Ron Lieber is the author of the “Your Money” column for The New York Times and the author or co-author of five books. His most recent book is called “The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make.” He’s also written for Fast Company for The Wall Street Journal and for Fortune Magazine. Ron is a three-time winner of the Gerald Loeb Award, which is the most prestigious award in business journalism. Part of that is because his writing is not only enjoyable to read, but it’s also practical.
In this interview on the School For Good Living Podcast, Ron joins Brilliant Miller to discuss his book “The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money,” which if you are raising kids, you probably hope they’ll turn out that way, not spoiled. This interview includes a lot about money and parenting, including allowance, whether we should pay it, what its relationship to chores should be, how to approach it, and even what should be off-limits for kids, if anything, when it comes to how they spend their own money. Ron also shares his thoughts on how much the tooth fairy should pay for a tooth, which he answers in a very interesting way, and how to answer kids’ questions about money. Throughout Ron’s book, and in this interview, he shares many ways to approach talking about and using money to use it as a key for good living.
Connect With The Guest:
Brilliant Miller [01:05:59] For us, human beings, there are very few things that hold an emotional charge like money. That’s why I was so fascinated to talk with my guest today, Ron Lieber. Ron writes the Your Money column for The New York Times, which he has since 2008. He’s also written for Fast Company for The Wall Street Journal and for Fortune magazine. Ron has won the Gerald Loeb Award, which is the most prestigious award in business journalism, and he’s won it three times. Part of that, I think, is because his writing is not only enjoyable to read, but it’s actually practical. He’s the author or coauthor of five books. His most recent book is one called The Price You Pay for College, an Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make. The book that I ask Ron about most in this interview, however, is his second. The last book, which is called the Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous and Smart About Money, which if you are raising kids, you probably hope they’ll turn out that way, not spoiled. Right? So in this interview, we talk about a lot of things related to money and parenting, including allowance, whether we should pay it, what its relationship teachers should be, how we should approach it. We talk about what should be off limits for our kids, if anything when it comes to how they spend their own money. I ask Ron his view about how much the Tooth Fairy should pay. And his answer, I think, is actually really cool. He doesn’t give me a simple answer, but one that I think you might find useful in your own household. Ron shares with me a tactic for answering questions your kids ask you about money that is really useful in so many circumstances, and not just when they ask you about money, but when they ask you just about any question, any difficult question. You can find run on the Web at Ron Lieber dot com to read his writing in the New York Times, or you can follow him on Twitter at Ron Lieber or find him on Instagram. With that, I hope you enjoy and benefit from this conversation with my new friend Ron Lieber.
Brilliant Miller [00:13:26] What is life about?
Ron Lieber [00:13:30] You know, to me, life is at its best is about the, you know, the happiness that you can derive yourself from making other people happy, right, so that that can happen in a parenting context that can happen on a sunny day. And then I right the pride you bring to your parents, you know, can happen in service to the community, but you know, for better or for worse, so many of us spend as much time at the workplace doing work for money as we do with our family. You know, at its best, your day job is also in delivering that good feeling that comes from helping others in some way that feels too tangible and meaningful to you. And so, you know, it’s a little bit of a struggle for me in my 20s to figure out exactly what that meant. And then precisely what it was that I was supposed to do with that feeling. But you know, I got there – in eight or 10 years. I eventually did manage to figure it out before my working years were a quarter over.
Brilliant Miller [00:14:46] Yeah, I love that and I once heard somebody describe such a thing as unselfish selfishness. And when I hear you use that description or I heard someone else talk about enlightened self-interest and this kind of thing where we can serve others and we can feel good and be happy and ourselves grow because of it. But will you tell me also, how do you go about that? How what is this journey been? Where are you now? How does this, how does this work show up in the world and what is it? What ioes it ultimately do for people?
Ron Lieber [00:15:23] I mean, I guess it shows up through – I was about to say humility, but that that isn’t quite right because I have points of view and convictions, and there are things that, you know, I’m 99.9 percent sure that I am right about. I guess it’s more a form of openness to perspectives that I lack, right? I turned 50 a couple of months ago. And you know, there’s nothing like turning 50 for, like really cementing the fact that you are not a young person anymore. And you know, I realized that at the workplace in particular, I lost my touch a little bit. I certainly lost touch with sources, you know, in their 20s, you know, people who were 10 years into their adult personal finance lives. I talk a lot with college students, but you know, not so much people between the ages of 22 and 32. I’ve gotten better over the years at, you know, listening carefully to the needs of people who are retired, you know, and I do a very good job with, you know, people in middle age or in my cohort. But, you know, I’m only as good as my next great idea, right? And I’ve got to come up with, you know, 40 or 50 of them a year. You know, at the New York Times and I’m on my fifth book now. I don’t know if I’ll ever do another one, but you know you’ve got to have a really, really big idea to want, you know, personally to devote five or 10 years to it and to get anybody to pay you for it, to publish it right? And. I can only come up with those ideas, and I’ve got a pretty high bar for what I think is publishable. I can only do that with a kind of persistent voice kind of running through my head like you don’t know at all. You don’t have it all. And if you’re not paying attention to like, you know, a hundred different things at once, you know you’re going to miss stuff that’s important because you’re going to be, you know, stuck in in your own bubble, whatever bubble that might be. And so I’m constantly trying to listen more and remind myself that the next great idea is has a better chance of coming from somebody else than it does from me.
