Our handyman, Carlos, was here the other day fixing a slew of things. In my office, he perched on the ladder while I handed him fresh light bulbs. One bulb broke in the socket and was good and stuck. I told him to stay right there as I ran to the kitchen. Returning, sweet potato in hand, I showed him how the spud could help him unscrew the base safely. An old country trick; new to him.

We shared stories of our best odd solutions for fixing things—including my cream of tartar shower head cleaning technique. When asked, I walked him through the steps. 

This morning, it dawned on me how my speaking and writing have revolved around how to do things—whether it was rebounding from or avoiding bankruptcy, tithing with gratitude instead of obligation, or communicating clearly and compassionately. 

 If I could figure out the formula, or find a recipe to life’s perils, I could succeed. I wanted to help others succeed too, so how-to-ese quickly became my primary language.

As a freelancer in my twenties, my articles in Writer’s Digest magazine told people how to leverage their writing. I wrote because I had figured out ways to transform a $25 payment from one publication into $800 from up to a dozen. That paid my rent (and then my mortgage) every month.

As a financial ghostwriter in my thirties, I enhanced other people’s writings on how to market businesses, invest, budget, and build a positive net worth. Luminaries like marketing genius Jay Abraham, financial experts Ken and Daria Dolan, and retirement guru Pete Dickinson all relied on me to bring their how-to messages to the masses.  

Around that time, I was fielding daily calls from a friend going through bankruptcy. She knew I’d declared bankruptcy when I was 21 and had successfully rebuilt my financial life. One day, she said, “It would be so much easier if you would just write all this down for me so I don’t have to keep bugging you every day.” 

That led to the birth of my first book, Bounce Back From Bankruptcy.

Before long, I was sharing my how-to expertise in publications, on radio and television, and at workshops nationwide. I was a veritable jack-of-all-things-how-to: How to Break the Debt Cycle—For Good!, How to Talk so Your Creditors Will Listen, How to Manifest the Right and Perfect Mate, Job, Career, even Buyer for Your Home. You name it, and I can share my steps for how to achieve it. 

I marvel at the path I’ve taken. How did a girl who stuttered, a woman who blurted out entire paragraphs without a breath—wholly confident no one else really wanted to hear what I had to say—build a speaking empire around “how to” do things? 

When I think back on it, my whole life has been a how-to book—how to stay sane in a family where suicide was a clear option. How to survive when tossed out of the house at seventeen; how to create a full life from nothingness. 

In the beginning…was the void. 

To survive, my entire life—personally and professionally—became focused on leverage. How could I leverage what you want using what I had in ways that would in turn give me what I wanted?

I strove to get as much currency from my words as possible. I uncovered innovative ways to turn every interview into a cash cow. A story bought by Modern Maturity earned me a $2,000 kill fee when they changed editors and the article never saw the light of day. I re-purposed parts of my interviews with the dedicated Woman’s Air Service Pilots (WASPs) and sold articles to two other publications.

I started writing movie reviews for a local gay paper, earning $25 per month. Recognizing these niche papers had virtually no overlap of readers, I created my own syndicated movie review column and sold it to newspapers in other cities, turning my $25 into as much as $250 a month. I doubled my money at these papers when I branched out and began a book review column. And then doubled my money again when I started offering travel features.

When practical writing ideas ran dry, I switched to more theoretical ones. Like how to be fully authentic, how to remember our connection with others, how to remember we are One with the entire Universe. How to. Be. Here. Now. 

The 21-year old whose main goal in life had been to die before reaching twenty-three had accomplished the ultimate how-to magic trick. How to love life, in all its teetering, tumbling, soaring and boring moments. 

If you feel like sharing, tell me… what have you discovered how-to do in your life?