Nobody wants money. People think they want money, but that’s like saying you want flour, eggs, and an oven. No, what you want is cake. Money is just a method, a tool. But it’s a tool that, like flour, eggs, and an oven, can create many different things. If you don’t know why you want money, then you often chase the wrong things. You mess up the recipe, and you don’t get what you want.
Look, let me be clear about my position: money is good. Money is a resource, and having more resources is, all else being equal, a good thing. There’s no shame in wanting more resources as fuel to pursue your ends. The ends themselves can be bad or good, but money isn’t different from any other tool in that regard. And I posit that most of the bad stuff people do with money tends to come from not realizing what they’re actually after.
As near as I can figure it, when people think they want money, they actually want some combination of these five other things: freedom, security, influence, status, or legacy. And there’s almost always a primary one – the main driving factor.
Some people want money because money buys them freedom. They don’t like doing what other people tell them, they don’t like being tied somewhere. They don’t want to have to work, but they don’t want to suffer for not working. They want to opt out of the value exchange system of society, basically.
Other people, often people who grew up or lived a long time in a resource-poor environment, want security. They don’t care if they have to work, but they want to know that their food, shelter, place in society and general lifestyle are well-insulated from undesired change. They want to live away from fear.
Some people want power, plain and simple. Money is a way to get it. They want to be able to enact change, often on a grand scale – to exercise their will via the influence money can buy. People can absolutely use this power for good, but it’s hard. If you’ve ever wondered why someone like Jeff Bezos still works when he could easily just lounge for the rest of his life, remember that he’s not motivated by these other things, or he would.
Some people want to be admired, adored, or even just paid attention to. They want money because money lets them roll up in fancy cars, have a great time, and attract attention. It can be admiration, jealousy, desire – doesn’t matter, as long as the focus of their society is on them. They want to be elevated in the eyes of their peer group. This is, evolutionarily speaking, super duper understandable!
And some people want money because they have some specific long-term project they want to see come to fruition, and money can get them there. This can be as simple as “the best life for my kids,” or it can be something like a foundation that fights the disease they lost their sibling to, or any number of other things.
At the core, I don’t think there’s anything about those five motivations that makes a person detestable or immoral. I think all of those are very rational in their own way. I think all five of them can manifest in immoral ways, but I also think all of them can take shape in a healthy soul, too.
If you won the lottery today and got an extra million bucks, what would you do with it? The answer speaks to your true motivations. Would you immediately turn it into a “nest egg” and get rid of all your debt? Then you’re probably security-motivated. Would you take a bunch of wild trips and explore the world? Could be freedom, but if you’re taking a lot of selfies for the ‘gram while you’re at it, it’s probably status.
Whatever your true motivation, it’s good to be aware of it. It affects your attitude towards money and how happy you’ll be with different approaches to it. Someone who is legacy- or security-minded is perfectly fine working every day of their life, as long as the motivation is being satisfied. So they’ll be happy in stable jobs or with low-risk investments. Someone who is freedom-minded won’t be, no matter how much “financial sense” a stable job and a 401(k) make. A high-risk venture or entrepreneurship will appeal to a freedom-minded person. A status-minded person might be more likely to take a “stable” job, if it’s something that commands a lot of respect, like a doctor. In fact, a status-minded person is more likely to choose a high-profile job that pays less over something lucrative but unglamorous like the trades.
Notice the pattern? Dissatisfaction stems from not being true to yourself. Everyone wants money – but no one does. If you always think “more money is good” as the ultimate measuring stick, you’ll make choices that make you unhappy, spin your wheels, burn out, and end up with less money. You’ll maximize your resources by figuring out what your real motivation is and pursuing it with every available tool, not just cash.