Brilliant Miller [00:18:07] Thank you for that. The question that just kind of popped up, I’m really curious to ask you about where your writing is different from many of my guests because you write a column you write regularly and just like you said, 40 or 50 ideas a year. And so there’s this pressure. And although you didn’t use that word, I suspect you experienced that. And yet you consistently perform. You’ve done this for decades. And not only do you write this column and these articles, but you publish books. How do you – this is a leading question, I imagine, right? Because you have a routine, you have a rhythm. You write consistently, you write according to a regular schedule. Yet my sense of your writing is that it is imbued with energy, with an aliveness. It’s not just somebody phoning it in. So how do you preserve this production consistent production while continuing to write with an energy mission?
Ron Lieber [00:19:42] Well, yeah, thank you for the question. I think there are two different questions in there because the production part of it just has to do with how I am pretty much always purposefully trying to put myself in a position where I will run headlong into ideas, right? And so that is what amounts to probably hours of reading per day. Right. And you know, some of it’s Twitter and some of it’s the food section of the newspaper, right? And some of it’s politics and some of it’s really legit. All right. You just never know where in the eighth paragraph of something you know that they didn’t think was important. You know, it’ll turn me on in a way that I haven’t imagined. Then, you know, I now have a brain that’s just kind of hard-wired for this. It’s just looking for, you know, the next great idea that has something to do with money where I can, you know, channel some smart people with interesting questions and, you know, do something with it and 12 or 14, 1500 words. And so, you know, that’s just sort of a habit and practice now. I think the energy is something different. I mean, it requires a certain amount of sustained physical energy or mental energy to see the world to push the world through the prism of ideas about money. It’s another thing to take what had tried to take a topic that is sometimes dry and then certainly has the reputation of, you know, feeling sort of, you know, like the eating of vegetables for people who don’t like vegetables. You know, if it feels boring and brings liveliness to it that feels like, you know, you’re sort of talking to a friend. And you know, the best compliment that anyone can pay to me about my writing is that at least half people who have met me or people who know me a little bit is that my writing sounds like the conversation I would be having with you out loud. So, you know, it lacks a certain degree of formality. It stays within, you know, the very strict New York Times style guide and yet feels looser. You know, I like to think of, you know, what I do as a creative exercise in part, and you know, in terms of coming up with ideas that might feel like they’re taken from the lunatic fringe but are actually totally sensible. But also, you know, I mean, at its best, a couple of times a year, it sort of feels like performance art, which is a weird thing to say about personal finance. But if you can come up with a really good stunt and there’s a moral to that story and people learn something about how to live their lives or about how the world works because I’ve gone out and behaved like a dancing bear or whatever put myself in strange situations that I’ve done something important. It’s also fun. All right, it’s fun for me, it’s fun for the readers, I guess I think more about its opposite, right? If I am lacking energy and all of the ways that you might define it, then people aren’t going to get more than halfway through my stories and they’re not going to benefit. And I will have wasted my time.
Brilliant Miller [00:03:59] No doubt. And when we were talking earlier, you shared with me this idea that money equals feelings, which I love. And in your book “The Opposite of Spoiled”, you also write that money equals values, right? What do you mean on the surface? I suppose that’s pretty self-evident, but what do you mean by that?
Ron Lieber [00:04:20] Well, I mean, here’s a way to think about it, right? I came to this notion of the opposite of spoiled because, you know, I was engaging in a thought exercise when I was going to speak with a group of parents about, you know, the worst possible thing that anybody could call my kid. And for whatever reason, the word spoiled popped up in my head right away. And I think the thing about it that made the hairs rise up on my arms is the fact that spoiled is a passive verb, right? Kids aren’t born that way. They’re made. Right, kids are spoiled by whom? Well, usually by their parents. So I thought, OK, you know, that would be a pretty bad sin to commit unto them. So if that’s what we’re all trying to avoid in the world, then what’s the opposite of that? Right. And, you know, in its probably most common usage, or one of its common uses, the opposite of spoiled is fresh. Right? So that’s not really helpful. And you know, I tried to make a list for myself of all the values and virtues and character traits that add up to the kinds of grounded and decent kids we all want to push out to the world someday. And I thought about modesty and prudence and thrift. I thought about patience and perseverance. I thought about generosity and a sense of gratitude. I thought about that, you know, overarching kind of curiosity about your place in the world and how you got to where you are and what your family had to do with it. And then the perspective that results from knowing the answers to all of your pertinent and totally appropriate questions as a child. Because after all, right, your job is to learn how things work. And so, you know, as I made that list for myself of all of those values and virtues. I thought, wait a second, you can use money conversations and even money. Questions that come from kids to kind of get directly to all of those things that a lot of those values and virtues and character traits match up to, you know, the three or four jars that you might have kids saved their allowance in. And so, you know, as soon as all those light bulbs went off and again, you know, it didn’t happen for me, like all of my best work over the decades. It began with questions that came from other people on this case, people who were reading my stuff in the New York Times. They were like, Ron, we need you to come sort this stuff out for us. And you know, it was because of those questions that I had those insights and I realized, Wow, this is not just a newspaper column. You know, this will take 250 pages to sort out for people, and I think it might be useful.
Brilliant Miller [00:01:07] How do you raise children in a way that doesn’t make them wrong for having the privileges and opportunities that they have?
