“Anytime someone says ‘I’m not doing it for the money’ is 100 percent doing it for the money.” — Nassim Taleb
Desire is weird. It’s hard to truly know your motivations for your behavior. By definition, your beliefs have to come from a blueprint that you didn’t create.
Do you want to have a better career because you believe in the career you’re doing? Or because you’ve been brainwashed into becoming a career person?
Do you want to become an entrepreneur because you believe in the business you want to build? Or because you just like the image of being an entrepreneur?
What about starting a non-profit organization or volunteering? Are you altruistic for doing this? Or vain? Or both? Aren’t all forms of altruism kind of selfish because you’re doing them ultimately to feel good about yourself?
Is money the root of all evil? Or is it a tool that provides freedom and flexibility to help you be more creative and have more of an impact on the world?
Does anyone have the full answer to any of these questions? I don’t know.
You live in the material world. And you’re wired to desire resources, status, and a mate, which drives the first two. You have to earn your keep, but you also don’t want to constantly ‘chase carrots and avoid sticks.’
So what do you do? How do you achieve your goals without becoming obsessed with success? How do you earn a great living without being a miser or getting stuck on the hedonic treadmill? How can you have objects you like, but don’t depend on or feel attached to.
What’s the balance?
Let’s talk about it.
Money Isn’t Everything
I was watching one of my favorite movies last night — Blow. The movie tracks the life of George Jung, the world’s biggest cocaine smuggler in the 80’s. George’s dad never judges him and is the type of father who always has his kid’s back no matter what.
In one scene George’s father tells him: “Money isn’t real George. You only think it is.” At the end of the movie, after George is arrested for the third time and sentenced to 60 years in prison, he sends his father — who’s dying — a tape recording with his final words.
“Remember when you told me money wasn’t real? After 42 years of life, I finally understand what you mean.”
George gets busted for the last time because he wants to pull off a “final deal.” He has a daughter who he really does love and cares deeply about. He does the deal because he’s dead broke and wants to make enough money to move to California with her. In his mind, he needed the money to be a good father. He needed the material resources he felt were necessary for her to live a good life. In pursuing that, he lost everything.
I have a three-year-old daughter. While I’m not a drug kingpin, I can relate to the drive George has. I want to make sure I have enough money to take care of her. I want to retire my parents. I’m driven to accumulate money for the people I love and to do something positive with it. But…
Money isn’t real.
We assign value to the material world. We assign value to status. There’s nothing inherently valuable about either. I could have a great relationship with my daughter living off the land — foraging, fishing, hunting, and telling her stories beside a campfire located next to our hut. I could write for free and never charge a dime for my work. I could keep it contained in a journal and never publish it in public at all.
None of this is actually real. All these ladders we’re climbing are imaginary. The pursuit of success in any capacity — career, financial, status — is ultimately meaningless.
Here’s the thing, though. The material and psychological world, while not necessarily literally real, are real enough to be real.
It’s nice to ponder living a life of asceticism, but it’s a whole different beast to actually pull it off.
You can tell yourself money doesn’t matter as many times as you want, but that won’t cure the stress of living paycheck to paycheck in constant worry. You could wear the same outfit every day like Steve Jobs, but deep down, you like fashion, homes, cars, etc to a degree.
While I don’t have the perfect answer to all this, I might have the next best thing.
The Differentiator of Joy
I don’t feel any guilt for making money writing. I love to write. Writing brings me joy. I’d never publish shitty work just to make a buck, nor will I create shoddy products to make a living online.
When I create the type of work I want to see in the world, I can fully enjoy the material success I receive for it. If I were to make the same exact amount of money doing something that didn’t bring me joy, like being a lawyer or an accountant, I’d hate myself.
See, it’s not the money, status, or success themselves that make you feel hollow — it’s the way you earned them. Working a job you don’t really enjoy to keep up with the Joneses will make you feel uneasy or even rotten at your core, but doing it through joy makes a world of difference.
Take Warren Buffet for example. I don’t know the guy and it could all be great P.R., but he just seems to love playing around with money. I’ve read books about him that said he knew he was going to become a rich investor at a young age and used to check out library books about stocks when he was like 12. You don’t have that type of pragmatic foresight at 12 without the joy component to fuel you.
Juxtapose him with the Wallstreet bankers and rent-seeking politicians who swindle people to get their cash and you have an example of joyless wealth.
I always preach the same recipe — find something you enjoy and get really, really, really good at it. Often, money and status are going to be inevitable byproducts of that. And it’s also okay to be partially driven by money and status. You’re human. And you’re not the Dalai Lama. It’s okay to enjoy your success a little bit.
It’s funny…I’ve watched some of my writer friends who are pretty progressive and a little resistant to the idea of making a lot of money, but when they start making more, they like it. You can tell. It’s okay! If you go about it the right way and you earn it, it’s yours. Feel no guilt or shame over it.
The Key to Happiness
I recently came to the realization that I’m…content.
I still have goals and I’m still going to build whatever this is I’m doing to the furthest extent possible — both for the joy and the money. But everything seems like “house money” now. I don’t need anything else to happen anymore. I haven’t “arrived,” but I’m in the career and path I want.
I live in a mediocre duplex. I’ll probably stay in it for another year or two even though I could buy a nice house or move into a condo or loft downtown. I drive a 2008 Kia Optima. I just rented an upholstery cleaning machine so I can get some of the stains out of it. I’ll throw some seat covers on and keep riding it until the wheels fall off — 146,000 miles and counting. I could buy a brand new car in cash right now. But, for what? It’s just a car.
I read a quote by Naval Ravikant once that basically said if you can earn a lot of money but create the discipline not to upgrade your lifestyle a ton, you can experience a level of mental peace, freedom, and flexibility that most people can never fathom.
That’s what I’m aiming for.
And that’s what I want for you. I want you to find a career or business you love, make the extra money, and just save it for a while. Don’t ‘flex for the gram.’ Pay off your consumer debt, don’t get into more. Add more money to your bank account, not to impress others, but to sleep better at night.
Have the things you like, but make sure they’re ‘you’ and don’t get attached to them. I like watches, sneakers, and original artwork. I’m not a car person. I know people who are car people, though, so it makes sense for them to buy a nice car. Get it? Be authentic and try to create your own standards, even though the standards are still dictated by blueprints you didn’t fully create yourself.
The “Fastlane” to Success
At the end of the day, you are a creator. You think you want the outcomes, but you only want the wanting of the outcomes. That’s why finding a lane you can stay in for a long long time is the perfect recipe for living a great life.
Choose a lane that doesn’t have a finish line. There’s no ladder for me to climb as a writer except to try and write a better blog post than my last, write a better book than my last, and get as good as possible until I die. I hope to be writing my 70th book and die right as I finish the last chapter.
It doesn’t matter which path you choose, but choose one that brings you some sort of joy.
I’ve met librarians filled with life and joy, waitstaff, six-figure corporate earners, accountants, writers, business owners, daycare providers, landscapers, etc.
I’ve also seen people in those exact same positions who are totally miserable, doing those things because they’re more focused on accumulating resources than they are of finding joy.
Subtle distinction. Universe of difference.