The Misery Index

When I first started my business in 2009 I had a working theory of why I’d be successful, at least as far into the future as I could predict: no one else will be willing to live like I do to beat me on price.

Other web professionals seemed almost decadent in their desire for the usual working wage. I, however, was not. I thought the market was clearly trending toward a world where web developers were overpriced. Graphic designers could maybe hold out a little while longer because “good taste” can’t easily be transferred to software or services. But most people don’t care. So neither should I.

Where everyone else had to meet payroll, student loan payments, car payments, credit cards, and had a desire to go out and pay for restaurants, drinks, and vacations, I had none of that. I still don’t. I make more money than I did 6 or 7 years ago, sure, but my prices are still lower for what we provide. My conservative estimate is we under-charge by about 60-80%.

I began to think of it as a “misery index”. That guy in Avon re-selling templates dirt cheap to customers won’t last because he’ll eventually have a kid. He did and left the business. That guy in Carmel I met at the networking event selling overseas labor for cheap won’t last because he lives in Carmel and will clearly want nice things, like a fancy car. He posted a photo of his Lexus online and left the business about a year later. That developer I see online from time to time in Greenwood won’t last because he’s over-extended on his house. I know how much he charges and how much that mortgage costs. He didn’t last and eventually took a full-time job after the IRS caught up to him.

Instead, there I was (and still am) the one who doesn’t go on vacations. I use the library. I ride a bike in the winter and take the bus in the rain. When I lived alone I ate half a tuna sandwich for lunch and the other half for dinner. I never did student loans, opting to quit when I realized the price was too high. I don’t buy much over $100. I’ve never purchased an alcoholic drink at a restaurant in my life because of the cost. I bought a lousy house in a do-nothing part of town because that’s what I could afford (and am hoping it will help me make rental income when it’s paid off). In total, I could live on $700 a month in income.

I could outlast a lot of people over the years simply because “I can be more miserable, for longer, than the other person.”

And I was a miserable person because of it. Internally I hated everything. I literally kept working almost out of spite just to prove myself right to only myself.

Obviously, everyone’s experiences are highly subjective and vary wildly. I’m not exactly a cancer-stricken drug mule in Somalia. Don’t overthink this. Everyone forms opinions based on experiences.

Today marks 15 years since my mother died. That’s framed a lot of my opinions on things. But I’ve also come to realize my opinions on most things aren’t worth sharing because my life has had to be hyper-realistic. It literally makes people uncomfortable.

“Oh please, that’s impossible, Justin.”

If you ask me whether people deserve health insurance or not, I skew straight to the notion that most people aren’t that important. I could die right now and it wouldn’t matter at all to the world. A few people would mind for a short while (I imagine). Thus, the only sensible solution is that frequently people will just die and everyone else will move on.

See. Now you’re uncomfortable.

I keep the possibility of being “friends” with most people at a safe distance because I assume they’ll move (far) away and we’ll never see each other again. You laugh at that, but it’s happened too many times with my closest friends. I’ll just let people stay as casual acquaintances. It keeps the misery index consistent.

I saw a tweet the other day that kids on SNAP (food stamps) deserve to have popsicles just as much as any other kid. “No they don’t,” I thought. “They should get used to never having nice things now. It’ll prepare them for life.” People always want things. I’d like a swimming pool. I don’t get to have one. You may think that’s an apples and oranges comparison, but what difference does it really make? Because one’s cheaper to you than the other?

Now you’re even more uncomfortable.

This is because so many messages tell us we can change, we can do anything, we can have whatever we set our mind to. No you cannot. Deep down, we all know that’s not true. Not everyone gets a fancy car or a nice childhood or their favorite spot at the table. Deplorable things will happen. If it knocks you too far off a high point your misery index won’t be able to handle the change.

Not everyone can just “change their mindset”, either. Because if that were true you’d just tell depressed people to change their mind. That shallow trope never imagines that science might show chemical imbalances that are nearly impossible to diagnose, treat, or correct. Sometimes, things just are.

Your disagreement to this is fine. It also doesn’t matter. Your life experiences were just different. Like the the amount of water in a small well, your misery index is set at a different level.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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