I was struck last summer by headlines in the business press about Jeff Bezos now being worth $200 billion. As someone who runs workshops exploring the unconscious emotion and psychology around money, what struck me was what a truly odd phrase this is – to link a number to the idea of much a person is worth.
At the same time, when crisis and difficulty hit in the pandemic, people quickly acknowledged that how much money a person has, has nothing much to do with what we really value. A few weeks into normal life being disrupted, people were applauding nurses, leaving thank you messages for postal workers and delivery drivers, and celebrating the rubbish collectors.
When those we love are sick, or when we need care, connection and community, it becomes obvious that a billionaire businessman, or banker has no greater worth than a nurse or truck driver.
Confusing ‘money numbers’ with the stuff we really need
Yet we live in a society that makes a deep and unconscious entanglement between ‘money numbers’ and intrinsic human qualities. Although part of us knows that it’s not true, our minds have absorbed the idea that with lots of money comes certain desirable qualities – for example a sense of worth, value, freedom, success, security (and more). This unconscious entanglement, reflected in our language, habits, and behaviours, creates many problems:
- First, it means that those who chose paths that do not lead to (lots of) money, often experience self-doubt, a sense of diminished worth and chronically undervalue who they are and what they bring. They internalise an unconscious societal entanglement. It can feel painful and does not help diverse work flourishing in the world.
- Secondly, we easily (and incorrectly) ascribe qualities such as worth, power and effectiveness to those who simply happen to have lots of money. UK politics with its tranche of old Etonian Prime Ministers, and the US, where Trump carefully cultivated an impression as a successful businessman, are examples. When people believe naively that those with large ‘money numbers’ intrinsically have greater worth or value than others, we get ourselves into a world of trouble.
- Third, it means that those who suffer directly from social inequalities and rigged rules, and thus end up with less money, often internalise the idea that they intrinsically have less power, value, worth, voice and agency. This too is painful and problematic. All of society loses out hugely, as do certain groups and specific individuals. Believing that with money comes power and agency, those without money can come to make their own innate power and agency invisible, even to themselves.
- Finally, when this delusion goes global, we spread an economic machinery that maximises money numbers (the economists call it ‘growth’) while destroying the living systems of the planet. In our confusion we believe that what we seek is in the number, and do not notice that by chasing a big number, we destroy what we actually rely on for life.
All of these problems – at root, come from a confused entanglement between a set of numbers (how much money) and the qualities and experiences we humans truly yearn for (life, vitality, creativity, agency and freedom etc).
Exploring your relationship with money
But what to do about it?
Well, it’s best to start by exploring one’s own relationship to money, and how that is helping or hindering your freedom to follow what matters in your life. A good starting place is to consider personally what qualities you are entangling, unconsciously, with a number. Here’s a simple reflection:
- Complete the following sentence:
‘If I had more money (insert a specific amount here if you want) I would be more … (insert the qualities you believe you would have with more money, for example ‘free’, ’successful’, ‘powerful’, ‘relaxed’ etc.)
- Take a few moments to consider whether it is true. Whether you are sure it is true. Would money really give you this experience?
- Then consider different times in your life, all the way back to childhood, when you have actually experienced the quality you believe comes with money. For example, if you think with more money comes more freedom, reflect back to times in your life when you actually felt free. (or if you believe money brings safety, consider when you felt very safe etc). Bring those times to life in your mind. Imagine yourself back there. Connect with that quality as an experience, right now.
- Finally, reflect on how much money you had at that time when you felt that quality (free, secure etc). To what extent did money really play a role in that experience?
The purpose is just to be curious, and to begin to unpick and examine the unconscious assumptions that we all hold about money and life.
You are already worth as much as the richest person alive
Whether or not it reveals something useful to you, consider that right now you are *worth* exactly as much as the richest person in the world. And are just as valuable. Ultimately this has nothing whatsoever to do with a number. Like everyone else (including Jeff and Elon) you are utterly unique, a one off, magical, mysterious creation alive just now in a 13.8 billion year old universe. Quite extraordinarily precious and valuable.
So, the good news is, you are already worth as much as Jeff and Elon! And there was nothing you had to do.
When we begin to see that money numbers have nothing to do with what really matters as humans, it leaves a space for a deeper human truth to shine out. And, in the time I’ve been doing this work, I’ve come to think that it is in that deeper universal truth that we eventually find the riches that we seek.