Building a life we value

The reason why I think “earn more” is better than “spend less” is not simply because more money gives us more options to amass a positive net worth, or because I don't like to spent my time transporting my garbage to somebody else's trash dump. I think this way mainly because I cherish human work and creativity, and I see wealth as the accumulated expression of this work.

This deep appreciation of human activity is also the reason why I look at early retirement with suspicion (not condemnation, just suspicion): I feel that when we remove ourselves from the productive matrix, we diminish everybody's life a little. In mystical Judaism there is the concept of the Tzadikim Nistarim, 36 righteous people unknown to all, who nevertheless justify the existence of humanity in the eyes of God. Without them, the story goes, our world would cease to exist.

I'm not much of a mystic, but to me, it's good people doing their best work who carry out the miracle of sustaining our world, especially if they aren't famous or recognized or well remunerated. The mechanic that fixed your car right; the electrician that didn't botch the wiring of your home; the pharmacist who dispensed your prescription correctly; the air traffic controller who shepherded your airplane home; the teacher who imparted not just knowledge, but a love of knowledge; the nurse who took the extra time to comfort a patient; the insurance agent to knew the answer to your every question; the plumber who saved your house from flooding — these and other millions of people allow our world to continue its existence every day.

Look at it in a more prosaic way, if you will: if every capable person out there managed to retire early with carefully constructed portfolios, the incompetents left in charge would soon run those portfolios into the ground and set the world on fire. Isn't that terrifying?

The diversity of desire

We create value when we work. We take raw material and knowledge and tools and energy, and we produce something that someone wants somewhere in the world — whether at our own kitchen table or in some city halfway across the globe. Yes, we all need basic things like food and shelter, but as we cover the basic necessities, our desires develop in infinite directions. Marketers try to influence us in order to create demand for their products, but many of us aren't so naive, and others are recalcitrant eccentrics who insist on going our own way.

This of course means that something that is important to us may be worthless to others, which means that things we cherish may have little or no monetary value. We may have peculiar tastes, support causes that are ahead of their time, or love to do work that doesn't pay well (or at all).

At the same time, we may find fault with what the market offers. A child's toy is an activist's environmental nightmare. My prized beverage is someone else's deadly poison. Your precious engagement diamond supports somebody else's criminal dictator. Market exchanges are not perfect.

Personal value vs. market value

I remember years ago telling my grad school adviser that I felt a certain writer had “failed” at writing an experimental novel I hadn't enjoyed. He asked why. I said the novel was unreadable and wouldn't find an audience, or something of that sort. “If you write what you want to write,” was his answer, “you cannot fail.” I remember his words almost every day.

Yes, our work may not have universal value, and market value is relative and will change with time (like Van Gogh's paintings). But if we value what we do, it has value nevertheless, even if it's for us alone, for family or for a handful of friends.

There is something important to consider in all this of course, and that's the fact that our values do not necessarily align with the values of the market, and we may not have a means for exchange.

This is when we come into conflict with “the real world” as some call it: we toil at a job that keeps us from what we really want to do, just so we can pay the bills. We acquire monstrous debt to pay for years of non-marketable knowledge. We go broke pursuing our passions. We live (and die) without health insurance while pursuing self-employment… The economy (not the moon) is a harsh mistress.

Some time ago I watched a short documentary about a man who had amassed a collection of millions of vinyl records. The collection had been “valued” at $50 million, but when the owner attempted to sell it he couldn't get $3 million for it. That's a sad and painful story, but I think it's misguided to think that just because we love something, someone else is obligated to do the same. The market value of an item is only what the buyer is willing to pay for it. The personal value, on the other hand, is a lot more subjective.

Connecting both worlds

When J.D. named his new blog “More than Money” he made a good point. The “third stage” of personal finance asks why do we do this? What am I saving for? What is the goal?

What we value, the things that have meaning to us, don't necessarily have a price. Spending all our lives amassing money for its own sake and forgetting to live our lives makes for a pretty miserable existence. Working only for money and failing to find meaning in our work also makes for a miserable existence.

Wealth, it seems to me, is not really the accumulation of money. It's the abundant availability of the things we value. If we value family and are surrounded by the people we love, we are wealthy. If we value art and live in a city full of cultural treasures, we are wealthy. If we value open space and solitude and live in a quiet rural home, we are wealthy. If we value music and live surrounded by a record collection, we are wealthy. If we work doing something we love, we are wealthy.

The thing is, we don't live in isolation. We are connected through each other via our work, the economy and the language of money. And money can help us make or break the things we value. If the rural home is foreclosed by the bank, if we have to flee our beloved city because of the cost of living, if we can't provide for the family we love, if we are forced to sell our record collection, if we have to leave our vocation and find a “real job,” then money isn't working for us, but against us.

It's a tough balance act to make money work for us instead of working just for money. It's also tough when we love our work and the market isn't willing to pay what we think it's “really” worth. But I also think we live at a great time in history which is ripe with opportunity.

Global connectivity may be destroying certain forms of production around the world, but the upside is that it can also allow us to offer the fruits of our work to markets that weren't accessible before, and it can also find goods and services which weren't available to us before.

I think that now, more than ever, we have a fighting chance to create work and products that embody our personal values, and at the same time manage to find a place in the market and provide value to others. It's still not a perfect market (it will never be), but we have a fighting chance to create value from our work, for ourselves and for the world around us.

What do you work for, and what value does your work create for you and for others?

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Jon @ MoneySmartGuides
Jon @ MoneySmartGuides
7 years ago

I agree that there is value in everything we do, regardless if others find value in it or not. If we only did things that everyone else valued, what kind of world or life would that be?

AMW
AMW
7 years ago

Very thought provoking post! Thanks for turning on my brain. I will need to mull over this throughout the day!

I am with you on the retirement thing…to me retirement does not represent not working, but doing meaningful work while leaving time for other meaningful experiences.

I am struggling to balance work that helps others, satisfies me, and provides for my family all at the same time. It’s a delicate balance.

Jane Savers @ The Money Puzzle
Jane Savers @ The Money Puzzle
7 years ago

I work to pay bills and to get to financial freedom so I can work when and where I want. I am lucky enough to have a job that I love in health care and that many people are grateful for the work I do for them. I am at the top income possible for my position but I still gross less than 50k per year so I need to make more money to have the freedom I want and so I can have more life experiences with friends and family. I haven’t figured out how to make any extra… Read more »

Phoebe@allyouneedisenough
7 years ago

I think many people trying to reach financial independence and “retire early” actually want to have the freedom to pursue the work they wish.

This is certainly the case for myself. If I didn’t take income potential into mind I’d likely work in music or be a minister.

I think retirement means the freedom to choose where to spend your time.

lucas
lucas
7 years ago

Exactly. And break your dependance on the market value of your time to be able to use your time in a way that is truly valuable to you! I am confused at the authors skepticism to early retirement as the entire post is exactly why they should be pursuing early retirement – to be able to break the markets value grip on themselves and be able to contribute in incredibly valuable but not necessarily market rewarded ways. I personally have a million and one things I plan to do, or could do. The real challenge for me is deciding which… Read more »

Allison
Allison
7 years ago

I need some time to think this over, what a great post! But I had to comment immediately to say that El Nerdo is the best writer this blog has!

sarah
sarah
7 years ago
Reply to  Allison

I really enjoyed this post – I especially love your point about how if all the competent people check out there will be no one left to provide all the services and goods we need. I’m very into gardening, canning, sewing, knitting, blah blah… and I’ve thought about going sort of “off the grid” and just living a self-sustaining life. But when I really think about it that doesn’t appeal to me at all because I would be living life purely for my own enjoyment and I want to contribute, to be interconnected, to make the world a better place… Read more »

M
M
7 years ago
Reply to  sarah

Sarah, While I’m certainly not off the grid, my DH and I have moved increasingly to more self-reliance. Yes, we live in a rural area, grow a lot of our own food and make most of our own repairs. But since adopting this lifestyle I feel MORE connected to my neighbours. I know my “hay guy”, the 85-year old farmer who plows our driveway without asking, and the large animal vet who will stop in the middle of the road and inquire about a sick sheep. Is it a convenient, cheap, easy and tidy life? Certainly not. But I’ve felt… Read more »

lucas
lucas
7 years ago
Reply to  sarah

This is a silly concern. I am close to early retirement and my list of things that i plan to do is incredibly productive and interconnected. Some of the major plans include: 1) Be deeply involved with missions work both in my local community and internationally. continue work with ministries helping others break free of addictions. 2) Purchase and renovate neglected homes to provide below market rate housing for deserving individuals. 3) Help all my family members with home renovations to improve their quality of living without having to shell out the $$$ for a contractor 4) Becoming more self-sustaining.… Read more »

Jacq
Jacq
7 years ago

I find meaning in work as the opportunity to spend time with smart friends solving problems and to help them have a better day/life at work. But job demands also conflict with family and personal time so I go in and out of the work force like a tide. Get bored with no problems to solve -> go back to work -> miss my family/problems solved -> stop working. Once systems are in place and the problems are solved (I’m a system maker / fixer), there’s no challenge left in it and I abhor routine and maintenance work. But it… Read more »

Tony@WeOnlyDoThisOnce
7 years ago

Great post. Interesting point about retirement; well-said.

Lisa A
Lisa A
7 years ago

I love working for three reasons.
1. I help create community. My students often mention that they like having faculty members who are approachable and fellow students they know well.
2. I like the structure and the feeling of accomplishment working gives me.
3. I like learning about the big picture of each job and institution, how various people work together to get things done.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

Great post, but I always wonder why people think retirement or early retirement is the end of creativity and contributing to society? My parents and their friends are very busy in retirement! Both my parents are avid volunteers — something they get to do more of now that they have financial freedom. They have more time for their hobbies, and a lot of that time is at the service of causes they support. I think this work is very valuable even if they aren’t being paid for it. I also think what “retirement” means to people depends on what their… Read more »

Holly@ClubThrifty
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Good point, Elizabeth.

My father worked in the insurance industry for 35 years and I’m pretty sure he hated his job. And once he retired, he became a completely different person. He’s now busier and more productive than ever and volunteers for several different charities and causes.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

I’ve read that seniors have the highest rate of volunteering of any age group, and I’m grateful to have seen so many positive role models in my life. I just don’t understand why people think traditional retirement means people aren’t contributing to society anymore. Imagine what would happen if all those unpaid hours suddenly vanished!

Holly
Holly
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

So right! My grandfather retired in his early 60s, and spend the next 32 years volunteering… right up until weeks before he died. He made a huge difference in the lives of the clients and employees of the nonprofit. Retirement for him was meaningful work done at his own pace, on his own schedule. He loathed getting up early, so he didn’t show up for his volunteer gig until 11 am. But he was there every weekday. I second whoever said El Nerdo is the best writer left on this blog. His posts (and Brokamp’s) remind me of what this… Read more »

Giddings Plaza FI
Giddings Plaza FI
7 years ago

I definitely agree that retiring–i.e. stopping all productive work–early is not a value to live by. Hopefully we are all contributing to our community and world, whether we make money at it or not. That said, my related value is to become FI (financially independent) as soon as possible. Being FI gives us a much broader range of options in how we want to live, and the type of productive work we want to do.

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
7 years ago

I wonder if spending so much time searching for meaning creates angst, or if only angsty people spend so much time searching for meaning.

Sometimes we need to stop spending so much time thinking about why we do or don’t do things and just do them.

I also wonder if being responsible vs being flaky has something to do with it. Flaky people are always searching for a purpose, whereas responsible people always have a purpose– they’re being responsible.

sarah
sarah
7 years ago

Disagree, disagree, disagree. People fall on a spectrum of responsibility and also of neuroticism or introspection but they do not correlate. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits Personally, I’m responsible to a fault, and also always searching for meaning. My brother is very flaky and not at all worried about the purpose of life. People can be any which way – I normally appreciate your comments but this one was oddly judgmental. What’s important is for us to recognize these qualities in ourselves so that we can go after what we need. As a person who needs my life to have meaning and purpose… Read more »

jessica
jessica
7 years ago
Reply to  sarah

I respectfully disagree. Your comments about the different personality types is spot on, I just don’t think the individual is being judgemental. To me, they just sound spectulative. As if they are thinking out loud.

