This Thanksgiving, Try to Remember Why You Do What You Do
How much money is enough?
The more money we have, the more choices we have in life. So, money is important.
But as we all know, money is not the only thing that matters.
It’s a Wonderful Life plays on the major television networks each year at Christmas. The film’s main protagonist—George Bailey—struggles with how to value his life. He evaluates his contributions, contemplates the rewards life has yielded back and grows increasingly dissatisfied. The film resonates across generations, and has persisted in the public’s consciousness, because everyone ponders the same sort of calculus—sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously.
In his book, 52 Little Lessons from It's a Wonderful Life, Bob Welch profiles why trying to keep up with the Joneses is for saps. Namely, it’s because we all make a difference in our own way. “We are the proverbial pebbles in the water, our ripples going so much farther than we think,” he writes.
George Bailey loses sight of his own importance. In one scene, his son announces the neighbors have a new car. George quickly snaps back, “Well, what's the matter with our car? Isn't it good enough for you?"
The conflict on display here is George’s ambition to be more than he is. This causes him restlessness and unhappiness.
While it’s fine to strive for improvement, it’s a delicate balancing act in how we weigh our blessings already in place against pending dreams and desires yet to manifest. This equation easily skews in a negative direction, if we let it. In modern pop culture and the age of social media, envy is easy. Gratitude requires effort.
I came to appreciate the importance of an inner scorecard a few years ago, when I made a movie for my wife, Jennifer, chronicling our first 13 years together.
It became quite the project. I used Apple’s iMovie software to assemble a large collage of pictures, early email exchanges, videos, and journal entries of mine throughout our years together. I even interjected periodic voiceovers.
As I edited the reel, I began to see that the story of our life together has been a series of short stories—chapters, if you will.
Like any couple, we’ve had ups and downs—thrilling victories and crushing defeats. The passing of loved ones, and the amazing gift of bringing children into the world.
I chose music to weave into various parts. For instance, our wedding video was fine as originally produced, but it wasn’t nearly as cool as the edited clip I created of my beautiful girl walking down the aisle, with Guns ‘n Roses’ “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” playing in the background. I get goose bumps every time I watch it.
I get teary eyed every time I hear Def Cab for Cutie’s song, “I’ll Follow You into the Dark.” That song personifies the pain of 2008, one of our hardest years together (we dealt with more than portfolio losses that year).
I don’t know your life story. But I bet if you took several months to reflect carefully on your life, you would notice a pattern I picked up on: life is cyclical and volatile. Just like markets.
Toward the end of It's a Wonderful Life, a clear message emerges. George reads a note his guardian angel has written, which says, "Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love, Clarence."
I used that clip at the end of my film to capture the key lesson I derived from the project. That is, true wealth has little to do with how much we have in our bank account. It’s about the human connections we forge. Memories we share. Really, it’s about an abundance of love.
What’s Important to You?
How we define success is an important ingredient in who we become.
If we don’t take time to carefully carve out our purpose and intentions, we can easily drift from casual thoughts about our self-worth (which are ok and normal), into a more dangerous, slippery, “Keeping up with the Joneses” spiral, like George fell victim to.
Without a compass to guide what’s important to us, we are lost. Echo effects include:
* Saying “yes” too often, because we lack predefined standards that make it easy to say “no”
* Running too many races at once, because we don’t know what track we really want to be on
* Doing things that we don’t like, for people we don’t like, to get things we don’t want
Why do all this?
It’s part of a subtle, yet treacherous feedback loop, based on the false premise “more is always more.”
The truth is you don’t have to keep up with the Kardashians, the Joneses, or anyone else.
We can’t possibly have more than everyone, everywhere. So, it’s wise to establish our own benchmark. The best game to play is our own. A game where we make the rules, and we maintain the scorecard.
Reclaiming our purpose is the first step toward fulfilling our potential, and finding the fulfillment we crave. This means staging our own path and ignoring when others try to intersect it. The goal is to be the best version of us. Going where we want to go. At our pace. That’s all that matters.
This philosophy is especially critical when it comes to money, because if you don’t know how much money you need, the default always becomes: more. Then you risk diverting critical energy away from your calling, and set yourself up to fail.
Deep in your brain resides Mr. Ego. He is a rather difficult fellow, who rejects compromise and tradeoffs. He wants it all. He’s a Devil that sits on your shoulders whispering bad advice into your ear. He wants you to say yes to everything, to acquire everything, to be everything. But he misleads you.
When George’s ego was in control it almost fully broke him. He stood on a bridge one snowy night, pondering jumping, to end his pain.
What brought him back was rediscovering his purpose. Redoing the content of his scorecard, George put his family and friends above his bank account and personal conquests. That shift in focus changed everything.
This Thanksgiving, try remembering why you do what you do. What it’s all for? Who is it all for?