Monday, August 21, 2006


According to statistics, Americans work harder than any other industrialized people – and more than our medieval ancestors! The reason is simple. Getting ahead in our material world is based upon the idea that the sky is the limit. You get paid for the work you do, so if you agree to do more work, you can get more money. Have five jobs if you want. Go nuts. But money's not the valuable commodity. There's something infinitely more precious than money - and people are spending all of it chasing down money.

Did you know that Americans work, on average, nearly 9 weeks more every single year than our Western European counterparts? It may prompt you to ask the question, as it did me, “What the fuck is wrong with us?”

But that’s America. We’re addicted to work.

In advertising, which is both a mirror and shaper of culture, happiness is tethered to the consumption of material goods. In subdivisions from sea to sparkling sea, achievement is measured in purchase power. Status is determined by what you have, not what you do. The people we need the most, it seems, are the ones who get paid the least. Our values are more than a little askew, if you ask me.

My dad once explained that people get paid what they’re worth to whoever is paying them. I considered that bit of wisdom incredibly simple advice, yet profoundly true. People are commodities like anything else, and worth what someone is willing to pay for them. But I’ve found that’s not entirely true in the case of human resources – most people are either getting paid more or less than they are actually worth to the company for which they work.

I know from past experience that I have been both undervalued and overvalued. At my first job I did not bill enough hours to pay my salary – which was pretty damn meager to begin with, as salaries at first jobs typically are. I actually hung onto to that position for far longer than the agency should have kept me on, largely because I am a likeable person. My boss had actually told me over lunch one day that he couldn’t envision ever firing me because I was “cool.” Of course, 7 months of sitting around with nothing to do later, he had to let me go. I was a little hurt at the time, but in hindsight I understand.

At my next agency, I worked hard to prove the true measure of my worth. I busted my ass and made myself an indispensable piece of the company puzzle. And when I marched in to ask for a 10K raise, I got it. And when I ended up leaving a year and half later, they wanted to know if there were anything they could do financially to change my mind. Turns out I had been worth more to them than they were paying me – which was a bittersweet thing to discover. Sweet because it meant I had been valued and my contributions appreciated; bitter because I’d missed out on a lot of dinero.

But that’s the market system at work – people getting paid what they are worth. And, sadly, unless you have the nuts to march in and ask for a raise, you probably won’t find out what you’re really worth until the day you leave. That’s when they call, raise, or fold.

According to polls and surveys, most people believe they are not getting paid what they are worth. It’s hard to put an exact number on something like that, but the general consensus is that whatever our salary is, it should be more. I don’t know where this sense of entitlement comes from, but it’s pretty widespread. I think it comes from the fact that we see other people doing well around us and believe we should be doing just as well, if not better.

“Can you believe they just got a brand new Mercedes? What does he do that’s so important? I’m more important than that guy. I should have a new Mercedes, too!”

And this logic makes us unhappy at work. The fact is, society and the business world value different professions more than others. It’s not that other people are more or less deserving of their salaries, it’s that they are willing and able to perform different corporate functions. Take sales, for example. You can make an absolute killing in sales if you’re willing and able to do it. Sales people can make 2X-4X more in a year than I do, which has prompted me to wonder if I chose the wrong profession. But the fact is, I am not willing OR able to hold a position in sales (largely because I hate people). Sales is a tough gig, which is why those who can do it well are so well rewarded.

One thing I’ve noticed is that most of the people in the top 1% tend to share a pretty similar professional background. That doesn’t mean they’re smarter or more deserving or performing a more vital job – it just means that the company they work for values their contribution a lot more. So then it’s really no wonder that the people who get paid the most in America are people who turn money into more money, protect money, and use legal loopholes to find money: corporate officers, financial brokers, real estate magnates, investment bankers, corporate lawyers, and the like – the suit and tie kings of capitalization, if you will.

While we all agree that teachers are vitally important, too – I think the proof is in the paycheck.

Money matters more than education.

Why? Because money is what sustains us now. Aside from a handful of Amish communities, few Americans are self-sufficient enough to meet all of their needs on their own. Money means access to food, clothes, and shelter. And the more money you have, the better food, clothes, and shelter you can get – from a pantry-sized apartment in the projects to a high-rise penthouse downtown.

