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A life where money is the tool, not the target

Last week I discussed why our relationship with money is so toxic: because it is ruled by fear and greed. We are driven to daftness by money because we are afraid of losing it or not having enough. But what if we could conquer those emotions? What if we could quell our fear and shackle our greed?

What kind of business might you run if making money was not its only aim? That question is moot, you might argue: if you fail to make money no one will give you theirs to invest; and if you keep losing money you won’t have a business to worry about for long.

But that wasn’t my question. I have been advising businesses for enough decades, and don’t need reminding of the profit motive. My point is different. What if how you measured success was different? What if the next quarter’s results were not the key preoccupation of the many brains in the enterprise?

Would you lose your way? I think not. What if you decided to give as much attention to your employees and customers as you do to your shareholders? The three are actually inextricably bound in a virtuous circle. Look after your employees so that they look after the customers, and the customers will look after the shareholders. It’s as simple as that. And yet the brainpower of the endeavour is almost fully expended in looking after the shareholders, and what returns they demand.

I have watched many promising businesses lose their way exactly like this: by eking every shekel out of customers; and denying every dollar to employees, so that the big folks make more money in the short term. The result is invariably mediocrity: bang average products produced by bang average employees so that those who can extract from the business get every possible bang for their buck.

But if you were not frozen by fear or gripped by greed, what kind of business might you run? You might try to create a workplace where humans come to give the best of themselves – not one where they give just enough to justify their compensation. You might try very hard to give extra wows to your customers. You might try to actually be useful in the world, by giving value out rather than hoarding it within.

And here’s the thing: by doing that you would in all likelihood build very strong relationships – relationships that would become remarkable sources of competitive advantage. You might become the organization employees want to work for, and customers want to buy from – and the money might flow in even more strongly than before. You might build a business that spans generations.

What about your job and career? How might that work out if more money was not your all-consuming aim? What if you just gave all your attention to your work and your calling? Nah, you might say: no one pays you just to do great work; you have to work the hustle. You have to play the politics, manage the coalitions, spin the story. That way you get promoted, you get job offers, you grow your bank account.

That way, you also get a shallow, manipulative life and you fail to make any sort of ding on the world.

Make yourself useful. Make your work outstanding. Make your contribution indispensable. Do you not think the reward will follow, including the monetary reward? And you might earn a priceless bonus at the end – that you actually enjoyed your life, that you gave it meaning, that you made it worthwhile.

The problem is few of us are willing to try this out, to wait for the reward, to let the reward be based on our contribution, not our greed. We take the shortcut of going for the money at any cost. And even when we get that money, we eventually find the cost to be too high. We sacrifice our peace of mind, our friendships, our deeper selves at the altar of Mammon. We expend all of our lives trying to add more zeroes to the screen.

But if we could make money just one of the means we deploy in our lives rather than its only end, we might make a life that has time for laughter to be heard; has the vision to see the many hues of the sky; has the space for deeper thought to occur; has the generosity to accommodate kindness. We might make a life that becomes bigger than itself.

(Sunday Nation, 18 November 2018)

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