I have worked part-time essentially my entire life, but now that I’m sixty-nine years old, I like to say that my status has switched from underemployed to semiretired. Over the years my working hours have gradually decreased from twenty, to fifteen, to roughly twelve a week.
You might be asking: What can I, a disoriented, semiretired, semi-unknown poet, tell you about business? You’d be surprised.
Money Versus Time
In life you must choose: Do you want money, or do you want time? As you can tell from the opening of this piece, I have chosen time. When I flunked out of Cornell University in 1973, I had very few desires. Rent was cheap in Gainesville, Florida. The highest I paid was fifty dollars a month. I cooked my own food, mostly grains and beans, which were also cheap: a pound of brown rice cost thirty-nine cents. I never bought clothes. I didn’t have a car. In fact, I didn’t know how to drive.
I also didn’t want to contribute to the American empire — in particular, to the military. And I discovered that if I made less than a certain amount of money every year, I wouldn’t have to pay taxes. No taxes meant no bullets being bought with my dollars. My Social Security income statements tell the story of the four years after I left Cornell:
1974 $603 1975 $1,455 1976 $2,170 1977 $3,246
Money or time: that’s your choice. Today I had lunch with my friend Larry, who said, “There is a beautiful home down the hill from me — I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it. It’s across from a waterfall. It’s a big stone house from the 1780s. It has seven fireplaces! The couple who own it are never there — maybe three weeks a year.”
That’s how it is, I thought. The people who have enough money to own such a place have no time to enjoy it.
“Is the husband a Jewish lawyer?” I asked.
“No, he’s a Jewish banker. The wife is a non-Jewish lawyer. At least, I think.”
Larry and I are both Jews, so we get to talk like this. I mean, we get to talk like this without guilt.
The couple had a caretaker named Tom, who lived there full-time. I use the past tense because he recently died of pancreatic cancer. That’s why his peacock and peahen have been wandering around the neighborhood, sometimes lingering on Larry’s property.
Tom had no money but lots of time. Plus he lived in a beautiful house with seven fireplaces! But he was unmarried, probably because women don’t like to marry caretakers. So maybe there are three factors in life: money, time, and a spouse.
When my wife met me, I was living with my parents at the age of thirty-two and working as a telemarketer. Why would she marry someone like that? Well, my wife is not the average spouse.
Let me take a moment to thank my wife.
Thanking My Wife
Thank you, thank you, Violet!
The Importance Of Ignorance
No one can learn anything unless they first admit their ignorance. And you have done that. You have decided to read this self-help guide.
Once in a while I visit the Zen monastery two miles from my house. I do sitting meditation, then walking meditation, then more sitting meditation. Then I listen to the abbot give a talk. Afterward there’s a free lunch! The food is vegetarian and always good.
Zen Buddhists like to talk about emptiness, and I must say I don’t really know what they mean, but here’s one way to think about it: According to modern physics, all matter is composed of atoms. And atoms are, in fact, mostly empty space. What we think of as a solid rock is not solid at all — it’s just little buzzing centers of energy with comparatively great distances between them. The Zen masters say: “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” They figured out in the ninth century what it took Western scientists another eleven centuries to understand.
Emptiness is important in business. Suppose a salesman at Costco is trying to sell you a refrigerator. Wait: Does Costco sell refrigerators? Let me check the Internet. Yes, Costco offers the Hisense 4.4 cubic foot Glass Door Compact Refrigerator for $199.99. Anyway, the salesman is going on and on about the virtues of the Hisense 4.4 cubic foot Glass Door Compact Refrigerator, and after a while you are sick of hearing him talk. You want him to slow down, to pause, even to stop. You want emptiness.
Finally he says, “So, what do you think?” And then you are happy.
Modern capitalism needs more emptiness, and you can be the source of that comforting vacuity. In the media they speak of “content providers” — essentially the writers who create TV shows. But what about the “emptiness providers”?
Be an emptiness provider.
Share The Wealth
The reason I mention Costco is that they have a profit-sharing plan with their employees. You should consider a similar system in your business. It makes workers more efficient and loyal, and it might prevent a future revolution in which the proletariat will rise up and shoot you in the head. Once you’ve been shot in the head, you can make no further profits. So it’s sound business sense to share with your workers now.
