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How the Choice Between Money and Meaning Will Shape Our Future

RP Siegel | Tuesday October 9th, 2012 | 4 Comments

There is a scene in my novel, Vapor Trails, in which the inspirational speaker and deep ecologist Diana Mars asks the audience in her opening remarks, “How many of you would, given the opportunity, choose a life filled with meaning and powered by purpose, even if it meant giving up some of your creature comforts and favorite pastimes?” She gets a sizable show of hands. But then, she’s speaking at a sustainability conference, where you might expect that kind of response. I wonder what kind of response she might receive were she to ask the same question to a group of Wall Street bankers?

Is there a deep connection between meaning, money and our chance for a sustainable future? Does the road to the kind of future that finds the human race flourishing on a clean, safe and secure planet, by necessity, pass through the land of “what’s it all about,” first?

Umair Haque raises questions like these in his article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), “Making the Choice Between Meaning and Money”. What is the relationship between meaning and money in our society today? Why do investment bankers make a hundred times more than teachers? Does anyone believe that it has anything to do with how much value is being delivered to society? I mean, besides them. Or is it because that’s how much compensation they need in exchange for toiling away at such a soul-sucking, meaning-deprived pastime, as if it were some kind of spiritual hazardous duty pay? More likely it’s because they are the beneficiaries of a broken system that they chose to take advantage of, in pursuit of what they think of as “the good life.”

Haque says, “In a ‘working’ economy,” by which I assume he means one that isn’t dysfunctional, “one should gain a sense of meaning from one’s work when one makes a lasting, visible difference; and when one makes a difference, one should be rewarded for (and in proportion with) it.”

That’s a noble idea, but it can sometimes be incredibly difficult to measure certain kinds of difference. He mentions Hemingway and Picasso as examples, but what about the people who taught them or inspired them, decades before they made their respective marks? And then again, to what extent is doing something meaningful its own reward? Ask anyone who has spent good money to go off and do menial work on a service vacation. People today are starved for meaning. It seems to be part of the price we have paid for our affluence.

Frances Moore Lappé, in her book Ecomind, suggests that this very hunger could be a driving force to help bring about the daunting societal changes that are required to ensure our well-being. In describing our personal relationship to our economy, she boldly asks, “Who or what could be powerful enough to keep us creating, as societies, a world that as individuals we abhor—a world violating our deepest sensibilities and common sense?”

And yet we idolize those with the most money, perhaps most of all. Why aren’t there TV shows and magazine covers and lists of the people doing the most meaningful things instead of only the most self-indulgent ones? Haque says, “This is the deepest kind of theft; not merely prosperity having been looted from societies, but significance having been stolen from human lives.” Are we so powerless in this land of plenty as to have no choice in the matter?

His suggestion? “Stop trading meaning for money. It’s the worst trade you’ll ever make.” Is it as simple as that? Can we simply get up, as if awakening from a dream and walk away from all that has been proffered in the name of prosperity? Has the American Dream become a daydream?

As David Korten says, in Agenda for a New Economy, “The awakened consciousness is relatively immune to the distorted cultural conditioning promoted by corporate media, advertising, and political demagogues. For those who share this experience, racism, sexism, homophobia, and consumerism are more easily seen for what they are — a justification for domination, exploitation, and violence against life. As the awakening spreads, so too does the potential for rapid social learning based on the conscious examination and revision of prevailing cultural stories.”

So, it seems the potential for real change is right here in this question and in the quest to answer it. Why shouldn’t we get paid to do things that we value most, especially when they are the same things that others value too? Because the system is not set up that way. And it stays that way because people accept it. Not because it serves their needs, but because in the daydream they feel powerless.

As Haque says,

“The truth is, you and I are encouraged to make the worst trade in the world from the second we’re socialized — from school ‘counselors’ who exhort us to settle for the safe; to schlock-and-awe advertising that lamely attempts to brainwash us into buying our way out of emptiness and self-loathing; to ‘jobs’ that reward us for extinguishing what’s good, noble, and true in us.”

He makes a great point, but in his zeal, he overswings a bit by constructing a dichotomy in which we can either work for big money (banker, trade technocrat), or for big meaning (teacher, writer, artist). That might be the choice for the high achiever that reads HBR. But the larger truth is that many, if not most, people find little of either in their jobs (minimum wage laborers, cashiers, food service, etc.). Perhaps it is because of this that they are so willingly lulled into the American daydream, just as a way to get through.

How then, do we awaken the sleepwalkers? Haque says,

“You’re going to need to apply not just the following professional skills — entrepreneurship; ‘networking,’ pluck and drive, strategic thinking, leadership, branding and marketing — but also the following human capacities: a stubborn refusal to obey the dictates of the status quo, an unwavering empathy, a healthy disrespect for the naysayers, the humility of the servant and the pride of the master artisan, a persevering sense of grace, a heaping spoonful of that most dangerously unpredictable of substances, love, and, finally, the unflinching belief in a better tomorrow that those have always had who dust their saddles off, dig their spurs in, and forge ahead into the great unknown.”

Maybe, thus equipped, we can persuade our “so-called not-really-leaders-in-anything-but-name” to do what needs to be done, which is to “jiggle GDP; juggle taxes and subsidies; break up the monoliths — hey, presto: an ‘economy’ in which material wealth roughly, crudely lines up with meaning; in which ‘profit’ reflects real human benefit delivered (instead of how many towns and lives you’ve looted this quarter).”

Until then, we must take it one day at a time, learning to imagine the best possible future, figuring out what role each of us is to play in getting us there, and learning how we can play that role as well as we can. Who knows, maybe someday, if we do it well,  some of those Wall Street bankers might end up raising their hands, the next time the question is asked.

[Image credit: elycefeliz: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • roger saillant

    Excellent piece. Well worth all of our time to read and to reflect on.

  • roger saillant

    Excellent piece. Well worth all of our time to read and to reflect on.

  • http://www.triplepundit.com Nick Aster

    Great stuff. I’d also add that thinking about this as a dichotomy is destructive. It’s not “either or” … or perhaps rather, if we assume that we must have meaning, then the rest comes naturally.

  • http://www.prscoup.com Gabe Chesman

    Very thought-provoking. It made me wonder if meaning and money could ever be considered equal, at least in terms of ROI.