March 12, 2010
Show me the money!
If I suddenly received $100.00, $1,000.00 or even $1,000,000.00, what would I do with it? It really does not matter. I would not hold onto it. I would not save it for a future day. I would not do what most people consider 'responsible.' But I am not advocating not to save for specific goals like retirement, a car, a motorcycle, a house, etc, because without saving money, a lifestyle can easily become unsustainable. I am stating only that my investment in life is in people, not getting more money so I can live more comfortably and buy more things.
Many people in America are in over their heads in debt. A person goes out and buys a new car at $30,000.00, and a house at 300,00.00, and pretty soon, wham, that person needs to be earning at least a few thousand dollars just to pay for those things. In an effort to stay on top of the debt load, many people then take jobs or positions that pay more money, even if it doesn't make them happy.
Ideally we should all go out there and choose only the career that we are excited about, that we are engaged in, that helps us have purpose and meaning in life. But how many people do you know that actually achieve all of that? And even if a person does, it changes. Anything can happen.
One of my most engaging jobs ever was doing software technical support and training. It was meaningful work to me. I was helping people solve problems and making their work-life a little easier and less stressful. In many ways, I had a calming effect on people because they knew I would not stop until their problem was resolved or they found a work-around. And when people call technical support they are usually already stressed out when they reach for the phone.
Doing software training was also really rewarding. I had knowledge and I could share that knowledge. I loved coming up with creative ways to get people to that 'ah-ha!' point when they understand and can put the principles to work. Teaching is meaningful to me and has tangible and intangible rewards for more than just me.
The third attribute of my most engaging job, that tied it all together and made it even more fun and positive, was being part of a high-performance team. Being part of a real team our job functions didn't always matter. The focus was on getting the job done right for the customer and helping each other do that. There was a lot of cross-training going on, a lot of discussion in the hallways, a lot of late nights working out solutions and solving problems together. We all had a shared vision and goals. And we cared about each other. It was amazing. High-fives were frequently passed between us. In situations like that, it did not matter how much I was getting paid or how many hours I 'donated' to the company.
After five years of doing a job I loved, and advancing my skills, It came crashing down on us. In a really bad April Fools Joke, the owner of the company called us all into the conference room, and introduced us to the new owners. He had sold the company without most of us knowing. We had never met the new owners before this meeting. And worse yet, they knew nothing about our business. And it got worse. The very first month they took over they could not make payroll. The reality of that situation was that they paid too much for a company they knew too little about.
The death of that company came a couple years later after a lawsuit against the previous owners and bankruptcy. One by one, as people jumped ship, our high-performance team was dismantled . I was one of the last remaining employees before the doors were closed. Luckily I found another job that paid enough money to feed my family and pay for my car, rent, utilities, etc. The real tragedy with this change was that not much could compare with the excitement and happiness I had experienced in my work.
I've used this analogy before, and I think it fits pretty well. Sometimes we do things out of necessity versus what will excite us and engage us. One domino falls because another one before it fell. My favorite job fell and I had to find another one as soon as possible or risk losing my car and not being able to buy baby formula. The new job wasn't bad, but it definitely lacked many of the key ingredients I see that make work meaningful and engaging.
I think on some level, I knew and understand that the pursuit of money was not my objective at all. My objective was to have purpose and meaning in my life. It was to make a difference in other people's lives. For me, the drive for money alone cannot satisfy that inner need for meaning and purpose. It's an April Fools Joke that turns into reality.
Now we look around at our economy and wonder how it all got into such a mess. Immediately we start to point fingers. Someone is to blame for this recession. Some of the statements I've read are, "It's because the banks are too lenient on who they give loans to." "People who borrow more than they can afford are to blame."
I think it's a deeper-rooted problem in our society. The drive for profit and a focus on making money shifts the focus from doing meaningful, engaging work that is rewarding to us and other people. Instead of dominoes falling one way, they get lined up to fall based on income and profit, not people.
Our companies of all sizes suffer because of the loss of meaning and purpose, other than the bottom line. I observe people in my current job. The owners and investors are clueless that one of their most respected workers spends an hour to two hours at a time talking on the phone almost daily about personal things. I see it in the zealous nature of a young person that is highly critical of others and lacks compassion and whose drive is the bottom line. And that is rewarded in our society and companies. I see it in the decisions companies make regarding not spending money on tools or equipment their employees need to do their jobs. I see it in people who no longer have each other's backs, who do not see work as a team effort. I see power and control, territorial behavior, versus collaboration, teamwork and a focus on the shared vision and mission. We end up with companies full of disengaged employees, mainly because there is no soul in focusing on making money. The end result is something we spend. And the cycle of spend-earn-spend-earn doesn't have the same meaning as meaningful work that stimulates us, engages our skills and talents, and pushes the limits of our potential.
If I were to receive an unexpected sum of money, whatever the dollar amount, I'm sure I'd find a way to use it with meaning and purpose. Just like I try to use my time. I would probably buy a laptop to write more, I would donate some money to programs I believe are helping people. I'd invest it in people, giving them opportunities to discover what engages them. These are things I do now, regardless of how much money I have. The focus in my life is not about striving for more things that will decay, rot, break, become lost, stolen or earn more. It's about striving for meaning and purpose in life. It doesn't matter how much money I have for that to happen. And in the end, my investments will pay off larger, in ways that I could ever realize if my focus was on the bottom line.