> Current Issues > Business Ethics

Money and the Meaning Life

May 9, 2009 | by

Jacob Needleman has counseled the rich and successful on matters of money and meaning. His conclusion: "Money is like a mirror to our culture. What we see tells us who we are."

Money takes some understanding. To help us come to terms with it,
Fast Company turned to Jacob Needleman, philosopher, author, and
lecturer. His book, "Money and the Meaning of Life" (Currency/Doubleday, 1991), captured the wisdom of his 30 years of teaching at San Francisco State University; his experiences in seminars with the wealthy, successful members of the Young
Presidents' Organization; and his encounters with high-achieving businesspeople around the world.

"It's damn hard, in fact nearly impossible, to think about money honestly," says Needleman. "It has an immense influence on everything we do. Yet few people are able to acknowledge the power of money."

Because of his insights on money and meaning, Jacob Needleman has
become a popular consultant to businesses and philanthropic
organizations; he also appeared as a memorable subject in Bill
Moyers's PBS series "A World of Ideas." Fast Company interviewed
Needleman in his home in San Francisco.

How does money change people?

Having lots of money can be like a drug. It can make you feel
powerful and giddy. It can convince you that everything's going to be
okay. Years ago they asked the great fighter Joe Louis what he
thought about money, and he said, "I don't like money very much, but
it calms my nerves." Money makes us unjustifiably feel that we're
better and more important than we really are. When money can make you
feel humble, then I think it's really useful. But if it fattens your
ego, which it often does, then look out.

That way lies madness. That's what all the Greek tragedies are about
-- hubris -- and that's part of the problem with money. It is
greatness, it is power, it is beauty. Money is about love and
relationships. It has a wonderful power to bring people together as
well as tear them apart. You can't escape money. If you run from it,
it will chase you and catch you. Even Thoreau today would need a real
estate agent to help him buy the cabin at Walden Pond.

If you don't know how you are toward money, you simply don't know

If we don't understand our relationship to money in this culture,
then I think we're doomed. If you don't know how you are toward money
and really understand that relationship, you simply don't know
yourself. Period.

From your experiences with people who've made a lot of money, is
there something different about the way people get rich today?

The incredible pace of change triggered by modern technology has
affected how people acquire wealth. There's no precedent in human
experience for the speed, scale, or age at which people today can get
incredibly wealthy. When everything is quick and fast and easy, a
certain part of ourselves is fed while another part withers away.
Worse, we don't even know it.

In the past, wealth tended to be something you built up over a long
time, or inherited from your family. Today people are getting wealthy
quickly in what used to be a long, hard-earned process.

Let's see if we can make it more specific. Say that I'm a 25-year-old
working in a company that just went public, and my options are now
worth $10 million. What should I do? How do I keep this money from
overwhelming me?

You need to find someone you can talk to. You need to see if there is
any wisdom out there beyond the calculus of just getting and
spending. Maybe you have a priest, a parent, a professor, or a
friend. Maybe there are a couple of other people in your same
situation who are also asking, "How are we supposed to navigate this
life that suddenly is so weird?"

You need to realize that you are only 25 years old and that you
aren't wise enough to know what to do with this $10 million. Think
about it: $10 million! Suddenly you can have anything you want. And
just as suddenly it is going to be obvious to you that getting
everything you want is not going to do anything for you. Pretty soon
you are going to feel just as empty with $10 million as you did

Doesn't having that much money mean you no longer have to worry about
the basic necessities of life? Doesn't that free you

No. If you are worrying about vegetables now, you'll be worrying
about yachts then. You're a worrier. It's in you, not the money.
Life, except for the obvious physical needs, is not so much defined
by the external situation as by the inner one. Having money won't change your internal makeup

Let's say I'm the guy sitting next to the new multimillionaire, only
I joined the company six months too late for the stock options. I've
got a decent salary, but I'm not rich. Where's the justice?

There is no justice. That's what's so fundamental about this question
of money. It's not really a matter of being rich. It's not even about
the money itself. It's about our emotions. It's a matter of envy. How
do I get free from being devoured by envy? That's a question that
goes back to the beginning of mankind. It isn't to computer

Now let's go to the top of that same company. I'm the CEO and
founder. I have thousands of people working for me, my picture is on
the cover of "Business Week" and I have a net worth of $450 million.
How do I escape being a megalomaniac?

That's an important question. I met a guy who worked his way up from
zero to a half-billion dollars. I asked him, "What was the most
surprising thing you discovered when you got rich?" He said,
"Everybody asks my opinion about things because they think I know
something. All I really know is how to make a lot of money." See,
this guy wasn't fooled by his money. That's the key.

Ask people to remember the first time they ever held a large amount
of money, and how it felt. Most will tell you it was like electricity
flowing into their hands. I know that's how I felt the first time I
held a $1,000 bill.

You must seek out people who disagree with you.

