For some reason, a lot of us are still having trouble talking about money, let alone learning about it. This is really unfortunate given that there are few subjects that have as much bearing on our future wellbeing than financial literacy. Twenty-three-year-old podcaster, Sarah Kelsey, is on a mission to change this though with The OneUp Project; a podcast, platform and community designed to give “help everyone navigate the things they were never taught in a way that gives them more freedom in their life.” We talk to Sarah about her mission to break the money taboo and the link between financial literacy and personal development.
So you launched your podcast about financial literacy at the end of 2019 and then all of a sudden the world starts going nuts… global pandemic, money printing, crazy house prices, overall inflation. What was the catalyst to start?
I was interning at a big accounting firm and had a conversation about Kiwisaver and they essentially were saying, ‘Did you know you can change your fund and your rate to earn more money long term?’ And I was like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about. This is ridiculous. Why hasn’t anyone taught me about this?’
I tried to find a resource to educate myself and I couldn’t find anyone that was my age or my life stage that was willing to break it down; it just seemed way too complicated. I used podcasts as a medium to be able to communicate hard-to-understand topics with people just like me and not be afraid to ask those dumb questions. As I developed myself personally, it turned into a platform for personal growth as well. I see financial literacy and personal development as being part of the same thing.
I started the podcast in January of 2020 and then when COVID hit and money became extremely important, more so than it was previously. People were losing their jobs or having to reduce hours and people had a lot more time at home to themselves. Education became a lot more important..
That helped with people being aware of it, but it was important that it’s not just about releasing information that helps people, it’s about making it accessible to people and making it inclusive. That’s where I was able to connect with people and that’s what really helped to fulfill me.
The podcast has taken a much different direction to what it would have if COVID didn’t exist because it’s obviously the centre of a lot of conversation with things like inflation rising rapidly and interest rates moving around; that all became a massive part of the conversation.
I went through a series of life changes since the start of the podcast. I was working in an accounting firm and then I quit because it didn’t align with me. That was a huge deal for me; I was unemployed for about three months and then I found a new job and just recently moved into a flat. Those were all huge situations in my life that meant that my financial situation was impacted. People were able to follow that with me and learn at the same time; help me, as well as me helping them. Doing all of that through the lens of COVID has been really interesting.
I have had some incredible guests, Craig Hudson from Xero being one of them. The reason I wanted him on was because every time I hear him speak at an event or something he’s on, I find his way of thinking and his approach to leadership so admirable and different to other people I listen to. It’s so much more emotional and empathetic, as opposed to pushing others to get a result.
There are a few thought leaders around leadership that I enjoy listening to. I asked him if he had any of those people he follows, and he mentioned two of them that I’m really obsessed with; Brené Brown with Simon Sinek.
It’s really inspiring to see this leadership being implemented in New Zealand and that we have access to people like him; we can watch what he’s doing and learn from it. I really wanted to share that approach to leadership with my audience and what Xero is doing is definitely aligned with the podcast in terms of providing accessibility to people.
It’s interesting that you talk about Craig Hudson and his style of leadership because I notice that coming through in your work – you are very open and you are vulnerable about being vulnerable. Do you get the sense that there is a shift in the type of traits we look up to?
Absolutely. I think there’s a couple of reasons COVID has changed the landscape so much. There’s also a generational shift with Millennials and Gen Z coming into leadership positions. You might have heard commonly about the great resignation and this talk about Millennials and Gen Z being the type of people who want positions that have impact and purpose. They want to make a difference.
I’m not an exception to that, I’m absolutely one of those people. That is high up on my list of priorities when it comes to jobs or passion projects or whatever it is I’m doing. The leaders are now having to learn how to be empathetic to that and why people care about that and how they can implement that into their roles. I just love the psychological safety coming from the top, which makes it safe to be yourself. Craig Hudson is an example of someone who understands that and is willing to be vulnerable first to allow other people to be vulnerable.
There’s a quote Brene Brown has in her most recent book, “you can only connect with others as much as you can connect with yourself.” A lot of what Craig speaks about, which I found so empowering, is his journey of discovering what he thinks about his values, what works for him and what doesn’t, and how he had to open up to himself and be vulnerable to himself in order to achieve that with other people. And it’s so true, you have to be willing to be vulnerable first so that other people have the psychological safety to do it themselves.
In a recent podcast, you were talking about how you have learned to deal with criticism and your ability to stand back and find ways to process it differently. It shows that being vulnerable and being connected to your feelings is not weakness, it’s strength in a lot of ways.
