We’ve all heard the old cliche ‘money can’t buy you happiness.’ There’s much more to it than that. It goes to the root of who you want to be, who you are hiding from, and to the fundamental nature of money itself.
Drawing on 30 years research into the human relationship to money led by Peter Koenig, I coach people from millionaires to the skint on how they can better understand money, and themselves, to live fulfilling, creative lives. Here’s what I know.
Meet the millionaires
Let me introduce you to two millionaires.
Geoff (not his real name) is a millionaire. When we met, he told me about the days building up to becoming rich. How the concept of being a millionaire is a cultural totem: Look at her, she’s a millionaire; I want to be a millionaire; What would you do if you were a millionaire? And so on.
So like many people, Geoff dreamed of becoming a millionaire. And unlike most people, he actually did. He started a company, it became successful, and he sold it, netting himself a few million pounds.
He recalled the moment the money finally got wired into his bank account. He was travelling on a train, checking his bank balance on a mobile app. Suddenly all those zeros. He was a millionaire.
Then Geoff looked around. The world was still turning, just as it was before. And despite those zeros, Geoff was still Geoff.
Becoming a millionaire sent him into a depression that only lifted when the company began to fail under its new leadership and he regained a sense of purpose working to get it back on track.
We then talked about the new company he’d recently started. I asked him what that project was all about for him personally. Two things, he told me: Firstly, unfinished business. The previous company, whilst financially successful hadn’t realised the creative vision it had started with and he still had an itch to scratch. There was more potential to explore. That sounded healthy to me — the creative pursuit of realising a worthwhile idea is a great way to spend your life.
How about number two? ‘Commercial validation.’ he said. ‘Huh?’ I replied, having never heard the expression before. ‘What does that mean?’ Geoff squirmed awkwardly. ‘It means this time I need to sell it for 100 million.’ The currency doesn’t even matter. It’s all about the zeros. If this had been Silicon Valley, not London, it would have almost certainly been a billion.
Why 100 million? Geoff told me there’s a club of ‘successful entrepreneurs’ in the 100 million club. Geoff wanted to be in that club. That represented something to him.
I pointed out that if a few million pounds had sent him into depression, then what might 100 million do? I was genuinely fearful for him if he made that sort of cash because I had no sense he’d really dealt with whatever was going on beneath the surface. ‘I know,’ Geoff said. He’s not stupid, in fact he has a razor sharp mind. ‘But I still want the 100 million!’
Geoff’s personal money life story is, of course, different to most of us. But the fundamentals of his relationship to money are almost certainly exactly the same as yours and mine.
Now let me introduce you to Laura. Her story reveals the deeper truth about the nature of money and our relationship to it.
Laura (again, not her real name) has the sort of wealth where you get to live in a very large house in a very exclusive area in the home counties outside London. There are very nice cars parked outside. The kids are at very expensive schools. There’s a lot of VERY in Laura’s life.
She has served on the boards of several FTSE 100 companies. Her talent has made her a winner in the corporate world and she has the trappings of wealth to show for it.
Laura has her own company, with a mixture of creative and financial goals. The most prominent financial goal is the company’s build-up towards a ‘liquidity event’ sometime in the future. This is when the hard work will turn into lots of cash for the people involved.
We talked in a pub, and I challenged Laura on the goals. If she already has a great deal of wealth then why such a focus on making more money? What if the goals were all creative instead, and she got money working in a way that would support realising the goals, not as an end in itself? Surely she could get even more satisfaction working towards seeing a fulfilling, creative vision come to life?
Like Geoff, Laura also squirmed a bit and said ‘Well, I need the money. I have earned a lot, but it just kind of… goes... doesn’t it?’ She mumbled something about ‘having expenses.’
I knew I was getting somewhere and asked Laura what she thought money was. This is the heart of the matter for everyone, rich or poor. Laura’s answer was typical of someone playing in the corporate or entrepreneurial world:
‘Money is freedom.’ she said. ‘It’s success, and it’s security.’ And ‘Money is an enabler.’
As you read that, ask yourself if you agree. Is money those things to you? Or is it something else?
As we sipped our drinks in the pub, Laura and I continued to talk about the nature of money. Then something wonderfully revealing happened. Laura leaned in and almost in a whisper into my ear said, ‘But of course, Tom, we all know that money’s a bit dirty, isn’t it?’
This little throwaway comment told me a great deal about Laura’s relationship to money. Something completely unconscious.