Use Proper Lighting
The worst problem with American capitalism is the lighting. Those glaring, hysterical fluorescent lights in every office! You feel like your soul is being X-rayed when you walk into these places. Why doesn’t everyone who works in a cubicle constantly have a headache? (Perhaps they do.)
Listen. Human beings were intended to huddle in huts around a single flame. And before that, to sit in caves. When I was a teenager, growing up in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan, my friends and I would slip into a cave in Fort Tryon Park to smoke weed. This was not a subterranean cavern but rather a couple of glacial erratics — boulders deposited by ice sheets more than twelve thousand years ago — which happened to have some space underneath them. I still remember the clammy earth of the cave floor and the comforting darkness.
On one of my first dates with my wife, I led her to this cave. We were young and thin then, so we could effortlessly enter. By that time I no longer consulted the Herbal Oracle, but you don’t need drugs to alter your consciousness in a cave. The darkness and silence, even in Manhattan, are exhilarating.
We need to bring this ancient darkness into the business world.
One way to be grateful is to think of a single moment you are grateful for. For example, my father has a doctor, Dr. Borsuk, who makes house calls. My father is 103 years old. One day Dr. Borsuk was telling him what good health he’s in. “Someday,” the doctor said, “I’m going to be coming here with a walker to examine you!” My father — who has become adept at gratitude — was delighted with this.
Once you have your “gratitude moment,” hold on to it for ten or twelve seconds. Then let it go. That’s enough gratitude for a while.
Learn To Draw
I know: you’re reading a guide to business, so you believe you can’t draw. “It’s hopeless! I can’t do it!” you are telling me. But you are wrong. You know why? Because you can write! The twenty-six letters of the alphabet are all little drawings. Instead of “drawing,” just write seven letters, right now, in the margin of this page. Write some capital, some small, some script, some printed. Then, in another margin, form these shapes into a little picture: a letter-drawing. It may be abstract or a portrait of your uncle Ned.
Remember, I’m not teaching you to draw well.
Be A Good Collaborator
Last night I dreamed I met John Lennon. I was trying to convince him to write a song with me. I had some lyrics, taken from words he’d written. Lennon was warm, bemused, gentle — but he refused to write a single note of music.
Business is collaborative. You must work with other people who sometimes just won’t help you. In my dream I eventually decided to do it myself. “I can write John Lennon–sounding music,” I said. In some cases this is the answer. It was certainly a spiritual triumph for me.
A Business I Believe In
I shouldn’t admit this in a guide to business, but I have little respect for the business world. There is, however, one business I adore: the South Hills Cinema 8, my favorite movie theater on earth. Here is something I wrote about it in a local paper:
Patronized by misers, paupers, unsuccessful sculptors, and a few teenagers, it shows second-run features for only five dollars. I’ve enjoyed every movie I’ve seen there. A five-dollar price tag, I find, improves a film’s cinematography.
The experience at South Hills can be quite intimate. While I watched Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about the Rolling Stones, only two other people were in the theater — and they left after twenty minutes!
The employees — of which there are about three — are always jubilant. This is apparently their first job, and there seems to be no manager. To discover how the world will function after an anarchist revolution, visit South Hills Cinema 8.
Dress For (Aesthetic) Success
Every day, dress in a manner you find appealing. Right now I am looking at myself in the mirror as I brush my teeth. (When you write self-help guides, you basically just hang around your house all day.) My long white beard spills over my favorite sweater, which is on inside out. It’s difficult to describe the color of this sweater, which combines elements of brown, orange, and twinkling hints of yellow. I suppose I would use the word maroon for it, if I were pressed. I have a blue acrylic cloth cap on my head, which I’ve worn for so long that it flops down like an old washcloth. My corduroys are dull green. Recently I washed my sweater and my hat, so both are buoyant and clear-colored.
Others may see me as a “hippie slob,” but I don’t mind. I look the way my inner heart demands. Why don’t you do the same?