Ron Lieber [00:01:15] Sure. So one challenge is the fact that for better or for worse, we often situate ourselves in communities where there’s not a lot of socioeconomic diversity, and we do that for any number of reasons. Often it has something to do with, you know, the quality of the public schools. You know, maybe it’s about safety, you know, it could be any number of things. But you know, we need to be honest with ourselves about the choices that we make and the consequences that those come with. And those consequences include ignorance. And, you know, I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. You know, just pure, unadulterated ignorance about how other people live and the fact that there are other people, you know, with less than you. If you happen to have more or way more than average. And so the question then becomes for a parent, how are you going to, you know, sort of raise consciousness around that fact? You know, and for parents of younger children, maybe it involves, you know, the books that you bring home and the books that you read to your kids so that they begin to have an understanding that, you know, not everybody lives the way that they do and has the things that they have. But, you know, as they get into the middle grades and high school and even as younger kids as well, I think you want to be conscious and deliberate about how you can insert themselves into communities where they are more likely to meet people who are not like them. Right. So maybe that is through a sports league, you know, three towns over. Maybe that’s through a house of worship. Maybe that’s through a summer camp experience. Maybe you ship them off to stay with their relatives for a couple of weeks each summer, who, you know, have a very different way of being in the world. But I don’t think it’s wise to ignore that fact because diversity in all its forms, you know, has a great ability to teach us things. You know, it’s not about politics or indoctrination. It’s about learning to be, you know, a better performing citizen of the world in all the ways that you might define as a young adult. And it’s pretty hard to do that if you’re not used to dealing with and being friends with people who come from places, different places and have different things than you.
Brilliant Miller [00:07:10] Yeah, it has been for me for sure. I’ve opened my eyes to some things that I had not considered before. For example, this disconnects labor around the house from the allowance that we pay right? And you make a pretty compelling case for why it’s a good idea to do that. And in particular, I love what you say. There was someone that you mention in the book who talks about his house being a homestead, not a resort, which really resonated with me. But when you talk about what your philosophy of allowance in that regard?
Ron Lieber [00:07:42] Sure. So, you know, one of the central questions of allowance besides like, why do it in the first place? I think that the answer to that one is pretty clear. It’s because, you know, money makes the world go round, whether we like it or not, we want our kids to have some practice with it before we send them off into the world. You know, the next question that comes up, you know as often well, should this allowance be like a weight right, you know that we give in exchange for chores? And that’s the way the, you know, the majority of Americans do it. I see it a little differently. I mean, here’s the thing, right, there are all sorts of stuff that needs to get done around a house on any given day or week or month. And it’s everybody’s job to make sure that you have a relatively orderly household. You know that life is calmer and cleaner, than it might be otherwise. And so if the parent or parents are not being compensated for that labor, why is it the kids should be, right? Chores or something that we do because we love one another and we value that order or semi-order allowance is something different. Allowance is a tool for learning. Right? It’s like. Soccer cleats or a French horn or, you know, art supplies, right? These are things that are kind of activities of enrichment, and I see allowance in the same way. All right. We want our kids to practice all those things, right? Because achieving mastery feels good. And you know, it helps give you confidence going into the world, right? So kids do something wrong. You know, you don’t yank their allowance in the same way that you probably wouldn’t yank their art supplies. Now you might yank their art supplies if they were using those art supplies irresponsibly. And there are ways that you can use your allowance irresponsibly. If you want to punish kids, you know, take away something they like to do right. Like turn the internet off, right? You’ll get your results right quick.
Brilliant Miller [00:10:00] Yeah, no doubt. Well, and this raises a question for me, which again, you wrote in the book is, I found really helpful. But if you’re giving allowance and you’re it’s kind of training wheels, you’re helping them get some practice and being an adult being, you know, the opposite of spoiled kind of human being you hope to send off into the world. How do you address the issue of they want to buy something and you just don’t want him to buy that? But hey, it’s their money. They should have some practice with it.
Ron Lieber [00:10:30] Yeah, so there are limits here. Right? You know, this first occurred to my wife and me a number of years ago, when our current 16-year-old was about five and my mother used to be a stalwart member of the Professional Personal Shopper Corps at Michigan Avenue, Neiman Marcus in Chicago. And you know, we learned to be wary or at least aware, you know, when a box showed up in the mail for our daughter from that 737 North Michigan Avenue address. And so, you know, we opened one up with a bit of trepidation one day, and inside was a black leather mini skirt. And my reaction was “nope!” and you know, that was the point at which we realized we needed a banned item list in the household. There were just certain things, certain items or objects or brands that we found objectionable or inappropriate, you know, violent toys, other things that we just weren’t going to allow to cross the threshold. But and you know, that list evolves over time. But it’s a relatively small list, I think, in most households. And then, you know, to my mind, everything else ought to be fair game right now. Not necessarily stuff that you would buy for them, right? Or maybe as part of the allowance process you imposed some limits period, right, where you say to them, you know, we’re going to buy you everything you need within reason. But we’re not going to get you anything you want unless it’s your birthday or the December holidays. And even then, right, there’s going to be limits. So everything else that you want, you’re going to pay for out of your allowance. And we don’t care what it is as long as it’s not on the banned item less. And in fact, we really want them to make mistakes and do dumb stuff, right? Because then they get to experience regret and regret is, you know, powerful in this instance. And you know, that’s how you learn to make better decisions. And, you know, hopefully, they’ve done most of the dumb stuff by the time we kick them out at 18 or 22 or whatever that is, and then they go off and make smarter decisions than they would have otherwise if they had not had that practice under our rules.
