1.4.1: Money. Huh. What is it good for?

A way of life, or a way of death?

If there is a secret learned from being inside the heads of rich people, it is this: money can just as easily hinder a life as help it, and the way to guarantee it hinders is to assume it helps
‘The chief value of money,’ wrote H.L. Mencken, ‘lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated.’[i] Money is great at getting you places. It’s rather less good at judging if those places are worth getting to. Sometimes going somewhere no one else can go is profoundly good. Other times it leaves you miserable in a palace when everyone else is having fun playing in the mud. Many a lottery winner has become a tourist in their own lifestyle, unfriended by old, unaccepted by new.[1]
I’ve been inside the heads of people who appeared only a few steps removed from killing for wealth. And who possessed levels of wealth that others have certainly killed for. These heads are not always a pretty, nor even a satisfying, place to be. No one explained why this was better than a man who is also very wealthy, and who almost did kill himself.
Philippe Pozzo di Borgo never really questioned the story of his wealth until he became paralysed. Being the subject of major international films, his outside story has been told well enough already. But it is the inside story, told in his book, in his conversation, and in the ineffable messages of his art collection, where the real value lies.
For that is a story of how extreme wealth can act not as an enabler of life, but as a limiter of it. When it’s easy to do anything you like, it’s easy to do nothing like you. When Philippe’s paraglider crashed, so too did the story of his wealth that until then had been written and directed by ghosts, with little concern for the life of the leading man. Spectres of societal expectations and ancestral authority, writing scripts for what is, based on what they deemed ought to be. When he lost the freedom of his physical movement, and could no longer conduct himself so comfortably within the confines of his class, Philippe became freer to move and more comfortable within his mind.
Just as in ethical philosophy ‘Hume’s Guillotine’[ii] sought to sever claims about what objectively ‘ought’ to be based on what is, so in financial philosophy, we should seek to sever claims about how one ‘ought’ to live based on whatever financial circumstances one happens to find oneself in, and tie them instead to whoever one happens to be. For finances are the stage on which one expresses themselves, not the expression itself.
‘Nearly all human beings’, wrote Egon Friedell,[iii] ‘are in the possession of the secret of how they ought to live, but the magnificent and unique invention that each one of them embodies is hardly ever realised.’ That money is not an aid to the expression of one’s life, but merely the circumstances in which that expression happens to take place, is a lesson as worthy of being learnt as it is so regularly not.[2]
This book exists because of the belief that if others could see what I have seen, they wouldn’t sacrifice so much for the sake of a booby-trapped illusion. This is something Proust well understood: ‘One way of solving the problem of existence, after all, is to become so closely acquainted with things and individuals we once saw from further away as being full of beauty and mystery, that we realize they are devoid of both.’[iv]
The ‘way of life’ characterised by sacrificing life for money is, of course, no life at all. Life is for living, not sacrificing. No one argues that humans need a sense of purpose. But purpose for what? A purpose for their resources, a direction to which to turn them that best fulfils that human’s potential. This is why it’s imperative to view money as one part of the human-resource whole – human capital and financial capital as the same source of potential. Your money needs purpose just as much as you do, because your money has meaning only when you see it as something you participate with, as a part of you and your relationship with the world.
This goes beyond a trite trade-off between ‘working to live’ and ‘living to work’, or a myopic entreaty to ‘live in the moment’. It is also not about a saccharine replaying of messages such as ‘money can’t buy happiness’ or ‘the best things in life are free’. Because money can buy you happiness and everything costs something when you look at it, as you always should, through a wider lens than one that treats money in the immediate moment as the only resource.

