Facing one of life’s toughest questions.
If this article is anything it’s an open letter to myself. I’ve long struggled with the concept of divorcing net worth from self-worth, especially since moving to New York. I present these ideas as a hopeful suggestion that you can balance money and meaning in pursuit of personal growth. It’s been either the explicit or implicit backdrop to almost every coaching relationship I have.
Money is a way of keeping score. We all know it shouldn’t be, but it is. In an increasingly noisy, complex and comparative world, your wealth can be a pleasingly objective reality. “I am WORTH fifteen million dollars. Look, it says so right here: Worth.”
The question is; how robust does our sense of self need to be to withstand a substantial income hit? What about foregoing future income? Capitalism is obviously defined by money more than other systems. Money makes for a clear comparative benchmark of your self-worth, and is clearly an effective motivator. So the net result is when you look to change industries or take a step down in income, you risk substantial hits to both your self-worth AND your motivation.
We can healthily identify as more than our jobs, for example as wives, husbands and parents. But how much of THAT also becomes conflated with the ability to provide our families with a certain level of income? The first thing I hear from my older clients is often that they can’t force their families to forego the lifestyles that their wealth affords them.
This is a real concern. In my opinion, it’s the central concern of most people on Wall Street over a certain age. New York and the surrounding area has structural constraints that other cities don’t. And- spoiler alert- sometimes a lifestyle adjustment is inevitable. But too often I suspect we use family commitments as an excuse for failing to prepare. It’s a really hard truth to swallow; I’ve had to swallow it myself.
As Carl Jung says, in his often rather terrifying style: ‘Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their children than the unlived life of the parent.’
So how do I find something worth sacrificing my lifestyle for, rather than sacrificing my life to my lifestyle?
This then enters the domain of effective coaching. How do we make our sense of self less fragile to transition? How do we have this conversation with our families out of luxury rather than necessity? What’s the right trade-off between money and meaning?
And this can be what the equation comes down to: the fear that, left to market forces, we will be exposed as worth far less than many of us have earned for years.
Once the ‘worth’ has been stripped away, what’s left? We may not have a clear idea of who we are without our professional persona. I think it’s why so many people in career transition focus on standardized personality tests as self-discovery tools. As we slowly lose one identity we try to fit ourselves back into a predefined framework. But these are just tools (some more effective than others), not answers, not new identities. It doesn’t help that, to borrow a phrase from David Brooks, modern work too often optimizes for ‘resume virtues over eulogy virtues’. Would you want your excel wizardry to be a topic at your funeral?
Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra is a very good book on this topic. Her message is that career change is rarely a seamless transition: ‘Once the change is under way but long before the transition is completed, different versions of our selves battle it out in a long and anguished middle period.’ The middle period can take years and is fraught with uncertainty. She argues that we should use this period to experiment with as many new identities as we can.
What future identity would make you proud enough to make a leap into the relative unknown?
There’s an idea from evolution that makes me much more comfortable with risking the idea of a lifestyle downgrade. In Edge.org’s excellent 2012 book ‘What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?’ Stewart Brand’s answer was evolutionary fitness landscapes. It’s one of the deepest single pages of text I’ve ever read. A fitness landscape (see diagram above) is like a stock chart, with peaks and valleys, but in 3 dimensions. According to this theory, the aim of any organism is to find the highest peak. It made me realise that once you’ve reached a local peak you need to go down first to reach a higher adjacent peak. It’s only by descending into the valley of exploration, chaos and growth that you have a shot at finding a higher peak. And as the diagram makes clear; declines need not be permanent, in fact they are necessary for further growth.
As Ray Dalio writes in Principles, life is about successfully navigating a succession of struggles; ‘for most people success is struggling and evolving as effectively as possible, i.e., learning rapidly about oneself and one’s environment, and then changing to improve.’
It’s a common feature of high-performers, as Naval Ravikant recently noted: ‘When you look at the greatest artists and creators, they have this ability to start over that nobody else does’.
If this framing resonates with you, then you have 3 broad choices:
- Reject growth and stay at a local peak. Nature treats stagnation like dying. So here we sit, with all our immediate needs met, wondering where the pain and suffering is coming from. You know you’re here because your ‘safe places’ no longer work to numb the angst.
- Wait for the valley to find you. Wait for the ‘flood’; the layoff, the sickness. This is less fun than…
- …Finding the identity, sacrifice and challenge that’s worth the risk of willingly descending into the valley. Or to prepare to.
That’s what coaching can provide; someone to walk with you through the valleys and rope-up with you to climb the new peaks. This can mean finding ways to make your sense of self-worth more robust or framing your fears in more concrete terms. It’s co-evolution in pursuit of a higher peak in your life.
Stewart Brand’s conclusion also reinforces how we can all help each other with this process. ‘You realize that for each species, its landscape consists almost entirely of other species, all of them busy evolving right back. That’s co-evolution. We are all each other’s fitness landscapes.’
You can visit my site to learn more. Our first 45min consultation session is free. There’s nothing to lose.
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