She spoke the words like it was a simple truth. And it was a truth. Yet the key thing is that it was her truth. It was nothing to do with money.
What money really is
Laura, Geoff, me, and you all have our own little collection of stories about what we think money is. Ask a room full of people (I do this at money workshops with small groups) and you can quickly fill a chalkboard with answers.
Some of them are positive, like success, security and freedom. Others are negative, like dirty, or the root of all evil. Some are complete opposites. Money is freedom to some, and a trap to others. Money is fun, or boring.
Do some people just not get it, and fail to understand money? Is money contextual — showing up as different things in different situations? Or perhaps money is all of those things or none of them.
The answer is far more individual.
Whatever stories you have about money, are what money becomes for you, for as long as you are attached to those stories.
If you believe money is security then that’s how it shows up in your life. You feel more secure when money is around, and less secure when it isn’t. To you, the idea that money is security feels like a deep truth. Obvious. Unquestionable. Yet it’s personal to you. I’ve met plenty of people with next to no money who feel perfectly secure. For them, Money has nothing to do with it. At the same time, there are many insecure billionaires.
Money has no fundamental nature, good or bad. It has no will of its own to do or be anything.
Money simply becomes for us whatever we think it is, and there are a practically unlimited number of stories we can tell about it.
Our stories about money are stories about ourselves
Every one of the stories you hold about money is a story about yourself. Think of them as identities, like characters you play in your life.
Show me someone who thinks money is freedom and I’ll show you someone who wants to be free. You think money is an enabler? That means you want to be enabled.
Money is like a mirror, showing you who you want to be. In the mirror you see the reflection of the free you, the secure you, the enabled you. So you believe money really is those things. You see those powers when you look at money.
But it’s just a mirror. An optical illusion. We project the identities we seek onto money, and as if by magic that’s the power money takes on for us.
Our stories about Money affect our behaviour
When we have positive stories about money, we do our best to pursue it. Subconsciously we are trying to find those identities we seek.
On the other hand, if we have negative stories about money then subconsciously we try to repel it. Find someone who thinks money is something bad and you’ll probably find they don’t have much money.
I have a friend who started a not-for-profit initiative in a developing country. They needed money to buy equipment so I gave her a small donation in cash in a greeting card when I ended my visit there. The reaction on her face was priceless, and awful. It was like I’d handed her something truly disgusting. They didn’t want to take it. Their story about money? It’s evil. That explained everything about how money was in her life.
So how about our millionaire Laura, with her positive stories about money and at the same time a belief that money is dirty? She experienced an effect like a washing machine. She attracted money towards her, then repelled it away again. Like rain falling on her outstretched hands and dripping off her fingers. All of this was happening outside her awareness. If she ever made it to the ‘liquidity event’ (which is doubtful since the money will probably not linger long enough to create enduring value) then she’d probably find all of that disappears too.
Where our stories come from
Like so many of our unconscious beliefs, our stories about money (remember: they’re really stories about ourselves and our identity) usually come from our upbringing. Yes, blame the parents… but don’t hold it against them — they got it from their upbringing, just like you.
I have a clear memory as a child being sat down with my two sisters by my mum and dad and told that money was going to be tight. We wouldn’t be able to have everything we wanted. There was this air of fear, of insecurity about it. And it appeared to be centred around money. So no wonder that my own story about money became about security, like so many other people.
An illuminating exercise you can do in a spare half an hour is writing your own ‘money life story.’ It’s a timeline of your memories of money from the first time you remember money existing to all the key events in your life when money was in the picture: earning, spending, saving, borrowing, stealing, finding or losing it. The conflicts and times of satisfaction. Any moments of guilt, jealousy, frustration or even sickness around money. As you review your story, note down what the money represented at each stage. As you do this you’ll quickly realise that you’re actually telling a very personal story about who you wanted to be, and who you were afraid to be. All leading up to the person you are today. The money is a mirror of your identity.
Mastering our stories
If you’ve read this far then perhaps you’ve already taken the first step into a new relationship with money. Now you understand what money really is and how it works. You probably have some idea of what stories you have about money and maybe you can even spot where in your past they come from.
The next step is to reclaim the powers you are projecting onto money. To know that you’ve always had those powers and always will, completely independently of money.
To rejig your mental circuitry you need to give your subconscious mind a chance to decouple money from the identity you seek. You can do this by repeating a simple phrase. Here’s an example, for the ever-popular story that ‘money is security.’ Try saying this out loud, even if your rational brain believes it’s a lie. Just give it a go:
“I am secure, with and without money.”
