Harvard Business Review

Money and the Meaning of Life


Posted on Harvard Business Review: May 17, 2011 8:00 AM

Everywhere you look, there's compelling evidence that the single-minded pursuit of wealth often leads smart people to do incredibly stupid things—things that destroy what money can't buy.

Last week, the big story was the conviction of Raj Rajaratnam on 14 counts of insider trading, a greed-driven scheme that will lead to obliterated reputations, long prison terms, or both, for senior leaders at IBM, McKinsey, and other blue-chip institutions.

A few weeks before that, the big story was the resignation and humiliation of Berkshire Hathaway's David Sokol, the likely successor to CEO Warren Buffet, undone by his eagerness to cash suspiciously timed investments in the stock of a company Berkshire later bought.

And next week on HBO we get to see the made-for-TV adaptation of the bestseller Too Big to Fail, a blow-by-blow chronicle of the subprime-mortgage fiasco — an exercise in collective greed that came pretty close to destroying the world as we know it.

Every time I read or see these sorry dispatches, I ask myself the same questions. How is it that brilliant people with more money than they'll ever need allow their hunger for even more money to cause them to lose everything? How much is enough, and why are people willing to risk so much to get more? If money is so alluring, how is it that so many people of great wealth also seem so unhappy?

To answer those questions, I tend to turn to the big lessons in a small book that was published 20 years ago. Called Money and the Meaning of Life, the author is Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. I met Needleman during the heyday of the first Internet boom, when lots of people in their twenties and thirties were making more money than they ever imagined they would and were trying to come to terms with what it meant.

Since then, we've had a broader stock-market boom, a real-estate bubble, a second Internet boom, and plenty of busts along the way. The specifics of the financial markets have changed, but the questions remain the same. Here's some of what Jacob Needleman has taught me about the answers, drawn from an interview we did with him at Fast Company many years ago. It's amazing to me how relevant these insights are to what's happening today.

Money may be the root of all evil, but only if you're not honest about what it means to you. "Money is about love and relationships," Needleman explained. "It has a wonderful power to bring people together as well as tear them apart. You can't escape money. If you run from it, it will chase you and catch you. If we don't understand our relationship to money in this culture, then I think we're doomed. If you don't know how you are toward money and really understand that relationship, you simply don't know yourself. Period.

Money truly can't buy happiness, especially if you're unhappy to begin with. "If you are worrying about vegetables now, you'll be worrying about yachts then," Needleman joked. "You're a worrier. It's in you, not the money. Life, except for the obvious physical needs, is not so much defined by the external situation as by the inner one. Having money won't change your internal makeup. If you're an anxious sonofabitch without money, you're going to be an anxious sonofabitch with a lot of money."

Being rich does not make you smart—especially about things other than money. "I met a guy who worked his way up from zero to a half-billion dollars," the philosopher noted. "I asked him, 'What was the most surprising thing you discovered when you got rich?' He said, 'Everybody asks my opinion about things because they think I know something. All I really know is how to make a lot of money.' See, this guy wasn't fooled by his money. That's the key.

Being rich does not automatically lead to a rich life. "There is a difference between money and success. To be totally engaged with all my functions, all my faculties, all my capacities in life—to me that would be success. I grew up around the Yiddish language, and in Yiddish there are about 1,000 words that mean "fool." There's only one word that means an authentic human being: mensch. My grandmother would say, "You've got to be a mensch," and that has to do with what we used to call character. To be successful means to have developed character. You should be looking for the joy, the struggle, and the challenge of work. What you bring forth from your own guts and heart. The happiness of hard work. No amount of money can buy that. Those are things of the spirit."

It's easy to pass judgment from afar on the misdeeds and missteps of wealthy people in the news. But look in the mirror. What's your relationship with the pursuit of wealth? How do you think about money and the meaning of life?

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.


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