Business is ultimately about ideas. Take Nestlé’s Quik. The idea is right there in the name: something was invented by a company named Nestlé, and it’s quick — so quick that Nestlé doesn’t have time to spell out the word quick. And what is being made quick? The making of chocolate milk. Obviously it used to take longer. Probably syrup was involved. Maybe you went to a lunch counter to order your chocolate milk. Now, in the privacy of your own home, you can produce it yourself much faster and cheaper. So Nestlé invented both a process and a memorable name to describe it.
Many people stop themselves from becoming inventors because they fear having bad ideas. You must lose that irrational fear. For example, shopping malls are closing all over the country. What should be done with these giant, useless spaces? How about filling them with the millions of water bottles Americans discard each year? Imagine walking through a mall in the suburbs of Milwaukee, say, looking at massive piles of plastic bottles, some green, others clear. Perhaps one could charge tourists a small fee — fifty cents — to tour the mall and take bottle-pile selfies.
This is what’s known in business as a “bad idea.”
Let’s say you work for a lighting-supply company and want to land the Halsman account. Halsman runs reception halls around the nation, and reception halls need high-end lighting, which you have in abundance. How do you become Halsman’s supplier?
Here’s one approach: Take off all your clothing and paint red bands around your arms and legs. It’s important that the bands circle each limb like a wedding ring — they can’t be incomplete. Find a cardboard box and write the letter H — symbolizing “Halsman” — on it with your nondominant hand. (In other words, if you’re left-handed, use your right hand.) Then do a dance around that box, occasionally grunting or chanting. (You may have to do this at home, as your coworkers will be mystified if they catch you in the midst of your magic ritual.) Afterward wash off the paint, put on your clothes, and wait.
Did you get the Halsman account? Please write to me if this succeeds.
Ask For Help
When I first started writing this, I thought, What do I know about business? I have mostly worked in the human-services field. By many people’s standards I have barely worked at all. One time, about twenty-six years ago, I applied for a job, and the woman behind the desk looked at my résumé and said, “I just have one question: How do you survive?”
So I was wondering how I would write this self-help guide to business, and then I realized: I have lots of friends in the business world. I can just ask for their secrets, then tell them to you.
Try this in your career. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We are all just primates arbitrarily wearing clothing. Nature intended us to spend our days picking bugs off each other and gossiping. Don’t be strong and silent. Be noisy and weak.
It’s Not That Simple
Of course, it’s not as simple as being noisy and weak. Strong, silent types will ridicule you, in their understated yet lethal way. When you ask them for advice, they will acerbically snipe, “Can’t you think for yourself?” In response you can use my strategy for handling hecklers at poetry readings: always agree with the heckler. When asked, “Can’t you think for yourself?” reply, “No, I can’t. That’s why I consult great minds like you for assistance. I’m like the moon, passively awaiting the sun’s luminosity. Yet think of this: Has anyone ever gotten skin cancer from the moon?”
This will silence your critics.
I have chosen, in my life as a paragraph producer, loyalty over ambition. I have written for The Sun since 1981. In fact, I am this magazine’s longest-running contributor. Early in my career, I had hoped to be published in magazines more people have heard of, like Harper’s, The Nation, or even The New Yorker. A small voice inside me would say, “You’ve had three books published. You’re a chump to stay with a small fry!” But about seventeen years ago I decided: “Fuck it! I will put all my eggs in one obscure basket. The Sun is where I belong.”
So far, it’s working out.
My First Business Strategy
I implemented my first business strategy in the spring of 1975. I was twenty-two, living in Gainesville, and had some money in the bank, saved up from a job as a house painter. I had read in the New Age Journal that the best way to find a job was to go to a place you admired and volunteer. (This was before internships were common.) I was a fanatical vegetarian, so I walked into the Mother Earth Natural Foods store and offered to work for free. “We’ll try it,” Doug, the manager, said.
For a week I worked without pay. Then Doug hired me. My task was to bag raisins and almonds in the back room. Believe it or not, this was my dream job. I stayed for three years. While working at Mother Earth, I conceived of “poetry portraits”: the way a painter renders a face on canvas, I would create a portrait in words. Doug let me post a sign on the door: “Sparrow will write you a poetry portrait — for free! See him in the back room.”
