Photo: George Burns
I've always had a great relationship with money, even when I barely had any to relate to. I never feared not having it and never obsessed about what I had.
Like everyone else, I can remember every salary I ever made. I suppose we remember because a salary helps define the value of our service—and, unfortunately, for some people the value they place on themselves.
I first realized I was not my salary when I was 15 and making 50 cents an hour babysitting Mrs. Ashberry's rowdy kids and cleaning up after she pulled nearly every outfit from her closet every time she got dressed. Her bedroom always looked like the end-of-the-day, last-call sale at Macy's, with shoes and brightly colored necklaces and dresses everywhere. Just before flitting out the door (without leaving any info as to where she was going or how she could be reached in case of emergency), she'd say, "Oh, by the way, dear, would you mind tidying up things a bit?"
Well, yes, of course I did mind, and the first time I "tidied up," I did such a great job, I thought surely she'd pay me extra when she saw how I cleaned not only her room but the kids' rooms, too.
She never did. So I moved on and found a job that would pay me more—a job where I thought my efforts would be appreciated. There was a five-and-dime whose name I've forgotten not far from my father's store. I got hired there for $1.50 an hour. My job was to keep things straight, stock shelves, fold socks, etc. I wasn't allowed to work the cash register or speak to customers. I hated it. Two hours in, I found myself counting the hours to lunch. Then how much longer before I was off for the day.
At 15, I knew in my soul this was no way to live or make money. I was bored beyond anything I've ever felt before or since. I wasn't allowed to go near the cash register or talk to customers. So after three days, I quit and went to work in my father's store for no salary.
I didn't like working there, either, but at least I could talk to people and not feel like my spirit was being drained by the hour. Still, I knew that no matter how much my father wanted it to be, that store would not be a part of my future life.
By the time I was 17, I was working in radio, making $100 a week. I would have done it for free. And that's when I made my peace with money. I decided that no matter what job I ever did, I wanted that same feeling I got when I first started in radio—the feeling of I love this so much, even if you didn't pay me I'd show up every day, on time and happy to be here. I recognized then what I know now for sure: If you can get paid for doing what you love, every paycheck is a bonus.
For me, money has always been about an energy exchange, following the law of cause and effect. I give my energy to the work and in exchange am rewarded with a different form of energy—money. This in turn lets me acquire, create, and build other forms of energy, from the necessities of food and shelter to material possessions that enhance the quality of life to endeavors that help others reach their fullest potential.
All these many years later, I still know I am not my income. I am not the lifestyle my income can afford me.
I let money serve its purpose. But I don't live to serve money.
I think that's why we have such a beautiful relationship.
What Oprah Knows for Sure
From the March 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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