Joan's story is about a turbulent beginning, a hot burner, a seven-figure net worth, and a deep, unmet yearning. Joan and I began working together in 1996. At the time she was one of three principals in a technology firm that had been founded in 1993 and was growing by leaps and bounds. She worked long hours, often putting in extended time even on the weekends. She and her husband of ten years juggled a bicoastal marriage, with her company located on the West Coast and his employment remaining on the East Coast. Hearing of my work with successful but exhausted leaders, she arrived at her first appointment with a question:
"If I have all this money, why aren't I happy?" Her voice - so clear and commanding when she had called to make the appointment - now sounded tired and sad. "I feel as if my hand is on a hot burner and I can't pull it away, even though I know I'm being hurt. This isn't what I imagined success would be like."
Somewhere along the line, many of us who are professionally successful got the message that our financial security and workplace achievements, in and of themselves, should add up to happiness.
Certain questions that bedevil my clients have a simpler answer than how money and success equate with happiness. These simpler questions can usually be resolved within a limited time frame. The person reviews the issues, comes to a decision, and moves on with his or her life. The questions sound like this: "My company just revised the commission schedule in a way that doesn't favor me. Should I stay or go?" Or, "I do the behind-the-scenes organizing work that keeps projects on schedule and clients happy. How can I get paid better for that, when my company only seems to reward the big personality people out securing clients in the first place?"
Joan's question was of a different kind, deeper and more complex. Hers is not the kind of concern from which one easily "moves on." Her question sounds like this: "I'm successful at what I thought counted the most for making my life happy and meaningful. Along with my partners, I've launched and operated a profitable business that runs according to the cultural values we've instilled. We've all made good money at it. I have a much bigger range of choices in my life now, and I'm only 38. Why do I feel so terrible?"
Like many successful people, Joan had made her work the hub, the central organizing factor, in her busy life. Work claimed the first passionate energy of the morning and often the last gasp of coherence at the end of the day. Everything else had to fit in around, under, or between.
In many ways, Joan's situation is emblematic of a whole cohort of bright, highly educated, talented, and successful people, who find themselves in a place vastly different from where they grew up and where they now expected to be. Those differences make the search for happiness more convoluted than was the case for our parents' generation, and the generations before.
In today's economic environment, a larger share of the population has money than was true thirty years ago. Every ten years the Census Bureau collects extensive data about the population of the United States, including financial information. That "every ten year look" provides an ongoing set of reference points that track our collective financial progress. Despite stock market ups and downs over the past thirty years, the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data show that the top 40% of this country's income-earning households have made real and substantial financial gains during that period.
As a child in the early 1950s, I remember my father bringing home his weekly pay in cash. My mother then distributed the fives, tens, and twenties among a series of manila budgeting envelopes marked with the basics: mortgage, gas and electric, food, clothing, telephone. There was no envelope marked "investments." We did "Christmas Club" at our local savings and loan, which was a non-interest-bearing account where we would save fifty cents or a dollar most weeks in order to accumulate enough money for holiday gifts. I'm not sure my parents even had a regular savings account during those years. If so, I imagine they simply saved at low-interest rates, never scraping together enough to buy even a certificate of deposit.
Joan's father left home after eighteen years of marriage to her mother, who made out badly in the divorce. High school educated, her mother finally was awarded only five years of alimony from her college-professor husband. The roots of what we think will make our lives happy and meaningful typically go back a long way. Surely in Joan's case - and no doubt in mine - the choice never to be economically vulnerable, especially to the degree our mothers were, drives at least part of our intensity about money.
With additional money comes choice, and with choice comes greater complexity. Through hard work, resiliency, and share of good fortune, both Joan and I have joined the ranks of what author Dinesh D'Souza calls the first mass affluent class in history. We have, as Joan pointed out, a much broader range of choices than was the case for our own parents and for previous generations. With choice comes awareness of limits; we can garner some good things in our lives, but not all. With choice comes accountability; some directions we pursue will have a better outcome than others. With choice comes responsibility; what we do affects not only our own lives, but the lives of others, the physical space we inhabit, and the hope we are able to sustain for the future.
My mother is now 87. In what I think of as a very Irish Catholic way, she relishes going over the minute details of her funeral plans, writing and rewriting her obituary, even determining where we are all to go out to eat after the cemetery. About her epitaph she is very clear. "I want to be known as a person who did the best I could with what I had." In all my years of working with clients, I've never heard anyone else sum up the meaning of his or her life quite that simply. For those of us deep in the throes of "relentless pursuit," the epitaph is more likely to be "I wanted to know for sure if I was there yet."
Not only is there lots of new money around, but people are gaining access to big money at a much younger age. Knowing what happiness means requires a certain wisdom reflective of life experience. People who are relatively young in accumulating that wisdom can be at a marked disadvantage. Joan and her partners all achieved a seven-figure net worth in their late 30's and early 40's. Lest you think such relatively early affluence is purely a Silicon Valley, Denver, Boston, or Research Triangle phenomenon, it isn't. I can bring you back East to an ordinary mid-sized city, where the three male partners of a technology firm are also in their 30's and early 40's. This company is at an earlier point in its growth curve than Joan's, but the founders' exit strategy as millionaires is no more than three or four years away. I can take you to a New England medical practice, where the founding partner has been extremely innovative about making the managed care reimbursement system work in his favor, and that of his patients. I can take you to a Midwestern urban hub, where a young consultant with a six-figure income, a willingness to travel for new career-building projects, and frugal habits is well on the way to the coveted "first million."