Sumitha
Sumitha
7 years ago

Yes, spending so much time searching for meaning does create angst. But if you keep searching for meaning through your angst, you slowly get to the core of what lies below all that unhappiness, dissatisfaction and even angst. In my case it was a discord between what I wanted to do with my life, and what I was actually doing, something that El Nerdo wrote so beautifully about in this post. People may seem flaky when they are searching for a purpose, but that is one of the necessary stages to get through to the next one – become the… Read more »

Jacq
Jacq
7 years ago

Dilbert usually expresses my angst well…

Pointy haired boss: Make these changes and run it by me again.
Dilbert: History suggests I have entered into an infinite loop of making changes with no hope of finishing.
My life is a furious ball of nothing.
Pointy haired boss: And I’m not wild about the font.

Speaking of angst, El Nerdo I think you would like this author:
http://therumpus.net/2010/06/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-39-the-baby-bird/
I think you would like her book. Her name is Cheryl Strayed and she writes beautiful sentences.

Amy
Amy
7 years ago

I made the mistake of reading this article on a rainy morning with a cloudy head…. Rewind a couple of posts from you Nerdo, and you’re proudly pounding the table about how you are going to throw yourself solely into your work and not be bothered with too much frugality because you’re focusing on making more money. The best way to do that, at least in that post for you, is to work your job(s) instead of taking the time to do the more frugal things. Now it seems in this post you’re extoling work – by hand, by cube,… Read more »

Anne
Anne
7 years ago
Reply to  Amy

I agree this post had ALOT of points, but I couldn’t get the point of the whole thing.

He starts out with the point that he favors making money over spending less, then talks about retirement, then ten other things.

For me this writer has a real problem with sticking with one theme.

Kristen
Kristen
7 years ago
Reply to  Amy

How fascinating it is to me that what seems to annoy you about his posts is very much what I like about them- the sort of stream-of-consciousness vibe. It makes them seem more honest and down-to-earth to me. To each their own!

AZ Joe
AZ Joe
7 years ago

I retired after 30+ years of working a very stressful job that I, mostly, loved. However, I was getting burned out and no longer was happy or pleasant on the job. I knew it was time to leave. I considered moving to a different type of work, but determined I could afford to not work for money and retired at age 56. I have since spent thousands of hours volunteering – another kind of work, just not for pay. I feel everyone needs to find their own answer to whether they keep working and how.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  AZ Joe

Kudos! I think society tends to undervalue volunteers, but paid work isn’t the only way to make a difference, make connections, stay active, etc.

I’ve come to the conclusion that retirement is what we make of it. If people are dreading retirement, then perhaps they need to rethink what retirement means to them.

Laura
Laura
7 years ago

El Nerdo, this is a f***in’ awesome post. “Like” isn’t strong enough. I’m printing it out as a future subject for me to peruse in my personal journal. And your comment about the incompetents taking over the working world made me LOL (depending on the day, it seems that could already be the case). Write more.

Barb
Barb
7 years ago

As someone who was a stay at home spouse most of her life and an early retiree, I have a huge problem with the idea that working for money is the only way to contribute or be creative. I have not worked for money for many years with the exception of occasionally selling quilted creations. I consider myself just as much a creative contributer as anyone else.

HOwever, Ill also add here that there is plenty of value in recreation and enjoyment for their own sake!

