Dollars and Sense

I’ve never been rich, per se. I certainly climbed my way out of the ‘middle class’ into the ‘upper middle class’ when my branding business blew up after a few years in Los Angeles, but wealthy is a goal post that keeps retreating toward the horizon.

I still intend to reach that goal, I just hadn’t made my millions quite yet when I decided to leave the path I was on, so now I have a very different view of wealth and the role it plays in my life.

When I left that trajectory, that focused pursuit of numbers in the bank account, I was obsessed with a single metric. I had been a video gamer as a kid, and I saw business as just another game to play, and one with controls and in-game physics at which I was quickly becoming expert. I knew how things worked, and I knew some of the cheat codes, and I was having fun playing. My score grew and grew, and I felt good knowing I could get it even higher.

But at some point I realized there was another game; one outside the arcade kiosk I had been standing at all my life. And the points I had been accumulating didn’t seem quite so meaningful anymore.

I had always aspired to see the world, to increase my knowledge of it, and to be the kind of person who understood how things worked. How they all fit together. I’d play my game until I achieved mastery, then take what I learned and apply it to the wider world. Business would be my training ground, my tutorial, and I would emerge from that world a shining champion of lifestyle fitness, worth mimicking and basking in the adoration of those who spent less time honing their combo moves and SWAT analysis capabilities. I would, in effect, skip most of the rungs of the ladder of life because of how well I did on the training stairs.

What changed my direction was the realization that business knowledge does not equal wisdom, or intelligence, or even make you a likable person. It just makes you good at business. Having more money does not make you a guru of all things: just accumulating dollars. And money is a single aspect of life: one gateway to getting what you want, but by no means a yardstick for being a good person. Or a smart one. Or one with a philosophy worth sharing.

All my life I had been chasing dollars but not sense. And when I changed direction, I still had knowledge that would help me on my new path, but like changing high schools I had to start fresh in so many ways. New friends and partners and classes.

It was like the picture of the world I had painted for myself on the biggest canvas I could find was suddenly just one pixel on a massive and complex screen. I knew so little. Had achieved so little.

It was overwhelming, but exciting. The world was a much larger place than I had assumed, and rather than finding myself running the same race, playing the same type of game, I started investing my quarters in a challenge that didn’t have an ending. There would be no final boss to defeat, and no high score that would obliterate everyone else’s. There were as many paths to victory as there were players.

Changing your context is disorienting, but so long as you’re opening yourself up to more — rather than closing yourself off from the reality of life as an infinitely complex experience — you can only grow as a person, and will probably be focusing on more important things, as well.

There’s nothing wrong with chasing money, so long as it makes you happy, and so long as you’re aware that there are other point systems out there that are just as, or more, important to your development. Even better is being capable of seeing the world as an interconnected series of games, each one worth playing, and each one influencing where you start and how well you play all the others.

What’s been vitally important for me during this transition, which is still going years later, is how it’s changed my perception of the game as a whole. Whereas once I competed with everyone else in the business world, doing what I could to top their accomplishments with my own and climb a bit higher on the leader board, now I compete with myself to better myself. A single player mentality that leads to more significant performance in a multiplayer world.

There are many, many metrics used to gauge success, but leading a rich, complex, multifaceted, and challenging life is the only type of competition that makes sense to me.

Update: April 7, 2017

This is still one of the more difficult things to explain to people, sometimes. Especially those who are where I was back in LA, fixated on that one metric to the exclusion of all others. On one hand I want to express how much more fulfilled I feel now, but I also don’t want to assume my priorities are the same as others, and that everyone will be better off taking more metrics of success into consideration.

Some people who are exposed to this concept give me the same look I imagine I would have given anyone who told me the money I was earning wasn’t as vital as I thought it was. Which is fair, I guess.

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