Stop Feeling Bad for Wanting Money

“Solve money first” is a legit happiness strategy

Photo by N. on Unsplash

When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg went to his 15th Harvard Business School reunion, he was floored by the number of miserable classmates he saw.

Some had been sued, tricked, or pushed out of great jobs. Others lamented missed opportunities and expensive divorces. Sure, some were content, but in this elite environment, Duhigg had expected above-average happiness. What he found was above-average misery.

The pinnacle was a friend who worked for a pension fund. His job was to invest $5 million a day — so that others could retire in peace. Sadly, his company didn’t feel very connected to that mission. Rather, it was a toxic work environment. Duhigg’s friend said there was a lot of pressure to place all the money, a lot of non-friendly competition with his co-workers, and that he hated going to the office — despite earning a whopping $1.2 million a year.

In a New York Times article titled “Wealthy, Successful, and Miserable,” Duhigg tells the story — and gives his friend a voice:

“I feel like I’m wasting my life,” he told me. “When I die, is anyone going to care that I earned an extra percentage point of return? My work feels totally meaningless.” He recognized the incredible privilege of his pay and status, but his anguish seemed genuine. “If you spend 12 hours a day doing work you hate, at some point it doesn’t matter what your paycheck says,” he told me. There’s no magic salary at which a bad job becomes good.

It’s not like Duhigg’s friend didn’t have options. A startup had offered him a gig. Unfortunately, it only paid half as a much — and he had locked himself into a lifestyle he couldn’t service with that kind of pay. “Golden handcuffs,” they call it.

When Casey Neistat tweeted Duhigg’s article, the responses were less than graceful. “Boo hoo, poor millionaire isn’t happy,” the sentiment came back. In a video discussing the issue, Neistat says he’s grateful for the feedback: “I was thinking a lot about that, that platitude, ‘Money won’t solve your problems.’”

“What a crock of shit.”

Casey Neistat is a balanced guy. He knows an out-of-context quip and an article in a tweet won’t yield thoughtful conversation. He knows most people overreacted based on just the headline, and yet, he also remembers what it was like to be poor — and admits he would have reacted the same way.

“Why did so many people on Twitter get so upset by misinterpreting this headline? The answer is that for most people who are broke money will literally solve every one of your problems. Money will solve your problems.”

“It feels so tone-deaf, when you have nothing, to hear this idea that money won’t solve your problems,” Casey adds. “This idea that money won’t solve problems is bullshit. When I was dirt poor, money would have solved every one of my problems.”

Casey has a theory. He says there are two kinds of problems: life problems and money problems.

Life problems are complex, intangible, and basically take your whole life to solve. They’re about finding happiness, love, fulfillment, and purpose.

Money problems are specific, tangible, and more money will solve them almost immediately. A functional, comfortable place to live, enough food, proper healthcare, getting around, clothes and everyday necessities — money gives you access to all of these.

Casey says that, while we all encounter life problems and money won’t solve them, “When you’re broke, on top of life problems — and I mean that literally and figuratively — you’ve got money problems.”

Image via Casey Neistat on Youtube

As long as you’ve got money problems, you don’t have any time or energy to spend on your life problems. They’re louder, more painful and immediate than the other — and that’s a problem in and of itself, Casey says:

“It’s hard to work on your happiness when you don’t know where you’re gonna sleep. It’s hard to dwell too much on a relationship when you don’t know where your next meal will come from, and you’re not exactly worried about fulfillment at your job when you have no way to get there, and you’ve got no clothes to wear.”

This distinction splits the world in two camps: You’re either busy getting out of poverty or working on higher-level issues. You’re at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy or at the top.

Sure, it’s a gradual ascension, but few people are at the point where they are equally plagued by money and life problems. Various studies on the topic exist, but many put the barrier at around $75,000 per year, depending on where you live. If you make $40,000 in a place like LA, you’re probably struggling to make ends meet. If you make $100,000, you can live comfortably almost anywhere in the US except SF and New York.

That’s why Duhigg’s article might feel tone-deaf to some and relatable to others: There are two groups of people trying to solve two different sets of problems — and whichever one you’re in, the other will feel far away and hard to understand.

Casey says: “If you are struggling financially and someone tells you money won’t solve all of your problems, chances are, the person saying that is someone who’s never actually been broke.”

Duhigg’s friend says: “It’s just numbers on a screen to me. I’ve never met a retiree who enjoyed a vacation because of what I do. It’s so theoretical it hardly seems real.”

Which of these two camps are you in? Think about it. Beyond understanding our own situation, we also need to acknowledge the other as a real set of problems for a large group of people. Otherwise, all we’ll do is shout at each other when, actually, we should all be focused on the same, two-step solution:

  1. Learn to make enough money.
  2. Find purpose in what we do.

This, Casey and Duhigg agree on: It’ll be a long, winding road to get there — but it’s a road worth traveling.

I’ve never been poor. I’ve never had to worry about rent, food, or paying for the bus. I have, however, struggled immensely with the meaningful-work question. I’ve asked it, over and over again, for the past eight years.

One thing I’ve learned is that, whether we start out from privilege or not, as we move past money problems, we often overshoot out of fear. We feel a false sense of scarcity, and we try to calm ourselves down with more money — a not quite false but weak sense of more security. Duhigg, agrees:

We hedge against misfortune by taking out insurance policies in the form of fancy degrees, saving against rainy days by pursuing careers that promise stability. Nowadays, however, stability is increasingly scarce. Many of our insurance policies have turned out to be worth as much as Enron.

He finds that, ironically, the happiest people in his class seemed to be the “also-rans” — the people who didn’t get into McKinsey, Google, or Goldman Sachs.

They were forced to scramble for work — and thus to grapple, earlier in their careers, with the trade-offs that life inevitably demands. They had learned from their own setbacks. And often they wound up richer, more powerful and more content than everyone else.

Duhigg himself is a good example. After graduating, he was rejected from McKinsey, private equity firms, and a real estate conglomerate. He went into journalism — and found not just a Pulitzer Prize but also a career he loved.

Meanwhile, all his $1.2 million friend can say is, “I’m jealous of everyone who had the balls to do something that made them happy. It seemed like too big a risk for me to take when we were at school.”

For every Harvard MBA graduate, money is taken care of. The question is: Will you dare optimize work for happiness? “Finding meaning, whether as a banker or a janitor, is difficult work. Usually life, rather than a business-school classroom, is the place to learn how to do it,” Duhigg concluded his article.

Neistat could relate, and remembered something skateboard legend Tony Hawk said to him a few weeks earlier: “The key to happiness is doing what you love, and if it’s not the most financially successful thing, it doesn’t matter because you’ll love going to work every day.”

As long as said job also pays your bills, it’ll afford you with the time and energy to focus on the big, human issues we all face: Love, relationships, happiness, and purpose. That’s “the ultimate,” Neistat says. Until it does, don’t feel bad for wanting more money — it’s a legit strategy in the long game of life.

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