First shot: a freeway cloverleaf at rush hour.
Cut to foreshortened slo-mo shot of people in a generic city looking worried and harried bobbing down a sidewalk on the way to work.
More shots of toddlers watching TV, teenagers taking Selfies, unemployment offices.
This is the visual vocabulary of a degraded life in the consumer culture where there are no more brass rings of happiness on the not so merry money-go-round. In 10 seconds we recognize this truth for so many people – maybe ourselves.
Cut to a village in rural Mexico or Africa or Asia, where older people sit on rickety chairs on porches of thatched houses as children play in the dirt with a few sticks or hoops or maybe an old can. Everyone is laughing. This is visual vocabulary for “we’ve lost our way”, or “what ever happened to the simple life?”
Perhaps you’ve even come home from a visit to villages like that and said to your friends, “I don’t get it. They have nothing and they are happy.” A friend’s teenage daughter came home and refused to sleep on her bed or eat anything but rice and beans in protest to the tinsel culture she’s doomed to inhabit.
We need to get out of this trite movie. Right now.
Step One: Dump Binary Thinking!
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Stupid simplicity is thinking that there are only two options, either this or that. Civilization with its discontents or village life with it’s sweet pleasures.
Stupider still is wasting time justifying your choice. However, stupid simplicity is also changing this up as “both/and.” That is still accepting that there are two viable options.
Life is complex. There are hundreds of options of what kind of village you live in, from a dozen to 20 million. There are hundreds of options of where you rest your head at night, from a tent to a mansion and how you get to work, from walking to flying and how you make enough to support the life you choose. There are many household styles, from single to intergenerational family to polyamourous pansexual anarchist communes. And all of these are on a time continuum, as in your parents saying “I was a hippie in the 70s, an investment banker in the 80s, started a tech company in the 90s … that failed… and ending up teaching social studies.”
Step Two: Get good at complexity
It’s like learning to live at sea rather than on land. As mind numbing and violent as video games may be, the better ones do train you to make strategic choices under pressure and see what happens, knowing that whatever happens actually defines the game you are now playing, ad infinitum.
You can see that the “They have nothing but they are happy” conundrum suffers from binary confusion. Are there are haves and have nots? No, there are different forms of having. And there are different experiences of what we have. Some of the people on the rush hour freeways may be listening to their favorite podcast or the complete Shakespeare canon over the course of 6 months. Some may be fuming over a fight with their kids. Or risking the veins in their temples bursting in rage from the-world-according-to-talk show host.
Some people on that sidewalk might be heading home to their family or a date with someone wonderful. Some may have been fired. Some hired. And some may be between the three jobs they need to feed their family.
In the happy village there may be a crop about to fail or a child that dies for no good reason.
Binary thinking eliminates all this richness and complexity. So I propose we try sorting wealth in 4 buckets, not just the money one, to help us see more about happiness and having. Others have sorted wealth in different ways, many quite elegant. This sort is just a baby step towards getting out of binary stupidity
Bucket One: Money and the things Money can Buy Wealth
Bucket Two: Heart Wealth
Bucket Three: Smarts Wealth
Bucket Four: Common Wealth
Money and Stuff Wealth
This is the bucket we spend a lifetime trying to fill. The one that leaks so it can never fill. The one that can never fill because the quantity of our desires grows faster than our capacity to satisfy them.
In this bucket are most books, blogs, financial independence systems… including the 9-step program in the book I coauthored with Joe Dominguez, Your Money or Your Life.
In this bucket are most of the financial instruments you will use to accumulate savings and go from relying 100% on earned income to relying largely on passive income. I can’t say 100% because everything from portfolios to real estate to benefactors must be tended.
In this bucket, too, is your stuff. If my closet, kitchen or storage shed are any example, easily 50% of what’s in this bucket is at the bottom and never used, including those pieces of paper called honors, degrees and newspaper clippings from a glorious sprint through fame.
Many ways to fill this bucket exist. A salaried job is one. Inheritance is another. The list goes on. Building a successful business. Investing in the stock market. Owning productive property – from range-land to houses to farms. Storing wealth in art or minerals. Gambling. Often overlooked is that spending less than you earn is how the bucket actually fills. The less you spend the faster it fills. More overlooked still is that the size of the bucket also determines the amount needed to fill. If your lifestyle does not expand unduly while your income grows – which may depend on other kinds of wealth below – you can achieve enough at the level of money and stuff wealth.
Those laughing grannies and kiddos remind us of heart wealth. There are four distinctions in this bucket:
Self-knowledge: the better you understand yourself the less friction you create in the flow of well being. Experience is a great teacher – if you learn, so anything that happens in your life can educate your heart. I have found several personality systems very useful: The Enneagram and Human Design are two that have advanced my self knowledge light years.
Social-Emotional Intelligence: we turn to stuff and money to meet needs that can’t be met materially and therein lies so much grief – and debt. Developing this muscle allows you to express yourself clearly, listen without (too much) reactivity, enjoy differences, ask for what you want, set boundaries. This is also the domain of taking down those boundaries consciously to let the exquisite wealth of love flow.
Spiritual-ethical foundation: Whether you believe in a transcendent divine or an animate earth, you build wealth here by examining your beliefs, making an effort to align values and actions, and embody the truth that we are all connected. Doing this you have a chance to be an ethical person and build rich soil of dignity, patience, leadership, wisdom to anchor your deep roots.
Self-care: it took a cancer diagnosis at nearly 60 year old to alert me to the fact that I didn’t actually care about myself. I cared about a lot of other things and people but I did not know how to nurture myself from a space of deep kindness.
In Your Money or Your Life we talk about 3 kinds of FI: financial independence, financial integrity and financial intelligence. FI1 is your money and stuff bucket. FI2 is your heart wealth bucket. FI3 is smarts wealth. It’s accountability, knowing how much you own, how much you owe, how much you earn, how much you spend and whether all that is working for you… buddy. This also includes all the skills and knowledge you acquire to make your life interesting, enjoyable lucrative and stable – from bicycle mechanics to gardening to small engine repair to accounting to sewing to cooking to leading groups to giving speeches to doing complex equations for building bridges. Half the time we spend on the internet we’re building this wealth – the other half we’re pouring our brains out our ears but that can stop.
My dear dear friends, it may come as a surprise or an annoyance or an insult or a relief but we are not doing this alone. If we have strong common wealth, we can all have smaller buckets and less struggle to fill them. Amazingly the consumer culture – everything about it – occludes our sense of the common good. Just a reminder, our common wealth includes:
- Air, water, land, atmosphere, nature as sister not as resource
- All common “property” like roads, bridges, sidewalks, sewers, water systems, public buildings like museums and libraries and yes, jails.
- All common human creations like language, games, governance structures, organizational structures
- All common values like decency and human rights
Actually, if we are very very smart we will realize that life gets easier for us as individuals the stronger the common wealth becomes. We build it through community participation, neighborliness, investing in local capacity, taxes, policy making, service projects and, because I am writing this the week of Trumps volcano of vulgarity, being civil.
How to put these 4 buckets into practice in your own life – that’s another blog post. For now, hopefully, we’ve stepped outside of boring dualities and into fascinating and empowering complexities.