Getting Beyond Economic Success

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be author Colin Wright examines the way we think about and operate as a society around money. He suggests that money has grown in importance and engulfed every aspect and function of our lives in ways that are damaging but often hidden from us. He writes, “As we grow into adults who care about things like self-actualization and happiness defined in ways other than the color-within-the-lines manuals we’ve been provided, we still often limit ourselves to defining happiness in economic terms. If I can make this much money each month, I can leave this soul-sucking job I hate. If I can reduce my expenses, I won’t need to work so much and can free up time to spend on that hobby I’ve been neglecting. If I invest properly now, I may be able to not work at all at some point in the distant future.”

 

Wright argues that money has become our default measurement of success and happiness.  The idea that we can be both happy or successful without large amounts of money does not align with the ways we actually live our lives. We see the story of people getting away from this mode of thinking in movies all the time, but we rarely live our lives with something other than money at the center of all that we do. As a result, our goals, daily routines, and attention are all focused on helping us make more money or use our money.

 

Money itself will not make us happy, but it does provide us with new opportunities. I recently listened (I think to an episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast but I can’t remember) to an economist suggest that money does not make us more happy above a certain level, but that our level of life satisfaction does continue to increase as we have more money. Our overall happiness may not continue to increase as we have more money, but having more money seems to open up new possibilities in our lives and give us more ability to engage in the world in a satisfying manner.

 

A question we should think about, is whether there is a way to change how we approach life so that we can have a high level of satisfaction without needing ever more money. Does our satisfaction come from distinguishing ourselves from others by purchasing court side tickets to the game? Do we get satisfaction from displaying our status with a large RV? Is our satisfaction contingent upon fancy trips and traveling to exotic places? I don’t know if there is specific research around this idea, but perhaps we can shift what we use on an individual level as our default for success away from money and begin to find more satisfaction in our lives in things that are more meaningful than purchasing expensive and fancy items that show off to our Facebook friends and broadcast our status. Exactly what the alternate version of success will be for us will likely vary from person to person, but it will probably favor relationships and connections with others over material possessions and purchases.

A Clear Picture of Success

In 2017 I wrote a piece about an idea from Colin Wright in his book Come Back Frayed. In our lives, the primary yardstick we use to measure our success, Wright explains, is often a monetary yardstick. We look at our bank account, the funding levels of the organization we are a part of, and how much we make each pay check and determine whether our lives have value and are meaningful based on how much we make. Colin Wright was one of the first authors who helped me be aware of how frequently I judged myself and others based on income, or cues related to income (how fancy is someone’s car, what shoes does someone have, do they live in a wealthy neighborhood?).

 

Wealth and income, however, are both impacted by a number of forces beyond the control of a single individual and both people who we hold in high esteem and people who are self centered and morally questionable can become fantastically wealthy through either hard work or dumb luck. Therefore, judging someone based on wealth and income is an incomplete measure of another person. Wright was one of the first people to express this in a way that really connected with me, and I found the idea again in the writing of Ryan Holiday and Marcus Aurelius. In a long quote from Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, he writes,

 

“You will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail.
    How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” “Ambition,” Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “means tying your well-being to what other people say or do … Sanity means tying it to your own actions.””

 

We cannot expect that in our lives everything will go well and we will live up to the external yardsticks we use to define success. If we expect a certain number of followers, likes, or shares then we are deciding the value of something based on the perceptions of other people and whether something randomly becomes a hit. If we decide that we are only successful if we have enough money to buy a new Tesla, we are putting ourselves in a position where we may compromise on being a good human being in order to obtain enough money to purchase something that we think will tell people that we are valuable and successful. We give control of ourselves to other people when we live this way. Our happiness is not our own, but a yo-yo string controlled by the opinions of our social, work, and family networks.

 

Changing our definition of success to measures internal to who we are is more healthy and reasonable. Pursuing a craft, hobby, or passion for self-fulfillment is different from pursuing a goal for reasons of obtaining greater wealth, respect, and admiration from others. Those things may come from living well, but when they are a result of good work and arrive obliquely through our efforts to do our best at what is in front of us, they will be more rewarding and less tied to our definition of who we are. This can give us the opportunity to live on our own terms, content with the person and lifestyle we pursue.

