I’ve been running money workshops for ten years.
I have a confession to make.
They’re not really about money.
They’re about stories.
But I feel OK about that, because money isn’t really about money either. Money is about stories too.
Think about how money works.
People used to think that money was gold. Or money was seashells tied on string. Or that money was paper.
But, to all but the most unobservant person, it must now be pretty clear that money isn’t a thing. It’s not a thing like a chair or a dog or a lamppost is a thing.
Because the way money works doesn’t follow the rules of material things.
There is a room at the Federal Reserve where a group of people can get together and conjure billions of dollars out of thin air.
Bitcoin is as money-ish as money is — and works perfectly well as money — and Bitcoins get created by…something to do with ‘mining’ and prime numbers that I don’t fully comprehend.
Tesco Clubcard points, Nectar points, giftcards, Brixton Pounds, airmiles, loyalty cards…they’re all just invented and only exist because someone says so.
Money isn’t a thing. It’s a story. It’s a story about a number.
What does £25 mean to you? What about £70? What about £1000? What about $123 or 4000 airmiles or a million Brixton Pounds? For every number, a different story. For every person, a different story. In every moment, a different story.
There are an infinite number of stories we can tell about money. And we do tell an infinite number of stories about money. There really are no limits to the kinds of stories you can tell about money.
Can you think of a kind of money that doesn’t involve numbers?
Can you think of a kind of money that doesn’t involve stories?
As far as I can tell, you need both. The practice of using money is the practice of telling stories about numbers.
The reason the Federal Reserve can conjure a billion pounds out of nothing and I can’t? They’re better storytellers.
The reason Bitcoin can create money out of nothing? They’re also really good storytellers.
Salvador Dali apparently used to wake up in the mornings and sign blank canvases before breakfast and then sell them for great sums of money to people who would then paint their own work on top of it and proclaim it a priceless ‘Dali’. Salvador Dali apparently used to go to restaurants with huge groups of friends, order everything on the menu, ask for the bill, write a cheque for the full amount — then turn the cheque over and draw a little picture on the back — safe in the knowledge that the restaurant owner would never cash the cheque. Because the story Dali told on the back of the cheque was worth more than the story the bank told on the front. Salvador Dali — also a really good storyteller.
But this isn’t a story about money.
This is a story about stories.
And how stories can sometimes be profitable and sometimes unprofitable.
If you want to understand money, it pays to understand stories.
What’s the point of money?
Why do we tell stories about numbers?
And why do we make such a big deal out of it?
Humans have been telling stories about things for a very long time.
We create souvenirs — objects as reminders, that take us back to places we’ve been before.
We create talismans and totems — objects that we imbue with power and significance.
We create works of art — objects that serve to capture or evoke subtle inner states of being.
Whether it’s money or paintings or ritual artefacts, it’s always the same underlying process. You have a physical object. Something limited. And you tell a story about it that links it to something not-physical. Something unlimited. Like a feeling or an idea. We invest the physical thing with meaning — with the intention that we can make use of that investment later. Standing right next to the Eiffel Tower, you buy an Eiffel Tower snowglobe so that later, when you’re sat at home on the sofa, you can get back that feeling of how it felt to stand right next to the Eiffel Tower.
And, although it may not be immediately obvious, this is the process by which money functions.
Money is just a subset of objects-we-tell-stories-about.
Now, this process — charging objects with meaning, investing them with significance — this is a process that we are all engaged in basically all of the time. With our incredible storytelling minds. But it’s a process that comes so easily to us that we can end up forgetting that we’re even doing it. And when you forget that you are the storyteller, then you end up beholden to the stories that you tell.
I drop my Eiffel Tower snowglobe. It smashes on the kitchen floor. And the part of me that loved being reminded of how it felt to stand right next to the Eiffel Tower cries out in pain.
Unless I remember that the snowglobe was just a means to an end. Unless, looking at the smashed glass and the little plastic tower and the snowy water on the floor, I remind myself that I am still capable of feeling that feeling of standing right next to the Eiffel Tower. If I remember the feeling, and I remember that I am the storyteller, then I need only pick up the nearest spoon (or pyramid-shaped cheesegrater) and assign that the same job of reminding me of Paris. Every time I grate some comté.
The process of telling profitable stories
In order to turn a cheesegrater into an Eiffel Tower souvenir, there are certain things that need to happen.
“The medium is the message.” — Marshall McLuhan
So, there are two parts. The medium and the message. And, before you start, they are two separate things. Then you try to combine them.
I’m standing at the Eiffel Tower. I feel awe. And happiness. Happy awe.
And I think to myself, “I can’t remember the last time I felt happy awe, but I like it.” And then I think to myself, “Happy awe is a slippery thing. Very intangible. Hard to put my finger on. This feeling may slip out of my grasp and be gone forever. If only this moment could last forever…” So, I look around for something I can put my finger on. Something that is less likely to slip out of my grasp than an intangible sensation of happy awe. My eyes land on a tiny wind-up Paris snowglobe that plays La Vie en Rose and it happens. The medium and the message combine and this tawdry piece of tat is imbued, by me, with the quality of happy awe. I hand over my €30 (including VAT) and am rewarded with permanent easy recall of an otherwise fleeting emotional sensation.