Repeat it a few times and notice how you experience it in your body. Do you resist it? If so, where? In your chest, gut, throat, head, or somewhere else? How do you experience the feeling in your body? Tightness, pain, a churning sensation?
As you repeat it, you might start to feel something shift. Like something’s becoming unblocked or ‘shaken off.’ Don’t worry if you don’t feel anything change. It might take a few tries or you may need to revisit it over months or years. Sometimes there are other stories which need to pop first so you can get at the deeper stories beneath. Keep repeating the phrases and exploring your stories in this way. See if you feel some ease emerging. Even if the phrase feels like a big lie, consider this: It could be the most useful, powerful lie you have at your disposal.
Decoupling the identities we seek from money is powerful, but only half the process. Real transformation comes when you also reclaim the opposite of the identity you seek. This means becoming OK with being insecure, trapped, disabled, violent, or whatever awkward, repulsive identity you feel the most aversion to.
Reclaiming the identities you fear
To reclaim these opposites, there’s a different phrase to repeat out loud. Just as before, try saying it even if you think it’s a lie. And keep tuning in to how you experience it in your body. The phrase is:
I’m insecure, and it’s OK.
In this phrase you can substitute the word insecure for whatever identity you would most like to avoid. Notice how it feels to say it, and over time you might feel something shift as you begin to accept that it really is OK to be insecure sometimes. You can have fun with this and up the ante. Move on to ‘I’m insecure and it’s GOOD;’ then, ‘I’m insecure and I fucking love it.’ Indulge yourself, allow yourself to accept and be the thing you resist.
I’ve watched people do this and with a physical shake of their shoulders they finally release themselves from the aversion. They allow themselves to be a version of themselves that’s always been a taboo. It’s a real liberation. And again, even if it doesn’t work for you right away, you can file it away as a very useful lie you can tell yourself.
Life without giving our power away to money
When you’ve been able to reclaim your projections it can feel like a superpower. Yet actually what you have really done is just remove the power of an unhelpful superstition. Without that superstition, you’re all set to live a far more creative life.
This is because you can see a great lie of the industrial age for what it is. The lie that says ‘you have to earn your living.’ The lie that says there’s a linear path from work, to earning money, to being fulfilled.
Instead, a creative life is one centred around having ideas and realising them. The creative process itself is the means to being fulfilled and having your needs in life met, including your financial needs. Money isn’t a middleman.
You probably know people who live this way. Often they aren’t the richest people you know because they don’t waste precious time chasing money for its own sake or in a belief they need it to be creative. Instead, they live more like artists: dreaming, nurturing ideas, and realising them. Money finds ways to flow in and out of their life, always in service of their ideas, not as the master. People who live this way are attractors. The resources they need to realise their ideas gravitate towards them because of the passion they have for them.
In life, especially a creative one, there will be times where you will need access to the full repertoire of identities — the good ones and the bad ones. Think of method actors and artists who have no inhibition about playing any character they need to be so they can create their art. Embrace it all.
You may ask whether it’s safe to accept and integrate the supposedly darkest and dangerous identities. Yet what this process gives you is the ability to be more conscious and use all of them lovingly. You can use the identities when they are needed, not letting them bubble away under the surface only to burst through at a time when it doesn’t serve you.
Charles Davies, who first introduced me to Koenig’s work on money, has a lovely metaphor for this. Imagine your body is split lengthways down the middle. One side is fully alive. You can feel it, access it, control it and use it consciously. The other side is in the dark - unfeeling and unconscious. Now ask yourself: which hand would you like the chainsaw to be in?
Tom Nixon runs money workshops based on the ideas here and also coaches individuals on their unique situation with money, guiding them towards being the most creative, fulfilled version of themselves. He’s also the founder of Maptio — an online tool for people building creative organisations without traditional management hierarchy.
Contact Tom if you would like to organise a money workshop for your friends or community, or if you would like some one-on-one coaching on your relationship with money.
Credits: Peter Koenig is perhaps the world-leading expert on the nature of money and the human relationship to it. He developed the theory of money and the reclamation process I’ve described here and write the book 30 Lies About Money. I’ve been fortunate to have him as a teacher and I practice Koenig’s work with his blessing. Charles Davies introduced me to Peter’s work, and has developed his own process inspired by it called Identity Yoga.