Somsiah
Somsiah
7 years ago

Spent 22 years at a job I loved, with dedication, almost undivided attention. Job came first. Married late, had a baby almost at the end of reproductive time. Then retired early, real early at 46, when my son was four. Now eight years later, I still have a good memory of what my job was all about. But I’m not missing it. Money totally affecting current lifestyle but am happy as a lark, heh. Retirement is not the end of creativity or productivity. Retirement also does not mean you stop giving services to others, with or without payment. When a… Read more »

PawPrint53
PawPrint53
7 years ago
Reply to  Somsiah

I agree that there should be no change in market value, but go to a party and be asked the question (especially if you are “younger”), “What do you do?” and see what happens when you say SAHM or volunteer or anything other than working at a paying job. When I became disabled, the hardest part (other than the disability itself) was figuring out how to find some value in my life now that I wasn’t earning an income. Volunteering was, of course, the answer, and I volunteer at an animal shelter evaluating dogs, an elementary school helping 1st graders… Read more »

lmoot
lmoot
7 years ago

Very thought-provoking article. I’ve always been weary of the “earn more” method (unless it refers to passive-income) because usually earning more means taking time, resources, energy away from other things…things that might have more value. Also, I disagree that earning more is a sign that more is being contributed, or that a greater cause is being achieved. For instance, the job I have now pays nearly twice as much as the job I want, and the job I want does more “good” and promotes more interconnectivity than the job I have. I do agree that if you are earning much… Read more »

WWII Kid
WWII Kid
7 years ago

In order to earn more, I have to work more hours. This means my 9 to 5 Monday to Friday and now my 9 to 3 Saturday and Sunday.

Am I, in fact, improving my life?

K.B.
K.B.
7 years ago

“I feel that when we remove ourselves from the productive matrix, we diminish everybody’s life a little”

So paid work is the only thing that holds value? I call bs on that one.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  K.B.

I call b.s. on that too! (Obviously I never made such claim– in fact, I think I said the opposite).

K.B.
K.B.
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

So, you didn’t say what I directly quoted you as saying? How odd…

Tim
Tim
7 years ago
Reply to  K.B.

“Productive” doesn’t equal “paid.” So you quoted him, but misinterpreted him.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  K.B.

you didn’t

that’s right, i didn’t! 😉 😀

(srsly, read on to the following paragraphs– that was only the beginning of a long ramble)

lmoot
lmoot
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

To be fair, it was a difficult article to interpret. As someone mentioned already there were a lot of points, but the thoughts weren’t finished before another point was brought up, so it was hard to follow. What’s the final thought? It’s not necessarily better to earn more? Too many POVs here. I for one though never really liked the “produce for productions sake!” mentality. Now that I kind of understand where the article is going (after reading it 2 more times), why can’t we just sometimes BE for a moment? There’s no rule that says constant production is the… Read more »

Ely
Ely
7 years ago

This is what I want out of my writing. I doubt I’ll ever make any money off it, but it’s the only really worthwhile thing I have to offer. The self-publishing world makes it possible to put my stories and poetry in real books (or e-books) without having to impress a bunch of editors and publishers, and make them available for anyone. Or no one, either way is fine. My day job is pretty worthless by itself, but it pays enough, and leaves my mind free enough, that I can spend my other time creating and not have to worry… Read more »

Nick @ ayoungpro.com
Nick @ ayoungpro.com
7 years ago

I am a little obsessed with growing my income right now. There are a couple of reasons for this. I want to be able to care for my family and give my wife and children a great life. I want to be able to spend a lot of time with my children. But the thing that is driving me the most at this point is the challenge. I am not obsessed with money, I am obsessed with proving to myself that I can be successful in my career. The value that this creates in my life is a higher sense… Read more »

KSR
KSR
7 years ago

Uh, I disagree. “…if every capable person out there managed to retire early with carefully constructed portfolios, the incompetents left in charge would soon run those portfolios into the ground and set the world on fire.” Hello…Congress. God, I wish there would be mass retirement! I have a more pessimistic outlook on the current market. There are plenty of capable people sitting on the sidelines (of this economy) waiting for the rest to retire so that they can get their feet wet (or continue their stagnated or temporary lapsed swim) and be productive, capable, competent, and, mostly, EMPLOYED in the… Read more »

krantcents
krantcents
7 years ago

I entered teaching as a “second” career 12 years ago. I had my ideals about teaching which were quickly thrown out. I do enjoy teaching, but so much of it is getting children to learn vs. just teaching. I try to individualize and get through to the under achievers, but there is a lot to overcome with past failures.

