Must Be The Money

 “Money is the most important thing in the world. It represents health, strength, honor, generosity, and beauty as conspicuously as the want of it represents illness, weakness, disgrace, meanness, and ugliness. Not the least of its virtues is that it destroys base people as certainly as it fortifies and dignifies noble people.”  Word cloud - money

–       George Bernard Shaw

That is a bold assertion, even when penned by a co-founder of The London School of Economics, celebrated playwright and man of letters. Shaw’s quote is captured in a new book by George B. McAuliffe, III, Wealth & Wisdom, Timeless Quotations and Comments About Money and Investing. It’s a great book that shares tried and true principles on investing, wealth protection and financial cycles.

Shaw’s quote didn’t sit well with me when I read it a few days ago. It still doesn’t. Why? Because it causes me to simultaneously consider what I agree with in his assertion and what I find untrue. It also leads to real questions concerning what motivates one’s work life, knowing that the vast majority of us work, in part, to acquire money.

If money is the most important thing in the world and we fashion careers to get our hands on the stuff, what can be said for how we define the “value” of work itself?

But first, let me articulate what I find lacking in Shaw’s quote.

Yesterday I attended a client meeting during which the topic of job classification came up. It’s one thing to put roles into categories and weigh their impact one to the other. It’s another thing to allow those categories to signify worth and value. People, those at the meeting agreed, understand that some jobs are more critical to the success of the business than others. Everyone wants to feel that his or her job and individual effort has a recognized value, a value that does not tie itself entirely to financial measure.

Then last night I met an extraordinary woman – Lilly Oyare of the Little Rock Early Childhood Development Center (ECD). Ms. Oyare and her colleague Christine are visiting the U.S. to raise awareness and funds for Little Rock ECD. The school operates in Kenya’s largest slum, Kibera, where over a million people live in unimaginable conditions in an area no larger than New York’s Central Park. Little Rock’s mission is to literally save Kibera’s children through education, support and care. Per Lilly, Little Rock is a place where these children can dream of a different future. There is little question about the value she brings to her students and her community.

As Lilly talked about the school, I thought of her students. Students who in spite of their living conditions come to school each day well groomed in pressed uniforms, anxious to learn and proud of what they have accomplished so far. These students live in extreme poverty yet their lack of money does not mark them as ill, ugly or disgraced. Their lack of money does not define them, it is an obstacle to overcome.

Of course, money is one factor that helps determine the worth of a job, and money is certainly necessary to continue the work at Little Rock. But in both cases, it wasn’t the heart of how either workplace defined its deeper intent. Money is a way to measure, to progress and to survive. Money is not all-important.

Still, Shaw’s quote holds truth within it. Money, in its proper use, can create a secure and enjoyable life. I know this directly, living in the manner I do and in the part of the world I inhabit. And I would be lying if I didn’t say that I support the healthy pursuit of money. For who doesn’t enjoy receiving money as a reward for work well done or as a way to connote the level of skill and responsibility one possesses?

Funny thing is, though, that monetary reward is based on what a particular market deems as important at a particular point in time. And by important, I mean revenue generating. We may say that medical researchers diligently working to cure a dreaded disease are important but we won’t pay them as much as we do an A-list Hollywood star. Sure, the researcher will one day improve or save lives but the star generates box office receipts that could buy a small island.  This kinda puts things into perspective. And it also begs the question of what is truly “good” work.

What is “good” work, work that is pursued for more than just financial reward, work that creates value in other, broader ways? For each professional, this is an individual question, defined by one’s circumstance and desires. I believe, though, that good work, regardless of form, shares certain traits:

–       Good work brings its own satisfaction

–       Good work is pleasurable to perform, even with occasional discomfort

–       Good work accretes value to one’s self and, optimally, to others

–       Good work is an opportunity to advance one’s self or create benefit to others

Notice that money is not called out specifically, although it does rest within the third trait about value. Money is an instrument, nothing more. And as Shaw notes, it can make or break you if you let it.

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