was sorta hoping I’d get laid off at my job before I ended up quitting (although this was unlikely), but now I’m not so sure. I can see how I could fall into the same unemployment trap.

    I think that, in general, we would be better off if we took away the safety net as it stands. I’m still a little hesitant to say that because some people seem so unknowledgeable about finding ways to make money – they only consider a job (and sometimes only jobs in a narrow range of fields). Changing things might throw some people into shock initially, but I don’t think we can do much worse than we are now.

    • Hey Jeffery,

      I don’t think we have a terrible system now—it does keep a lot of people out of abject poverty—but I do think it’s unsustainable and that there’s a better way to do it and get better results.

      What you say is true—many people aren’t very knowledgeable about making money. Lots of times, this isn’t really their fault and has more to do with the environment they were brought up in and the challenges they’ve had to face that others like us haven’t had to.

      If someone truly needs help, then there ought to be a system there to help them. But I don’t think that a system that forces everyone to participate in it can last over the long term.

  9. Riskology.co…
    this is my problem with the current generation of bloggers and ‘authorities’
    people of this generation don’t seem to realize that the ‘government’ money they are using is the money of hard working people that are paying taxes. It doesn’t just appear, and they don’t ‘deserve’ it. People live off unemployment and keep asking it gets continued and think they are owed it. If there aren’t any jobs where you live, don’t wait for checks, move to a new job. If you can’t afford the house you bought on an interest only mortgage, and can’t handle the new rate, it is your fault, not the governments and not my job to pay for your mortgage. I’m glad you were able to live off my taxes while figuring out what to do with your life and now think you can tell people how to find their path. I’d love for someone to pay for me to hang out, but I was raised to earn my way, under the belief I was only entitled to what I earned, and this country would be better off if more people felt this way. I am amazed when I hear people have been living off unemployment for over 2 years and want it extended, they want to be taken care of and don’t want any sense of accountability. I’m sorry, but I followed this blog believing you had followed your dreams based on hard work and a desire to succeed. I didn’t know you had done it while counting on my hard earned money to pay your way.

    • Hey Robert,

      I’m sorry you’re so upset. I guess you didn’t read the article the way I intended it to be read, but I can’t really control that. I wanted to convey that I’d made a mistake and learned something valuable from it, but it looks like that didn’t come across for you.

      If I’ve lost you as a reader for being honest, then that sucks, but there isn’t a lot I can do about it. Farewell.

  10. I appreciate your response, but it is also my concern, and I mean this in a sincere way, and not critical of you in an upset way, just a sort of comment on the country and system as a whole. You mentioned the U.S. is one of the least charitable countries? What is that based on? We give 25% of the UN’s budget, name a global initiative in which we are not the major contributor. As a nation, and as individuals, we give to the world in a massive way. If anything we need to start taking care of people at home.
    You talk about ways in which people can make more of a difference, and that is great. But, you stated you realized you took money you shouldn’t have when you didn’t really need it, you were just too lazy to take action. I commend you for your honesty, but are you going to now give that money back? Are you going to pledge your income from unnecessary unemployment checks back to the treasury? You realized that you didn’t need the money and used it anyway and took advantage of the system. I do applaud you for saying so, many don’t have the courage to do that. But, why don’t you take it a step further and make amends? I love my country, but I see it in a steep decline, much as so many great governments before it where the people started to expect the government to be there for them instead of understanding their individuals role to make do, and the governments role to simply enable them to live free. I am all for living with risk, but risk your own life, not the financial freedom of others with your decisions.

    • That’s an interesting idea, Robert, and I have to admit I hadn’t thought of that. I do donate a large chunk of my earnings to charity which is more inline with my philosophy, but I’ll have to think some more about this.

  11. I think we need unemployment but we also need a living wage for all work – it doesn’t make sense that someone can work 40 hours a week (at any job) and not make enough to put a modest roof over their heads (in the US). It is harder for people to get off unemployment when a ft job doesn’t pay more than UI. I don’t like the charity-only idea because people who need it most may be least likely to get it i.e. mentally ill, disabled etc.

    • Hey Jenya,

      Thanks for leaving your thoughts. I’m curious why you think the people who need it most (disabled and mentally ill) would be least likely to get help? I feel like they’d be more likely to get it, so I’m interested in knowing why you think they’d be less so.

      As for living wage jobs, I’m torn on that, too. When you artificially raise the going rate for a certain type of work, a few people make more money, but a lot more simply don’t get a job at all. That seems less fair to me.

      • I guess I’m thinking people might have pet charities for different reasons and if those didn’t happen to be supporting those who truly can’t work or need help, then they fall through the cracks for being ‘unpopular.’ For example, I’ve read that Guide Dogs of America is an insanely popular charity and gets funded beyond need while others scramble for money. I would assume the same would continue under a charity over publicly funded services model.

        RE: a living wage – less people would be on unemployment if they could make a living wage for an honest day’s work. It doesn’t make sense for someone to do any job – cleaning toilets for example – all day, day in and day out and then not be able to afford basic necessities including housing. Yet this is what is happening.