A couple of times a day a customer would appear in the back room and ask for a portrait. I would stop bagging lecithin, take out paper and pen, and begin writing as the customer stood there, posing like an artist’s model. After a few minutes I would hand over their “portrait.” Everyone always loved their personalized poem. Like any good portrait painter, I was sure to be flattering.
To be a success in business, you must rid yourself of hatred, which is just anger imprisoned by ideas.
Say you hate your uncle Nevin. Why? Because as a twelve-year-old you made a papier-mâché sword, and Uncle Nevin called it a “limp sausage.” Your pain quickly turned to anger. But instead of expressing your anger — to your best friend, Rowley, or to Uncle Nevin himself — you allowed the anger to sit inside, where you could imprison it in ideas. “Uncle Nevin is a sexist,” you told yourself. “He never lets his wife, Wilma, speak.”
That’s absolutely true. Uncle Nevin is a sexist who never lets his wife join a conversation. But that’s not the reason you hate him. And, in fact, that’s no reason to hate anyone. Bad behavior is an opportunity to exercise compassion.
Have you ever noticed that your reasons for hating someone are always valid? Suspiciously valid? That’s because you’ve had a lot of time to surround your anger with ideas. And you must prove to yourself beyond any doubt that your hatred is a moral force.
But you are lying to yourself. Hatred is a hateful force. Anger is a natural, organic expression of life, like lima-bean sprouts. It’s only when anger gets ornamented with ideas that it becomes dangerous. Wars are started by idea-ornamented anger.
Writing Your Anti-Résumé
Here’s a helpful exercise: write your anti-résumé. In it you tell the truth about the various jobs you’ve had, especially your failings in them. As an example I have written one for myself:
1999–Present Reporter, Chronogram; interview people at such length that they frequently become annoyed.
1999–2007 Substitute teacher, Onteora Central School District; completely lacked “classroom management skills.”
1979–1998 Recreation leader, 92nd Street Y; generally unprepared, often late.
1979–1985 Recreation therapist, Payson House; utterly untrained, reports were worthless.
1975–1978 Clerk, Mother Earth Natural Foods; mostly interested in chatting all day.
Fall 1974 House painter, Place Apartments; scared of ladders.
Summer 1974 House-truss builder, Ridgway Roof Truss Co.; weak and universally ridiculed.
Fall 1973 Construction worker, H and R Associates; sleepy and unmotivated.
Summer 1971 Mailroom clerk, Employers Insurance of Wausau, Wisconsin; lazy and dissociated.
July 4, 1969 Clerk at Associated Supermarket; fired on the first day for eating Hostess Twinkies without paying.
I must say I find it liberating to list all my workplace faults. I wonder how you’ll feel when you do it.
The first job I had after flunking out of college was working at a construction site outside Ithaca, New York. Every day I ate lunch with an older man named Pete. At noon Pete would eat his sandwich, then take a nap. At exactly 1 PM Pete would snap awake and get back to work. He had internalized his deadline.
The next time you are given a deadline at work, internalize it until it becomes a part of you, like your pancreas.
Today I wrote this poem:
My Job I was trained for my job, and now I do it. The training was much harder than the job. The job is actually pretty easy.
Is this true of your career?
The Value Of Time
When you write something — even an article as chaotic as this one — you have to forget about the value of your time. You must revise and revise again, then ruthlessly edit. To write anything worth reading, you have to make five cents an hour.
Now, I know you are not a writer. You’re in business. But there are times, even for you, when you are bogged down and working late on fixing punctuation on the Bromley report or trying to find a last line for the cost-management analysis, and, sure enough, you are making five cents an hour. When that happens, think: Right now, I am an artist.
Owning An Estate
What’s your ultimate goal in business? Would you like to own an estate? I suppose I would. Twenty-six acres comes to mind as the perfect size. My estate would be open to everyone. No gates, no fences. Neighborhood misfits and clergy would plant small gardens. My estate would be an unofficial park, ringing with happy, out-of-tune singing. But would I ban loud radios? Possibly.
