I have a $10,000 bill taped to the Rolodex in my office. It was given to me by the five-year-old son of some friends. In doing so, he taught me a critical lesson in the economics of self-worth.
I first met Christopher at the front door of his house, outside of which, piled in a corner of the portico, is a collection of rocks in the shape of hearts, several dozen of them, as large as hubcaps and as small as dimes. Standing behind his parents, he wore tiny bright-red cowboy boots, a red baseball cap, and thick, round glasses. One hand was on his hip, a pose his father would later describe as "ready for action."
During that first afternoon of our acquaintance, he showed me his secret hiding places, and we played baseball in the backyard. I let him win 15-7, even though I was hankering to slug a few balls over the roof, take him to task for making up rules in mid-game, and for running the bases in a half-hearted circle that barely extended beyond the pitchers mound.
Later, as I was saying goodbye to his parents in the kitchen, he ran in carrying an envelope stuffed with play money, sat down, and very exactingly filed through it with his fingers, as if walking them slowly across a table-top. He pulled out a $10,000 bill----the largest denomination he had---and handed it to me, saying, "Here. This is for you. For playing baseball with me, and being my friend."
In the blur of self-consciousness that followed, I gave it back to him, mumbling something about it being only a baseball game, not worth ten grand, but thanks anyway. He looked puzzled, and I felt clumsy and wished the moment would pass. He went back into the envelope and pulled out two $100 bills and again handed them to me. I was about to turn them down, too, when my partner Robin whispered in my ear that it was a gift and I should accept it. So I did.
That night, as I was undressing for bed, I emptied my pants pockets and found the two $100 bills, and the first thing that went through my mind was, "I dont believe this! I couldve had $10,000. How did I end up with only $200?"
I was keenly motivated to find out, because within a few weeks I would have to put a price on my head for a writing project that had the potential of being the most lucrative of my career----an advertising agency in California wanted me to write a book on marketing for lawyers. I had never taken on a project like it before, however, and didnt know what I was worth, and the incident with Christopher didnt seem like a very promising omen. It was a call to think big, which is exactly what I needed at that moment, and I turned it down, and if I was declining the advances of a five-year-old, I began to wonder what tactical blunders I might commit at the bigger bargaining table, the one at which the adults play?
The question, "What am I worth?" is far more than a financial question, and answering it demands far more than a cursory look at what the market will bear or what the competition is charging. The answer isnt just a function of what your parents thought you should receive in your allowance, what the fast-food joint you worked for in high school paid a hamburger-flipper, or what the newspaper was willing to bid for a cub reporter. The answer also depends entirely on whom you ask. To a chemist Im worth, boiled and centrifuged, a few bucks in trace minerals. To a five-year-old itching to play baseball in the backyard, and no-one to play with, I suddenly attain Most Valuable Player status.
Christophers bountiful gesture was a way of saying that what is most valuable, what he was willing to pay top dollar for, is intrinsic, friendship and time spent. He got me to thinking along the same lines. First, however, he tripped a wire inside me and slung out the shrapnel of old memories, of the times I unwittingly marked myself down.
Flashback: Im home from college for Christmas break, winding up a visit with my father that could best be described as an attempt by two warring nations to maintain trade agreements. Im standing alone in the front bathroom, staring down at five $20 bills Id splayed out on the counter, debating whether to take them or leave them.
Moments earlier, my father had peeled them out of his wallet and, with gangster-like dexterity, folded them twice with one hand as he gave them to me and whispered, "Go buy yourself something." It was an act I always took to be one of remorse on his part, for not being around more, for the way things turned out. Money was often the currency that passed for love and hate and communication between us, and as I stood in the bathroom just before leaving, I felt bitter about being bought off, and yet greedy for the money.
At the last moment I snatched the money off the counter and pocketed it, flung a sour look into the mirror, and walked out of the bathroom, putting on my coat simultaneously.
Years later, as I prepared my pitch to the advertising agency, this and other recollections of times Id sold myself short kept surfacing: my decision to attend the college that offered me financial aid rather than the one I really wanted to go to; not quitting my job at the newspaper sooner; falling into relationships I didnt want because something seemed better than nothing; all the times I told myself "I cant afford it" when I could; all the times I tried to win my parents approval, or heaped regrets on myself for decisions that were over and done with, or clamped my hands over my ears when life was playing my song.
These experiences orchestrated my conduct with Christopher, and prompted me to turn from his friendly overture, to black out to the possibilities it hinted at. It was also what lent a tremendous performance anxiety to my deliberations about what to charge for writing the law book.
The day before I faxed the ad agency my pitch, I was back at Christophers house. It was my birthday, and Christophers father, Dan, gave me the $10,000 bill which he knew had obsessed me ever since I let it slip out of my fingers. This time I accepted it.
I asked for five times the amount of money the ad agency had hinted it was prepared to pay, and twice the amount of time.
I had a contract within a week.
To this day, I still have that $10,000 bill taped to my Rolodex, with the picture on it of an Indian chief with a great hooked nose, and although it says "Not Negotiable" across the top, it reminds me of a tender negotiation with myself that helped me re-evaluate my life.
In retrospect, Ive probably gotten more "value" from that play money than from most of the money Ive earned in my life for services rendered----certainly compared to the $200 check from a magazine that was in my mailbox the afternoon I returned from meeting Christopher; money that went right out the door to pay for an overdue phone bill. I was able to spend that money, but not enjoy it, and so it didnt seem any more real than Christophers. It was also money that did nothing to remind me that I have a friend somewhere who would gladly show me his secret hiding places, who knows the true value of friendship, and who has money to burn.
** Excerpted from Callings: Finding and Following An Authentic Life (Random House) by Gregg Levoy.