You know those movies where the bad-guy caresses a giant suitcase of money like it’s his favorite lover? How many times have you thought to yourself, man I’d love to have that cash!?
Not loving money is important
Or maybe what I mean to say is that the love of money can’t be the most important thing.
We all have fantasies of winning the lottery and what that would mean for our lives. It’s fun to dream about. But how often do we think about the extent to which money is driving our every day decisions? What does that mean for the choices we make for ourselves?
While it’s less obviously vulgar than hugging a suitcase of cash, the pursuit of money is one of the biggest drivers of our society too. Money creates power. The status conveyed by being rich is constantly paraded in front of us throughout news, media, and politics. In fact, it may be the single most constantly conveyed motif we have.
Billionaires are celebrated simply because they are billionaires. Reality shows depicting mansions, fancy cars, and “stuff” that money can buy filter through our TVs at a frighteningly regular clip. More perniciously, I think the ethos of money plays an out-sized role in personal and political decisions alike. Decisions on what to study (or if to go to college), which job to take, or the idea that buying and owning more stuff equals happiness all dominate too much of our collective decision making. Taking it more macro, in politics money and the ability to throw it around shapes elections and distorts incentives to do what is right or necessary or important and difficult.
Our love of money has given cash an out-sized power and the “pursuit of more” has created its own self-sustaining rat race.
First a disclaimer
I’m not saying money isn’t important. Obtaining a standard of living and providing for your family are noble, laudable, and natural goals. I certainly don’t deny that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is alive and well. And yes, to some extent its also probably easier for me to sit back and critique how important money is to others having grown up relatively privileged. (It’s also probably worth mentioning here that I don’t have anything against people getting or being rich either).
That said I think that when money starts serving as a proxy to be weighed against doing what you love or pursuing right action (however you choose to define ‘right action’), then something has gotten out of balance. It’s dangerous to let money decide how we choose to live our lives. It’s too ephemeral.
The Game of Money
If you know a little bit about me (but only a little) then you may be confused that I would write about the insignificance of money. After all, I love financial markets and I talk about investing and growing your money all the time.
I think if I was rich I would be able to use my money to help solve global problems, create more interesting businesses, and pursue my other passions with the freedom that wealth allows. I definitely agree with the premise that. all else equal, more money is better than less money.
But I do NOT love money. Achieving great wealth is NOT the driving force of my life. Money is good only in so much as it can help you achieve your goals.
There are bigger more important and value-creating themes on which to base your life.
The mental energy of thinking about money all the time
For a long time I wrestled with how much importance to attach to money. I had hustled for cash ever since I was a little kid working around the neighborhood in an assortment of odd jobs. Being self-sufficient was (and is) important to me.
Then there’s my love of all things investing. For a long time it seemed like a byproduct of that passion would be a career in a world more explicitly driven by profit motives then most industries. On the other hand, I also think about how to seek a life of deeper meaning.
Whether self-created or not, this dichotomy manifested in a strange sort of personal mental tension between what I wanted to do and what, somehow, I felt I ought to do.
I mostly don’t let money intrude too deeply into my thinking anymore. I think there’s a few reasons I’ve been able to do that.
First, I’ve gravitated towards this idea of creating value and solving problems (freely borrowed from the startup lexicon) as a good way to tap into my own energy and really help others. I also think in the VC world at least, that idea of value creation is also probably a good basic investment thesis. Money follows solutions. Solving problems better than anyone else creates competitive advantages.
I also don’t think you can underestimate the importance of stepping back and developing all the different dimensions of your life either.
But there’s a third reason too which is more relevant to this post.
The moment I knew
In retrospect, it’s actually pretty easy to pinpoint the exact time I decided that money doesn’t drive me.
It happened when I was surrounded by the most cash I had ever seen.
I learned this lesson while I was in a management training program at HSBC. During my time there I moved around the bank working in various divisions across the US. My first rotation involved spending a few months learning the ropes by shadowing and working in each role at a retail bank. It was a great experience.
In my branch in DC (Shoutout to #389!), I started by learning how to be a bank teller. It is detailed work to process customer transactions all day long and obviously you handle a large amount of cash (Fun fact, for a teller, small amounts are generally permissible in your drawer [up to $25k] with larger amounts having to stay locked in the vault).
Aaah the vault. The single greatest reason I know I don’t love money is because of that vault. I remember the day I took a delivery of $250,000 and walked it into the vault where there was over a million of cash being stored. And you know what? As I was counting all that cash I realized something. I felt absolutely nothing. No quickening heart beat. No fantasy of what I would do with all that cash. No dreams of pulling an inside job. Nothing.
There was no thrill to being surrounded by “dollar dollar bills yo.”
It ain’t about the Money
Cash is inert. Cash does not give meaning to life. It will not take care of you.
But it can be seductive. So don’t center your dreams on it.
If you can do that, my money is on it working out (sorry :).
Last modified: January 5, 2015