  12. Fortunately we don’t have to guess what life was like without social security. There are still a number of countries that don’t have it and you can go back and see what life was like before social security.

    Have a look at how many people have to charity in the past and in other countries. That’s what you can expect if social security was gone.

  13. You certainly raise some interesting ideas here. I too took unemployment because it seemed like the right thing to do. I, perhaps not so surprisingly, used up all of my benefits before I actually found a new job. I wonder what I would have done differently had I not had the option.

    At this point in my life, I am able and do give regularly to several charities but I don’t know if what I do give really makes a difference. I’m sure it helps but is it helping someone in a one time critical need or helping a system that keeps people in situations where they will always need help?

    Will enough choose to help? Is what we give even close to enough if nothing is mandated? I am not sure and the pain and suffering that would happen if we suddenly eliminated all entitlement style programs like unemployment would be worth it but I’d really like to think we would step up and that people could and should take care of each other.

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.

    • Thanks for sharing your own experience, Kathy. It’s good to hear from others with similar stories.

      The questions you raise are all valid, as well. These are the hard questions we have to ask ourselves when we look at how we take care of people. Unfortunately, the answers aren’t clear and perhaps the only way to know for sure what would happen would be to try it.

      Is the risk too great?

  14. “When it’s not everyone’s responsibility to help others, it feels a lot more like my responsibility.” Absolutely.

    Over the past few weeks I organized and attempted to carry out a blanket drive for the homeless. What it turned out to be was more of an excuses drive, because that’s all I received from almost every single person I contacted– acquaintances, friends, and even all of my family. It was incredibly disheartening, but rather than being jaded against ever trying to help people again, I think it’s only spurred me in the opposite direction– by damn, if no one else will do something then I’ll just have to do MORE.

    As always, thanks for the honest and thought-provoking post.

  15. I don’t see unemployment insurance as something the government is making me do for others. I see it as something I pay into for myself should I need it. Like social security in some ways. I’ve drawn it and my have to again one day.
    Regardless of that, you make some excellent points.

    • I think that’s the way most people think about it, JR. It’s certainly how I looked at it. And it’s a perfectly valid way to think about it. The only question I raise is whether or not forcing everyone to pay into it is the best policy.

      • I don’t whether it is best policy or not. If you think of it as insurance then everyone should be paying for their insurance. If you think of it as welfare then it wouldn’t be the best policy.

  16. Tyler, you wrote:

    It’s basic psychology, really. When someone is in trouble, you’re far less likely to help if there are 100 people around you that are just as capable of helping as you are. When you’re the only one, you jump into action and do what it takes to help.

    That is an issue about the size of the population, not whether we are all forced to pay insurance upon which only some will make claims. They are separate issues. A more accurate way to describe the problem is that we are individually less likely to help those in need when we feel that they will (or should be) be helped by a government program (paid for by our taxes).

    Since eliminating unemployment insurance will not change the population, there will still be just as many people around that are capable of helping, so individuals will still be less likely to help.

    • You’re right; I didn’t really make the best analogy there. However, there’s still a shift in perceived responsibility in a way that takes the burden away from everyone as a whole and makes you feel more personally responsible for fixing the problems that you see in the world.

      When I look at a problem and think it needs to be fixed, I no longer have the excuse of, “Oh, there are tax dollars that will fix that.”

  17. This is an issue close to my heart, as I work as a Social Worker and look for resources for my clients often. In Texas the thing I want to say most often at the end of our conversation is, “What else can I not help you with today?” because there simply are not many resources, public or private, available. I’d like to think that if we were left to depend on private charity that everyone would feel more responsible and those who need help would get it, but I can’t agree based on what I see and hear on a daily basis. Example – many mentally ill people also struggle with drug abuse, but the bias against their drug leads people who do not understand the problem well to think they need a kick in the pants rather than a helping hand. I think you’ve confused the issue of whether you should accept help you don’t really need with a public policy question.

    • Thanks for that response, Sherrie. I can’t argue with your personal experience. I can only hope that what’s happening in Texas is a poor use/allocation of money that would be handled better if individuals and small charities had control of it.

      You mentioned the bias against drug use, which is a whole different topic, but one that certainly needs to be considered. That’s another place where I feel like “the government” has a done an incredibly poor job of coping with reality and trying to bend people to fit a model that just won’t work and spent billions doing it and locking good people that need help up in prison along the way.

      I think the more personal freedom we have to make decisions about how best to help people, the more that biases like that will be fixed. They certainly won’t go away, but at least attenuated.

  18. Tyler,
    I know exactly how you feel. In 2007 both my husband and i lost our jobs in silicon valley california. Only we had such a high cost of living that the unemployment checks didn’t even cover half of our house cost let alone food, water, clothes for us and the kids. So i was motivated to get out of that situation. I started a home making sleeping masks and did that for 3 years. I think i might not have had that push if the unemployment checks covered more of our expenses.

  19. As a parent, I’ve had to address this very issue with my children. I knew that I wanted them to mature into adults who can stand on their own two feet without my assistance. As they moved from being children to adults, that meant slowly removing the “gravy train” while helping them learn how to make it on their own. Doing that is not easy because parents have such a strong desire to eliminate obstacles and hard times from our children’s experiences. However, I learned that that would just make them dependent on me and not let them grow up.