As you examine your own situation, you may well find yourself with substantial income and assets at a relatively young age, in good health, and with the rest of your life ahead. ("Relatively young age" is, of course, relative. Actress Tyne Daly and I are about the same age. I consider myself still on the upswing of middle age. Daly, by contrast, is reported to see herself as "an apprentice old lady.") Deciding what constitutes "happiness," in my view, takes the perspective of life experience and a degree of reflective wisdom. Hitting the jackpot on money and success early in life can create certain dislocations in that process.
One of the dislocations has to do with speed. I got my first car loan in 1969, when I was 24 and had just returned from the Peace Corps. I bought a used Nash Rambler with a lot of miles on it. Over the years I worked my way up through a new Plymouth Duster, a Volkswagen squareback, a Chevy wagon, a Volvo, a used Lexus with low mileage, and now the Jaguar. My daughter Sara, at age 25, drives a classy new Saab with tight handling on curves, a leather interior, and lots of options. My son Matt, 23, drives a fast new Jetta, with a lighted dashboard panel that looks like a racing car or hot aircraft. Both bought their cars outright with their earned money, not by tapping the assets that have been gifted to them. Both were careful in deciding how much to spend, how much car was enough. Matt bought a Jetta, not the Passat, because he said that at his age he simply didn't need the more upscale model.
I look on with awe as my daughter and son make big financial decisions, and in a far more sophisticated manner than I did at their age. I also wonder, having gotten to the "great car" point so fast, where do they go from here?
Another dislocation - especially in the early career-building stage - has to do with the value of "doing" over "being." Simply being with one's experience and taking the time to sort out what it means is the essence of reflective wisdom. At a recent conference I shared coffee-break conversation with a fellow speaker whose job it is to build the ecommerce business of a major U.S. automaker. He was clearly younger than I am, perhaps 35 or so. As he described his relentless schedule of travel, high-level meetings, and intense turf-war negotiations, I asked when he had time to reflect on the longer-term strategy that would sustain his business over time. His response was both incredulous and impatient. "I have no time to reflect."
As big money comes at younger ages, profound life questions that used to arise in midlife come much earlier. A 2001 New York Times article profiled the difficulties that can now confront people barely out of college. Questions like "What's next for me?" and "Is this all there is?", long the staples of the mid-50's life crisis, are now being asked by seemingly jaded 25-year-olds. With such limited life experience, they have slim pickings from which to find good answers to such hard questions.
Along with the opportunity to earn big money comes a reduction in the range of things successful people do. Mostly, they work. It's all too easy, then, to arrive at the conclusion that whatever happiness one might find in life has to have its origins at work. Getting a work-related email from Joan that was sent at 3 A.M. is not unusual. When my consulting practice first went national, I relished the time difference between the East Coast and California. Then I had to remind myself that the three-hour window didn't automatically mean extending my workday from eight hours to eleven hours, just because I could easily reach West Coast people at 8 P.M. and beyond.
The head of the emergency room medical practice and his staff physicians all worked twelve-hour shifts three days a week, for efficiency of scheduling. That, along with adjunct teaching at a prominent medical school, supervising residents, staying on top of the managed care bills in the legislature, attending statewide professional meetings, and completing continuing education requirements, made him an "early to bed" kind of guy.
The Chicago-based consultant boards a plane Sunday afternoon or evening to arrive at her project site fresh for work on Monday. Fourteen-hour days are the norm. Late Thursday night she jets back to O'Hare, to be available in the home office for staff meetings and project updates on Friday. Exhausted by Friday night, she crashes early. Her down time is Saturday morning through Sunday mid-afternoon. She cooks, works out, picks up her dry cleaning, waters plants, pays bills, and goes grocery shopping. I ask about friends and other diversions. "Of course, I have lots of friends. We email each other all the time."
The findings of Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone are now widely known: the locally based social and service endeavors that used to create social capital have seen a steep decline in membership. Sociologist Alan Wolfe observes similar trends, but comes to a less pessimistic conclusion. Wolfe believes we're still building human connections, albeit in different ways. My own position is closer to Wolfe's. I think we're in a transitional period of understanding what new forms of community are evolving. Often, those new forms seem to originate at work. People volunteer in the community as part of company-sponsored teams. We wave to our neighbors, but the annual picnic is more likely to be a departmental function than a block party. When we meet up at the end of the day for a bite to eat and a movie, it's often with people we've already spent much of the day with at work.
When people had a range of important experiences with different people on a daily basis, they had a number of ways to feel successful and happy with their accomplishments. Someone with a tedious supervisory job might achieve considerably more stature and satisfaction being a local ward captain, a church elder or temple president, or the organizer of a powerful neighborhood association. Someone with a limited and easily overlooked work role might be a pivotal and much-loved person in an extended family, the one to whom everyone looks for guidance, emotional connection, and support.
