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?