There were lots of reasons for me to read Rebecca Smith’s 2020 book A Better Life; Slowing Down to Get Ahead:
- She writes from a Christian perspective, and I’m a Christian who loves reading theology (though her’s is more a practical guide to a Christian life).
- She had an Etsy shop with build-your own one-of-a-kind items and I have an Etsy shop with largely one-of-a-kind vintage fabrics. (One of a kinds pose unique business challenges.)
- She tried to figure out the business part of an enterprise as she went along when her business, Better Life Bags, surprisingly took off, and I’m now doing the same.
- We’re both mothers, and wives, and trying to live out each of our most important life values at/through work.
So far so good.
Truth is One, Paths are Many
A Better Life was actually the third in a series of Christian books I’ve devoured on a recent Christian books reading jag.
First I took on Rachel Held Evans’s scripturally-based Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. I came out of that read with renewed hope that religion is still relatable, and that key strands of contemporary American Christianity remain filled with hope and possibility in spite of many who would hijack it for, frankly, un-Christian ends.
Then I plunged into the very deep waters of Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. I discovered that this was a book I’d been waiting for my whole life but I just didn’t know it.
The Universal Christ brings into focus both sides of Jesus Christ— the human man Jesus and his deeds and ways, and the universal godly Christ principle gifted by Him.
Rohr’s writing moved me to grasp more immediately the humility of the manly, earthly servant who was Jesus. I had, up to that time, identified more with the Christ impulse (though the book actually presumes the opposite need — that for most readers Christ is sorta forgotten as maybe the last name of Jesus where Jesus the miracle-worker is more popularly clung to).
When I finally got to Smith’s book I was floating on a cloud of fresh religious-philosophical insight. Their books explored deep mysteries at the heart of Christianity. Yet both books clearly made the point that the earthly Jesus, and all he was in that form, was every bit a twin pillar with the loftier Christ aspect — that service, kindness, compassion, inclusion, humility, and above all love, were critical to being the “body of Christ” (Jesus) here on earth. Both made clear that you can’t love God if you don’t have much patience with people and their needs.
The aftereffects of reading those two thought-provoking books were still with me when I picked up Smith’s A Better Life. I felt ready to slow down and sign up!
Or so I thought.
Salt of the Earth
When I first started reading it I have to admit that I found A Better Life to be a bit pedestrian, prosaic, provincial even.
I caught myself thinking, “This is no spiritual mind-bender. This isn’t the guide to deepening my Christian life. I’m looking for something more.”
And man, I couldn’t have been more wrong. (Fortunately I picture Rebecca Smith being able to forgive me for my momentary stupidity if she ever reads this review.)
And I don’t know why I thought that — it’s a memoir after all, not a theological tome!
Make no mistake that Smith’s wisdom is simple. But it’s not simplistic. Her writing comes across like what Buddhists call beginner’s mind, an advanced mental state of radical openness to new discoveries, no matter how much you might think you already know.
The Living Lab of a Loving Life
Smith writes with an unpretentious approach to life-experience. She vulnerably lays bare the limits of what she knows (outside of trusting God, to which she is singularly loyal). And on the way she plucks from her journey gems of insight and perspective that are useful to many — business owners, moms, spouses, and other folks just trying to make it in this world.
The context of A Better Life is that Smith set out hoping to do some kind of US-based mission-type work with her hubby and unexpectedly catapulted herself into her own boutique custom handbag business instead.
The missionary plan landed her in a truly unique Detroit suburb — Hamtramck, Michigan — with a majority immigrant population, a huge number of whom were Muslim. She went to Hamtramck specifically to work with the community there because of her husband’s interest in Muslim culture and the challenges they face in becoming a part of broader American life. (Btw, Hamtramck, Michigan is an interesting sub-story in its own right and in Smith’s book. The diversity there per capita is totally unique for a town that size and the solid sense of unified community sounds unparalleled in American towns. Her insider’s document of the place is worthy of elevation on its own.)
