How often do you think about money? Now I’ve raised it, many of you will start singing to yourself. Maybe it’ll be Money makes the world go round from Cabaret; or a bit of Pink Floyd, or Abba, or Dire Straits, or perhaps, like the CEO of Sainsbury’s when he thought he was off camera, you’ll sing We’re in the money from 42nd Street. Money is everywhere, and it’s on my mind for a number of reasons.
The first is that I’ve had to buy a car as one failed. On the surface buying a car seems relatively simple. Pretty much all cars nowadays do what they’re meant to do, but the options of make and model, engine type, and types of financing quickly turn simplicity into complexity with an added dash of the paradox of choice. But at the end of the day it always means forking out a bundle of cash.
The second reason for money being on my mind was that I recently went to a talk from Mark Boyles, the Moneyless Man. He has spent much time recently not spending any money and now lives on less than £2000 a year. He was not in the least bit evangelical about his life choice; rather, he just said what it meant to him. But inevitably it made one question one’s own relationship with money.
Money is, of course, merely a myth that we tell each other. It doesn’t actually exist in the natural world. Unlike trees, rivers and mountains, we’ve had to invent it. It is nothing more than an enabler, allowing us to exchange goods and services. It’s no longer backed by gold, and it only has a value because everyone trusts that there’s a value. Estimates vary, but economists suggest that the amount of money that exists in the world as tangible, physical paper notes and coins is no more than eight per cent. That means that 92% of money is nothing more than computer data. That means it really, really doesn’t exist. So when you see company share prices and currencies fluctuate daily, it’s worth remembering that all that has really changed is a narrative around a valuation or reputation. Physically, things often stay the same. Yet despite the fact that money is nothing more than a story we tell ourselves, for most of us it seemingly controls our very existence.
It isn’t only people who have too little money that worry about it. As a coach you will often see the result of a drug-like dependency on money. People stay in unhappy roles and organisations because of money. Share options and bonuses, originally designed to recognise outstanding performance and reward loyalty, effectively trap people in roles. People literally stay for the wrong reasons. Often you will hear people say that they’ll stick it out until their share options kick in – a case of deferred gratification where the end is merely the promise of money, and no factoring in of the opportunity cost of not doing something else. In The Myth of Sisyphus, his great essay on existentialism, Camus said: “A man wants to earn money in order to be happy, and his whole effort and the best of a life are devoted to the earning of that money; the means are taken for the end”. Status and money are confused with real wealth. None of this is to deny the desire to own and enjoy beautiful things, but the pursuit of money for its own end can lead to making poor decisions about what’s genuinely worthwhile. Knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing, as Wilde said. And Wilde joins a long list of philosophers, writers, mystics, and religious leaders who have much to say on the subject.
There isn’t really a right answer. Context is everything and different times and circumstances throw up different challenges for people differently. When coaching, it is important to try to get people to decouple money from the root cause and visualise life choices away from solely financial considerations. Few people pause often enough to reflect about how much is enough, and what the implications of thinking of life beyond continually striving in order to maintain a certain lifestyle or status.
I’m certainly not advocating trying to live without money, merely suggesting that trying to loosen the ties that it has on us can be a good thing, especially as it isn’t actually real. What is important is to focus on genuine desires, needs and wants. Then money can be seen in its true light.
Then again, as Marx said: “While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly let’s you choose your own form of misery.” (btw, that’s Groucho not Karl).