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Money – The Ultimate Fool’s Gold

by Garrett Fisher
May 7, 2014

It is no secret that psychology has figured out that money isn’t the best motivator. Contextually speaking, that means that if we would like to get people to do something, believe it or not, money doesn’t always get the job done. How many employees on the job don’t bother to excel and achieve a bonus plan? How many service providers can’t be bothered to show up and get the job done? It isn’t the norm, per se, however it happens enough that I notice it and get annoyed in my life.

The serious question is “why do we go to work?” Quite a few of my recent writings and recent TEDx talk speak to the concept that our economy is fear based. Hence, the primary thing that gets us out of bed in the morning is the need to eat and have a place to live. If we did not, our stomach would rumble and the unpleasantries of being homeless would catch up.

Fair enough. Then if we are fear-based, have a job, and have an opportunity to make more money, why do we do so? That is the million-dollar question. If our needs are met at a current job, why are so many addicted to promotions – even if those promotions mean travel and extended work hours? One might say that a person is attempting to build security from fear into their personal finances and save money to weather bad times. If that is the case, why do most Americans spend just about everything they earn? If a job comes at the cost of freedom, why does a new minivan loaded with features show up soon thereafter in the driveway? Something here is driving the addiction – and it is not basic needs.

If you were to receive an unexpected bonus of $25,000, what is the first thing that comes to mind? You may think of something you would do with it: save it, pay debt, purchase something. Think a minute as to why the bonus would be used in such a way. Broadly speaking, by observation we can point that money means one of three core things to people: self-esteem, freedom, and safety.

For someone who is living check to check, extra money is indeed freedom. The act of paying off debt is freedom for others. The ability to travel or invest in an activity that is personally meaningful could achieve that goal. Perhaps it is the purchase of an asset that would improve convenience or mobility; for example, better transportation or a car altogether if one does not have one.

On the safety front, many would save extra money. Indeed, the buffer provided is a protection against the unknown. Some invest for the purposes of increasing safety: residual income, building their business, anything that would result increased income potential. Both safety and freedom have a component of reality to them in our present economy.

Then there are those that see money as a means to self-esteem. For introverted types, having the money in the bank may be enough. Others prefer external validation – purchasing things that are visible and a sign of self-improvement. To many, the lifestyle that they “should” have is a product of money – and that lifestyle is tied directly to perceptions of self-worth.

What amazes me about money is how little thought goes into our societal acquisition of it.  Yet, it is complex, nuanced, and far from standard. Having lived in many regions of the US, I can say that each one had a wildly different view of both earning and having money and what was an acceptable view of the process. These views have gone from the concept that money is literally a blessing from God all the way to “my snowboard broke, I had better work some so I can buy a new one.”

Another highly interesting fact is the amount of people that do things not ostensibly for monetary compensation. Once a person gets past the pain of poverty and has extra, many are not concerned about the money after that point. How many teenagers, when contemplating what they wish to do in life, pick something where their parents have to remind them it does not earn money? How many scientists work in universities and perform research in lieu of the private sector? How many people work for non-profits and NGOs, helping third world countries? Even more so, how many work in religious institutions for lower compensation than the private sector? Right before our very eyes, we can see large sections of society governed by things other than money and instead, struggle with the realities of money to try to meet their non-monetary goals.

Many of us know this fact as we can see it clearly in individual behavior. Yet somewhere we have decided that all of society cherishes money over anything else. In so doing, we act, spend, think, and vote as though that were true when we know it is not. Our society of monetary obsession is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Money does a terrible job of providing true self-esteem, freedom, and safety. To find those in our society who have a high amount of these three characteristics, take a look at the culture of surfers, ski bums, and naturalists. Apparently impervious to safety concerns, they have more ideological freedom than higher income earners. Based on their visible contentment, one can assume they feel just fine about themselves in their lifestyle. Its kind of ironic considering their insolvent peace against a neurotic salaried worker with a mortgage, car payment, commute, and long job hours. Who is having their needs met better between the two?

The key is internal generation of these need sets. Self-esteem is decided by each one of us and no one else. Safety and freedom are relative to what we decide is important and how safe or free we choose to live. Most, however, fall into what is ostensibly a stupid trap of saying “If I can work hard enough, I can make enough money, then others will respect me, then I can feel good about myself.” Its almost ironic the amount of layers involved there – and it’s downright silly who we look to so we can feel good about ourselves. By looking outward for these internal needs, we enslave ourselves to each other in the oddest and potentially most cruel form of slavery there is: where we are our own slaves and masters, and we won’t set ourselves or others free. Money is truly the ultimate fool’s gold.