Meaning and Money

I’ve been thinking a lot about money lately. Not just how to make them (that will come after) but what does money mean at a personal and cultural level, and how else can we relate to it. It is crazy how much a piece of paper, or a number on the screen of our bank account, can give us such an emotional response. No wonder we use the verb “charge” when it comes to money: it is indeed so charged.

Let’s start our inquiry by looking at the common stances towards this sensitive matter.

On one extreme, you have the materialist perspective: Money is real as it is on everyone’s mind, and we all have to deal with it in one way or another. Peter Drucker quipped “Profit is like food. You need it to grow, but it’s not the purpose of your business”. Make a lot of it and pass it on to your children.

On the another extreme, you have the spiritualist, such as the well-known speech of Alan Watts on “What if money were no object?” , the trite career advice “follow your passion and the money will follow” as well as pop song references like “It’s not about the money money money” by Jessie J.

Well, it is about the money, but in a different way. Let me illustrate using a personal account about attitude towards money.

Growing up in a lower class family, somehow I have never desired for a lot of money. As a child, instead of desiring more, I learned to minimize my needs. When I hung out with wealthier people, I quickly noticed that they too had their own problems, many of which they didn’t know how to use their money to solve. Things like family conflicts or mental hygienes. But I could, and money would be a nice reward. I didn’t dream of a money-full life but rather of meaning-ful pursuits, and thankfully such attitude has served me well so far.

My account is not that uncommon. Meaning and money have often been mutually exclusive. Be an artist, poet, do the meaningful things and you’ll be broke. Chase only after money and you are the heartless profit-maximizing capitalists. The vast middle is much murkier.

Let’s consider this graph.

At a personal level, a brief survey of the “spiritual business” genre reveals that many people have tried to merge the dichotomy of money & meaning. Just look at the rise of the life coaching industry: every supposedly good coach aims to help you get to the ideal quadrant.

At the business level, the logic of 20th century mega corporations is one of money as a validation of customer satisfaction. The more people you satisfy, the more money you make. The 21st century version of this logic is that you need more money to enable more impact. Which may lead to a silly but profound question of How Do You Know What Really Counts.

An Impactful Family

Let’s revisit the meaning & money dichotomy in the another context of the Millennials through a recent commentary by Venkat on The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya the Millennial. In this article, Venkat conjured three main archetypes:

  • Max the Lifestyle Designer hustles all sorts of money-making schemes from vitamin selling to Internet marketing to ensure financial stability, who will ironically face an meaning crisis.
  • Meanwhile Molly the Artisan steeps herself deep in the art of making homebrew coffee or dances her heart out, following her fulfilling passion yet struggles to pay the skyhigh rent.
  • Maya the Millennials, the archetype who make up the bulk of young people living in the bi-coastal areas of America who are struggling for both sustainable finance and meaningful purpose.

The distribution may look crassly like this:

Some Mayas strive for a balance between the two. For example, one may take up a part time job as a waiter that he likes enough while continuing artistic side projects. Another may try to incorporate her artistic self-expression in the analytical number-crunching tasks that she has trained herself to do well in school. Many are now aiming for an ambitious synthesis of “Life’s Real Purpose” that fully aligns meaning and money. Aligning those two is an arduous process with no clear outcome, but the more we work on this life synthesis skill, the better the payoff in terms of a sustainable purpose.

But what about a meaningful finance? What if the purpose of one’s life is to make money meaningful?

Meaningful money

Somehow, there is always an implicit preference of meaning over money, almost as if money is a meaningless instrumental object to get you something else more meaningful, like “human connection” or “beautiful moments” etc…

Is that really true? What if money has intrinsic meaning in itself? That not every dollar is made equal? The most silly and superstitious example is that a two US dollar bill has a lot more collector value than two one dollar notes. 2 > 1+1.

This note is really rare!

The more substantial example has to do with one explanation of the origin of money.

Charles Eisenstein wrote in his book “Sacred Economics” that money originated as a way to allow people to give each other beyond what they have. It was an expansion of the gift culture. What is happening now in modern society when money became too abstract and transaction is made too simple is that the spirit of gift-giving is lost.

But it doesn’t have to. In fact, the distinction between gift economy and monetary transaction is rather arbitrary, which is why I used the word “expansion” rather than “alternative”.

As an example, you maybe familiar with the practice of giving lucky money in red packets during New Year to children in many Asian cultures. (In Vietnamese the practice is called “mung tuoi”, which means “celebrate age”) Growing up, I have always wondered when will I stop receiving those red packets. How come my older brother, a father of a 3 year old son, still get them sometimes from my grandmom and uncles? To complicate it further, he also gives red packets to the young kids.

“Inside as gift, outside as object”

Whenever I visit home and go to grandmom’s house for dinner, she will always find a surreptitious moment to push into my hand some money from her selling clothes at the local outdoor market. She will even exchange it into US Dollar so I can bring abroad. I’ll tell her I don’t need the money, but she will keep pushing it into my hands and say “Then give it to your mom”. I will give it to my mom indeed. Then next week my mom would buy food and flowers to bring to grandmom’s, or she will use the money for ancestor worship and the like.

