Trickle Down Personal Growth: The Bankruptcy of New Age Economics

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I was on the phone with my good friend Garliq today (the only person I know to weave together Non-Violent Communication, activism and herbalism) and a phrase lept out of my mouth in an attempt to get my attention. The phrase was ‘trickle down personal growth.’

We’d been speaking about how many of the business coaches in this scene encourage their clients to raise their rates and to charge what they deserve. Of course, this is often a fine idea and I encourage it myself but, it’s good to step back once in a while and ask ourselves that age old question, “What if everyone did this?”

Well, if every life coach, holistic practitioner and permaculture practitioner out there took this advice to heart, what it would mean is that only rich people would be able to afford our help. They’d get all the best massages, go to yoga classes, have food forests in their backyard and send their kids to Waldorf schools. They’d have the most nutrient packed elixirs every morning as they drove their hybrids to meet with their clients.

You get the idea.

But this lifts up two troublesome questions.

The first is this, “Is this the world we want?” I think for most of us, the answer is a very clear, ‘No’.

The second is, “Will this create the world we want?”

Do we believe in the trickle down economics of personal growth? Are we so certain that, if enough rich people got their chakras aligned that the architecture of our body politic would realign as well? That if their fascia got worked that the connective tissue between communities would automatically be strengthened? That if they questioned their stressful thoughts that the larger world would be healed? Do we think that if rich people did enough wheatgrass shots every day, ate a balanced, whole-foods diet and alkalized their systems that world hunger would end? Do we believe that if rich people healed their relationship with money that poverty would vanish? Do we believe that if rich people came to peace with their inner tyrants that dictators and despots would vanish or if they healed their relationships with their ancestors that the racial divisions that divide us would vanish and black lives would finally matter?

Is that what we believe? That the benefits of all of this healing and personal growth will somehow trickle down to the lower classes and people of colour?

It’s worth wondering about.

Certainly, as we walk down this twisting road of the modern mystery of right livelihood, we need to sustain ourselves and our families in our businesses.

I’m not making anyone wrong for charging more or only selling to the rich. Garliq told me that many of his colleagues’ clients come from outside of their own politically progressive communities because their friends can’t afford to pay enough to sustain them. I know a weaver in Cape Breton who sells all of her weavings to tourists because her own people can’t afford them. Perhaps you’re in this situation to or, at least, wouldn’t mind finding some wealthy people who could afford you and I certainly hope that you do.

But I want to suggest that, in addition to our personal financial sufficiency we also need to allow our political values and wonderings about accessibility to have a seat at the table of our considerations so that we might consider where we could implement pay what you can models, privilege-based pricing or other possibilities that might allow those who normally couldn’t afford our services to benefit from them.

If not, is this it? Is this the end goal: We become rich by helping rich people? Is that where it stops?

Certainly, the times we are in might ask of us to broaden to scope of our understanding of social change to rise above and beyond the anaemic encouragements to see our personal business as a movement and to, instead, look for real movements and real, grassroots, non-profit organizations in the world that we might support with our time and dollars.

It might ask us to be a part of building real, local, resilient alternatives to the modern, soul-destroying, mono-cropping, self-centering capitalist economy in which we live.

Raise your prices? It can certainly be a fine idea and needed at times. I wouldn’t dissuade you from it.

But what of the rest of the world that can’t afford our services?

May that question be a thorn in our minds til the end of our days.

About Tad

  • Tad,

    I would suggest that perhaps, in the longer term, the relevant issue is not rich or poor, per se, but capacity for conscience.

    Helping a rich person who has a strong conscience, or at least the capacity to develop or rediscover it, I think may indeed lead to that trickling down. The more awakened they become, the more their sphere of concern will grow, and then those of lesser means with whom we are concerned will end up benefiting.

    Helping a rich person who has low levels of capacity for empathy or conscience, however – for instance a severe narcissist with intractable traumatic wounds – may have a very different outcome.

    So perhaps it’s not the 1% in terms of wealth that is the issue, but the % with low levels of capacity for social concern. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to discern who is in which of these categories.