That excitement is something we all have to acknowledge as part of
ourselves. It's important not to deny it. I'm as eager and egoistic
and greedy as the next guy. The thing that is so important for these
new millionaires is to see this greed not only in themselves but also
in others, and to see the effect that it has on others. The more
money you have the more likely you are to be surrounded by "yes" men.
You must seek out people who disagree with you.

You need people around to tell you you're full of it -- and be able
to appreciate them for that. Too many successful people look with
hostility upon anyone who disagrees with them. That's something they
don't want to hear. That's a very big mistake.

Based on your encounters with the super-rich, is there ever a time
when they can put down their egos for a moment?

Death is the great equalizer. I've seen that phenomenon many times.
I've had people in my classes come to me, men and women over 50 years
old, and they say, "I made it. I'm rich. But what the hell is my life

In the meantime, all you really need is a couple of hemorrhoids to
learn humility.

Let's go back to our hypothetical company. With the disparities in
money among the team members and a CEO who's become so rich he doesn't have to listen to anyone, is it possible that we won't survive our

Of course. I've never seen a business problem that was truly about
technology or marketing or manufacturing. It always comes down to
people problems. If you're not attending to the people in the
company, you may still get lucky and be successful. But you probably
won't be able to maintain that success.

That's why companies sometimes implode when they go public. At that
moment people succeed, but they don't know why they succeeded. They
only think they know. And when the company begins to fail, they don't
know why they're failing either. The only way to succeed in the long
run is to have somebody at the top prepared to handle the really
difficult people questions, like dealing with success.

That's true for a company. Does it also apply to an individual who
has to deal with sudden wealth

It's very hard getting rich suddenly. We all laugh and say, "I could
handle it." It's one thing to say that. But it's another thing to
have it happen. Mike Tyson is not the world's greatest philosopher,
but he did say one thing that I think should be over everybody's
desk. Years ago when he was being interviewed before the Leon Spinks
fight, a reporter told him, "You know, Spinks has a plan for how to
fight you." Tyson said, "They all got a plan -- until they get hit."

People who win the lottery can be driven pretty crazy.

We all have a plan for how we'd handle getting rich -- until it
happens. But we really don't know ourselves well enough to know what
suddenly getting rich would do to us. People think they're going to
behave a certain way with money: "This is what I would do." But when
they suddenly have money, it does something to them that they didn't
expect. People who win the lottery can be driven pretty crazy. I've
seen it.

On the other hand, I do know people who have stayed quite stable
through it. Often they are people who have strong ethical and
religious lives. They have a sense that there's something more
important than the money. Even when they get very rich, it doesn't
really deflect them. Others get a wrong idea about their own
importance, their own abilities, and they realize suddenly,
unconsciously perhaps, that people are after their money and not
after them. They get very lonely and it can really wreck their lives.

What is the most common misperception about wealth that you find
among people who aren't rich?

There's a sense that if you're rich, you're bad. I quote one
extraordinary man in my book who said, "What people don't realize is
that it takes a great deal of energy and intelligence to make a
fortune and especially to keep a fortune."

If the people who criticize the wealthy would be willing to meet
those they're criticizing, they would find the same proportion of
good and decent people. If they looked at their own ranks, they'd
find similar proportions of morons.

Those who criticize the wealthy don't realize that money is needed to
do good things. Particularly in this culture, you have to have money
if you want to save the environment, help reform education, feed the
hungry, or stop some immoral practice. You need money and you need
the help of people with money. Today idealistic people who are
genuinely seeking to make a difference are becoming much more serious
about money.

What would you say is the most common misconception that
businesspeople have about money?

They forget the whole human condition. They forget we're mortal
beings and we're meant to love and to serve, not just to get. Money
is the most tempting illusion; it tempts most people to forget that
we're people. We live, we're going to die, and there's much more to
life than making money -- although without making money life is very

Given what you've said about surviving success and what getting rich
suddenly can do to people, what's your definition of success?

To be totally engaged with all my functions, all my faculties, all my
capacities in life. To me that would be success.

There's only one word that means an authentic human being: mensch.

I grew up around the Yiddish language, and in Yiddish there are about 1,000 words that mean "fool." There's only one word that means an authentic human being: mensch. My grandmother would say, "You've got to be
a mensch," and that has to do with what we used to call character. To
be successful means to have developed character.

So how does a philosopher understand money and the meaning of life?

As the ancients said, we are angels and devils at the same time --
and sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the two. Sometimes the
two masquerade as each other. Caring for your friends and family and
children is part of being in this world, though it may seem a
spiritual act. Getting your kid through college is not a spiritual
act but part of being in the world. At the same time, working and
making money can have a spiritual dimension.

We philosophers can't really figure this out better than anyone else.
And money alone can't buy you an answer. Only worldly experience with
lots of adventures and making lots of money may finally let you come
away from it saying, "There's something money can't buy. I can't put
my finger on it, but I sense it."

And the ultimate connection between money and work?

You should be looking for the joy, the struggle, and the challenge of work. What you bring forth from your own guts and heart. The happiness of hard work. No amount of money can buy that. Those are things of the spirit.

Copyright © 2000 Fast Company Media Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Related Posts

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram