Day 16: Money

I grew up a very money-obsessed child. It’s not that I wanted money to buy things. Rather, my grandfather established very early on that success in life would entail going to Harvard and making lots of money in a well respected profession.

So it was no surprise that I asked people how much money they made, because I wanted to know what successful people looked like.

My parents owned a car stereo business in California, and I’d often spend my days at the shop. My dad would drive me home as the orange-red sun set over the Pacific, and I’d always ask him the same question: “How much money did you make today?” He would always answer with a very specific number, like $500. I don’t know if those were real estimates, but bigger numbers certainly cheered me up.

So as my parents changed jobs and we moved from house to house, I always asked the same question: “How much money did you make today?” I never knew the difference between a lot of money or a little money, much less how much it took to survive with two kids. But even though I was very aware of that number, it never correlated with our happiness. Sure, that number went down sometimes and we lived in smaller houses. But it never seemed to have anything to do with the trajectory of our lives.

When I first got a job and started calculating how much money I was making per day, I was amazed that someone would pay me that much to do something as simple as writing. It was difficult for me to see how I fit into the market. But over the last several years, I started feeling more confident about how much I’m worth per hour — and that built up my self worth. I don’t think that’s abnormal because I often hear people say things like, “He makes six figures,” with such respect that any breathing person would want to strive for that.

Of course, that is understandable for adults. Money buys freedom. It buys comfort. It buys time and ease and status. It buys the ability to go away and pursue a dream from 9-to–5, instead of from 5-to–9. It buys the ability to live in more than 500 square feet.

I read something today about the characteristic millions share, and I was stunned by the list. The are self-employed. They are frugal. They make decisions based on supply and demand. They save money. But it mentioned nothing about striving for a dream, or large amount of personal success. It just mentioned money. And one line of that article stuck me. It said these people live like you and me. They just have bigger bank accounts.

I always think money will buy me the ability to do what I truly want — travel, write, make things, create things, start things. But what separates me from those things isn’t money, but rather this idea that I can’t do those things without the buffer of money.

My relationship with money is changing, but it’s a process. It’s difficult to think of it as anything other than a number, because growing that number seems to be a large part of capitalism. Much of our society is built on earning enough money to survive happily over the course of a lifetime, and doing so with smart investments. So it’s difficult to think of this concept in any other way. But when I see people suffer because they don’t have this thing that is literally a symbolic concept of wealth, then it becomes a lot easier to see that money isn’t just there to measure your success. It is a yardstick for nothing.

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