    What’s amazing to me is this generally understood principle regarding our children is not applied with those in need in our society. I want to see people succeed in life, and don’t think we can hope to achieve that goal as long as we continue doing what we’ve done for the last 30-50 years. I think government assistance, which is given out following formulas and not by looking the recipient in the eye and holding them accountable, is a terrible way to provide help.

    Bailing my kids out of their financial troubles may make me feel better, but it’s not helping them grow up and take responsibility for themselves.

  20. Thanks for sharing this. Yea, too many people rely on “the gov’t” or some other entity. And I believe you are absolutely right in your observations that sometimes, relying on the welfare checks further demotivates people from actually seeking out job or career.

    And I’ll admit, I’m one of those that doesn’t support social welfare via taxes. I’d rather see my money go to greater use through donating to organizations I support. So when random charities approach me, I may ignore, or I may listen. But I won’t donate, because I don’t have an attachment or reason to.

    But when I traveled, I frequented Buddhist temples (fell connected to the philosophy), or have grown to love the ocean through surfing. So I donate a lot to those organizations … without them even asking me. I think that’s a lot more powerful.

    Off-topic, this made me think about how the US government should let us decide which organization/division, a proportion of our taxes should go to (obviously a small proportion like 5% to start). That’d definitely get a lot more people involved with the government. Plus, I’d better regular folks like us are better at budgeting than the gov’t over all.

    Sorry for the long post :) … just had many thoughts!

    Happy New Years to you!

  21. Love this one Tyler, very libertarian view on charity:

    “I agree with the sentiment—your life improves when you help people who need it. But I disagree with the rule that your life improves when you’re forced to help others.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

    This reminds me of something I heard Penn Jillette say when he asked, “Can government really be ‘compassionate?’” The answer was no, because government charity doesn’t come from free will, but the threat of force.

    Hopefully not getting too political here, but I think this is a key concept to understand if we wish to build a better society. Charity and helping others is AWESOME, but it’s only truly sustainable if it comes from our own good will.

    Very relevant to my most recent article too — “The Wrong Way to Help People.” I think you’ll find the first point (“Making people too dependent.”) to be particularly true from your own experience with unemployment benefits.

    Cheers for this!

  22. Money is sometimes said to be “all-concealing”, and I think it applies to individuals.

    Most successful people have hit some kind of risky, depths-of-despair point, and part of the reason for this is because “Awareness Of What Needs Changed” sometimes needs to be exaggerated for many people.

    I feel … this exaggeration is hidden, resisted and masked by ‘enforced help’.

    Give people freedom and watch things work out, even if it looks exaggerated and scary ;)

  23. “so there was no urgency to make the business really work. ”

    This is sometimes a catch-22 situation. On one hand, many people need the full time income (or unemployment benefits) in your case to keep food on the table. Others may kill themselves to make a project work, but there just isn’t enough time to get it rolling before the money runs out.

    What changed in your daily actions/mindset from the time you stopped unemployment and those three months to a full time income?

    The system is helpful in situations like this, and many have taken advantage myself included when necessary. Given the amount of taxes we pay on every facet of life, it’s the least the Gov’t can do when you really need it.

  24. Sorry I’m totally late to the discussion here, but I should chime in.

    “I agree with the sentiment—your life improves when you help people who need it. But I disagree with the rule that your life improves when you’re forced to help others.”

    It’s not really what I’m arguing in the article.

    The question is about whether the state should redistribute wealth or services, or leave it entirely to individual will and charity to decide whether the least wealthy are able to access basic modern services.

    The common conservative argument against it is that “It’s my money, and if I want to give it to deadbeats I’ll do that on my prerogative.”

    Unless we want no government at all (and nobody really does except idealist crazies) then the government must tax people in order to exist, which is already tantamount to “forced help” of some kind — if not to health care then to transportation, military, etc. It doesn’t always go where we like but clearly there are places it can go that help the populace at large, and places where it doesn’t.

    Imagine if the military was funded only on a volunteer or charity basis.

    My argument is that there is a very good reason why it makes sense to tax the population as a whole to provide essential services (of which health care is primary, IMO) — and that’s because destitution is bad for society. The more people whose most basic needs go unfulfilled, the more crime there is, the more callous the culture is, and the less compassion and solidarity there is among the populace.

    It’s just too simplistic to assert that everyone creates quality of life for themselves, in total isolation from the condition of other people, and that’s the simple-minded conservative stance I’m attacking.

  25. I think it’s great that within a few months you were able to support yourself full time through AR. The notion did spark my interest though. Was it that you were simply not applying yourself or didn’t have a plan at all to monetize the site prior to that point?

    In any case, I can relate (right now, really) how being “comfortable” with a safety can prevent required action from being taken. I guess when you’re in the fire, you’re under the gun the get out and you’ll scramble like mad to do so. Kudos to you and (although I’m a newbie)I’m really enjoying it here.

Founded with love by Tyler Tervooren