  • Tabitha

    I have this argument often. I am a Yoga therapist/teacher whose demographic is mostly retired senior women who don’t fit into the “Yoga scheme of things”; they don’t wear spandex and they don’t go to studios. They have found a home with each other, with me and with Yoga. It’s lovely and a dream come true. But my friends are always giving me grief. “You don’t charge enough,” they say. That may be true. My rates are indeed lower than industry standards because I work out of my house. Working out of my house, I don’t have to pay crazy commercial rent. I save. When I save, my students save. My students are on fixed incomes. If I jack my rates up too far, they won’t be able to access what they’ve come to need. “Teach some rich folks,” my friends say. “Let them offset the costs of teaching fixed income people.” *sigh* I love my friends but sometimes…….Is that the kind of world I want to contribute to? Do I want to jack money off the wealthy so I can keep teaching the less wealthy? It feels dirty to me.

    There’s no easy answer. I wish there was.

  • Insightful, as always – thanks Tad. The term”charge what you are worth” never sits well with me, and I believe there’s more to it that just charging more.
    As I was pricing my upcoming program, I decided to get clear about my pricing INTENTION first, before even landing on the ballpark of how much I charge.
    I ended up with a “Pay What Works For You” – my intention is for participants to have some skin in the game, while allowing themselves the freedom to experiment (because they don’t feel like they’ve invested an arm and a leg and have to color inside the line)
    I ended up spending a good chunk of the sales page real estate on sharing this POV… and I was pleasantly surprised when folks really resonate.
    Here’s the page, would love your insight (if that’ ok to share the URL):

  • Another fine discernment to lay on the table. Thank you for this.

  • Amen. No easy answers. I admire your willingness to follow your heart.

  • You’re welcome.

    One other thing I’ve thought of over the years related to this issue is sponsorship. If what you’re doing is really important and making a difference, then you can try to make that case to those who have some funds and request them to sponsor some clients who can’t otherwise afford what you do. This could be through appeals to individuals or to organizations that give grants. It could be through appeals to wealthier clients you already have or people who have never themselves needed your goods/services. Ultimately, I guess it would lead toward a non-profit model, though it doesn’t have to go that far.

    Define what larger social cause your product or service helps contribute to and work to convince those who can help that it’s worth supporting you in doing it and those you work with in accessing it. Just a possibility that might help bridge the gap in some situations.

  • Elissa joy

    Is there the ability to teach wealthy clients who you also derive joy from doing it ? What would it be like to have wealthy students you were not ‘jacking money off of” but instead had a good relationship with them. (I suspect you might find some other students who are not on a fixed income, even within the seniors who don’t want to wear spandex and go to a studio that may be so relieved to have found you !)

  • Elissa joy

    Such a good topic.. And one that keeps coming up for me again and again.

    I have seen people charge such low rates and have to hustle so much just to keep going and living, mostly because they are afraid to charge more and then have to have another job so they can work at the one they are charging such low amounts for. It sometimes seems like a race to the bottom of what they will charge. ( really, like 2-5.00 for a half hour tarot reading, for example. Sometimes even one dollar. )

    That is not sustainable.

    Is it a matter of what do people value as well ? What are they willing to spend their money on ?
    Even those with little money, choose where they spend their money, everyday.

    It is possible to set a model of business up so you can serve people well, and have different options. ( Of course, if you are a massage therapist, for instance, where your work is only 1:1 this can take some careful thought of how to accomplish this, or if you are the weaver from your article.. That would make it harder to make your work more accessible to groups. but there still could be some way to make it happen that works well for all. )

  • June

    Look at Whole Systems Design in Vermont.
    They look at the relation to money like making a swale that captures water. The idea is to capture and spread out a high-value resource like money in a larger ecology. So, most of their land-design clients are rich. But they use the money to provide courses in land design for people at more affordable prices, among other projects aimed at the non-rich. It really depends on how high prices fit in with the rest of your personal/business ecology; it’s not an either-or.

  • I think it’s also important to acknowledge that we can’t always assume who needs a lower rate vs who can pay more. There were times in my 20’s that I had more extra money than I did years later in my 30’s. I know some people offer a ‘student discount’ but in truth there are some students who have more money than the non-student. Or that seemingly rich woman, might be drowning in debt from trying to keep up a certain lifestyle.