Brilliant Miller [00:12:57] Yeah, that’s the hope and the and the theory. And I’m sure it works. Sometimes my kids aren’t old enough yet to see that, but I’m trusting you. I love what you said before we started recording. You talked about practicing service journalism and service writing. So I’d actually like to go back to that for a moment before I ask you this next question. But I did ask. So let me ask these two questions here.
Brilliant Miller [00:23:29] Yeah, no, I can see that and I appreciate that kind of unpacking that this way. And so, you know, to a term I heard you use earlier about service journalism, which I had never actually heard that term before we started talking today. I can see that and I can also feel that in myself is, yeah, I want my writing to actually do something for someone. Some people probably just want to entertain, and that’s fine. That’s their thing and whatever. But if you actually want that there the reader’s life to be better in some way, have them have some knowledge. It’s useful. And so that leads me all the way back to this thing in the opposite of Spoiled, which is a question that you say is – I think you describe it as like a tactic that is almost always or very often like the best way to answer a question that a child has about money or maybe even any question. But will you share like what that question is and where did you learn it?
Ron Lieber [00:24:22] Yeah, I’m trying to remember how this came to me. I can’t actually pull up the origin story for where this idea came from, but it just occurred to me, you know, and this is true. This is oh, I remember where it came from. So my literary agent was, I should hang on a second. Gus was in the room with his grandpa. I can’t remember the question there was a sex question, which is where it came from. Now I’m looking for a copy of the book. Anyway, you know, I’ll go on without it. So the question that I encourage people to ask when they themselves are stumped with a question from a kid is why do you ask? I didn’t want to say it with that inflection, it’s not. Why do you ask, it’s why do you ask? All right. You know, it’s not disapproval, it’s not anger. It’s not meant to convey that, you know, it’s an inappropriate question or inopportune moment when you say, why do you ask? It’s a sort of celebration of their curiosity. You want the kid to feel like they did a good thing by asking you. And so, you know, works on that level, it certainly works as a stalling tactic, right? If they really hit you with a stunner. But, you know, I think the other thing it does is that, you know, if they’re like, I mean have any of your kids ever asked you if you’re rich?
Brilliant Miller [00:26:25] Yeah, they have, my youngest will say, “Dad, are we rich?”
Ron Lieber [00:26:31] Yeah. So I mean, to me, the right answer to that question is more often than not, yes. Right. And then you go ahead and define that term. But I do think it’s it’s better at first, at least to try and figure out where they’re coming from, right? Because you know what? What gave them the idea that you might be rich and it could be any one of, you know, one hundred and seventy-two things. And there’s real joy in parenting in figuring out what bits of matter they’re picking up in the ether. And that’s sort of going through these brains that are growing at rapid speed and then the stuff gets regurgitated in the wildest ways. Right? And so you get a little window right into how they’re processing stuff, right? And like, what does that thing have to do with being rich and what does it even mean to be rich anyway? You know, like your youngest son, I would venture to say, doesn’t have the faintest idea what that word means. But he’s heard it somewhere, right? And he’s connected it somehow with something that he saw, or maybe something that he heard, maybe even something that he overheard in your household. This caused him to wonder and good for him, right? Good for him. For processing it. Good for him for having the guts to ask. Good for him. For being open to the answer. So how can you not be honored that you know, with your very best effort to recon with him where he’s at?
Brilliant Miller [00:28:08] Yeah, for sure. Now, thank you for that. Well, in just a moment, I want to transition to the enlightening lightning round, but before we do, two last questions in this section. One is about anything else. And I know there’s so much we could talk about your most recent book. You wrote “The Price You Pay For College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make”. And the book we’ve explored a lot here is “The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous and Smart About Money”. These are all great descriptors I hope are true of my kids or other people think are true. But before so we could talk about either of those or anything else. But before we do, I also I’m just curious about this. How can we know what the tooth fairy should pay for a tooth?
Ron Lieber [00:28:56] Hmm. Well, I would ask you a question in return, which is what if the Tooth Fairy didn’t pay anything at all? Right? What? What if it wasn’t something that could easily be compared, you know, with the kid across the street or, you know, the kid in the first-grade class, right? What if it was something that was totally unique to you and your family that established a, you know, sort of new tradition in its own right that created wonder and joy and mystery? I mean, the best example I came upon in the reporting was in a couple that lives out in the Bay Area. They’re both trained as, you know, kind of scientists and in various ways, and they made a choice that they were going to try to connect the losing of teeth with the loss of teeth, you know, out in the animal world. So every time a tooth was lost, a new and different animal tooth from a different animal would appear the next morning under the pillow. So, you know, the tooth fairy would take away a human tooth and bring back, you know, a different tooth from an animal. And then there’d be a whole conversation about, well, why does this animal lose their teeth and what do their teeth look like inside the mouth? And what does the animal use the teeth for? And what does the animal eat? And you know, and then you’re sort of off and running into a fun conversation that you know can fill the space between, you know, the end of dinner and bedtime, that witching hour. And so, you know, so that was sort of the choice they made. But you know, you should come up with your own special thing.
Brilliant Miller [00:30:44] Yeah, I like that. I like what that does about looking deeper than just what we’ve always done right? And really, what do we want to be behind it? That’s pretty cool. All right. Well, thank you for that. So before we transition, so then we’ll go into a series of questions. It’s fairly brief, about 10 questions. I do want to ask you a couple one or two questions, probably about writing and promotion. I know there’s a ton to back into our last few minutes, but what haven’t we talked about that you would like to share?
