I meet a lot of characters in my current line of work. The good kind, mostly. But also, on occasion, the not so terribly nice kind. You know, the kind that are demanding, fussy, rude, ungrateful, and, on a particularly bad day, just oozing with negativity. But, for the most part, the nice, polite, unassuming and simple kind of folk that are lovely to chat and do business with.
Aren’t we all bombarded with all types of characters day in and out, you ask? Well, yes of course, especially here in New York City. The reason I bring up the ‘characters’ that glide in and out of my daily existence is because most of them share one unique quality, what some may call a defining characteristic. That is, they are all affluent. Rich, monied, wealthy, successful, however else you would describe having a healthy amount of dollars and cents in the bank.
They can afford the nicer things in life, the prettier, intricately made objects and lush exteriors. From the outside looking in their lives appear distorted, unreal, dusted with a golden sheen of perfection. When standing against the cold, misty window and taking a peak inside their lives, one’s eyes may instantly glaze over with envy, enthralled by the splendor, the glamour, the ease of existence they seem to be blessed with. We, the outsiders, gasp and pray and believe that maybe one day, one very fine day, our lives will consist of extravagant shopping sprees, decadent dinners, luxury vacations, expensive home furnishings and just simple, hassle free, blissful living. Aka, the good life.
We set our goals on a specific standard of success, we make feverish notes on the kind of people we will become, the kind of lives we dream to have. Most of all, we bow down to the god of money, joining our fellow brethren in worshipping it’s power, it’s necessity, it’s value. And we pray, and work and toil and pray harder each and every day to achieve the ultimate goal; that is ensuring that our lives become abundant with monetary riches. We make vows to do whatever it takes to make this happen, while stocking up on good karma and lottery tickets, incase our mortal efforts aren’t enough.
Meanwhile we seek comfort from our trusted peers sitting besides us on the pews. They understand our plight, our efforts, our determination, our indignation and the injustices of our lot in life. Or so we believe, because those living the good life can’t understand real anxieties and fears. When you don’t have to worry about how your bills are going to be paid, or whether you’ll have a roof over your head next month, you can’t really speak about financial woes.
But, after listening to fine suited men making +$10,000 purchases haggle over $45 shipping fees I realized that these pews are not reserved for cash-strapped, budget conscious, paycheck-paycheck existing individuals. Seated merely a row or two ahead of us in this cold chapel of Mammon are members of the gilded few, the deity we hope to become. Our heroes, our mentors, the individuals we’ve exalted to the pedestal of riches, praising their successes while simultaneously praying for their fall, so their successes may perhaps be transferred into our life accounts. Seeing them bent on their knees beside you, you realize that affluence, money, wealth, riches and everything pertaining to ‘the good life’ is all, entirely relative.
And more importantly, that having money or being wealthy are two independent events, which may or may not occur simultaneously. Which is obvious to anyone who has studied, or has at least an elementary understanding of economics. Money is merely a medium of exchange and has no inherent value. Money buys you the stuff you want and gets you the things you need, but it’s the stuff, things and services that have value, not the money itself.
Wealth, on the other hand, is about the ownership of things that are worth exchanging for other things of value or for money. Put differently, wealth is the ability to generate money (and other things of value). Money allows you to listen to a song. Wealth allows you to play the song whenever you want. Money gets you to your destination. Wealth allows you to leave, and come back, or stay longer, or find an entirely new destination to encounter.
Simply put, having money doesn’t make you wealthy and being wealthy is not about having money. And that’s where we all get stuck.
The New York Times recently featured an opinion piece written by a former Wall Street trader. A man who, at the relatively infantile age of 25, found himself disillusioned, disappointed and dissatisfied because he was ‘only’ making $1.75 million. How disgraceful! Or so you and I may conclude. Perhaps. But his story gets better, or rather worse. In his own words:
“I wanted a billion dollars. It’s staggering to think that in the course of five years, I’d gone from being thrilled at my first bonus — $40,000 — to being disappointed when, my second year at the hedge fund, I was paid ‘only’ $1.5 million.
But in the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth. I was in a meeting with one of them, and a few other traders, and they were talking about the new hedge-fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. ‘But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?’ I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look. I remember his saying, ‘I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.’ I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. He was afraid of losing money, despite all that he had.”
Fear doesn’t have to be rational to feel real. Anxiety about going broke can bring a millionaire crushing to his knees as swiftly as it would a plumber. Yet if there’s anything the past five years have taught us is that this fear can be very real. Losing an entire lifetime’s worth of savings by chance, misfortune, bad investments or plain bad luck can happen. Money can disappear in a flash and just as quickly reappear, be it $10 or $10,000,000. One day you’re a millionaire lottery winner the next day you can barely afford a decent meal.
Which brings us back to my earlier revelation; having money doesn’t make you wealthy and being wealthy is not about having money. This is all well and good and makes sense when one has the time to philosophize and wax poetic about such things. But most of us can’t afford to waste precious minutes mulling over semantics because there are bills to be paid, mouths to feed and shelters to obtain. Paying bills, buying food and securing shelter require money. Attaining money requires work, endless hours of exhausting, repetitive, often mundane work. So forget about being wealthy, we’re just trying to stay afloat and make it to tomorrow.
However, staying afloat is relative. It could mean struggling to afford your kids’ private school education, or struggling to afford your kids’ diapers. It could mean frustration because you can’t afford to fly business class, or frustration because you have to stand on the crowded bus to work. Believe me, both the economy bound and the sore-footed businessmen feel pain that is very real. And so, as I’ve come to understand, a fee of $45 can hurt a jaded banker just as much as it would a struggling artist. It is all too easy to be broke with cash on hand.
And so I’m starting to see a pattern with the characters I meet during my daily hustle. There are those that obsess over dollars and cents, and there are those that obsess over value. Those that spend time fussing over whether or not an item at hand is of value to themselves, and will continue to have value in their lives over time, tend to look and feel more satisfied, even if they don’t end up purchasing anything. Those that huff and puff over why an item at hand is worth so much money tend to look and feel discontent, even if they do end up forking up their hard earned dollars for the said item.
As I continue to chase my pot of gold I’m slowly shifting my focus from aiming to make money to aiming to acquire wealth. I feel like I’m on the path to the later, even though I’ve barely gotten started on the former. Which is ok. Because so long as I have my health, my relationships and my mental and spiritual intellect I don’t need to find myself on the outside looking in, pining for the shiny mansion. I can build my old humble abode, one brick of wealth at a time.