Money as a Story

This post also appeared on The Good Men Project

I realize this likely isn’t news to you, but Seth Godin is just a remarkable guy. After listening to Godin on Tim Feriss’ podcast, I grabbed his audiobook Leap First. It’s actually not a book, but a talk he gives to a very small group.

Godin’s magic is his ability to be both unassuming and inspiring. His delivery is slow, easy, and measured. He settles you in, then hits you with an idea so profound that you immediately question why someone didn’t tell you sooner.

I wish I listened to this 20 years ago. If I had to pick one thing for my daughters to listen to before heading off to college, it would be Leap First. It was that good.

Among the highlights of the audio was Godin’s idea of money as a story. He explains that once we have enough to meet our basic needs, money is just a story. It’s a story we tell others through the things we’ve acquired or the experiences that money has enabled us to have. It’s the story that others hear, then use as a filter to form beliefs about who we are.

The concept of the money story resonated with me. I started to deconstruct it other ways. It seemed like there were two entirely different stories embedded in the money story; the story of making money, and the story of spending money. The interesting thing is that these two stories are in no way related.

I never really saw the difference before. I was conditioned from childhood to believe that if I worked hard, and made a bunch of money, I’d have the big house, nice car, jet pack, lake house, etc. I don’t remember really wanting those things necessarily, except for the jet pack. It didn’t really matter though, if I worked really hard and ended up wealthy, I’d just have them.

This just seemed like an incontrovertible formula, just like knowing if you eat well and exercise, you’ll be a healthier person.

We watch the stories unfold around us as kids. It wouldn’t matter if you grew up in a privileged home or not, all you would need to do is look around and see that most people who had lots of money, had lots of nice things, and cool experiences.

But what about those that had the means to acquire the same things, and decided not to tell the same story? We’d have no idea who they were, so we’d neatly assume assume they were just less fortunate than the jetpack crew.

And what about when we do know their financial position, and:

  1. It is very good.
  2. They don’t have nice things or cool experiences.

This is how we are taught to view the money story of others. It’s one of the quickest and convenient ways available to judge another person.

Since we are all aware that people are watching our story, we have a bias to tell them what we want them to hear.

After I accepted that money is just a story, I looked deeper, and began to see the difference between making it, and spending it. With this perspective, it became intuitive for me to question the formula of get money = buy things.

I live in a large neighborhood in Austin which ranges from upper-middle class, to pretty damn rich. It’s a master planned community with 8,000+ people that’s isolated from other communities. Nearly every person you see in the schools, grocery store, and gas station live in the neighborhood. Lots of observing and talking is done among the tribe.

I started a company a few years ago. My making money story was in clear view within this setting with the themes of startup founder, hardworking, risk taking entrepreneur, etc. At the same time, the spending money story (vacations, clothes, car, etc) would inform the making money story to those around me. Less things and experiences would infer that my business was having trouble taking off.

After experiencing a good year with my startup, I felt like one story had to reconcile with the other. How would people see me as successful if I’m not doing the things that successful people do?

Then I figured it out.

It’s embarrassing to admit that it took me 38 years to realize that making money has absolutely nothing to do with spending money. If I made a lot of money, I didn’t have to spend a lot of money. I just had to care less about the money story I was telling.

The spending money story also came with a lot of baggage; things. Things I didn’t need and actually made my life more stressful.

It was a simple truth I never realized and it was shocking. It’s a truth I could live if I was willing to stop listening to my ego, and create space between myself and the judgement of others.

I decided the story really didn’t matter to me. It’s wasn’t until I began to detach from my competitive nature along with my fears and insecurities that I realized the two embedded stories didn’t have to reconcile. The link was actually between making money, and the story people expected to hear about it.

I’m a slow learner. Many of you may have realized this before me, give a shout below and let me know your thoughts.

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