Ron Lieber [00:31:17] Oh, you know, I guess I would say that the thing that ties my most recent books together. But I think it was also sort of embedded in the very first book I wrote, which encouraged people to take a gap year is about sort of tying value to values because there’s no real way to feel like you’re getting what you paid for right or more than what you paid for. Without knowing what it is that really moves you. And, you know, I don’t necessarily think that people need to overlay those sort of deep questions on, you know, what sort of chocolate they prefer at the drugstore or whatever. But you know, the whole question of what makes human beings happy and what they’re willing to exchange or do to achieve that happiness is kind of essential to humanity. And for us to pretend that, you know, money is not a big part of that is sort of foolish. And so, you know, why not interrogate our emotions and how our values are connected to the things that we purchase and vice versa? Because, you know, I think you can achieve a higher form of happiness by being better in touch with those things.
Brilliant Miller [00:32:47] I think you’re right. And it sounds to me like the work of the living right. It’s not probably any single workshop. We signed up for any book we read or any moment of visualization or contemplation, but more of a process. Mm-Hmm. But what do you recommend? How can people become more in touch with that?
Ron Lieber [00:33:07] Well, you know, I think the best way to be in touch with it is to have intimate conversations about it with the people you love the most. And you know, this is not easy, right? There are very few people who are 100 percent compatible with their spouse in this way. It can be very hard to have conversations with parents about it. Too many parents resist having conversations with their kids about it because they think it will somehow turn their kids into, you know, money-grubbing individuals right there is that, you know, the sort of like, you know, this notion of the piggyback ride. It’s like, you’re a pig if you care about money and you’ve got your nose sort of grubbing around in the ground. And now, you know, I actually think the reverse is true. I think you can do more damage by avoiding these topics, and the better move is to have conversations about them with people that you trust. Because if you’re doing it right, you’re sort of peeling the layers of onion away. And at the core of that, our feelings. Right? Hope and fear and envy. And to all of the other things that come with it.
Brilliant Miller [00:34:36] sure. Well, thank you for that. OK, well, then let’s go ahead and transition to the enlightening lightning round. So again, this is a series of questions on a variety of topics. My aim is, for the most part, to ask the question and stand aside, you’re welcome to answer as long as you like. But I’ll work to keep us moving efficiently through this.
Ron Lieber [00:34:56] So I have no idea what’s about to happen here. But I also really love being surprised in this context, so
Brilliant Miller [00:35:04] most of my guests come out fine on the other side. So it’s it’s all good. But how are you doing, by the way? You’re doing OK. I’m good. OK, here we go. Question. Question number one. Please complete the following sentence with something other than a box of chocolates. Life is like a.
Ron Lieber [00:35:30] Roller coaster.
Brilliant Miller [00:35:32] OK. Question number two here I’m borrowing the investor and technologist Peter Thiel’s question What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
Ron Lieber [00:35:51] That you should pay as little attention as possible to the stock market while being fully invested in it.
Brilliant Miller [00:36:04] OK. Question number three, I realize this one might be a stretch, but if you were required every day for the rest of your life to wear a T-shirt with a slogan on it or saying we’re rephrased quote or quip, what would the shirt say?
Ron Lieber [00:36:24] I mean, I keep coming back to the words of the great money sage Karl Richards, who once wrote an equation that said money equals feelings.
Brilliant Miller [00:36:36] All right. Number four, what book other than one of your own, have you gifted or recommended most often?
Ron Lieber [00:36:50] I think it might be. A book called “On Writing the College Application Essay”, which seems kind of narrow and, you know, sort of utilitarian. It’s written by a high school teacher named Harry Ball that came out in the 1980s, so there was an updated edition recently. And he was so thoughtful in trying to get teenagers to think more expansively about their lives and the moments in their lives that had meaning and how to explain those to other people. I still think about it as sort of a touchstone of my teenage years. You know, it helped me begin to think about how it is that I could be distinctive, not just in sort of selling myself to colleges, but also sort of selling myself in life, you know, because, you know, at the root of that right is this idea that we’re all salespeople. No matter what we do and it’s true in our personal lives, too, right, we’re trying to sell ourselves to future friends, we’re trying to sell ourselves to future spouses, we’re trying to sell ourselves as worthy of respect to our children. Dan Pink, who’s written a bunch of great books. He wrote a book, The kind of some of the stuff I think was called to sell this human right. And it is a terrific book about sales for people who don’t actually think that their salespeople. I think I’ve recommended that one a little bit last, but it is also excellent.
Brilliant Miller [00:38:38] I know. All right. Thank you for that. So question number five is about travel, which you know is the thing we used to do in the good old days. But I know you’ve traveled a fair amount in your life. What’s one travel hack meaning something you do or something you take with you when you travel to make your travel less painful or more enjoyable?
Ron Lieber [00:39:03] I always bring lip sunscreen to warm places because nothing is more painful or irritating on a moment-to-moment basis than a sunburn on your lips. That happened to me once or twice as a lifeguard growing up, and you’d never make that mistake again as long as you live. So there is that one. Something else went into my mind and it just flew out. I got it. I remember what it was. The other one. That’s the other travel hack that I’ve gotten much better at as I’ve gotten older is that there is no better way to see a place that you’ve never seen before than to experience it as a runner. And I only started doing marathons for the first time this year. And you know, plenty of people can see a lot by walking, but you know, if you’re running, you can cover a lot more ground in a slower period than in a faster period of time. And, you know, just sort of getting lost in a place and, you know, experiencing it as locals do. You know, you can see a lot and accomplish a lot in a short period of time. So even if they want a work trip, I don’t have time to be a tourist, you know, as little as 30 minutes, or you can get through three or four miles and see all sorts of stuff that you might not have found otherwise. So, yeah, go out for a run.
