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How to Turn a Negative Experience Into a Positive Way to Make a Living Without a Job

Valerie and her rescue dog,
"Cokie Roberts"

By Valerie Young

This article originally appeared in Issue 193 of the Changing Course Newsletter.

You know the old expression, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. You’re about to meet seven people who took adversity, bad habits, betrayal, and loss and turned these sour experiences into satisfying livelihoods. The experiences and approaches to generating income vary. Some wrote about their experience, some created products, some now teach or counsel others on how to avoid or handle the same problem they once lived through, some created recipes, and one even syndicated his humorous take on a bad situation.

Put it in Writing

Joan Sotkin spent most of her adult life in a state of what she calls financial dysfunction. For Joan this meant a pattern of under earning and compulsive debting. After her two brothers tired of bailing her out, Joan discovered the 12-step program Debtors Anonymous. It worked she says, for a while.

You’d think that when Joan’s Venice, California-based retail and mail order business grossed $325,000 in its third year, her financial woes would be over. But the death of her father three years later prompted her to revert to old behaviors. Soon she was $40,000 in debt. Less than a year later, she closed her business and declared bankruptcy. Eight years later, at age fifty-six, Joan relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico with a mere $200 in her pocket.

Losing her business propelled Joan to learn more about her financial dysfunction by digging deeper to untangle the deep emotions and family issues associated with money. "I gained a deep awareness of my financial attitudes and behaviors," says Joan. "I now understand that prosperity is not only about money but also about feeling comfortable, satisfied, and secure, and that sustaining prosperity requires both an ongoing financial education and a willingness to deal with the responsibilities and many changes that come with material wealth."

Today Joan uses what she’s learned to help others who are similarly stuck in unproductive money patterns. Her comprehensive money self-help manual,Building Your Financial Muscles contains nine exercises and dozens of resources for people who are searching for a way to relieve financial pressures and change the way they deal with money. Joan could have just learned her own lesson and moved on. But instead she put her fingers to the keyboard to pass on the secrets to her hard won prosperity with others.

The Wake Up Call

Some people find their calling as a result of a wake up call. It might be the death of a loved one, a health crisis, or the loss of a job. For Linda Blachman it was the combination of all three. When her daughter was 17-years-old, Linda says she, "developed a condition that threatened my way of life and sense of myself. An inoperable back injury led to three years of disability and uncertainty about whether I would walk again. During that time, I lost my employment, my mother died, and my daughter graduated high school and left home. My world collapsed along with my spine. For consolation and inspiration, I turned to the stories of others who had lived through serious illness. And I began to reconstruct my own narrative."

I was lucky enough to meet Linda a few years ago when she attended the Making Dreams Happen workshop in Boulder, Colorado. She came to the workshop, in part to get unstuck around a book she’d wanted to finish and hopefully see published. Well, she did it. Another Morning: Voices of Truth and Hope from Mothers with Cancer is a beautifully written book that couples passionate first-person narratives with Linda’s own reflections on motherhood and mortality ( What some might see as a painful topic was for Linda deeply healing. But there is more to Linda’s story…

Start a NonProfit

I don’t know if there are statistics on this but common sense would suggest that the overwhelming majority of nonprofits grew out of someone’s desire to help others who find themselves in similarly challenging circumstances. Linda’s personal illness and loss prompted her to start Mothers’ Living Stories (, a small nonprofit project that helps mothers living with cancer record their life stories and legacies for their children. As the project grew, she trained Volunteer Listeners in "providing a meaningful service while exploring their own responses to illness and death." It was also what led her to write her book.

Gaetana Aliotta knows what it’s like to have cancer. While undergoing treatment for breast cancer in 1995, she realized through her own experience, and that of other cancer survivors she had met, that there was a need for more supportive services in her community. Gaetana envisioned a home-like setting where people could come for psychological, emotional, and educational support and where education about treatments, medications, and clinical trials would be available. It was also important to her that no one would be turned away because of money. Today the Cancer House of Hope has grown from one to two homes, serving hundreds of people a year at no charge ( (Linda’s book makes a wonderful gift to donate to a local cancer support program – my own copy resides in the lending library of the Cancer House of Hope.)

Package What You Know

Health – or rather the neglect of it – is what drove Lindsey Williams to his calling. Lindsey is the grandson of the owner of the famed Sylvia’s soul food restaurant in Harlem. The good news for Lindsey is that he got to grow up in his grandmother’s kitchen where he enjoyed generous servings of fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, sweet candied yams, ham hocks and other delectable of African American and southern cooking. The bad news is that a steady diet high in fat, salt and sugar can, and did, lead to childhood obesity.