I don’t even own an estate, and already I’m becoming a bit of a fascist.
Happiness Versus Hierarchy
Happy people don’t notice the existence of hierarchy. It’s possible that happiness dissolves hierarchy. An ebullient shoe-shine man is the equal of a CEO.
Have Pillow Fights
Once a year, at your place of business, have Pillow Fight Day: Each employee is allowed to bring three pillows. In the middle of the day — say, around 2 PM — everyone throws their pillows at someone else and shouts mild insults like “Take that, needle nose!”
The pillow fight should last no longer than thirteen minutes. After that, it will turn ugly.
Avoid Knife Fights
Your workplace, however, is the wrong setting for a knife fight.
Skilled Or Unskilled?
I have performed both skilled and unskilled labor. I prefer unskilled work. There are fewer annoyances and more freedom. And who’s to say what counts as a “skill”?
I once had a job holding up rugs at an auction in Bozeman, Montana. This was supposedly unskilled labor, but it was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. I lasted one day.
Take Time Off
Every once in a while, take a day off from work just to savor the smell of a weekday. If you can’t take a whole day, at least give yourself a short break. I just went outside and felt a breeze: a warm October rustling. How instructive a breeze is — more educational than a thousand business manuals like this one.
One Big Soul
Is it possible that, on the soul level, everyone you work with is one interconnected, glowing being?
No, that’s probably wrong.
When you walk on sand, you leave footprints. When you work, you leave “workprints.” The people who come behind you will judge you by your workprints.
Looking Too Closely
If you look too closely at anything, it disappears. I just tried this with a potato. Close-up, the red-skinned potato became a patch of darkness. Do you know the expression the “Dark Night of the Soul”? This was the Dark Night of the Potato.
This is also true in business. If you look too closely at the details of your work, you will be immobilized — consumed by the Dark Night of the Potato.
Going To College
After I flunked out of Cornell, I took two noncredit courses through Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville: yoga and typing. Those two pursuits shaped the rest of my life. Ever since, I have been doing yoga and typing. Yoga helps me write, and writing helps me perform my asanas (yoga positions).
If you are struggling to find your purpose, consider going back to college. Or forward to college, if you never went.
Use All Four Ears
Do you sometimes feel that no one is listening to you? Perhaps you’re not listening to them. Try to spend a day just listening. (Of course, you will have to speak a little bit, or everyone will think you’re nuts.) When you listen, use all four of your ears: your two outer ears, and your two inner ears. Listen to the music in your coworkers’ speech.
Warning: it will occasionally be awful music.
Becoming A Hippie
If you’re unhappy at work but worry that quitting your job will ruin your life, try this: One weekend, smoke very strong marijuana, or eat two killer THC gummy bears. Listen to Goa trance music. (I recommend Proxeeus.) Mutter the phrase “Yum yum ether” over and over. (This is the latest hippie slang.) When you meet people, immediately give them a massage without asking. Remark about how “tense” they are.
If you like this lifestyle, continue doing it forever.
If you do something wrong or hurt someone’s feelings, apologize, even if you’re not sure it’s your fault. Even if you’re only 30 percent certain you have committed an error, apologize anyway. But don’t say, “I’m sorry,” all day. One should apologize no more than five times in a day. Two times is perfect.
Do you read books — I mean, besides business books? Maybe you should. Reading a book is like meeting someone on the street, moving into their apartment for two weeks, having long philosophical discussions, then leaving them forever.
When I was a kid, I watched The Adventures of Robin Hood on TV. Though I lived in a housing project in Manhattan, part of me dwelled in Sherwood Forest.
Find a refuge, in literature or in life, where you can feast with your band of criminals.
My Near Wig
I almost wore a wig at my first job after high school. An employment office had found me a position in the mailroom of Employers Insurance of Wausau, Wisconsin (located in downtown Manhattan). “You’ll have to cut your hair, though,” the employment agent explained.
It was 1971, when long hair was not allowed for male workers in office buildings.
“Or you can do what I do,” the agent went on. “Wear a wig. No one will notice, and after work you can take your wig off and relax!”