Brilliant Miller [00:41:17] Yeah, that’s awesome. And congrats on your first marathon. I understand you did the Chicago Marathon at age 50.
Ron Lieber [00:41:23] I did. And then I went and did the New York City Marathon four weeks later.
Brilliant Miller [00:41:28] Oh my goodness, that’s a bit I did. I did the New York Marathon four years ago, and it’s exactly what you’re saying to go through all five boroughs. And just that was really a cool thing, Arthel. Well, good for you. Well, maybe this is the answer to question number six. We’ll see. What’s one thing you started or stops doing in order to live or age well?
Ron Lieber [00:41:49] Well, so I turned 50 a couple of months ago, and what I realized was that I had done all sorts of really hard things with my brain during the 28 years since I graduated from college. I had not done all that many things that were hard for my body. And so I resolved in my 50th year to change that. And, you know, I had been a runner sporadically. I run a couple of half marathons six, seven, eight years ago. But you know, I’d always wanted to go home to Chicago, where I come from and do the Chicago Marathon. And so I went and did it six weeks after my 50th birthday.
Brilliant Miller [00:42:32] And it’s really cool. I’d like to do that. OK? Question number seven What’s one thing you wish every American knew?
Ron Lieber [00:43:04] I wish that every American knew how to answer the how are you? Question. With more than one and preferably more than 100 words, I wish the people knew how to ask the question or ask a follow-up question in a way that makes other people feel like their feelings are valued. You know, we have a mental health crisis, kind of an ongoing one. At least we’re more aware of that, I think than we used to be in a couple of years into the pandemic. It hasn’t exactly helped. And so, you know, I’d like to see us all kind of approach that question with, you know, a sense of kind of seriousness and openness that it actually deserves so that it isn’t just a sort of polite part of greeting someone that you just, you know, move on from. And I experiment with that sometimes, you know, by when a stranger asks me how I’m doing, you know, sometimes I’ll give a, you know, 15 or 20-second answer. That’s just kind of like radically honest, just sort of, you know, see what they say. And sometimes a great conversation falls out of that well, and then I make a new friend.
Brilliant Miller [00:44:32] Yeah, that’s great. Or you don’t. I would imagine.
Ron Lieber [00:44:35] Right, right. But then I’ve crossed someone off the list, right, who I thought maybe was interesting. That was like, you know, maybe that person shouldn’t be in the circle because, you know, you only have time for so many friends.
Brilliant Miller [00:44:46] That’s right. I think Dunbar’s lore is true. It’s like a real thing. All right. Of course. Number eight. What’s the most important or useful thing like how these questions link? This is amazing. What’s the most important or useful thing you’ve ever learned about making relationships work?
Ron Lieber [00:45:05] Ask for help. Ask for help from, you know, professionals, right, therapists, coaches. You know, if you don’t have insurance or can’t afford to do that, ask for help from the people who know you best or know the other person or people best who you know who’s where the relationship exists that you’re trying to improve the.
Brilliant Miller [00:45:36] All right, thank you for that and question number nine. Aside from compound interest, what’s the most important or useful thing you’ve ever learned about money?
Ron Lieber [00:45:51] That you can make dozens and dozens and dozens of mistakes over a lifetime and still be financially successful as long as you’re cataloging those mistakes, being honest with yourself and others about how you messed up, and connecting those mistakes with the things in your head that can lead you astray.
Brilliant Miller [00:46:20] All right, thank you for that. And speaking of money, one thing that I have done in an attempt to express my gratitude to you for making time to talk with me and share your wisdom is I’ve gone to kiva.org and I’ve made a microloan to a woman in. Actually think I know she’s in Africa, it’s a woman named Lubna. She is married, she has two children in elementary school, she has a beauty salon. And so she will use this to buy new equipment and new cosmetics. Just looking up exactly where she is in Africa right now. But at any rate, thank you for giving me a reason to make that micro-loan. And hopefully, our conversation will serve many people even.
Ron Lieber [00:47:08] Thank you. I hope so.
Brilliant Miller [00:47:09] Yeah. OK, so the last part of this conversation, I think I just have three last questions and I do want to go back to something we talked about a little earlier than I think was before we started recording. That was it was about mentors and it was about. So and this is reminding me I read something about you went to Amherst. And you wrote for the student, someone there who I think was a Miller who inspired you to write, If I have that right, will you? If that’s the case, will you talk about anything you might have learned from that person, what your experience was like? And then I’m stacking questions. But I’m also curious to know later where you had some mentors, I think at The Wall Street Journal what they helped you see about your own writing.
