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The Four Illusions of Money

Why do people work at jobs they don't like? Why is it common to hear people say their goal in life is to "make a lot of money?" These are the most frequently given answers:

"A lot of money will let me be free to do what I want."

"People with a lot of money command more respect from others."

"I need more money for my family."

"Money is necessary for security in old age."

THESE STATEMENTS ARE ILLUSIONS. They are inaccurate perceptions of the world we live in.

When we look at the average graduating class of high school students, we are distressed to know that nearly all of them hold these values: they seek "a lot" of money as a lifetime goal. Less than five percent of these students will become healthy. The remaining 95 percent will shape their lives around these inappropriate values.

How do you feel about these four statements? Read them over and see if you find them completely agreeable. For most people they are.

"A lot of money will let me be free to do what I want."

You can really feel this way when you're working at a job that you don't like, when you're unhappy with the way things are going in your life, and when there is some object, experience, or service you desperately want to buy.
The alternative is to deal with these feelings directly and positively. Write down the specific things you want to do with your life. Describe the things you need to shape the kind of person you want to be (the experiences you need, knowledge skills, talents, etc.) Make sure what you write down doesn't include money itself. When you look at your list you'll find that there is a way to accomplish all of it in your lifetime without any more money than you now have. Most things require that you actively pursue them and LEARN in the process. If you want to be a world traveler, join the crew of a sailing ship and be useful in a way you know now. Later you'll be useful as a sailor and have the necessary great stories to tell at night about hitting sharks on the nose in the Bahamas.

What you may find from the list that you make is that having a lot of money may allow you to achieve goals a little sooner, but the effort of going out and earning money to make something happen sooner is not worth the time, and more importantly the person you may become may have lost vigor and joy.

Back in the late '50s a young woman who desired a doctorate degree won over $100,000 on a TV quiz show. Years later, in reflecting on the effect of the prize money, she said it made little difference in her life although it may have accelerated her degree by a few years. She was a strong woman and knew what she wanted to do with her life. She's Doctor Joyce Brothers.

Her experience is not uncommon. People who know what they want to DO with their lives go ahead and do it. They don't make the money first doing something else. It often turns out that money and the possessions which go with making lots of money are responsibilities and restrictions that inhibit freedom. The possessions unrelated to your livelihood are often amassed to help you feel better about yourself.

Check your list again and see how many possessions are listed there. Most possessions on your list are abundantly available. Many things can be borrowed from friends who are willing to share. That includes everything from a ski condominium in Snowmass to an Aston-Martin race car. With a good network of friends, nearly anything is possible. The alternative to investing your energy in making money is developing strong friendships. This means being an interesting, trustworthy and helpful person yourself.

When you are unable to locate something you need among your friends, consider renting the piece of equipment. Finding and restoring "discards" can be an alternative to save both money and resources. Perhaps you have possessions you can trade to a friend or neighbor in exchange for something more useful. Service bartering can be an even more rewarding experience. It costs no more than time and energy spent with a friend. If you have a skill, share it with others.

In writing and examining your values it's helpful to talk to someone who is wise. The wisdom of millions of our ancestors has been very consistent on this point, and wise people constantly pass it on to us. The goal of amassing (getting a lot of) money is traditionally called "greed" and regardless of your motives in getting the money (freedom, charity, or anything else) the results will not be what you hope for. Instead the wise teachers of tradition tell us to go ahead and do the things we want and become good at them. In that lies our freedom.

“People with a lot of money command more respect from others."

If you know that the first statement about money and freedom is false, then it will help you to see the fallacy behind money equaling respect. In looking at the big cars and the big houses we often believe that their owners can do much more than we can. If indeed the people with big cars and houses can do more than we can, then it probably isn't their money, it's other qualities that they may have such as knowledge, experience, and friends. It isn't their money. A common experience in business is the person who builds a successful company, goes broke, and then builds up a new company again starting from scratch.

If we believe we personally want respect, it helps to make a list of the quaUties we want to have, qualities that lead others to respect us, qualities that we want our children to have or our friends to have. Do words such as loyal, honest, and generous occur on your hst? A careful examination of these qualities reveals that each of them has to do with how we conduct our daily lives and not how much money we have.

Now make a list of the people you love. Bob, Annie, Carole, and David. Examine the list to see if it's ranked in the order of how much money they have. There is probably no relationship between love and the amount of money they have. The same criteria we apply to others can be applied to us. Money isn't a reason for friendship or respect.