What is fascinating about this situation is that as a family, we seem to draw a blur boundary between the cold, impersonal oney earned from our outside jobs vs the warm, emotional money circulated within our extended family. Within, money is gift. Without, money is just an abstract number.

This example also illustrates one reliable method to infuse meaning into abstraction: to make it more concrete so that we can tell personal stories about them. There is a human limit of narrative energy though: we can only meaningfully recognize 150 distinct players (Dunbar’s number) or 12–40 (Venkat’s estimates) in any given moment in the theater of our lives. Following the same logic, the meaning of money becomes diluted as we increase the number of people in the exchange. As such, to make money meaningful again, we may use this model of “inside as gift, outside as number” within a smaller set of people.

Embodied money

Another reliable method to re-infuse meaning way to anything too abstract is to embody it. When it comes to money, the physical note is a good place to start.

One time, my mom caught me sniffing a bill (No I wasn’t rolling a joint or anything.. out of curiosity only) and she yelled “Don’t do it! It’s dirty. Do you know how many hands have that note been to?”

For context, she also worked as a bank clerk, and everyday she had to carry bags of money from the main branch to various ATMs. She didn’t count one bill by one bill but ten of them at once, without any mistake for twenty something years. If anyone deals with money at the most physical level, it’s my mom.

Her words stayed with me, perhaps not for the reason she intended. Money, in its physical form or as a digital number, could and perhaps should remind us of how connected we are. We all participate in this great flow of energy (“currency” borrows the electricity metaphor of “current”) and as such, we re all dirty anyway. Which is why any legit “spiritual journey” should involve a lot of monetary exchanges. Take that, spiritual purists who claim the sacredness of all things BUT money. Who knows that sniffing a bill can be such a non-LSD spiritual experience?

You can take this suggestion of embodied money further by musing on the sexual experience of money.

Some monetary exchanges feel like a quickie. Like buying a drink from a vendor machine or swiping your card at the grocery. Some are like an one night stand. Quick, hot, but perhaps not a lot of intimacy.

For example, I just got my monthly paycheck yesterday. Looking at the time sheet with the hours and the tasks done, I started reminiscing. It was well-earned money with some emotional highlights here and there, from joy to boredom to frustration. Nothing made me feel like “pouring my soul out” though, and don’t really want to look back on it.

In contrast, other monetary interactions are slow, sensuous and intimate. Last month, I made $1.23 on Medium for a short story on my addiction with time (which I ironically spent too many hours on). I know the contour of that piece inside out, and I could even sense its shape as I wrote it. Receiving that $1.23 compensation made it taste even better.

Towards a financial sensibility.

The point here is that neither is “better” than other. In fact, in order to become well-versed in different money cultures, I may need to do fewer quickies, more one night stands and maybe different kinds of intimate fun(d) exchanges. From those experiences, I may then develop my own unique taste or money. This is not about financial literacy of investing and 401k but rather a financial sensibility of what money means and how each exchange feels like.

Let’s take myself as an example. As you can guess from my family money-as-gift-episode, I tend to be on the intimate side of monetary endeavors. Somehow the idea of making money by selling to customers whom I don’t even know seems absurd to me. It makes sense why many people try to separate intimate relationships from money matters as much as possible. Relationships are already messy, adding money only complicates it further. Yet, if we can enjoy the mess, it maybe much more interesting and rewarding to re-entangle the two.

If money is human made, why does it have to be so separated from human? Is there a way to re-imbue money with qualities such as joy? For example, a new friend from Germany recently visited Boston and stayed with me for a few nights. We shared our bed, and at the end she asked if she could pay for the cost.

I didn’t really need it, and being a nice host I would have said No. But I told her that I was exploring money as a way to strengthen human connection, and I would joyfully receive however much she gives as a gift. She left a really nice message at the Paypal transaction. In this case, the money has indeed made our relationships tighter.

Playful money

What if this equation of money = business = serious isn’t always true?

Can more people play with money without going to casino? For another example, I just charged a friend $2 for a 30' massage. Apparently, I didn’t intend to find the optimal pricing strategy where relationship is least affected for the monetary gains. Instead, we framed it a play with money to see how each of us felt. We were both happy with the experience of massage and money.

An economy approach to money will say that if people want to buy your product at the price you charge then you are doing a net good for the world. An ecology approach to money will chart a more nuanced landscape of money, from mountains (bank reserves) to seas (industries) to ponds (farmer markets), from rocky paths (struggling businesses) to flattened highways (well-established proceduralized companies). It will also encompass the inner dimension, the emotional texture of each monetary exchanges. Hopefully a high EQ Blockchain aficionado will tackle this one day.

For now, I hope this inquiry into the question of “what is my relationship with money?” has proven fruitful to you. Good luck.