Ron Lieber [00:48:01] Sure. You know, it’s interesting the ways in which people can impact your life, and they don’t even realize that that it’s happening. So, you know, I was a freshman at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. This is 1989, and there was a section of the alumni magazine. I can’t even remember what it was called, but you know, it was the section that sort of described student life, current undergraduate life. For the alumni, it was kind of an insert into the magazine, and the main writer for it was a guy named Chris Miller, who is a senior. I didn’t really know him at all. But I started reading as staff and there was just something about his voice that I found appealing. It was conversational, you know, sort of felt like it was a friend explaining things to you, and it just hadn’t occurred to me that like that was a job that you could have as an undergraduate and that if you did have it, you could sort of talk that way to readers. And I thought, Wow, this is kind of something I’d like to do, and I don’t think I ever even introduced myself to Chris. Maybe I did, but I just presented myself to the Office of Public Affairs and gave them some writing samples. And, you know, they let me do a piece. And that was that. And, you know, I spent the next four years writing for the magazine. And I don’t think it was until years or maybe decades later that, you know, I told Chris how much that had meant to me. And you know, this is something I try to do more often now. You know, when somebody writes something, sometimes it’s, you know, musicians too. But you know, when anyone creates anything, you know, as a creator myself, I mean, you probably feel this too. It’s so meaningful to me, you know, to have somebody reach out as a perfect stranger and say, I just want you to know, you know, how this moved me, how this changed me, or you know what I did differently as a result. It’s been happening a lot, actually in the years since the price you pay for college came out because I get these notes in the spring, be like I did what you said, and they gave me seventy-two thousand dollars in discounts and I didn’t even know that this was possible. And I’m like, Hallelujah, you know, I can’t believe that it’s actually working, right? And so it was meaningful to Chris to know that he had made a difference. And yes, so that was how that happened.
Brilliant Miller [00:50:38] That is really cool. And then later in your career, you were telling me about how, even after you had written a New York Times bestseller at age 26, you still haven’t necessarily found kind of your beat. But some are a mentor. Or maybe two of your kind of helped you see something you hadn’t seen. What was that?
Ron Lieber [00:50:57] Yeah. So I knew that I wanted to practice this. This thing called service journalism, right? Journalism that was in service to readers. And to the extent that that was a phrase that people even knew in journalism back then, it was seen as sort of second classwork, you know, lesser than writing about fires or city government or corporate CEOs. And I was having trouble figuring out what it was that I was, you know, what was the best way that I could work it service to readers. And, you know, I wasn’t sure whether it was writing about food or, you know, writing about travel or, you know, writing about music. There are a lot of things that I was interested in and passionate about. You know, I’m lucky to be an omnivore in that sense. And. I definitely did not think it was personal finance, but when I applied for a job at The Wall Street Journal, which I loved and adored and still love and adore to this day, they were starting a sort of consumer news section called Personal Journal. And, you know, I had a random, eclectic collection of service journalism clips that were kind of all over the map, subject-wise. And these two editors who ran the section, sort of size me up and they said, You don’t understand about yourself. Ron Lieber, is that your beat your area of coverage, right? Your beat is beating the sister right in all its forms. And they say what we want for our readers here at the personal journal section is to feel like they’re sort of putting one over. Not unlike other consumers, but, you know, on the entities that would like to extract profits from that, right? You’re going to, you know, your aim and life seems to be to teach people how to sort of like maximize value in their lives. And that can be through investing that can be through travel. It can be through any number of things. And so, you know, pretty soon I was the guy there writing stories about how to return your wedding gifts for cash. And after a couple of years, everybody at the journal was like, All of that is personal finance. My personal finance isn’t just stocks and bonds. It’s like everything under the Sun, essentially, that has something to do with your financial life. And so when they started the Saturday newspaper, they gave me a column in 2015, which was a, you know, a source of great amusement to my economics. 11 Professor, you know, who gave me a C-plus and that was charitable. I’ve never worked so hard at something and done so poorly in my life. But, you know, maybe it was because, you know, I put myself in the shoes of readers who were confused by the ever more complex world of, you know, sort of consumer and financial life. That empathy, you know, allowed me to reach them in a way that was maybe different than the way that other money writers could reach them in the past.
Brilliant Miller [00:54:00] But that’s really cool. And, you know, I sometimes think about it just how sophisticated these corporations become and how bureaucratic and convoluted government and other systems already are. But it’s like any individual. It seems they stand no chance against all this big data and all these research scientists that get hired to study everything from like human psychology to, you know, copywriting. And it’s amazing. So I’m really glad to know that you’re out there writing it. It is practical like we’ve already talked about the questions that people ask, you know, how to answer those and so forth, or how to apply, how to negotiate with a college for the price that you might pay and to save tens of thousands of dollars, which has this real impact. Not only of, you know, preserving that money to use for something else, but to not be burdened by that as student debt. It’s really cool.
Ron Lieber [00:54:52] Thank you. Yeah, I mean, I would love to put myself out of business, but sometimes I feel like I’m a one-person constituency for simplicity because, you know, everything I write about just gets more complex, you know, fee-laden and trap door, you know? You know, pockmarked. And you know, it’s going to be a life’s work and then some to try to sort it out.
Brilliant Miller [00:55:18] Yeah. Job. Job security, for sure. So the last thing that I’ll ask and we haven’t gone super deep into writing tactics and so forth, but I actually do because I noticed in your acknowledgments this not every author makes a point to acknowledge people who’ve helped them to get their work out into the world. But I was curious about something you did acknowledge that I hadn’t heard of before, but it’s Tim Grant. Will you talk about who he is and what? What life has been like since he’s been in it and yours?
