Joe-isms: the Great Depression

Joe Dominguez, the originator of the 9-step program and co-author of Your Money or Your Life, died 20 years ago in January 1997. This was also the year that our book was one of the top 10 business books according to Business Week.

He used to quote an old Humphrey Bogart 1949 film called Knock on any Door where a character said, “Live fast, die young, have a good looking corpse.” He’d grown up in Spanish Harlem on welfare. Most of his gang members were dead or in prison before they reached 30. Joe thought it was a miracle he even made it to his fifties. Dying before you’re 60 as your life’s work is at the peak of its game counts as leaving “a good looking corpse.”

As I dive in to our book, now 25 years since first publication, he’s with me again, his out of the box thinking, his irreverence, his nose for bulls*t.  He could be inspiring and he could be irritating – and you never knew which you’d get – but he was a genius and they often get a pass on sociability.

What I’ll call “Joe-isms” are coming back to me, and I will share some with my own reflections from time to time.

Todays: In the Great Depression there was 25% unemployment. That means 75% of the people were employed. Would you have been one of them?

Remember, he grew up in Harlem. He was a runty guy and wicked smart. He couldn’t use brawn to survive so he became the brains of his gang, learning to make explosives and plan strikes with successful getaways. His survival instinct was sharpened by necessity and in part Your Money or Your Life comes out of his canny ability to assess threats and opportunities and come out of anything alive. The money system was like the welfare system and the police system and the poverty system – how do I get through this on my own terms, in it but not of it. Fortunately for him and for all of us who have benefited from his unflinching truth telling, part of “his own terms” was also a religious nature that softened his heart and lead him to service.

If you are young, brown, black, a woman, non-English speaking, conditions are similar to the Great Depression. Even if you are white and college educated the job market is full of pot-holes. Jumping off the education conveyor belt and successfully landing a living wage job sufficient to meet your expenses and start a family if you choose is tough – especially if you have debt strapped to you like a belt of lead weights.

For Joe, though, the question wasn’t one of injustice. That, for him, was assumed. It was whether you’ll be in the 25% who sink or the 75% who manage their circumstances to keep their souls intact, their integrity in decent repair, their wits about them, their opportunities expanding and their savings growing. The people hobbled by circumstance may struggle to get even as far as the starting gate of those with no debt, social support and lucrative degrees – true. For Joe, though, it wasn’t a comparative game of who gets more and gets further. It was who can arrive at having “enough” for a free life.

You could call this ability to thrive no matter what “character”. Character is where what you are made of meets the conditions you are placed in – and you prevail. It’s living your values when no one is watching. It’s getting back on the horse. It’s a combo of honesty, vulnerability and grit. It is that constant eye to making the most of a situation while staying true to your values. You could also call this “personal responsibility”, the knowledge that you may not be able to change your circumstances but you are always the master of how you meet them.

Such a fierce approach requires a social conscience or it can be merely opportunistic, being the smart rat that jumps ship into the lifeboat rather than into the sea. Joe had such a conscience and this is built in to the 9-step program in Your Money or Your Life. An exquisite tension is set up between our survival instinct (what’s in it for me) and our thirst for connection, meaning and love (what makes life worth living). Staying with this tension as you make financial choices day be day becomes like grabbing a life-vest rather than a lead-belt when swimming in that sea of consumerism. You can decry the manipulation of our desires by advertising and the false promises of products and the sociopathy of banks that put more credit cards in the hands of the biggest credit risks, but Joe would say that people with integrity, intelligence and independent thinking – that is, the FI life-vest – can swim among those sharks and not get eaten alive.

Being far more sociable than Joe, I would argue with him about the importance of kindness, compassion, social justice, mutual aid, the “good society,” etc. and I’m sure this creative tension between us was part of the why the book spoke to so many people. You have to take personal responsibility to even use the tools in the book, but you have to aspire to something more than the next paycheck to stick with the program and you do need a social conscience to make your life a blessing to others.

I am certain there are millions of people of character who are not so crushed by circumstances that they can’t put the tools in Your Money or Your Life to work in their lives and be liberated from that shark tank of consumerism and wage-slavery. I am certain there are millions of people with good jobs and incomes who are ready to recognize they have enough and be liberated from the habit of acquisition so they can develop their art or feed their curiosity or turn land into a homestead or  invent something amazing or do mission work or risk starting a business that will bring some needed product or service to impoverished people. I’m sure there are hundreds of millions of everyday people of character ready to transform their relationship with money, and you are the ones inspiring me to do this update.


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