You’re exactly right. Insecurities aren’t weaknesses, they’re just opportunities to learn more about yourself. For me, in order to grow resilience in those moments of criticism, or when you feel like you’ve done something wrong, to be able to lean into those insecurities and ask yourself, ‘Why do I feel like that?’.
When I was that person who would receive criticism and start sweating and had anxiety and heart rate is rising, I would try and block it out of my mind straight away. I’d say, ‘I’m not going to think about it, just move on’, and that was the completely wrong thing to do because I wasn’t being vulnerable with myself at all.
I was just trying to block out the way I felt and push it down, which we know is not the way to learn from it and to feel from it. I learned how to change that mindset where I have those insecurities, which is uncomfortable, it’s not an easy thing to do.
I’m glad that I’m getting onto this early in life. Being able to lean into those moments and say, ‘Okay, you are pretty much in tears, which isn’t good, but what is it about your past experience or about the world that’s making you feel this way,’ and then looking at it from a different point of view, not taking it personally and analysing how you feel about it.
It’s hard, but you can do all of this within your own head. It doesn’t need to be some huge journaling exercise, just simply asking yourself a question and acknowledging how you feel. You can have all of these insecurities and you can acknowledge that you have them, but if you don’t acknowledge that it’s okay that you have them, then again, you’re just going to be pushing down emotion and feeling worse about yourself.
This relates to that point about compassionate leadership too, because you can’t love others before you love yourself. I never understood that until just recently. I never really got what that meant and now I realise it’s true. If you swap the word ‘love’ for ‘empathy’; if I don’t have empathy for who I am and the way I feel, how am I ever going to have that same empathy for someone else who’s feeling the same way? I have to be able to do that for myself first. That’s been another really key thing that I’ve worked on.
Have you noticed that as you’ve shifted that dial on your own self-empathy, the potential for relationships with those around you has changed?
Absolutely, I definitely have. From a podcast perspective, I’ve noticed that my questions are so much better. I’m able to understand what someone’s saying a lot more and then ask an appropriate question and that is going to give me a deeper answer.
In regards to my relationships with other people, how I approached a conversation with someone before is, someone’s telling you an issue or something that’s going on in their life and you instantly relate it to your life experience. You think they’re going through this, what have I felt that’s similar? How can I contribute to the conversation?
But now, if I’m having a conversation with someone, my experience doesn’t come into it at all. I’m thinking only from their perspective – how are they feeling? What is their emotional feeling? And I can still relate to that. Say it’s a feeling of loss, I can still relate to that and say, ‘I’ve felt loss before and I know how horrible it is,’ but I’m not going to compare their experience to my experience of loss. I’m going to be empathetic to the emotion of loss – sit with them in that, and help them in whatever way I can from their lens and their perspective, not my lens of experience.
I think that helps you connect with people so much better and people feel so much better about their relationships with you as well and their communication. I definitely used to be the kind of person that would communicate and just try and solve someone’s issue straight away or, ‘Okay, you feel this way, how can we fix it? Let’s work on it’. That was coming from a place of care, but it didn’t always make the other person feel calm or good because they just wanted someone to be there with them.
It took me a while to understand that having empathy for someone outside of my own experience, was a great way to build meaningful relationships and deeper connections with people.
Going by social media, it seems that we like to create riffs with each other with everything. Do you get the sense that we’re starting to lose that empathy for each other as things have become very galvanised?
That’s an interesting question. I think it’s hard.We’ve been put in a situation where everyone has reacted differently and in ways that’s relevant to their own situation. Some people have lost their jobs or family members and other people have benefited in many ways. It’s hard when people don’t already have that understanding of how to connect with others and be empathetic, because then this situation is only going to advance that much more, if you already have those riffs.
If you didn’t really have that skill before, you’re really going to struggle to understand people because what’s happening in your life is so extreme compared to the norm and compared to someone else. It’s a lot harder to do that for a lot of people now. COVID has been a catalyst for that polarisation.
I used to be a really black and white person; either this way or that way. You see that now when people are like, ‘Well, I believe this about COVID and if you don’t move on the line then we’re just not going to talk’. But I think that is just a way of disconnecting from other people. It is so much better to acknowledge there is no black and white, it’s all grey, and you can find structure in the grey.
Do you get the sense that in the investing world there is a similar split? That there are some people that are really focused on their future and there are others that are just waiting for everything to collapse?
There are a lot of people who don’t want to know what’s happening and avoid learning. When it comes to investing or financial literacy, in general, it seems to be one of these things that works like a bell curve.