When Lindsey hit a high of 400 pounds in 1997, he knew something had to change. So he set out to find a way to create healthier soul food. He succeeded. This buff, 180 pound chef now runs his own soul food catering company and authored a cookbook called Neo Soul.

Lindsey is not the only one prompting a culinary revolution. After watching relatives die young of heart disease (nearly15% of blacks in the U.S. have diabetes compared to 8% of whites), Alabama native Wiley Mullins made disease prevention among African Americans his mission. He travels the country giving cooking demonstrations at churches and bookstores and selling his spice mixes. Apparently his product is a hit because Wiley’s Healthy Southern Classics line of soul food seasonings are now sold in stores all over the country including Wal-Mart.

Packaging can take many forms and one that has exploded in recent years is information packaging. One person who has successfully packaged his experience in the form of information is James Lehman. After being abandoned and then adopted at age two, James grew up to be a difficult and defiant kid. As he got older, things only got worse. He dropped out of school and, for a time, became a drug addict living on the streets of New York. Not surprisingly, James ended up in and out of jail where he was given the opportunity to participate in an accountability focused treatment program. It proved to be a pivotal experience.

James went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work and began working with difficult kids at a residential treatment center. His search for tools to help parents, teachers and case managers to help children develop the skills they need to be successful without allowing disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior led him to create a series of CDs and other materials called the Total Transformation Program (

Could another mental health professional have developed the same program? Perhaps. But the fact that James was himself a troubled youth lends significant insight and credibility to his program. It was no doubt a labor of love that helped James himself to heal as well.

Turn Pain into Gain

James is not the only one to turn pain into gain. If you’ve ever experienced the pain of infidelity then you know how difficult it is to recover from this kind of betrayal. Not only did Anne and Brian Bercht’s marriage survive an affair but their book, My Husband's Affair Became the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me, is fast becoming a best-seller in Canada and landed them a spot on shows like Oprah and Montel Williams.

What could have simply been a painful personal growth experience has for the Bercht’s become a new career path. This husband and wife team are now authors, speakers, and relationship coaches and team up at to help couples prevent affairs and provide specialized help for couples and individuals recovering from affairs. 

Find – and Share – the Humor

Sometimes a bad experience can lead you to see the humor in life. And if you’re smart, and have a gift and are willing to hone it, then you can find a way to sell that humor to others. That’s what cubicle-dweller turned-cartoonist Scott Adams did. Adams’ used his mind-numbing experience in corporate American as the inspiration for his management lampooning cartoon Dilbert.

Dilbert is a composite of Adams’ co-workers that over the years emerged as the main character of his doodles. When he started using his Dilbert character for business presentations and got great responses, he bought a book on how to get syndicated and followed the instructions (amazing how the basics really do work). Today his internationally-syndicated cartoon is read by millions and his cubicle is a distant, and at the same time, continuously profitable memory.

It’s said that the most painful times of our lives turn out to offer the most opportunities for personal growth. If you’re curious to know how you might share your experiences with others, you might begin by making a list of ten difficulties, challenges, hardships, or losses you have experienced and what you learned from each. How did this experience make you stronger or wiser or healthier? What advice would you offer someone experiencing what you experienced?

Then make a list of your natural gifts – things like writing, sewing, or listening. Then, just as these innovative people did, find a way to use your love of teaching, creating, counseling, writing, speaking, organizing, cooking, drawing, and so on to share what you’ve learned with others. The tough times in life are as inevitable as the joyful ones. As you continue on your quest for right livelihood, keep in mind that your own challenging times may be ripe with opportunities to turn lemons into lemonade in the form of a rewarding new career.

There are 6 comments. Add yours.

  1. Erin

    Thank you for this article – it was a refreshing reminder that it is possible to turn difficulties into a positive experience. It’s also given me another boost in what I hope to be the right direction! Thanks again.

  2. Tom

    Thanks for these inspiring and – as always – well-written vignettes!

  3. Lisa Hunter

    I suffered so much over the past several years and it keeps getting worse. Just when I was about to panic, I opened and read this article. I don’t want to stay stuck I want to move on and thank you for sharing info that will guide me.

  4. Marquina

    I have been thinking for the longest about how to use some of my own negative experiences to educate others, so I am glad to read of some very successful people who have taken their experiences and turned them into positives. Thank you, Valerie, for bringing this to our attention! Some of us are really stuck on what to do next, and sometimes our “next” is right under our noses!

  5. Andrew724


  6. Sandra R

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.


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