When people mostly work, feelings of success and satisfactionare heavily dependent on one's fortunes in the workplace. That's a far more limited field of experience than was available to previous generations.
Not only do a lot of people have more money and work more, but the very definition of "happiness" seems to have changed. For a large segment of the post-Depression and post-World War II working population, "being happy" meant having good health, stable family relationships, and enough money to pay the bills and take a short vacation once a year. In New Jersey, where I grew up in the 1950s, "being happy" meant being "down the shore," renting a bungalow at a beachfront community for a week or two. That the refrigerator was, in fact, an icebox and the toilet was outside the bungalow made little difference; we got to swim every day. During alternate summers, we'd drive to Iowa to visit my father's family on their farms. My father always drove an Oldsmobile. On those trips, he seemed really happy and proud to be going back to Iowa in a shiny, new-looking car that signaled to everyone how well he was doing. As higher education became more accessible to middle- and working-class families, having the money to send kids to college became an added expectation. These basic accomplishments have, in our current culture, been supplanted by the constant "adrenaline high" of the wired workplace and the demand that we put productivity first. Having time to mentor a new employee, read a long book, or watch a kid's entire soccer game has vanished in favor of multitasking and making every minute count. We sit on the sidelines of our children's games, tapping away on our hand-held email devices or our super-thin laptops, only looking up when the noise level signals something about to happen. We miss a lot. Clearly, a new element has been added to the definition of "happiness": making a big and visible footprint on the world. My daughter Sara has always had a wandering spirit. Since graduating from Tufts she has worked in the travel industry. During her first year, she was the company's second-highest producer in the whole United States. In 2000, her goal was not only to be #1, but the biggest #1 the company ever had. She blasted through the existing bonus structure; they had to create a new one to recognize her level of production. She and other high producers were sent off to Peru at company expense to celebrate their accomplishments.
An often-unstated factor in our difficulty sorting out money, success, and happiness is the loss of moorings that used to come from organized religious practice. Joan is no longer part of the mainline Protestant denomination in which she was raised. She's attracted to the beliefs and practices of Buddhism, particularly the spiritual principle of "detachment." She has a small chant room in her home, large enough for one person, in which she has meditation tapes, incense, and objects that carry spiritual meaning for her.
The Jewish physician often hosts a seder in the springtime for his extended family. In honor of family members' extensive intermarriage with Christian spouses - including his own - the traditional seder plate often includes a brightly colored Easter egg or two. The older generation, all Conservative or Orthodox Jews for whom seder was a formal religious ritual, would have been scandalized. No one in the current generation seems to care.
My sisters and I attended public schools through high school, then I chose a Catholic women's college to learn more about religious beliefs that had grounded the rituals of my childhood. Along the way, I discovered existentialist philosophy and Harvey Cox's book The Secular City, which told me I could go to the big city and be what I wanted, leaving behind the limitations of what I already knew. I graduated from both college and the practice of organized religion simultaneously.
In our current work-oriented culture, the place where people explore life's deepest meaning or life's defining purpose seems to have shifted from faith communities to workplaces. High on the list of spiritual challenges is the attempt to create business cultures where profitability, a humane environment, and personal fulfillment can all flourish.
The questions of ultimate meaning and what tempers a win-at-all-costs mentality have traditionally been the moral and ethical domains of organized religion. The questions of what product or service, how to make operational, how profitable, and how accountable have traditionally been in the domain of workplaces. Workplaces, in my view, have little expertise in dealing with questions of "should" or "ought," and as yet do a relatively poor job of setting boundaries on those kinds of questions. In the worst case, we find what author Paulina Borsook calls "philosophical techno-libertarianism," the belief system of those Silicon Valley high-fliers who are unable to reconcile the demands of personal satisfaction with the demands of living in society with other people.
The focus on work and money occurs at the epicenter of the change in gender roles that has only gained steam over the past thirty years. If Stanley and Danko's millionaires next door are predominately 55-year-old white males, it's also true that women in their 40's and 50's represent the first generations to be widely in the job market, earning professional salaries and with financial independence in their own right. As more women jump eagerly into the traditionally male role of "provider," the tongue-in-cheek cry of "I need a wife" - someone to organize home, children, and workplace - becomes an equal opportunity lament.
Most successful people, even those who are highly sophisticated at investing money, still can't talk about money's powerful symbolic meaning.
Money has a literal meaning: it's the currency through which we buy and sell goods and services, pay the bills, and keep a roof over our heads. Money also has a symbolic meaning. A symbol is an object or an act that "stands in" for something else. When we use money as a way of "keeping score," we're using money in a symbolic sense. That means we're using money as a marker, or as a way of designating our perceived success relative to others.
When's the last time you had an honest conversation about the way you and your peers use money to keep score?
Many otherwise sophisticated and competent adults have a psychological framework around money that is comprised of a jumble of early and unexamined messages, metaphors, and partial meanings. To the extent that our early frameworks remain unspoken and unexplored, we remain ill-equipped to cope with the complex challenge money always presents.