There are basically four ways a person can come about money:

- Win it – A rare and wonderful way
- Inherit it – The family way
- Steal it – The dishonest way
- Earn it – The good, old-fashioned way

Winning it. From slot machines to sports betting to online poker rooms to the State Lottery, there’s no shortage of people hoping to win a chunk of change. But winning enough money to sustain a comfortable lifestyle is not common, and most people know better than to expect they will win enough money to quit working. Plus, what’s enough money to quit working these days anyhow? A million bucks sure won’t get what it used to. A nice house in a nice Chicago neighborhood goes for a million bucks these days.

Inheriting it. One of the most bankrupting facts of life is that you can’t take your fortune to the afterlife. So people bequeath their estates to surviving loved ones in an effort to ensure their money, and loved ones, are well taken care of. To those fortunate enough to be born into money, the rules to the American game are a little different. Working is often optional, as large sums of money have a way of multiplying on their own. A good financial advisor and a trust fund are all one needs to enjoy a life of celebrity, designer drugs, high fashion, and cosmetic enhancements.

On inheriting it. I knew a guy named Nick who strolled into our office every day looking for someone to go out to lunch with. He’d stand at your desk for an hour talking about his weekend as if you had as little to do as he did. Nick had a trust fund he knew was maturing in a couple of years. In an effort to teach Nick the value of a dollar, his parents demanded that he take a job somewhere doing something. He took a job doing nothing and, instead, made it impossible for other people to work by standing at their desk and talking about his weekend. My boss once uttered as Nick left for lunch without us, “Man, if that guy didn’t eat he’d have nothing to do.” I remember I was envious of Nick then, but at least I had something to do – and a good reason to do it.

Stealing it. Some people find ways to scam other people out of their money, with or without them knowing it. From massive corporate heists like the Enron scandal to a good, old-fashioned smash and grab, there sure are plenty of ways to steal. As long as there has been money there have been people willing to take it from us. We live in a nation of laws, which, sadly, some believe are meant to be broken.

Earning it. We work hard so we have the freedom to go places, and to buy nicer things, and to live in bigger, better homes, and to provide our children with more than what we had growing up. But are we ever really satisfied? Where do our aspirations end? What’s good enough?

Everywhere you look, the message to our children is that money makes people happy. More money equals more access and better things – which must mean more happiness, right? But money doesn’t really make people happy. Money actually makes it harder for people to enjoy the things that used to make them happy. It’s really no wonder 9 out of 10 kids prefer the Chicken Soft Taco at Taco Bell to the Filet Oscar at Smith & Wollensky. The value of eating either meal is the same to a kid because eating is about being hungry and doing something about it. It’s not about being able to afford the experience of an expensive piece of meat.

As I get older, the things around me get nicer and nicer. A nicer car. Nicer clothes. Nicer meals at nicer restaurants. I used to get a great deal of satisfaction out of things that cost significantly less money – but now I find little satisfaction in those same things because I keep upgrading to something “better.” Could I be as happy now living in the place I was living in just 5 years ago? Eating at the same places I ate 5 years ago? Driving the same car I had 5 years ago? My tastes keep maturing, and getting more expensive as I become accustomed to a higher standard of living.

Today I drink expensive imported beer, drive an expensive imported car, eat at expensive 4-star restaurants, and buy expensive brand-name clothes I’d never even heard of five years ago. I guess that’s the American dream. I guess I’m supposed to feel “better off” now than I was then. But am I really? Is it easier for me to find happiness now than it was then?

Every once in a while I like reverting back to the simple life. I like turning off all of the games and gadgets. I’ll take a walk over to the beach with a crossword puzzle, sit on a breaker, and just be for a couple of hours. I’ll listen to the waves. I’ll admire the horizon. I’ll let the wind have its way with what little hair I have left and actually be completely happy doing it – happy having an experience that costs me nothing.

It’s in moments like these that I can appreciate the value of a commodity far more precious than money. It’s a commodity we are born with, spend so much of during childhood just having fun, but come to appreciate less and less as we get older.

It's called TIME.

You can’t win it.
You can’t inherit it.
You can’t steal it.
And you can’t earn it by working any harder.

All you can do it enjoy it while you’ve got it and hope there’s enough left to do everything you hope to do while you’re here – in this roller-coaster filled amusement park called life.

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