Sarah Li Cain
Sarah Li Cain
7 years ago

There’s a saying in Yoga that you should value work, not what comes from the fruit of your labor. I think that if you find satisfaction and value in what you do that should be enough. As for me, I have been a teacher and yoga practitioner for years. I love being a teacher because it does teach me that I am not in isolation, and that we are all interdependent on each other. With yoga, I learn that I shouldn’t desire more than what I have. I used to want to amass a large of material wealth, but there… Read more »

Susan
Susan
7 years ago

This article articulated concepts I’ve mulled with throughout my adulthood. In particular, El Nerdo wrote three lines that really stood out to me. This line applies to my early career: “It’s also tough when we love our work and the market isn’t willing to pay what we think it’s “really” worth.” I’m sure we’ve all experienced this. After graduating, I worked hard as a reporter, grueling work with long hours I felt I should have been paid a lot more for. Eventually I quit and found a job requiring a similar skill set (editor in the finance industry), but the… Read more »

Kyle Richey
Kyle Richey
7 years ago

El Nerdo, that was the best post I’ve read in a long time. Thank you.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago

Good morning friends (good afternoon for some already). I’m immersed in other work today so I won’t be able to respond one-to-one as I usually try to do, but I thought I’d share this story. The other day I went to Trader Joe’s. I was looking for some chocolate that wasn’t on the shelves (I’m in another city and this wasn’t my usual store). I went to ask this guy who works there. He was interested in my problem! We went searching for this chocolate with enthusiasm. While we walked around the store we talked about chocolate, what the good… Read more »

Sandi
Sandi
7 years ago

This is beautiful. Just beautiful. Thank you.

The Norwegian Girl
The Norwegian Girl
7 years ago

My values lies in family, friends, having food on the table, and being able to travel every once in a while.

Olivia
Olivia
7 years ago

Sometimes we work so hard to create a great life for ourselves and those we love that we often times forget to stop and enjoy it. Time is the most precious asset.

Babs
Babs
7 years ago

Stolen from The Norwegian Girl:

“My values lies in family, friends, having food on the table, and being able to travel every once in a while.”
Yep

I think that all real work is valuable whether it is domestic/commercial/philanthropic – high paying or low paying.

I don’t look at a lot of PF blogs, but the early retirement subset appears to me to be mostly a measuring contest.

Meghan
Meghan
7 years ago

El Nerdo, this piece could not be more timely. My career wasn’t a conscious choice and I battle with it weekly and sometimes daily. Truth is, I needed a place to live and a job when I moved here, so I became a Leasing Agent, went up through the ranks, got a Bachelor’s and Master’s, was working for the state and it dawned on me: “What in the h#ll am I doing? Do I even like housing?” From there, a career coach advised me not to go to law school and instead follow what I thought was my heart and… Read more »

lmoot
lmoot
7 years ago
Reply to  Meghan

Wow, you should be incredibly proud of yourself to have accomplished so much by 30. Even though you’re not ‘into’ it per se, it’s nice that you can at least acknowledge that what you do has such direct meaning for others and serves a clear purpose for your community. I’ve been in health insurance for the last 5 years, also simply because I graduated and needed a job. One health insurance temping job, lead to a permanent job, which led to another health insurance job at another company, which lead to a promotion….and nearly 5 years later, here I am.… Read more »

Prabhakar M N (Satan Infernous)
Prabhakar M N (Satan Infernous)
7 years ago

Yup, Money isn’t everything. No need to run the rat-race!

Angelique
Angelique
7 years ago

Yes indeed, money is not everything. I happen to notice that the more people chase money alone, the more it runs away from them. I think everyone should find their passion in life and through that build a life they value.

@pfinMario
@pfinMario
7 years ago

I love earning more and work at it vigorously, but I think that for the average joe out there — myself included — it’s much easier to find a monthly $100 of wasteful spending than to ask for a $100 raise…

@pfinMario
@pfinMario
7 years ago

Paying off debt has become a fun and exciting hobby. The fact that it isn’t done outdoors and doesn’t require researching collectibles isn’t too bad.

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