Never Achieving Alone

The United States is focused on achievement and success and we use a few basic measuring sticks to compare ourselves to others and to display how successful we have become. Money is our main yardstick, tied to other measures of success such as home-ownership and the size of our homes, the number and types of vehicles we drive, and so on. When we talk about our own success and reflect back on our path we tend to look at the tough decisions and sacrifices that we made along the way. We focus on the obstacles we overcame where others faltered and we create a highlight reel in our minds that emphasizes our good qualities in the face of adversity and downplays the help we received from others or the advantages we started with. When we do this we begin to develop a false sense of what was truly necessary for us to get to where we currently are, and we begin to overestimate ourselves, our importance, and our relation to society as a whole.
In his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats reflects on his life journey and the lessons he learned in a long form essay to his son. He at one point reflects on the poets and writers who were influential to him at college and includes a quick note to his son that stood out to me. Coats writes, “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone.”

 

We often miss how dependent our lives are on those around us. We look at the smart decisions we had to make and praise ourselves for being disciplined, for not getting in trouble, and for being more industrious than those who are not as successful as we are. Money becomes the measure of how well we have done on our own, and fancy cars and houses become the way we display our value as human beings and our self-reliance through tough times.

 

These displays and our memories however, do not reflect the realities of our lives and our interdependence on other people. We never truly do anything alone. Our lives do not take place in a vacuum and we are not born as the amazing all-stars we make our selves out to be. We are dependent on other people from the very beginning, and often times, the success we achieve can be attributed to luck, to meeting the right people, and to having the right support at the right times in our lives. We have a large role to play in along this journey, and our attitudes, decisions, and work ethic greatly influence where we will end up, but we never truly achieve something without the help of others. We do not choose our parents and we do not choose our genetic pre-dispositions to things like disease, addiction, physical height and weight, or mental focus. Each of these areas could be managed and improved through personal decisions, but it is important to recognize that many of us do not start with equal footing and we do not all face the same levels of adversity.

 

In a quote written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.” Great business decisions and adventures can never be undertaken alone, and sometimes the people around you explain more of the success of your business than just your own hard work. We influence the outcome, but we never truly control where we end up. Even the best business idea and the best team focused on reaching smart goals can be taken down in an unpredicted market collapse.

 

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote, “a branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community.” What Aurelius is explaining is that we are connected to others and dependent on others to grow and thrive. Like a branch cut from a tree, we will wither away on our own. We may be able to become successful through smart decisions and hard work, but constantly operating in the background is a society that supports us. Cory Booker in United writes, “our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures.” One of those communal treasures is a society that still manages to support others and create opportunities for others through our connections and collective abilities. What makes us great and has allowed us to grow did not occur on our own, and it is up to us to reflect that support back onto others.

 

Ultimately, our money and wealth say nothing of our value or of the obstacles we overcame to get to the place we find ourselves. Looking back, it is easier to see our sacrifices and hard work, and harder to see the advantages we had. We are dependent on society at the same time that society depends on our best efforts. Being aware of how we benefitted and the advantages we received will help us make better decisions and live less selfishly in respect to others and our society.

A Monetary Yardstick

Time is a resource that does not seem to be well understood or well used in society today. We spend a lot of time at jobs we do not fully enjoy, and when we are not working and have leisure time, we are afraid of boredom and don’t know how to use time to be present in the moment. Author Colin Wright has approached this problem head on, and found some solutions.  Through his writing he has been able to reconnect with the present moment and direct his time according to his own desires. In his book, Come Back Frayed, he writes about his travels to the Philippines and what control over his time means to him. After explaining that in his life, his goals have been related to finding control in as many of his decisions and actions as possible, he writes about a feature in a Forbes article. He was profiled for the way he spends his time earning relatively little money. He writes,

 

“The response to such a story is a confused one, particularly amongst some of my entrepreneurial friends. When you’re part of that culture, a clever person dedicated to building something of value, something you believe will make the world a better place, will solve problems which plague humanity, will elevate you to a higher status, that of ‘successful entrepreneur,’ the yardstick you’ve been provided is a monetary one.”

 

Wright’s criticism is in the way that many successful entrepreneurs judge success. Financial success, bank account statements, company valuations, and access to funding become the indicators of success for most people. How we judge whether someone made an impact in the world becomes entangled with financial success. What Wright continues to explain is how he has chosen to measure success in his personal life differently. Rather than searching for greater sources of revenue and income, he focuses on freedom and expanding his ability to make his own choices.