This is a profitable story.
By telling a story about a thing, we’re able to access more subtle emotional states more easily. By telling a story about a thing, we’re able to interact with those emotional states as if they were outside of us — giving us the benefit of perspective. By telling a story about a thing, we can grasp the ungraspable.
And the way we do it is by combining a set of story elements. Let’s call it story maths.
It works something like this.
- I feel…
- …a happy state of awe…
- …when I’m standing next to the Eiffel Tower.
That’s a perfectly nice story when standing next to the Eiffel Tower. But comes with a potentially unhappy flipside.
- If I’m not standing next to the Eiffel Tower…
- …I won’t feel…
- …a happy state of awe.
Those are the story elements: there’s me, there’s a feeling and there’s an object. In the first story — combining these elements comes with a benefit. (The presence of the object allows me to access a certain feeling.) In the second story, combining these elements comes with a cost. (The absence of the object deprives me of that certain feeling.) But that cost can be avoided by creating a third story.
- I feel…
- …a happy state of awe…
- …whenever I see my Eiffel Tower snowglobe that reminds me of when I was standing next to the Eiffel Tower…
- …with or without me actually having to stand next to the Eiffel Tower.
A bit of switching around. Introducing a new element. Restructuring the story. Same message, different medium. A potentially costly story — of the loss of happy awe — is averted by a judicious act of story mathematics. By adjusting the story I withdraw the feeling of happy awe from the Eiffel Tower itself and invest it in the snowglobe. Suddenly I don’t have to stand right next to the Eiffel Tower in order to feel the happy awe. I can take it with me.
And what if you lose the snowglobe? What if your luggage ends up in Minsk, never to be seen again? What if, in your haste to extract a couple of nice bottles of Madiran from your case, you don’t clock the wintry crystal ball wrapped-up in a sweater, it escapes your grasp, rolls along the kitchen table and smashes on the floor?
Then it’s just the same trick again. As the glass splinters you may be pained by the thought:
- If I don’t have my happy little souvenir then…
- …I won’t feel…
- …a happy state of awe.
As long, that is, as you believe that the medium is the message and that the two are inseparable.
- I feel…
- …a happy state of awe…
- …whenever I see my pyramid-shaped cheesegrater that is somewhat reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower…
- …with or without me actually having to have that cheap piece of tourist tat.
It’s always the same trick.
It’s just a matter of noticing when we tell stories about things.
It’s just a matter of checking if those stories are profitable or not.
It’s just a matter of noticing what the elements of those stories are and how we’re putting them together.
It’s just a matter of rewriting unprofitable stories.
So what does this have to do with money?
When we talk about money, we do exactly the same thing. Just like a nostalgic tourist clinging to past sensations, we invest money with stories. With sensations. With hopes and fears and dreams and desires.
And we do it in just the same way. Combining story elements: a subject, a feeling, an object.
- I feel…
- …when I have lots of money.
And sometimes that’s a profitable story. Say, if you like feeling safe and you have lots of money. But, just as with miniature Eiffel Tower snowglobe jewellery, there can be an unhelpful flipside:
- If I don’t have lots of money then…
- …I won’t feel…
And, just as with a Swarovski crystal-encrusted luxury Paris snow globe, the most important thing isn’t whether you have it or not. It’s how good you are at telling stories about it. And whether you remember that you get to choose what stories to tell. And whether the stories you choose are profitable or not.
How to tell profitable stories about money.
So, yes, this is profitable in the broadest sense of the word. Not just stories about money that make more money. But stories about money that are useful. That get you where you want to go. That produce the result you’re looking for. That allow for something creative to occur.
The most telling thing, I’ve found, is that you can actually feel whether a story is helpful or not.
Say you’re on holiday and you lose all of your money and you have no idea what you’ll do. Sometimes that’s too much to handle and you shut down and the holiday is ruined. No creative options. Other times, the unexpected injection of chaos can open up some dormant lust for unpredictability. You can feel which one it is.
Say you’ve ploughed all of the money you have into a new venture and you’re waiting to see if you’ll get a return on your investment. For some people, that moment of risk and trepidation is what they live for. It makes them come alive. They thrive under pressure. They relish the uncertainty. For someone else, it might stifle just the creativity they need to make the venture a success. You can feel which one it is.
In the end, that’s the difference between a profitable and an unprofitable story about money. Does the story open you up or close you down? Does it make you more creative or less creative? Does it help you get to where you’re trying to get to?
In money workshops, I find that, in the end, we’re almost always actually talking about creativity. About creative flow and creative tension.
And, when people are talking about problems with money, what they’re almost always talking about is obstacles to their own creative flow. (Just think — if you were always in a state of perfect creative flow, always able to realise whatever vision you put your mind to effortlessly, then would money be a problem?)
And, when people are talking about problems with money, about obstacles to their creative flow, what it almost always comes down to is the stories they’re telling.
