Spiderman at a desk with only 28,800 seconds left of work

Money as No Object

How many of you have engaged in the fight to decide what you should do for your career?  As a college student, it seems to be the ultimate vexing problem of everyone without a job offer.  It’s so significant, that we often phrase the question as “what should I do with my life?” instead of “what should I do for work?”

Spiderman with 28,800 seconds left of work at a desk
It seems popular for vocational advisers to have young adults ask themselves what they would do if “money were no object,” and then spend their life doing that.  Here, you can even watch a video where Alan Watts says to do just that–with some time-lapse video and smart sounding music in the background making it clear that the advice is genius and unquestionable.  Humor me a moment while I question it.

There are three places where this advice breaks down as a universal guiding principle:
  1. The implications of treating “money as no object”
  2. The functionality of our society putting that advice into practice
  3. The goodness of defining our life and its fulfillment by our career


What does it mean to treat “money as no object?”

As far as I can tell, money serves a dual purpose in the western world, and although cutting-ties with one of the ways we use money will fissure our social-constructed barriers to happiness, the significance of its second use trumps the problems of the first.  Money’s two uses are:
  1. To keep score
  2. To facilitate the exchange of goods and services
1.  I do personally believe that if we can end the practice of using money to keep score, society will be happier. “Keeping up with the Jones'” doesn’t provide sustainable happiness.  Sure, we may gain a sense of accomplishment, and many people gain some sort of utility by “beating” other people in the race of life, but if we can find better ways of keeping score, I think society will be well served.
Keeping Up With The Jonses
Perhaps an institutionalization of measuring happiness directly could serve us well.  Wouldn’t it be better if we fought to “keep up with the Jones'” on happiness instead of cash?  Bhutan has done some work at implementing this concept using the Gross National Happiness Index.  Much more work needs to be done though, primarily to (a) come up with universally accepted indicators and standards, as well as (b) creating a system apt to facilitate the improvement of happiness in ways that our society can accept (i.e., spirituality is still a good indicator for promoting happiness, but it coercing people to attend religious services will not solve the happiness problem.)
I must also add that a relentless pursuit of money has also indirectly done some good.  If someone wants to earn money and can best do so by starting a company that develops better medicine, or grows and distributes food more cheaply, or constructs houses in safer ways, the world is served even if the people doing so simply wanted to increase the amount of resources they personally control.  The widespread consumer mentality causes plenty of problems, but we need to be fair and recognize the other side of the coin.  Our current system as a certain level of net-benefit from its benefits and costs.  Any other system we try to implement should have a greater net-benefit when all things are considered, rather than simply look more attractive due to the rhetoric around it.
2.  Treating money as no object can be very dangerous due to money’s use in facilitating the exchange of goods and services.  Money acts as a proxy for real things.  “Treat money as no object” translates directly to “treat food as no object” or “treat shelter as no object” or “treat medicine as no object.”
Sure, you may be passionate about riding horses, but if you spend your life making your “job” riding horses around the wild frontier your whole life, will you still be happy when your life ends three months after you begin your occupation from starvation or disease?  Perhaps if we find someone who, after really followed through with this advice lies on his or her deathbed due to easily preventable problems, tells us “heck yes!  It was worth it!  Gack!” (that’s what dying might sound like)

Could our society continue if we did whatever we wanted in complete disregard of money?

We enjoy a lot of comforts, benefits, and fulfilled needs in our current society.  It turns out that providing lots of those goods and services involves doing things that suck.
There are two big problems that following this advice would cause to society:
  1. People don’t want to do many of the things that must be done
  2. People have desires and passions that would damage society if it were pursued
1.  How many janitors would chose to be a janitor if they decided to do whatever they wanted to do in the world?  Sure, there are people that really enjoy it and we would probably still have a few, but would we have enough to fill the world’s need?  No.  The same can be said for many occupations that would affect everything we need and want (food, shelter, water, medicine, clothes, airplanes, cars, computers, etc.)
Beyond the many benefits of the “first world,” what if people in abject poverty were to instantly take this advice?  I’m sure that the impoverished families would love to do things besides scrimp and save and engage in daily hard labor for a meager subsistence, but it would not be a great solution for them to drop that life to go pursue a life of modern dance in Sudan.
2.  Would it be out of line to say that some people are passionate about controlling others?  It’s easy to say to someone that wants to be a poet in a first world country “go be a poet!  You’ll be fine!  You probably wont be rich, but you’ll live!”  But what do you say to someone who, if money were no object, would choose to forcefully impose his or her will on others?  If this person exercises his or her passion, others will be stopped from having the capacity to pursue their own passions.  We would need great creativity to solve these [seemingly] mutually exclusive desires.

Should we seek out our deepest fulfillment in life through our careers?

To me, this question is the most important of the three.  The reason this whole issue exists demonstrates our societal failure to recognize and promote what is really important and valuable to our happiness.
It’s great if you can find value in your work.  After all, you’ll spend a lot of time doing whatever your job is, and people still identify you tightly with your occupation.  If you can find a good career that you find meaning in, avail yourself of the opportunity to engage in it.  If you can’t find meaning in your job, don’t worry, you do not need to categorize your life under the “meaningless waste” category.
Meaning can be found in lots of ways in lots of places.  I have a few suggestions:
  • Family
  • Religion
  • Service
  • Friends
  • Human Rights Advocacy
  • Parenthood
Having a meaningful job is great, but not necessary to a happy life.  I think happiness comes from adding value wherever you are in whatever good thing you are a part of.  I think most of us already recognize that even if you do have a meaningful job, if you lose focus on your family or religion, the most meaningful job will supply a short distraction from greater emptiness–at best.  Yes, even a job in human rights advocacy can’t replace the fundamental human relationships.

Who is the advice good for?

To conclude, although I don’t think everyone should chose their career using the filter that eliminates money as an object, I think some aspects are worth considering depending on the circumstance:
  • Don’t think of money as a way to keep score
  • If you have a good education with the promise of having enough, you can treat money as even less important
  • Seek out meaning, even if your job stinks
I think the counsel provokes a few valuable questions as well:
If you can think of something that you would do if money were no object, and you can’t think of a job that lets you constantly do that, can you think of a job that will enable you to do what you love in your off-time?
Can you talk to other people and find a way to make your passion work for you anyway?
If you want to do things with your life that could be bad, can you find a way to change your desires?
What would a society look like that enabled everyone to follow their passions?  What systems would need to be in place to ensure that everyone can accomplish their desires and still eat?
As more and more processes get automated, perhaps we’ll hit a point where nobody really needs to do anything to have their needs met.  So long as we could mitigate the effects of people wanting more than they need, we could provide a way for everyone to just follow their passions.  But until we get there, we need to live in reality.
If you’re choosing a job partly because it will provide enough money for you to live a desired lifestyle, I don’t think there’s shame in that.  Just make sure you find real meaning and value.  Money is something, but it’s not everything.

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