What I talk about when I talk about money

Two weeks ago, I handed in my notice at my stimulating, respectable six-figure job at a fast-growing Silicon Valley blockchain startup.

Somewhere in my mind I had, for a long time, the belief that earning money, particularly above and beyond what I needed to live, fundamentally involved scamming people. I believed (and still believe) that the financial system and the way money works in general is very unfair and naively constructed, and I’ve always had a strong desire to ‘fix’ this. However, this meant I also believed that in order to do my ‘real’ work, my life’s work, I had to already be permanently financially independent, and work with others that were too. My plan, in the meantime, was to earn as much money as I could as quickly as I could in whatever way was necessary, Mr Money Mustache-style, in order to save up the capital needed to never have to earn money again.

Except then I fell in love, had a near-religious experience, and that experience exploded any chance I had of hiding behind commitments and ‘things’ that were aligned with anything less than the deepest integrity I could muster. I could do nothing other than live with full integrity every day of the rest of my life.

Well shit, there goes the job then.

I realised that while I intended to dedicate my life to renewing and recreating the economic systems that trap and define us into something healthier and more sustainable, I certainly didn’t have a healthy relationship with money. Sure, I was saving 2/3 of my paycheck, but I was working for a company I believed *might* be net-bad for the world and working 9-5 in an office, something I’m very unsuited for, in order to acquire enough money to go earn literally none while I tried to fix the system. I was forcing myself to spend the majority of my quality time and attention on something I didn’t believe in, while my entrepreneurial creativity, artistic creations, and relationships suffered.

I realised that I could use this very predicament, that of ‘how can I create financial security for myself while living with integrity towards my values?’ as the ground upon which I explored not only my relationship with money, but that of other people and of society. I had been thinking in very black-and-white ways, ignoring the possibility that if parts of me objected to a plan to make more or less money, then maybe I could dialogue between those parts to find an answer (a la Internal Family Systems) rather than suppressing one side forcing myself into one direction or another.

So, as I completed my last day at this fulltime job the other week, I considered this next period of my life an experiment to answer the question of ‘how can I earn money honestly?’. I have, in my life, earned money by:

  • Planning and launching programs to engage developers and users for a new blockchain platform
  • Managing teams of software engineers to build speculative crypto projects
  • Helping launch a (somewhat scammy) crypto ICO
  • Painting childrens’ faces at tiny parties where hiring the facepainter was 100% of the budget
  • Sitting at a facepainting stall at soulless corporate events where no one cared that the facepainting budget was wasted
  • Painting performers for decadent and often superfluous parties
  • Presenting my own independent circus shows
  • Selling people phones and phone plans
  • Making and selling sandwiches and salads
  • Processing grocery orders at the checkout of a giant supermarket
  • Standing in the cold at 6am holding a sign advertising a drive-thru coffee stall on a major highway
  • Earning and then selling Ethereum at the right time
  • Being a reality TV contestant
  • Running an ecommerce store selling reusable straws online
  • Earning gains on assets, particularly shares and cash in a bank account

This work has paid in many different ways. Some has been full-time work commanding six-figure salaries and demanding all (or most) of my meaningful attention. Some of it has been niche work contracted at over $100 an hour, giving me ample time to live the rest of my life. Some of it has been work on my own businesses that, if I were to actually calculate an hourly rate, would end up valued at something like $2.50 an hour. Some has been standard entry-level minimum-wage work that I got by walking into a store and asking for a job. Some, like facepainting, I have done for years. Some, like selling straws, I did for only a few months before stopping. None of my previous jobs are things I got by submitting an application online. Some of it, like making gains on Ethereum, is hard to consider ‘work’ at all, and really what happened is that I just got lucky and was in the right place at the right time.

I have also done many, many kinds of work that were unpaid, either because there was no one willing to pay for them, because I wasn’t good enough to get paid yet, or because I enjoyed them so much I wanted to do them for free.

Sometimes while doing paid work, I felt overpaid, and felt guilty and like I owed my employer more and more of my attention, which trapped me in cycles of getting depressed about low productivity and then guilt about the depression. Sometimes, I felt underpaid, and felt resentful and trapped and daydreamed about doing something else. Sometimes, particularly when pursuing my own projects, I felt pretty aligned with the way I earned money (although often still guilty that other people had to pay for something). Most of the time, I felt like I was literally enslaving my attention and energy to someone else’s (generally misguided or greedy) goals. This actually became worse as I got jobs that were more strategic and less mundane, because in order to do them well I had to use important parts of my attention, creative thinking, and executive function, while ignoring or excluding from my attention the fact that I disagreed with the direction the project was aiming at or the methods used to get there.

I started, over time, to see earning money as a necessary evil, even for myself, someone with lots of skills and connections, living in a world-class city full to the brim with people willing to pay you or fund you or buy things from you. Seeing people throw money around like water in Silicon Valley made me both very uncomfortable and kind of greedy; I wanted to stand to the side with a bucket and lap some of it up with minimal risk. And I started to dislike these attitudes in myself; why did money turn me into such a glutton and a miser?