Mo’ money, mo’ problems

Traditionally, wealth is defined not by worth, but by waste; for money to truly enrich your life, you must understand, and then shake, this belief
It is a central theme of this book that most of what we think of as money problems are really mindset problems, and are therefore solved not by more money, but by better thinking. If the way you think about money is screwy, then your life will be too – and more money will only make you more screwed. As happiness researcher Professor Paul Dolan notes, ‘While poorer people have more intrusive thoughts about money than do wealthier people, the latter's happiness is more negatively influenced by those thoughts.’[v]
This is so important because the ‘more money is a panacea’ illusion is so pervasive. And it’s been ruining lives for centuries. Since forever, those that do acquire the ‘more’ they sought get lost wondering why it didn’t work; and those that don’t get lost in envying those that do, unaware of the fact it didn’t work for anyone else, or blinded by the belief that it would work for them.
Hear, for example, Søren Kierkegaard: ‘A young man today would scarcely envy another his capacities or his skill or the love of a beautiful girl or his fame, no, but he would envy him his money. Give me money, the young man will say, and I will be all right […] he will die in the illusion that if he had had money, then he would have lived, then he certainly would have done something great.’[vi] Or Montesquieu: ‘If one only wished to be happy, this could be easily accomplished; but we wish to be happier than other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are.’[vii] No man is a hero to his valet.
In the short-term, blaming mindset problems on a lack of money is the perfect means of eschewing responsibility for anything that isn’t working as well as we think it should be. If you can confidently state that your life would be great if only the system weren’t so unfairly stacked against you, then you can maintain the comforting belief that you are perfect. However, long-term, few beliefs are so pernicious. Because ‘more’ as a state is by definition unobtainable, your excuses (and associated experiential shortcomings) last forever. Moreover, making more money isn’t ultimately as easy, nor as inherently positive, as choosing a different way of seeing the world. And it comes at a much higher cost. It is precisely believing money is the limiting factor that stops people from living the sort of better lives they believe more money would enable.
Financial planning can be an uplifting profession. But it can also be a depressing one. Watching people squander opportunities is never joyful. But watching millionaires do it is like watching a Messi or a Michelangelo swapping their talent for more time watching television.
Just as we fail to consider the long-term consequences of running from responsibility, we also fail to consider what we’d do even if we procured the panacea pot of gold. So everyone ends up allocating their monetary resources in service of society’s identikit ‘oughts’ rather than in smoothing the paths towards fulfilling the potential of their unique ‘is’. This needn’t be simply buying symbols of excess. ‘From the behaviour of many rich people,’ wrote Nassim Taleb, ‘we can infer they live constantly terrorized that other rich people think that they are poorer than they actually are.’[viii] Imagine sacrificing your time and energy to obtain cash you don’t know what to do with, and then doubling down the sacrifice by using that cash to try to ensure that other people think you’ve got it. And yet that sort of behaviour is so well-cherished that it can land you in the White House.
In the traditional model of financial ‘success’, wealth is defined not, as it may first appear, by worth, but by waste.[3] However, as Philippe’s story shows, the traditional way doesn’t always equal the right way. We may believe that ‘success’ in the sense that demands quotation marks in every country outside of America is a halo, but the evidence is clear: its bearers are not always angels.[4] Much of what we refer to as ‘success’ requires inverted commas because we actually mean something else. Usually luck. And even then, unless we’re aware of the feelings of the allegedly lucky bugger, we probably want to qualify or caveat the label. ‘Success’ is not about crossing a finish line. It’s about how you feel when you do… and in the training before… and in whatever you do afterwards. We wouldn’t consider anyone to have lived a successful life if they sacrificed what truly made them feel alive to achieve something they weren’t all that bothered about and the accomplishment of which left them feeling flat forever more. Objective measures of success are as pointless as a miserable millionaire.
Not that this story would ever make it to the big screen. As Douglas Adams reminds us, ‘Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.’[ix] We hide the cost of our wealth for fear we would appear less remarkable otherwise. We fail to learn from others, because we fail to teach others ourselves. In the words of La Bruyère: ‘We need not envy certain people their great wealth; they acquired it at a heavy cost, which would not suit us; they staked their rest, their health, their honour and their conscience to acquire it; the price is too high, and there is nothing to be gained by such a bargain.’
Fortunately, we need not sacrifice anything – let alone the use of our limbs – to learn this, and to live it.

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[1] I’ve worked with real-life lottery winners for whom this was unquestionably the case.
[2] One last reminder of the caveat: beyond a threshold lower than anyone lets themselves believe.
[3] For example, spending habits that show off not what we own, but what we’ve lost in order to own it, and substantial amounts of stuff that act as vain substitutes for substance of self. We’ll return to these ideas in Part 2, Chapter 2.
[4] Indeed, the only universal link between the traditional model and happiness (however defined) is that lawyers are basically always miserable. This is probably less because there’s anything particularly specially shitty about being a lawyer, but because they’re trained both to find fault and convert everything into money (their time, their clients’ damages, etc). Personal fit is a powerful determinant of finding meaning in one’s work, and one has to worry about anyone who’s personal fit is for a fault-finding arch-materialist.
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[i] H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy
[ii] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
[iii] Egon Friedell, A Cultural History of the Modern Age, vol. 3
[iv] Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 2
[v] Paul Dolan, Happiness by Design
[vi] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age. A Literary Review
[vii] Charles de Montesquieu, quoted in A Dictionary of Thoughts (1891; edited by Tryon Edwards)
[viii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Facebook post 2nd July 2014
[ix] Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See
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