    I offer a sliding scale right now for some of my work, and feel good about how that keeps me accessible to a wider range of people. But I think it’d be good for me to have a real conversation about that in some way with my clients. Right now I just state “I offer a sliding scale…” but I think it would be good to go into a little more detail, perhaps starting with the next client email I send out.

  • Steve Gazzard

    A variable that isn’t being discussed here (I don’t think) is the result(s) that we can help our clients achieve. How much is my time worth if I can help a client, (say an organic food store), save $2,000 or $20,000 or $200k/yr? What if I help them generate 10k/mo. in additional revenue, or hire and retain key staff members? Measuring results is certainly challenging but important none-the-less.

  • Karen Lee

    I appreciated this post. I am a community acupuncturist (my rates are a sliding scale, from $15-35 a session in a group setting). Many acupuncturists charge upwards of $60 -$200 a session. I am not getting rich. I barely am making it. But I also step away from insurance, from big pharma and take it back to a very affordable model that most people can afford.

  • Lisa Akers

    Tough topic, Tad. One that has me thinking a lot about my business model and where it sits. Higher prices have always been a source of discomfort for me – as has the hiding your prices behind a get acquainted call. But, I also realize that giving away my work isn’t sustainable.

    Looking forward to ‘puttering’ with you tomorrow!

  • Hi Tad. I’ve struggled with this dichotomy since my first day of coaching for fee instead of free. I passionately believe that transformation and help should be available to everybody, regardless of present day economic circumstances. That said, 20 years of professional experience later, I have found my own balance of self-care and save the world by putting out tons of content (like) for free. I hold no secrets back, I give away my process for free, and I celebrate the wins of people I’ve never met, never coached, and may have never received any money from. And I charge enough for my personal coaching services that I can feel well-fed and not resentful. I also try to stay very far away from any conversation that implies someone cannot survive without me or my program. That path attracts broken people, and that’s not the path to happy clients. As long as my focus is happy clients and dramatic results, I will always have enough marketing mojo to fill my programs without false scarcity.

  • Aria Ryan

    I am so glad to have come across this and thanks for the great post! I have been in the personal development field for many years, and I am returning to it after a hiatus, and so pondering my offerings and pricing. I see so many people pushing the “high end packages” model, and it brought up in me a response similar to that which you pose: Get rich by selling to rich people? Is that what we want for our world?

    In the past, I offered a 6 month intensive program which was quite expensive and a monster time commitment as well (2 full days/week.) Most of the people who enrolled in that program were either private clients of mine, or participants in my groups, or attendees at my weekly free events. When someone was sincerely interested, but “couldn’t afford it” I coached them (for free) through the process of getting the enrollment fee and the time freedom required. Of course, this took time and energy on my part – an investment I was willing to make with people I knew were sincere. The process of getting into the intensive was often one of the most empowering and life changing experiences the enrollee ever had: They discovered their ability to achieve results way beyond their past limits. The intensives then got off to an extraordinary beginning because so many had already had huge transformational breakthroughs just getting in. They knew they were capable of the extraordinary.

    As I look ahead to delivering my work in a new form, mostly online instead of in person, I’ve questioned whether that model will translate. I have contemplated sliding scale – doesn’t feel right for my business. In the context in which I work, it feels like it reinforces lack rather than empowerment.

    I think the key for me will be to offer a great deal of high value, free content and low cost groups, and to require that people in my intensives coach those in the lower priced, less advanced groups to “pay it forward” by empowering those coming up behind them.

    On the subject of being paid “what we deserve” I think that’s a ridiculous concept. If “deserving” is the standard, what a bout the client? doesn’t every client, incuding the poorest, deserve to be served? deserve to learn? deserve opportunity and attention? In spite of the currectly popular dictum “love yourself first,” there is a reason why every great spiritual teacher taught selfless service, and every true hero is a model of self-empowerment for the purpose of serving others. The challenge is to put others first, and to do it by teaching them to fish instead of just giving them a fish. Giving a fish, like making a monetary donation, is a lot easier and a lot less vaulable — especially for the giver.