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Happiness + Business

Making the Choice Between Money and Meaning


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by Umair Haque 

Remind me: why is an average investment banker worth, say, a hundred times as much as an average teacher? And why does a top hedge fund manager “earn” enough to pay for thousands of teachers?

Is there a trade-off between meaning and money? And if there is, how does one master — and perhaps — resolve it? Can it be resolved?

There is indeed a stark, sharp, gigantic trade-off between meaning and money in our so-called brain-dead shell-game Ponzi-scheme of an “economy.”

But there shouldn’t be.

In a “working” economy, one should gain a sense of meaning from one’s work when one makes a lasting, visible difference; and when one makes a difference, one should be rewarded for (and in proportion with) it. Now, in the name of dynamism and accomplishment, one probably shouldn’t be guaranteed a fortune doing what one loves; I don’t suggest that every wannabe Hemingway and Picasso should be raking in the bucks like a mega-banker. But the fact that it seems nearly impossible to build a stable, secure, happy life in the segment formerly known as the “middle class” by doing worthwhile work that makes a real human difference is the exception that proves the rule, illuminating just how deeply, and perhaps fatally broken our economy is.

You and I face the difficult choice of trading meaning for money; we weigh the searing moments of real human accomplishment against the soul-sucking “work” of earning the next car payment by polishing up another meaningless PowerPoint deck packed with tactics to win games whose net result is the creation of little of real value for much of anyone who’s not a sociopath. This is the deepest kind of theft; not merely prosperity having been looted from societies, but significance having been stolen from human lives.

Yet, the unforgiving truth is: the trade-off between meaning and money is as real — and as toxic, as characteristic of our post-prosperity present, and as strikingly intensifying — as climate change. And, like climate change, while you can argue that it’s existed throughout history, to do so is a weak argument; so has, say, human trafficking.

In the simplest sense, the very point of a “capitalist” economy is to minimize the trade-off between meaning and money. So, for example, you and I don’t have to spend a lifetime building, stone by stone, a Great Wall or a Pyramid — to satisfy the whim of an Emperor or a Pharaoh — and so burn through our one invaluable precious life. Every life has worth; and because it has worth, so it must seek, and discover, meaning.

So what can you do about it? There’s only one good answer, and it’s simple. Stop trading meaning for money. It’s the worst trade you’ll ever make. But the truth is, you and I are encouraged to make the worst trade in the world from the second we’re socialized — from school “counselors” who exhort us to settle for the safe; to schlock-and-awe advertising that lamely attempts to brainwash us into buying our way out of emptiness and self-loathing; to “jobs” that reward us for extinguishing what’s good, noble, and true in us. Perhaps it’s no exaggeration, in short, to suggest: our way of work, life, and play revolves around hundreds of millions of people, billions of times a day, trading meaning for money — so, of course, the next hour, day, week, and money, they can furiously, eagerly, desperately spend large amounts of money trying to buy tiny morsels of meaning.

Consider, for a moment, what noted economist Richard Easterlin has recently found: that as China has gotten notably richer, its happiness has followed a U-shaped curve: first declining, then ascending — but never ascending past its previous, historic, poverty-ridden peaks. While I don’t pretend societies should be held hostage to “happiness” as the only end of life — to be sure, a full, rich life is in every sense larger and wholer than a merely happy one — perhaps this now-familiar research demonstrates a truth that I’d bet, deep down, most of us don’t just know, but feel, live, and breathe: that while we’ve become proficient at attaining riches, while the pursuit of material wealth is now something like the application of a well-worn formula, living lives rich not just with megabucks, but with meaning remains elusive, enigmatic, difficult.

And yet a life without meaning is like a day that never breaks.

But when I say, “stop trading meaning for money”, I emphatically don’t mean we should do the opposite: start trading money for meaning. Instead, we must detonate this toxic trade-off — for while it might not irreparably poison our lives, it surely will diminish, reduce, and wither the worth of our limitless potential.

Step out of your shadow, the carefully constructed almost-self you’ve been instructed, encouraged, cajoled to settle for. In this big-box store of the human spirit, the only choices on offer are money or meaning. You can be the jet-setting exec (banker, trader, technocrat) with a soul as deadened as the waning arctic winter — or the underpaid teacher (artist, writer, designer) struggling to reach the high summer of prosperity. It’s up to you not just to reject and refuse those dilemma-ridden choices — but to rebel against them and forge better opportunities; above all, the opportunities that make up a life worth living; the stuff of eudaimonia — a life that matters because it’s been lived meaningfully well.

This is what the unbending arc of human potential never stops asking of each and every one of us. Stop trading money for meaning. Start blowing up the dilemma by investing money — and much more significantly, time, energy, attention, relationships, imagination, and passion — in the stuff of a life meaningfully well lived. Any fool with an empty wallet, a gimlet eye, and an emptier head can sell his soul; just as any dilettante can trade meaning for money, and glorify themselves as a starving artist. The greater challenge in any life isn’t merely extracting the highest price for your soul; nor safeguarding your soul while opportunities pass you by — but earning, with the coin of mattering, a life that has counted in the terms that make us not merely “rich”, but whole, worthy of the privilege of having lived.

Let me put that in real-world terms.

You’re 25. You’re finally offered a job at the corporobotic blue-chip institution your less interesting acquaintances have always dreamt of working at. Turn it down. Start the next Kickstarter instead.

You’re 35. You’re finally offered the big jump to VP. Take it — and then damn your first year’s bonus, make your first major project redesigning a product line that matters.

You’re 45. You’re sidelined. Quit. Start something that makes you feel something again.

You’re 55. You’re fired. Don’t panic. Use your wisdom; mentor, coach, teach, lead.

Let me put that even more simply. You’re going to need to apply not just the following professional skills — entrepreneurship; “networking,” pluck and drive, strategic thinking, leadership, branding and marketing — but also the following human capacities: a stubborn refusal to obey the dictates of the status quo, an unwavering empathy, a healthy disrespect for the naysayers, the humility of the servant and the pride of the master artisan, a persevering sense of grace, a heaping spoonful of that most dangerously unpredictable of substances, love, and, finally, the unflinching belief in a better tomorrow that those have always had who dust their saddles off, dig their spurs in, and forge ahead into the great unknown.

One day, in the far-flung future, our so-called not-really-leaders-in-anything-but-name might get their act together and begin to patch up this clapped out, wheezing train wreck of a so-called economy. So that there’s not a sharp, painful trade off between meaning and money; so that bankers don’t earn hundreds of times what teachers do. It’s not, after all, rocket science — jiggle GDP; juggle taxes and subsidies; break up the monoliths — hey, presto: an “economy” in which material wealth roughly, crudely lines up with meaning; in which “profit” reflects real human benefit delivered (instead of how many towns and lives you’ve looted this quarter).

Until that day, the simple fact is: right here, right now, there’s a trade-off between meaning and money. And maybe, right back to the days of the first pyramids, ziggurats, and fortresses, there always has been — and perhaps, right up to the days when humankind flits finally between the luminous galaxies, there always will be. And so: your challenge is, perhaps, one as ageless as stone, and as human as love. Forging a life — in the crucible of possibility — in which there isn’t.