I noticed that his hair did look a bit artificial.
I went home and told my father that I needed to buy a wig.
“No son of mine is wearing a wig!” my father said.
So I got a haircut.
Incidentally, at that job I worked with Doug Colvin, who went on to become Dee Dee Ramone, of the band the Ramones. Come to think of it, he had rather long hair.
Projecting An Image
Do you worry about your image at work? I worry about mine too much. The other day I gave a poetry reading, and suddenly I realized I hadn’t taken off my shoes. I am known as a barefoot poet. I was mortified.
I am extremely patient — at least, for an American. Recently my computer has been slowing down to the point where it can take me five minutes to write a paragraph. I have realized I must do something about this. I can’t just wait and wait and wait.
It’s possible in business to be too patient.
Coworkers Of Mystery
Some coworkers are extremely mysterious. You can work alongside them for twenty-two years and still not know if they live in a house or a yurt.
Why These Sections Are Short
I make these sections so short because business-minded people are in a hurry. Also, I can only think up about three sentences at a time.
Animals In The Workplace
It’s pleasurable to work with animals. My wife has a new job caring for eight rescue horses, plus a normal horse that the owner is boarding. Violet feeds the horses, gives them their medicine, takes them to the paddock, grooms them, and puts on their blankets at night. It makes her quite happy.
Even in an office it’s easy to have an animal companion. I’m thinking of silent animals like iguanas and snakes. Many people fear snakes, because a few of them can kill you, but that’s as logical as fearing humans because a few of them can kill you.
If you set high goals for yourself, you will often fail. If you set low goals for yourself, you will often succeed.
Which do you prefer? It’s up to you. I don’t see why I should get involved in this.
Catching A Fish
Today I ran into a guy I distantly know named Shay. He explained to me how he goes fishing: “I bring along some aluminum foil, a lemon, a little salt. Then I start a fire and wait for the coals to burn down. Then, when I catch a fish, I slice it up, pour in the lemon, sprinkle in some salt, and cook it on the fire. Tastes better than anything you ever ate.”
This story is relevant to business. Notice that Shay makes the fire first, then waits for the fish to appear.
That’s my advice to you: Build your fire first. The fish will come.
Ending A Conversation
Some people hate to end a conversation. I am one such person. I will keep talking until the other conversationalist says, “I’m sorry, I must get to bed early tonight.” I know they’re lying, but I understand. They don’t want me to keep talking to them for the rest of their life. Once or twice I’ve spoken to people on the phone until they’ve fallen asleep.
This guide is a one-sided conversation I’m having with you. I don’t want it to end, either.
A Bird In My Living Room
Forty minutes ago a bird flew through an open door into my kitchen. It soon found a window. Over and over, the creature pathetically flew into the glass, unaware that some substances are transparent yet solid. I approached the window to open it, but the bird flew to another window.
It’s still on the ledge of my living-room window, trying sporadically to fly through the glass. It is small and gray, with a fan-shaped tail and a long beak. It doesn’t look like a sparrow or any other bird I can identify. I have opened the front and back doors wide, but the creature won’t search for them.
We are all like this bird. We know our goal. We attempt to take the direct path, so easy and clear. Yet we fail. We don’t realize that the indirect path is faster.
I’m sure twenty other self-help books have told some version of this story.
While I was writing this, the bird escaped.
Today I was eating lunch on a bench in front of a supermarket in West Hurley, New York, watching an employee retrieve shopping carts from the parking lot. This person wore a bright-green vest, a wool hat, and a COVID mask. As the worker brought in six or seven shopping carts at a time, all in a train, they did it with speed and efficiency. This person has “hustle,” I thought.
Bosses love hustle. I’ve never had it. I have “dawdle.”
No One In Charge
Just about every organization has a hierarchy, but there are moments when that hierarchy disappears, and no one is in charge. The boss may be out sick, or distracted, or going through a painful divorce, or falling in love. And the second-in-command might be suffering from ptomaine poisoning. Then what?
For an hour, a day, three days, all workers are equal. Everyone must work together or fall apart. There are no leaders, no rules.
Notice these moments. Wait for them. Pray for them.