 

When we decide that we will no longer allow financial success to be the true measure of how successful we are, we open our lives to a new realm of possibilities. Rather than continuing to spend more time focused on work and growth for the sake of financial gain, we can begin to align our lives with the things that truly matter to us, help us be present in the moment, and allow us to have a personal impact on the world. The financial yardstick we become accustom to does not do a good job of truly measuring the type of people we are or the quality of our actions. Our culture’s decision that success is equivalent to monetary wealth may help serve us well in terms of having many exciting things, but it also pushes us toward hedonism and lifestyles that can be unhealthy physically, mentally, and socially. I do not have the solution that Wright seems to have found for replacing the monetary yardstick, but I am able to recognize that a focus beyond money and beyond possessions can help us adopt a more well rounded life. The challenge is how to align life with the things that truly matter, and to find an appropriate place for money and success.

Consumer Spending

In his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer gives examples of people living various lifestyles as effective altruist.  He explains that deciding to live off less money and making significant monetary donations helps people find a more aligned life than those who live a life of continuous consumer spending.  Many of the individuals he references say that they expected making sacrifices and living as effective altruists to be challenging, but ultimately found the lifestyle strangely liberating. Singer explains why consumer spending does not lead to happiness by sharing the example of one effective altruist who can see that he is not missing much by not using his money to purchase items. “Ian Ross is familiar with psychological research about the “hedonic treadmill” of consumer spending, which shows that when we consume more, we enjoy it for a short time but then adapt to that level and need to consume still more to maintain our level of enjoyment.”

 

Singer shows that effective altruists who learn to live off a small portion of their income avoid the cycle of continually buying goods to boost their happiness. For them, their happiness comes from knowing that they are doing the most they possibly can to improve the lives of those who may be suffering the most. They do not direct their resources toward new items which are marketed toward them that they do not need. In order to boost the good they can do their budgets have to be carefully monitored and thought out which allows them to buy what they need and use the rest resourcefully.  They are in control of their spending instead of letting their spending and desire to have the most up to date items control them.

 

Rather than moving through life adjusting their expectations to have more and more goods, bigger houses, and more expensive cars, effective altruists focus on continually using their resources in ways that will allow them to help others. They may expect to move up a corporate ladder and earn more, but as they earn more it will not be directed toward more debt and more payments. Effective altruists maintain a basic lifestyle, and use their additional resources to help others.

Our Default Measurement of Success

Through my journey of self awareness and growth I have had to adjust my definition of success many times. As I have had new opportunities and as I have thoroughly reflected on myself and others it has been crucial for me to reconsider what success looks like. In his book Considerations Colin Wright examines the same thoughts and feelings that I have worked through. “In the post-Industrial Revolution world, money has become the default unit of measurement for growth and success and personal evolution.”

Wright explains that we fall back on income as a way of objectively measuring ourselves relative to others because it is a simple and common unit between everyone.  How much money we make, however, is not the greatest measurement to determine success, growth, and the quality of ones life. It is easy to imagine that you have moved forward in a positive direction by increasing your income, but it is possible that the direction in which you moved is limiting you in other ways: creativity, spending time with family, giving back, and maintaining social connections could be limited as one makes sacrifices to obtain more money.

Continuing on, Wright states that using money to judge the success of others is a mistake because not all of us shoot for increased wealth as our main goal. It is hard to judge ourself against others if we define success as a certain income level, the ability to purchase a certain car, or the size of the home we can afford, when those we judge ourselves against view success as increased knowledge, increased visibility in their field, or happiness in their relationships at home. Money also is a terrible way to judge our success because of the vast differences in our backgrounds and family histories.  If having a lot of money is our measure of success, then many people are successful by default thanks to a fortunate birth.

Comparing ourselves to others based on money sets us up for frustration and disappointment. Not having the best car, the biggest home, and the biggest pay check can frustrate us and make us feel inadequate. When we change success to align with our internal values and ideas we begin to work toward better goals. Rather than comparing ourselves based on an external measure that we don’t have direct control over, we begin to judge ourselves based on value that we create for areas of our life that have true meaning.  This means that we will not pursue the car we cannot afford or the house that is too large and we wont flaunt our financial success. Rather than pressuring ourselves into certain boxes, when we remove money from success, we are able to strive toward goals that help us develop in meaningful ways.