In this next, experimental period, I have a couple of aims:

Firstly, to earn money honestly – knowing, at a gut level, that I feel good with what I did, how working affected the rest of my life, what people received, how costly it was for them, and how much or how little money I received in the trade. We have so many subconscious neuroses, both individual and collective (me included) about making and spending money, and they are embedded in our negotiations, in the way we sell, in the way we decide what work to do, and this percolates through -everything-, and yet we never look clearly at it.

Secondly, to find ‘sustainability’, whatever that looks like. This means some way of approaching work and money so that a) my life feels as worth living as it can, with not too much and not too little of it given over to work, paid or otherwise and b) feeling relaxation and integrity about how much money I make and spend, how much I save, and how predictable all of that is – the plan is not to be or stay a starving artist. I have a strong commitment to a principle of minimising self-violence, and this process of learning how to work well is in large part in service to that.

Finally, to learn and start a conversation about relationships with money that gets into the nitty-gritty and the darker parts and taboos. I want to know how my friends make money, how it influences their work and living decisions, and how they feel about it. I want to survey lots of people to learn about their relationships with money, and I want to dive deep in intimate conversations with my friends and collaborators that start to make real plans for the future and understand how money fits into that. When I buy things from people or hire them, I want to learn how pricing, the process of negotiation, and our respective budgets influence how they feel about the work and the relationship, and how I feel.

Over the next little while (I don’t know how long a period, but at least a couple of months) I plan to write about this process of discovering my relationship to money, untangling it, learning where the limitations are, and hopefully learning more about the bigger economic systems I participate in and like to analyse in the process. I plan to experiment with different types of paid work, ways of earning money and amounts of income.

I invite you to start discussions either on Twitter or in the blog comments about your own relationship to money, how money works in your communities, and what money-related questions you are the most curious about.

3 thoughts on “What I talk about when I talk about money

  1. I have been on this planet for 28 years, and for the most part of my life, i had depended on my father. My childhood wasn’t demanding and i never had an idea how hard it was for him with a low salary to sustain the family. It was after his death a few months ago, that i went through his documents and salary slips from the past. It felt scary to think he brought me to the world without an idea of how to support the family through the years. He never had a plan before bringing me to existence. A plan for me, or for the future. There were no complaints those days because i never demanded for a toy or new clothes. Money was insignificant to me at that time. And it had been as such until i started college. I was surrounded by people who wore new clothes and had the latest gadgets. I never owned a mobile phone then nor had access to resources that could help develop my personality. Resources as in books and opportunities. I developed an isolated behavior that made me avoid social meetings because i internalized the idea that if you dont have money, or the means to support yourself, you couldnt be part of such gathering. I developed an inferior complex. Years went by and i grew more isolated. For me money was something that could help me gain access to things that could help me improve my standing academically and socially. After graduation, i looked for a job as higher education was out of my grasp. My father even told me that he couldn’t afford for my dreams and that i had to adjust with what i have. It crushed me to think that i could never pursue what i wanted just because it was beyond my reach. I worked for a year at a company that did value me in terms of vocal appreciation, but underpaid me. My soul grew tired with travelling 6 hours each day to this company, and returning home just to sleep. I didnt have time to pursue my hobby (which was painting). At the end of that year, i was hit by a car and had me get stitches on my forehead and my chin. Luckily, i didn’t die. The incident had me re-evaluate my choices, and decide if what i was doing was really worth it. I decided i could do something else. At the back of my head, i knew that i didnt have tangible skills that is valued in the market. I spent the last good years up-skilling myself. At present, with my father gone, i notice the vacuum he left as he was the sole provider. It brings a mix of hope and despair as to think what will happen when the money runs out. I have not tested the waters of this new domain, and i feel that i would not be a good enough fit. Money is important to me. Only as a means to survive and sustain the life i’m living. I love to read and learn all day, and if i could earn enough to sustain this lifestyle, it would make me happy.

    In my community (Hindu + India), money works as a token to show off your standing in society. If you can afford the best and the latest, people admire you. We have Gods and Goddesses dedicated to money. People throng temples to shower the idols with gallons of milk and adorn the idol with offerings made with gold. At the same time, there are people who wear gemstones to attract money and fame. When it comes to weddings, you will notice how Indian women wear gold like no other. Money and Gold attracts respect and admiration. By the way, our country has banned cryptocurrencies. He he. The government is either ignorant of how it works or afraid of what that might lead to. You see, we are a BIG country.

    A money related question i’m most curious about is – Why don’t they grow on trees? XD.

    On a serious note, i would like to know why isn’t anyone paid for their good behavior ?


  2. I’m excited for this. I’ve been exploring my own relationship with money and have been swinging basically the opposite way – for a long time I thought that money was a thing other people should worry about while I live my dreams, and that the money would come eventually.

    After taking and losing other people’s money in my last startup, I decided that this relationship to money was no longer healthy. I realized that I should focus on something that’s sustainable for me, so that I didn’t need the money of others who aren’t 100% aligned with me.

    Anyway I’m also exploring this same space, and would love to chat with you.


  3. I’m starting a PhD this year, and I’m wrestling with how justified it it’s to be paid to do stuff that isn’t directly useful, nor the kind of fundamental research that can be used in many domains.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s