But Smith’s new life in Hamtramck felt both foreign and unappealing to her in spite of the lofty ideals driving her imagined missionary plan. Instead she found herself not wanting to reach out, not wanting a context for service, and, admittedly, missing familiar aspects of her White middle class life.
And thus it might have stayed if not for her business taking off.
Holed up in her house alone with her nose to the grindstone, all of the sudden Smith found herself becoming a popular niche designer online, and her Etsy business growing and expanding beyond a micro-business.
That’s when her solo juggling act and isolation within her community forced her hand. She needed help — employees, accountants, tax advisors, wholesale suppliers, business planning, and a growth strategy. And frankly, some friends.
Revisiting a chance meeting with a local Muslim woman and fellow seamstress from a few years back, she began connecting with the local population of other Muslim immigrant women who she had largely avoided until then.
In It Together
It turned out that she needed these women as much as they needed her.
Their struggle was that as Muslim women they faced barriers to traditional employment, either because of cultural and religious dictates, or prejudices, practical issues, and more. But they could do piece work from home. Smith found the skilled and experienced sewing colleagues she needed to make more bags.
From there her one-woman home-based business grew into one where she was a local employer with her own space, attracting help and injecting stimulus into her town’s economy while also helping these women to get the work they couldn’t get any other way.
Though small, Smith insisted on paying a fair wage and offering flexible work hours and religious and cultural accommodations. She also took chances on other struggling women with barriers to employment. Being a responsible, accommodating, and also compassionate employer became Smith’s mission.
Her dream came true, just not as she had pictured. She let herself embrace being a CEO, a job-creator, a people-first business leader and she (and her workforce) thrived within it, though with some hiccups along the way.
Smith illustrates the humble and often messy aspects of the human Jesus part of Christian life that we’re called to live. The everyday. The every person. The every moment. That they both matter. That they’re worth slowing down for. That while business success is important for obvious reasons, for some people, like Smith, the almighty buck will never be above the Almighty.
A Better Life details the worth of keeping on keeping on in your walk of faith, trust, and the bigger picture in whatever you do.
Far from being an overly simplified book that I thought it might be in the first few pages, instead A Better Life was exactly the earthly Jesus wisdom I needed at exactly the moment I needed it. I wanted to wed the lofty Christ principle with the messiness of actual human conditions and Smith came through like a guardian angel showing the way.
Really, the theology I craved wasn’t theory, but it was multiple instances of Christian faith life in action, in real world circumstances.
I felt like A Better Life changed my life, helping me to set aside the fears I have with my own business challenges. And it awakened in me ideas of how my business can grow into a more meaningful context, to reflect and explore how that might be. It was inspiring.
The final takeaway is that you can read this book from a Christian perspective and get that layer of Smith’s story to help bolster your own faith-based walk in life and business. Smith knows which stories to pull from the Bible to give depth to her insights while providing guideposts to how to successfully run a values-based, mission-based business.
But I’d argue that if you’re not a Christian, or a religious person, but are a home-based entrepreneur looking to grow, a maker, designer, or an Etsy seller, or even if you’re unsure of what else you’d like to do in life but would like some perspective on the highs and lows, the setbacks and the victories, of starting your own gig, this book will very practically help you to get a sense of what to expect.
A Better Life doesn’t promise “a six figure salary in 5 minutes a day!” Far from it. But it does offer both practical tips for business success and inspiration to spur you into regular business or social-entrepreneurship.
Smith will keep it real, lay it bare, and still make it all feel worthwhile. And if you happen to also see a little spark of the divine at work in her life and maybe yours, that’s the sweetest takeaway of all.
— Lindsay Curren, Lady Virginia Vintage
*DISCLOSURE: The above book links and this link to A Better Life; Slowing Down to Get Ahead goes to my Amazon affiliate account. If you purchase the book through this link I will get a tiny referral fee.