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Is what you’re doing for and with money working?
A short story about a long, common, financial problem
Be slower to act like the Good Life is for sale, and quicker to question if this ever proves true.
‘But does it work?’
The man across the table from me – a potential new client – is fidgeting. His gaze has fallen from power-handshake high to scolded-child low. His cufflinks, which ten minutes before he’d displayed with the pride of a peacock on top of a podium that had just caught the eye of an especially elegant lady peacock, are now being fiddled with in a manner more befitting of a guilty pigeon. The silence is getting awkward. For him. I’ve been here a hundred times before. When he breaks it, he does so with determined, yet diffident, defensiveness.
‘What do you mean by “work”?’
‘All the “stuff” you said “naturally accumulates”… the suits, the star-laden sustenance, the supercars… in the context of the “upgrades” you’re currently planning – especially given their expense – knowing if similar decisions have objectivity and undeniably improved the quality of your life feels kind of important. In short, does all the scratching ever make the itch go away?’
‘Well…’ Guilty pigeon has become nervous turtle, only this chap’s neck has nowhere to go.
‘Let’s change tack for a second. You’ve worked all over the world, in some impressive positions in some impressive firms.’ The neck creeps into tentative extension, and the demure nod of the proud. ‘Have you ever heard business acquaintances say things like “just two to three more years”, or “when I get this next pay rise or promotion or sell the company or reach X million in the bank”, or “after we’ve finished the kitchen, bathroom, underground swimming pool…”, or “when the children have grown-up, moved out, had grandchildren…”, or “when we’ve upsized, downsized, retired… died–” ’
‘Oh, all the time.’
‘And I’m guessing they all end with some form of “then I can relax, be happy, dedicate time to this project, or that person–” ’
‘For those you’ve known both before and after such predictions, does any of that sort of waiting ever work? Do they actually get to relax, be happy, or whatever, and are their lives – to the extent you can tell, of course – objectively better because of whatever sacrifice they were making? Granted few say out loud “once I’ve bought the next car, artwork, fitness gadget, then life will level up”, but if they didn’t believe it, they wouldn’t do it. Unless of course they’re aiming at something other than making life better in some way.’
‘I’m not sure it’s my place to say. I also see where you’re going with this, and I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Things like promotions and children moving out can make a huge difference.’
‘Of course. Especially things to do with children, whether it’s being born, or moving out… they are undoubtedly world-rocking events. But not all events that feel world-rocking are, right?’
‘It seems sensible to check. Is something better, all told – factoring in money, status, health, happiness, everything that contributes to a Good Life? Or is it just different? As in different circumstances of life, with “goodness” of life a function of something else, something less, well, circumstantial?’
I’m not sure what to make of the silence. Thinking? Unease? Calculation of how far he’d have to reach across the table to land a decent punch?
‘Let’s be clear: I’m not saying you (or anyone else) shouldn’t build the extension or buy the holiday home, I’m just making sure you’ve thought it through. Weirdly, given the responsibility that comes with spending enormous amounts of money on a thing (because of all the other things that money could’ve been used for) it seems almost the norm that people make these huge decisions pretty snappily, and viewed through a really narrow lens, both in space – for example to impress a small coterie of other people, or while considering alternatives only in a chosen domain, e.g. Ferrari or Aston? – and in time – forgetting that life tends to span a bit longer than the next five minutes.
‘Even more weirdly, those with experience of doing similar things don’t appear to be any better at avoiding mistakes. First Ferrari didn’t scratch the itch? Scratch harder! Double down! The second one’s bound to work! Of course it rarely if ever does.’
The turtle’s timidity hits a new high. I should probably slow down. But alas, I’m on a roll, and though I haven’t fully admitted it yet, my heart’s never really been in this ‘winning’ clients lark.
‘Sometimes the levelling up is true. Sometimes it does work. We all have purchases that have transformed the quality of our lives. But in the context of how we think, act, and spend all day, every day, they are the exception, not the rule, and the price tag of those things has sod all to do with their successful rewiring of our lives. This holds true from Qatar to Kenya, from farmhouses to favelas, across clients, academic studies, and your friend with the swimming pool. Across everyone, in short, who’s confused “standard of living” with “cost of living” and “quality of life” with “access to comfort”. Despite each and every one of us deriving meaning and fulfilment from growth… and discomfort is the inspirational force behind all growth.
‘As for the wider circumstances in which we get to live… above the surprisingly low threshold where a bit of extra cash really can be transformative – which of course everyone you and I know is already miles above – well, they’re just that… circumstances.’
‘This is all very clever, but aren’t we drifting a little far? Isn’t your job to choose investments?’
He did not become a client.