Ron Lieber [00:55:51] Yeah. So I found my way to Tim. I can’t remember. It might have been Dan Pink, the author, Dan Pink, who first turned me on to Tim, but you know, Tim had this little marketing agency in Virginia, and he had focused on sort of a single-minded way on helping a certain kind of nonfiction author make the New York Times bestseller list. And there, you know, one or two other people who do this sort of work, and they’re a little more strategic about like gamesmanship. But Tim was completely above board. He just basically wanted to say to people, Look, you know, all of this work that you’ve done to make this book great is useless. If you don’t, you know, spend years, not months or weeks, but years kind of building various mechanisms and vehicles by which you can reach them and create relationships with them. So, you know, it’s things as simple as like sort of tweaking your web presence and building a mailing list. But it’s stuff that you know, is more complex, too. And since then, Tim has written his own books. He’s got one called your first thousand copies that just kind of walks people through it point by point and. You know, I’m a pretty good stunt man. You know, I know how to, you know, get attention for myself in creative ways, but I wasn’t particularly systematic about it, and I wanted to be more systematic when the opposite of Spoiled came out and he helped me do that.
Brilliant Miller [00:57:44] That’s awesome. What? What’s one way that he helped you? Because it’s I think often many people struggle with the other side. They actually maybe can put together a plan and they can even stick to it. They don’t necessarily have that stuntman-esque quality. But how did Tim help you be more systematic? What’s one example of that?
Ron Lieber [00:58:01] Well, you know, I think I just felt pushed by him to have a strategy and a philosophy. And what it eventually came to was, I don’t know. I mean, it’s like there’s not a formula for promoting a bestselling book. I mean, you’ve got to have a really good book, although there are books that aren’t so good that become New York Times bestsellers. But, you know, I came away from all of his coaching having thought particularly hard. And there isn’t a science to this. It’s just a feeling, a gut feeling. Thinking hard about, like, what was the most extractable stuff right from any given text that is most likely to cause a reader to want to share it? Mm-Hmm. Right. In other words, what’s most likely to go viral and if you’re doing it right? You know, when you’re writing the book proposal, what that idea is, that’s going to be most worth sharing, right? And like ideas worth sharing. I think that’s like a TED slogan or something. And so, I mean, giving a TED talk is nice and stuff, but they’ve never invited me to do one. And, you know, I managed to make the bestseller list, you know, three times without them. But I do think they’re onto something. They’re right, like, what’s the stuff that best represents your most original thinking? And how are you going to put that out into the world? And you can’t start early enough and think about that if you want your ideas and your reporting to get out there and there’s nothing smarmy about it. It’s like if you value the work that you do and you think it’s worth something, then you want to get as many eyeballs on it as possible. And there’s nothing weird about that. There’s, you know, some still some people in publishing who find, you know, who find this sort of like this way of thinking sort of hucksterish. Yeah, but an increasing number, you know, I think. Appreciate it.
Brilliant Miller [01:00:24] Yeah, I think you’re right. And someone pointed out to me once that even in the name New York Times bestseller, right? It’s not New York Times best writer seller, which is kind of interesting.
Ron Lieber [01:00:38] Yeah.
Brilliant Miller [01:00:39] OK. Final thought I will just ask you because this part of the interview is intended to help those who want to do what you’re doing, get their ideas out into the world in ways that make a difference for people and in particular, to do that between the covers of a book, although hopefully they’ll take what you’ve said and do that in other ways as well. But what advice or encouragement do you have for anyone listening to help them make those desires real?
Ron Lieber [01:01:08] Yeah, I mean, the game has changed a fair bit, you know, in the 30 years now since I first had my first book idea, you know, back then, the thing that I did that I think mattered the most and I was writing with a good friend of mine at the time was that, uh, you know, we went and found all the books in the bookstore that it all resembled ours and then looked in the acknowledgments of those books to figure out who the agents were and then contacted the agents to see if they would help us. And that was what eventually landed us an agent. And then that agent, you know, the basically the very last big New York publisher that had not yet turned us down said yes, and that was how it all got started. So, you know, that tactic, I think, is still worth something, but even more than was the case before, because back then I had already gotten sort of junior grunt job at Fortune magazine, and that credential sort of meant something even more so now. You know, the major publishers, at least, you know, kind of. Want to know what sort of preexisting platform you’re bringing to the table? And so even if you don’t have an idea for a book yet, but you think that you might just sort of starting a collection of names and emails of, you know, people who care about the things that you think are the things that you write is kind of a good investment in yourself and in your future, whatever it may hold, even if it’s just, you know, pushing out announcements when you have a child or when you’ve experienced a loss, you know, it’s just like a good organizational principle for life. I’ve done a pretty good job of that with my readers, not so much with my professional and personal contacts. And, you know, I kind of regret it. And you know, the longer the time goes by that, the harder it would be to solve for that. So.
Brilliant Miller [01:03:14] Yeah, well, thank you for that. And I think there is deep, deep wisdom in that and curating, finding, assembling where you don’t find one, this kind of community. And as we talked about earlier to the interaction that you had, where their questions and their suggestions ultimately make your writing better, there are just so many benefits to it. And that’s cool. So, OK, well, with that, Ron, I just want to say again, thank you so much for making time. Well, thank you for the work you’re doing. I love the Opposite of Spoiled. It really gave me a lot to think about and to share with my wife and my kids, and I’ve really enjoyed our conversation today, getting to know you a little bit better. And I don’t know when or where our paths will cross again, but I know they will, and I look forward to that time.
Ron Lieber [01:04:00] Likewise, I appreciate all of your penetrating questions, this was a ton of fun.
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