A few years ago, I made a million dollars.
I’m not saying that to brag, I’m just stating it as fact. I never imagined making a million dollars in my life, but I did. And honestly, I expected this accomplishment to make me feel… something. Significant perhaps?
Instead, I was left underwhelmed. Not empty, not fulfilled. Just indifferent. What, I wondered, was behind this feeling?
Around this time, I began to work on my new project which would eventually become Real Artists Don’t Starve, a book about creativity and business and why art and money can go together. So, here I was: writing a book on why money wasn’t a bad thing but not sure I believed my message anymore.
So, I did what I always do when I have questions. I asked my friends for feedback. One person, the preacher who officiated my wedding, wrote and said, “That’s great that you’re not overwhelmed by your own success. But I’m not sure underwhelmed is what I would be feeling if I were you. I think I would feel grateful.”
Oh, yes. Gratitude. That.
What happened over the next couple of years was a series of steps that led me to stop growing my business, focus on the things that really mattered to me, and put money in its proper place.
Money can’t fulfill us
I grew up lower middle class. My parents often fought about money and we were trained to not answer the phone during dinner because that’s when the bill collectors would call. I was afraid of debt and never wanted much money. I just didn’t want to need anything from anyone.
This ambition drove me towards success and before I knew it, I had launched a business helping other writers called Tribe Writers and was making ten times my previous income as a nonprofit marketing director.
Making money became easier for me. And I enjoyed the process. So I did more of it. I set higher goals and achieved them. I reached for more and obtained it. It didn’t feel greedy, more like a game that I wanted to keep winning.
Yes, it was nice to pay off debt and get nicer stuff, but I noticed after a certain point, the more money I made, the less happy it made me. It wasn’t that it made me miserable or anything like that. It just ceased to impact my life.
The research on this is interesting: once you get past a certain income level, more money doesn’t really affect your happiness at all. And after a certain point, it can make your life more difficult and more complicated.
What I learned was just because I was good at something didn’t mean I had to keep doing it. So I decided to stop trying to beat least year’s number.
Money is a better means than master
When he was at the height of his success, Walt Disney received a letter from a critic who implied that Mr. Disney was in the business of making movies just for the money. He replied, “We don’t make films to make money. We make money to make more films.”
For Disney, it wasn’t about the money, but he understood that it cost money—a lot of money—to make the kind of art he cared about making. He had to pay his artists, he had to pay for the film, he had to pay for the actors. It all cost something.
Of course, we understand this. For most of us, money is necessary. We have to buy groceries and pay the mortgage. Certainly, we can minimize our expenses, but money is part of life. What I learned in my very underwhelming year of making a million dollars is that—at least for me—the acquisition of wealth is not enough to drive me. There has to be some bigger picture, some greater vision that I’m trying to obtain.
My friend Stu taught me this when I was feeling disillusioned about my business. Stu is a very successful digital entrepreneur who runs a charity that builds schools in Kenya, and he told me, “Jeff, I stopped making money for myself a long time ago. What drives me today is generating income to build more schools. That’s why I do it.”
After I heard this, I immediately started giving 10% of the gross sales of my business to a fund that gets dibursed to various charities and nonprofits, including organizations like The Hope Effect.
It turns out, though, that money makes a better means than master. What I mean by that is if you’re doing your work to gain more, this is a pursuit that will leave you feeling empty, bored, and disenchanted.
Money is a bad metric for meaning
When I was writing my book Real Artists Don’t Starve, I was able to interview the fourth man who walked on the moon: Alan Bean. At roughly fifty years old, Alan left his career as an astronaut to become a full-time artist.
Everyone thought Alan was crazy. Who walks away from a job at NASA, after all? But he did it, and he ended up doing very well as an artist. As a matter of fact, if you go to Alan’s website right now, you can find his artwork on sale for anywhere from $50,000 to over $400,000.
In my interview with Alan, I made the mistake of saying art must have been Alan’s passion for him to leave his job as an astronaut for it. That’s when he corrected me, saying, “I didn’t leave my job as an astronaut because I had this creative urge. I left because I felt it was my duty to do these paintings to celebrate this great event I was blessed to be part of.”
Alan makes a lot of money off his art. But, like Walt Disney, he doesn’t make art to make money. He makes money to make more art. As a writer, I’ve accepted the fact that I have to make money off my writing if I want to spend most of my time doing it. But honestly, I don’t do it for the royalty checks. I do it, because I have to. It’s my duty.
A final warning
In the book Shoe Dog, Phil Knight wrote about his somewhat sudden success at Nike: “When it came rolling in, the money affected us all. Not much, and not for long, because none of us was ever driven by money. But that’s the nature of money. Whether you have it or not, whether you want it or not, whether you like it or not, it will try to define your days. Our task as human being is not to let it.”
This is true. Money affects us all, even when we don’t want it to. I realized this when I started making more money than I ever had. At first, it was fun. And then, it almost became a burden. I started to fear losing things I did not even possess just a few years before.
Finally, I took Phil’s advice and chose to not let money define my days. Like Alan Bean, I went to work because it was my calling, not because I was driven to increase. And at the encouragement of my friend Stu, I started using these resources to play my part in projects that were bigger than me.
And that actually did make me happy.