Like, “I’ve started a new project and everyone loves it and I should really start working on it full-time because demand for it is so high, but…
- I have lots of debt so…
- …I don’t feel…
When you know that you’re doing the wrong thing, and you know what the right thing to do is, but there’s a story that says you can’t do the right thing and have to carry on doing the thing that you know is the wrong thing… those are the times when it’s worth pulling apart the story into its constituent parts.
In all the money workshops I’ve hosted or attended, the most important factor is never how much money someone has. The most important factor is how attached they are to the stories they’re telling themselves.
If you’re very attached to a story that keeps you stuck, then you stay stuck — and it doesn’t matter how much money you have.
If you’re always able to come up with a story that works, that allows you to do what you need to do to get to where you need to get to, then -also- it doesn’t matter how much money you.
How flexible are your stories?
Basically everything I know about money and stories about money starts with Peter Koenig. In his seminars on money and relationships with money, Peter lays out some simple ways of being more flexible in the stories we tell about money. How to creatively connect and disconnect various messages and various media. How to invest — or withdraw — meaning and significance from money.
Having mastered this art of financial storytelling, more often than not, distant ambitions and dreams — held back, way away, on the far side of some imagined sum of money — are suddenly not as distant as they first seemed. And can be realised with ease. And, more often than not, horrific pressing and urgent fears are suddenly not so pressing, urgent or frightening. The difficult, it usually turns out, stems from the storytelling. Not from the money.
Two techniques for more flexible stories
You have stories that encourage creative flow and stories that impede it. So, when things aren’t flowing:
Technique Number One: Separate the medium from the message.
Otherwise known as the ‘I don’t need this lousy snowglobe’ technique.
If you’re telling yourself the story that, “I can only be happy when I’ve earned ten million dollars,” then you may have made happiness unavailable to you for a very long time. And there’s also a good chance that some of the things you’re able to do when you’re happy are some of the things you’ll need to be able to do in order to earn ten million dollars. So you can make happiness instantly more available to you by separating the medium from the message:
“I can be happy, with or without earning ten million dollars.”
That’s not to say that you always have to unravel every story. It’s not to say that it’s always going to feel easy or straightforward to rewrite any story. It’s not to say — in the moment where you’re believing the story about the ten million dollars — that it doesn’t feel absolutely 100% undeniably absolutely true that you need the money to be happy.
But if you can play with the story, you have options.
Technique Number Two: Change the view.
When we’re deeply attached to a story about some imagined future situation (or some fondly remembered past situation), it’s easy to forget to check if the current situation might actually be OK. Sometimes it doesn’t even occur to us to entertain the possibility that everything might be fine as it is.
“I have a lot of debt, so I don’t feel safe.”
That’s the kind of line that can stop someone dead in their tracks forever. Trapped in debt. Trapped in not feeling safe. Unable to take their next step. A deeply unprofitable story. Unless you entertain the possibility that having a lot of debt and not feeling safe might be OK.
This is how improvisers play with stories. The art of the improviser is to take the present situation and look for the potential in it. Not to stand on stage and wish you had started somewhere else. The art of the improviser is to look at the present situation and say,
“Ah! The perfect starting point.”
The art of the improviser is to say,
“I have a lot of debt, so I don’t feel safe. Ah! The perfect starting point.”
It’s like one more story element. You have the subject (‘I’), the feeling (‘safe/unsafe’) and the object (‘a lot of debt’). And you have the view: ‘it’s OK’ or ‘it’s not OK’. And that can make all the difference…
Imagine the player on stage who begins:
- I have a lot of debt…
- …so I don’t feel safe…
- …and it’s not OK.
Then imagine the player on stage who begins:
- I have a lot of debt…
- …so I don’t feel safe…
- …and it’s OK.
The basic starting point is the same. The view is different. And everything that follows is affected by that view.
The first player, you could see him becoming more and more ashamed of his debt. He fears for his safety. He starts to hide what’s really going on for him. Starts to lie to the people closest to him. Cuts himself off from the people who might help him. Shrivels up and dies alone. That sort of thing.
The second player, you could see him looking at his situation with a kind of wide-minded amazement. Like, “Wow. We have really got ourselves into some kind of situation here. Hey, Larry — look at how much money I owe! Holy hell. This is — woah. Man. I am going to have to pull some clever piece of I-don’t-know-what out of the bag this time.” You know — that kind of person. The one who gets grumpy when things get easy, but whose eyes light up when things get risky. Player number two.
Which is not to say it’s better to be the second player than the first player. It’s not to say that things always turn out badly for the first guy and well for the second guy. It’s just to say: if you are aware of the story and you are aware of the elements of the story, then you have some choice in which role you’re going to play. And having that flexibility can be very profitable indeed.
The Art Of Telling Stories That Unleash Creative Flow
This is the heart of it.
It’s easy to over-estimate the importance of money when it comes to realising a creative vision.
It’s easy to under-estimate the importance of storytelling when it comes to realising a creative vision.
It’s easy to take stories at face value and to under-estimate our capacity to rewrite them.
It’s easy to rewrite stories so they stop standing in your way and start helping you along it.
It’s good to buy souvenirs and it’s just as good to break them.