The start of the learning journey is just so hard. You’re just constantly pushing s*** uphill, trying to learn something and it’s so hard. You don’t understand, you feel like it’s so overwhelming and you don’t want to start. This is just getting to the point of starting to invest for the first time, learning how much you need for a deposit, all those things – it’s so hard. Once you get up here, you then realise that after that point, it’s actually a downward slope in the sense that it’s a lot easier than you think.
The more you understand, the more you realise how much easier it is, how much more accessible it is, and how much more realistic it is to achieve certain things. But it can be really difficult for people to get to that point.
Do you think that there is also a block for people to even get onto the bell curve of learning? Is it still taboo to be talking about money?
There’s definitely a barrier getting people in that bell curve all together, because it’s never had importance in their life, or they’ve never had access to that information, or they feel insecure that they’re not going to be smart enough to understand and they don’t want to ask those dumb questions.
That was the main point behind my podcast. I wanted to be the person that could ask those dumb questions so that you didn’t have to, and you could just listen from the safety of your own home and listen to the information in your own time. Because it is scary to tell someone, ‘I don’t understand this’. There’s absolutely still a stigma around money, even though people are talking about it more and more.
Sometimes I’m a little bit blinded because, with the podcast, it’s a community of people who want to learn about money. So people are always messaging me really vulnerable things about their money situation.
If you ask me any question, like how much money is in my bank account right now, I’m happy to tell you. I really have no issues with that kind of thing. But outside of that, there’s a huge group of people who don’t want to interact with anything like this because they are scared. So it’s going to be a different thing for everyone that resonates and gets them interested. It is just about finding those ways of creating accessibility to financial literacy.
What is that fear? Is it this old school hangover where you’re very reserved and you just don’t talk about these things? Or is it something deeper?
There’s so much within it. There’s vulnerability, there’s wanting to be perceived a certain way, have a certain status that you might not actually have. I think it’s rooted in insecurity and that’s why I say, self-development and financial literacy work together because you have to be open to overcoming your own insecurities to even want to do things like talk about money, which is an extremely personal topic.
People just still have it as really black and white; you never have money, you don’t know about money. When it’s actually extremely emotional and so much comes into it. There’s a lot that holds people back from being able to talk about it. If they start with getting to know themselves better, it’ll be a lot easier to be vulnerable and want to learn because you have that self-worth built up a little bit already, so you then think, ‘I want to know about this. I deserve to know about this’.
Some of the most successful investors that I know don’t look at all like they have money. Do you think that changes over time? When you really understand how you could put money to work, you are so much more adverse to buying stuff for status?
Yeah, you understand what you value so much more when you start to learn about money. Something I did an episode on recently was how to stop keeping up with the Joneses. I’m on social media a lot so I’m constantly seeing what other people are doing and buying. Whether consciously or subconsciously, that is happening in the back of your head. Maybe it’s been reinforced that you’re not good enough for this reason or that reason.
That was impacting my spending a lot and I wanted to work out why. Again, going back to leaning into that emotion, why do I feel like I need those things? Or why do I feel I’m not good enough?
You talk a lot about your why on the podcast, but there’s got to be something deeper as well that’s driven you to create the series. There is an incredible amount of resilience, work and investment that goes into setting up what you have, and then that drive to ask the right questions. Where do you think that comes from?
I’ve always had a really keen curiosity for other people’s life experiences and perspectives. I have always believed that if I can understand how another person thinks or why they think that way, I can learn so much and put that towards my own life, to be able to help other people and to connect with other people.
A huge driving force behind the podcast is connecting with other people. I just love having those conversations and I think something that’s really cool with social media now is that I’m having the deepest conversations with someone I’ve never met. I’ll get people messaging me paragraphs on paragraphs about some really vulnerable life situation that they want to have my perspective on.
That is just my favourite thing in the world to be able to do. I don’t know them but there’s shared trust and alignment. It’s a beautiful part of humanity not a lot of people are conscious of.
When did you have a sense of this? Is there a point in your childhood where you start thinking long term about what you want your retirement to be like?
I loved the future, the thought of the future. It’s something that’s always excited me rather than overwhelmed me. A lot of people will think about the future and be like, ‘Oh, there’s so much uncertainty. I don’t know where to go’.
It does freak me out in some ways, but it mostly excites me and I’ve always had that since I was young. Thinking about all the things I could do and life was always just so exciting. I’ve always wanted to be driven by something bigger than myself.