“I need more money for my family.”

Why shouldn't people be generous with their families! This seems like reasonable parental behavior. It's when people use this concept as an excuse for doing something that they would rather not do that it is a fallacy. When someone works at a job that they find unpleasant, monotonous (too demanding), stressful, or frustrating and say they do it for their family, they're talking nonsense.

Many people work long hours, develop ulcers and live with great stress because they believe their family benefits. Stop and ask your family what they want. Would your children rather have a Winnebago camper (which may mean the main wage earner works a lot of overtime) or would they rather have you at home to spend time together or go on a camping trip with ordinary sleeping bags and tents? Give your family the choice between those possessions and the time and peace of mind you are diverting from them to earn it.

Another useful technique is to look at a picture of two houses — one a glamorous mansion, the other a modest home with a bicycle near the front door. Which one of the houses has a happier family? Most people would say "I can't tell" when the question is posed this way because we know in our hearts money and possessions have nothing to do with happiness.

“Money is necessary for security in old age."

Michael is blessed with a father who is a living contradiction of this. When he was 65, his father retired from teaching anthropology and social sciences with a modest pension and Social Security income of $300 a month. He sold his home and all his belongings, including a lifetime collection of tools and books which brought almost no revenue. He bought a van in England and proceeded to drive east with his wife (Michael's parents were divorced 15 years earlier). He got teaching jobs along the way and stopped anywhere he found interesting.

Driving as far east as they could go, they ended up in Malaysia where they bought part of a South China Sea island near Singapore for $2,000. They now live part time on their island with a sandy beach, coconut trees, fresh fish, and lots of Malaysian and Chinese friends. They live on less than $100 a month and save the rest for numerous trips they take to all parts of the world including back to the U.S. One of the most surprising benefits is that they see many of their old friends from all over the world regularly. Everyone wants to visit their tropical paradise for a vacation. With Singapore nearby, they have all the comforts of a major international city with its cuisine, culture, and excitement.

Michael's father could live on any amount of money. In the seven years since he retired he hasn't touched his savings. How about health care and medicine? One of his closest friends is chief of a major research hospital in Malaysia that is better than 98% of the hospitals in the U.S. Friendship is more powerful than money.

From the Grey Panthers to people in retirement villages the ones who are happy in their old age are the ones that have the same qualities that Michael's father has: being friendly and flexible. Money makes no difference at all. With friends, especially ones of all ages, you can solve the problems that arise, whether it's tax increases, inflation or legal hassles — problems that other people can't handle because times have changed and their hfetime experiences and contacts are inappropriate. Friends also provide vitality, emotional support and new friends — which is especially valuable after age 75 when one out of ten old friends die each year.

Flexibility in attitude is also essential as your body becomes less reliable. We all know old people who say, "Close the window, the draft is terrible," "I can't sleep in that bed, it's too soft," and "I don't like to be around those kinds of people." With that attitude, who wants to be around THEM?

Michael's mother, who is also a positive example for him, has been Uving on her own for the last 20 years. She built a small contemporary house for herself and has always been gregarious and flexible. Even past seventy, she's involved in the politics of her city, art-related projects, and is the local fund raiser for the ACLU. (Any of her friends can call her for help on anything and she'll do it.) When she comes to visit San Francisco, several of Michael's friends always insist on spending time with her and showing her around. She travels regularly, often being invited on global trips just for her company and knowledge. You don't hear her complaining about comfort issues or how terrible the world is today.

The three of us have worked with many older people who had lots of money. In a case where the husband had earned the money we frequently find that the husband is confident and secure but the wife is anxious and often hysterical. He has earned the money in the first place and knows he could do it again even in his old age; the woman has no such experience and dreads the day when her husband will die and she has to face the world alone. No amount of money that we have seen can calm this kind of fear.

How do you prepare for old age? How do you prepare for inflations, wars, and depressions of the future? By being the kind of person other people want to be around. Competent, helpful, flexible, curious, generous, and experienced in dealing with the world.

“The Moral”

If you have friends and make an effort to be an interesting person, money is irrelevant. You can have a great deal of freedom and respect during your life and security in your old age. However if you are a loner, rather selfish, with narrow interests in life, then making a lot of money may be your only way to make it through life.