Buying Happiness

In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman examines people’s attempts to buy happiness. He takes a scientific approach to the question by studying academic experiments aimed at studying how money impacts happiness, and if purchases can really increase happiness.  Wiseman also considered how long different types of purchases will sustain your happiness in an attempt to find the best way to spend your extra money. An experiment by psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich served as the base for Wiseman’s research, and not surprisingly, Wiseman found that experiences made people happier for longer periods of time.  Van Boven and Gilovich asked people to rate the way an act of purchasing an item made them feel at that moment, and how they felt later on. Wiseman summarizes why purchasing experiences had a greater happiness factor than purchasing items,

 

“Our memory of experiences easily becomes distorted over time (you edit out the terrible trip on the airplane and just remember those blissful moments relaxing on the beach).  Our goods however tend to lose their appeal by becoming old, worn-out, and outdated.  Also, experiences promote one of the most effective happiness-inducing behaviors — Spending time with others.  Sociability might be part of the experience itself, or it might happen when you tell people about the occasion afterward.  In contrast, buying the latest or most expensive new product can sometimes isolate you from friends and family who may be jealous of the things that you have.”

 

Wiseman shows that the best way to be happy is to connect with others, and that those who emphasize material gains risk pushing others away.  He continues on in his book to explain the differences between highly materialistically driven individuals and those who are not as driven by material goals.  Those who view success as a community effort are more likely to want to spend time with those around them and also enjoy the successes of others as much as their own.  These people are more likely to spend their money on others or group experiences that bring people together instead of purchasing personal items. Wiseman and the research he studied suggested that this use of money will help connect people and build positive memories of the past. Buying fancy items however will lead to decreased happiness in the long run with the item purchased becoming worn out or out of style and serving as a constant reminder of the money that went toward the purchase.

A Constructive Use of Our Resources

In his letter for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, William T. Vollmann lists as number seven on his list of 21 pieces of advice the following quote, “Don’t buy anything or use anything you don’t need or want.  Try to do constructive things with cash.”  This little piece of advice seems so simple at face value, but if we really incorporated it into our lives we would see that it can have a deep impact on our lives.  Focusing on what we buy and not buying things that could be labeled as junk will help us eat healthier, de-clutter our homes, and even focus on donating to better charities.  Budgeting is one of the clearest ways to limit spending money on unnecessary things, but increased self awareness is a crucial step for anyone who wants to truly identify their spending habits. I just finished reading The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey, and in his book he recounts many stories of individuals and couples sitting down to budget for the first time, and being shocked at just how much money they were spending towards things they did not need or remember.  The big takeaway from the power of budgeting is the self-awarenss that a good budget creates, and the control that planning and budgeting provides for our lives.  Trying to avoid purchasing things we don’t need or use our money in frivolous and mindless ways will lead to more control and security in our lives.

 

It is easy to go to the grocery store and come home with a variety of things that you did not intend to buy, and this is not always a bad thing.  Getting to the store and realizing that you need  sunscreen and throwing some in the cart as you pass the display can be a good thing, while I would argue, throwing an extra candy bar or soda in the cart is not.  In this example I am comparing the impulse to buy a skin protector, something that helps us be health, with a junk food that is not healthy. This argument is a little flawed, but accurately identifies situations where we can be spending money on things that will not help us, and will just leave us with a little less cash.  One candy bar on its own does not mean anything, but combined with soda, cookies, and other junk foods the candy bar can become a dangerous habit that we spend money on each time we go to the store. Self awareness is required to see what you are buying at the grocery store and limit the junk you buy and the excuses you develop for buying that junk.

 

Vollmann’s ideas about consciously spending our money and making sure that we use our money wisely extends beyond simple shopping.  I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Point of Inquiry where host Josh Zepps interviewed Peter Singer about morality.  What surprised me was to hear that the majority of people who donate to charity do so on an impulse basis with little to no thought of the impact factor behind their donation.  Any time we donate to charity we feel better and justified for our action, but we rarely take the time to identify how impactful the charity is, and how our money will benefit the programs or lives of those the charity aims to assist.  Random and unconscious donations to charity may not be harmful and may be one of the constructive uses of cash that Vollmann encourages, but according to Singer we could still be doing more with our resources.  I think that in the end Vollmann, through his quote about money, is speaking about making the most of the resources we have. Singer shows us that even one of our most coveted resources is often misused even when we try to do something positive.  Searching for the most constructive use of our time, effort, and cash can help us feel more fulfilled, and it will allow us to have a grater impact on the planet. I followed the podcast by reading Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, and was struck by the idea of intentionally donating money by consciously saving and making valuable contributions to charities that have the greatest impact on the lives and suffering of the global poor.  One of the biggest surprises of affective altruism as Singer has named it, is the meaning that impactful donations of time and resources provide to those who are wealthy enough to give back.  Affective altruists who make meaningful donations feel more connected with their community and those around them, and feel like they are making a greater difference in the world.