As a business owner, I spend a lot of time considering money. I calculate cash flows and make projections to make sure my business can fulfill its obligations in the near future.
I have come to the conclusion that there are two main ways to approach the subject of money:
- Money can be everything.
- Or, it can just be important.
I would prefer to spend the least amount of time thinking about money, and so I prefer that it is just important, and it is not the driving force of everything that I do in my life.
And so, various strategies emerge from this. Living within your means, having a large cash reserve in your business so you can weather bad situations, and so on.
Today I wanted to focus on the things in life that money can’t buy. Because money is just a way to keep track of value, a means to an end. But, for many it has become an end it itself.
The first thing I want to discuss that cannot be purchased is mastery. This can be physical (such as the ability to play the piano) or mental (such as the ability to play chess or understanding physics). Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and tenured professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford University, makes an interesting point in one of his podcasts that there is essentially no difference between physical and mental mastery, because everything is in the neurons.
Our muscles don’t really have a memory, although they do have capabilities that can be enhanced. However, it is our nervous system that remembers how to do things. And so, when we talk about mastery, what we are really talking about is neuronal circuitry.
This is something that cannot be purchased. It must be earned through hard work and dedication over long periods of time. You can buy a book on the subject, or take a class, but the only way to really achieve mastery is through practice.
This is something that I am actively working on in my life. And, it is something that I believe is important for everyone to pursue. Because when we have mastery over something, we can take pride in our accomplishments, and we can feel a sense of satisfaction and joy.
While money can be an enabler for mastery, for instance by allowing you to purchase piano lessons, it is not going to do the hard work for you. You still need to show, to be consistent, to focus, to reflect, and to learn.
What is interesting is that mastery can confer status on someone that is far beyond the amount of money that they earn. For instance, someone who has written a philosophy book is unlikely to be a billionaire, but during a dinner party when the talk becomes philosophical, they have a much higher status than any billionaire who is attending.
And even money itself, which does confer status in our society, does so by association. If you have money, it means that you likely have done something useful for society. You managed to find a way to add value, and society rewarded you for it. You’ve had a great career, you’ve been smart with real estate and investments, or you’ve created a long-lasting business.
But, the money is not the thing of value, it is what the money represents that has value. It is a stand-in for all of the things that you’ve done right. And so, if we want to have high status, we should focus on becoming masters of something. And, we should be careful not to let money become the be-all and end-all of our lives.
This does not hold as true for inherited wealth, because the recipient of the wealth has not done anything specific to deserve that — they just happened to be born in the right place and at the right time, and I suspect that there are specific psychological problems that happen only to people that have inherited large amounts of money. It probably feels like not much is worth doing in life, because they are unlikely to be as successful as their parents or family, and they have no pressure to actually go out and do something.
So this then turns the conversation on its head. There are not only things that money can’t buy, but there are things that you cannot have if you have money. For instance, the level of pressure that one has if you’re running a startup, and this is your only shot at making it. You’re going to hustle harder, push more on sales, and generally be more involved than if you already have plenty of money.
I wonder, how many startups have been created because someone needed to make money to pay rent!
The results of long-term mastery can often be quite incredible. I haven’t written for long enough to consider myself a master, but I hope that decades from now, when I look back, I will see that I will have built up mastery. Having thousands of written essays, perhaps some books, and so on. This is not something that can be purchased, it has to be earned.
Time is a great equalizer, everyone gets the same amount of time each day. I like the analogy to a bank account, that at midnight everyone on the planet receives $86,400 — and every second one dollar is spent.
How we spend our time determines how successful we will be. You can’t purchase more time, but you can use your time in a way that is productive. One of the most important things that I have learned is that there is no such thing as free time. Even if you’re not working on your career, you’re still working on something. You’re either sleeping, which is important for health, or you’re watching TV, which is important for entertainment and relaxation. But even then, you’re not really doing nothing — your brain is still active, processing information. The key is to be intentional with your time, and to use it in a way that is productive. And this doesn’t necessarily mean working all the time, but it does mean being deliberate about how you spend your time, and ensuring that you are making the most of it.
We cannot control the flow of the time that we spend, we can just make sure that we spend it wisely — and this does not matter whether you are rich or poor. Obviously, if you have to work one or several jobs that you don’t enjoy to make enough money to live, then perhaps you feel that money could buy you time. But, it can just buy you free time, you still have to do the work to fill that empty time with something meaningful.
There is this idea that the highest achievement in life is to get rich, and then be on constant holiday and sit on Caribbean beaches with a cocktail constantly in hand. I have actually tried that, and it is not particularly stimulating. I felt like I wanted to do something worthwhile with my time.
Wealth does not necessarily buy happiness, as the saying goes. But more importantly, it doesn’t buy meaning. And if you want to lead a meaningful life, then you have to create that meaning yourself. Money can buy you (free) time, but it cannot buy you purpose (i.e. meaningful time!).
None of us are getting any younger, and so it is worth considering the fact that we have no idea how much time we have left. You could die today, or you could die tomorrow, or in fifty years from now. Each time you do something, it could be the very last time that you do it. Sometimes, we clearly know the fact that this is the case, such as the last meal at a restaurant that is going to close, or the last kiss of a lover who is moving to the other side of the world. These moments are memorable, specifically because we know that they are scarce — there will never be another moment like it again.
Interestingly, this can actually enhance our appreciation of everything in life. We can learn to appreciate how precious time is, and to make sure that we stay focussed on the present moment, which is all we have — regardless of how much money we have in our bank accounts.
The other thing to consider with regards to time and money is that we often have to give up one for the other. You can work harder, perhaps spending more time doing something that you do not truly enjoy, for a larger paycheck. Or, you can work fewer hours, spend time doing what you would ideally want to do, and earn less. Sometimes, for some people, what they want to ideally do with their time lines up with what they do in their work — and so there is a complete blurring of the idea of work-life balance.
In fact, in probably does not even make sense to discuss work-life balance in these cases, because there is just life. These people would be doing their “work” even if they weren’t being paid — that is how much they enjoy what they do. This is rare, and also it is not 100% of the time, regardless of the type of job that they do. There is always going to be some bullshit such as dealing with problems, difficult people, and annoying paperwork.
But for most of us, we have to make a choice: what do I want to do with my time, and how much money am I willing to sacrifice in order to do that? Or, perhaps we should flip this: How much how much time am I willing to give up in order to get the money that I want?
I believe that tranquillity is one of the ultimate goals of life. This does not mean that we need to be calm and emotionless, but that a life free of worry, where we accept things as they are, is a good life.
Where we are not second-guessing if we are doing the right thing, or wishing that things are different to how they are, right now.
Because if we wish that things were different right now, and we work hard to change them, then when we eventually get to that future state, we will also continue to wish that things were different. We will reset our goals and our ambitions and constantly want more.
In some ways, money is actually a blocker to tranquillity. It is very much like water. Not enough, and you’ll die. Too much, and you can get water poisoning or even drown. So there is an inverted u-curve with regards to our tranquillity and the amount of money that we have, but what is the right amount to have?
There is no correct answer here, but “more than we need, and less than we want” is the conclusion that I have reached.
We need to cover the basics; this much is obvious. You need water, food, some clothes, a place to sleep. If you have a family, now you have responsibilities for other people, yet more money is required. But you don’t need a private jet, a 60-inch television, designer clothing, and so on. The more stuff we collect, the more time and mental energy we have to spend looking after our stuff.
Having fewer possessions means that we can focus our attention on the things that we already have, and that we purchase items with the idea of keeping them for years or decades, instead of quickly recycling our belongings.
It is interesting to think that everything you have right now, you once really wanted. And no, it feels pretty normal, and you may even despise it! And in the future, everything that you have right now will either break, need fixing, be lost or stolen, or just become obsolete. Everything has a shelf life, and accepting this enables us to live a far more tranquil life.
I remember when I first started my business, someone moved a desk and two brand new (and expensive!) iMac computers fell on the floor and broke. I had been a Stoic for around six years by that time, and I felt that my training kicked in immediately. I told myself that I live in a world where gravity exists, where people sometimes do stupid things, and where things break. This was completely fine and in accordance to nature, and so we got the iMacs fixed, and that was that — no loss of tranquillity.
I look forward to investigating other things that money can’t buy in the near future!