Money, Friends and Health

Michael Phillips has been Medical Self-Care Magazine’s main source of financial advice since the days when we were having doubts about ever being able-without grants or backing-to put out a magazine at all. His early advice, “Just go ahead and do it and the money will come, ” has turned out to be absolutely correct. That advice, by the way, was the exact opposite of the advice we received from most of the other people we consulted—most of whom mumbled something about needing at least a quarter of a million dollars to start-up capital and advised us to go look for a grant.
A former vice-president of the Bank of California, Michael is now director of the Glide Foundation. He is the founder of the Briarpatch Network, an association of alternative businesses in the San Francisco Bay area, author of The Seven Laws of Money, and editor of
The Briarpatch Book.

TF: Eight years ago you were one of the youngest vice-presidents of a major bank in the country and were considered a rising young star in the banking world. Why did you quit?

MP: Quitting the banking business was just the final step of a long process that began when one of my clients—who knew what I needed better than I did myself—sent me away on a cruise ship. I was thirty-one years old, and I’d never had a vacation in my life. I was nervous, tense, and stressed—a typical superachiever. I’d never in my life been able to just sit still and do nothing.

What happened on the ship?

Once I was on board and realized that there was literally nothing to do, I just about had a nervous breakdown. I even tried to get a helicopter to come pick me up. Finally, I was faced with the choice between going insane and just sitting in a deck chair and looking out at the ocean for several days straight.

It was the beginning of a big change for me—a big change in the way I thought about myself, about money, and about the world. In the banking world—and in the business world in general—making money is the name of the game. But once I thought through why I felt so driven to make money, I realized that my job was keeping me from getting what I really wanted.

What was that?

I spent a long time thinking about that. It came down to the things everybody wants—freedom, respect, health, security for my family, and security in my old age. I had been thinking that money would help me get these things, but in fact, it was keeping me from getting them.

What I was getting was hemorrhoids and stress ulcers. A psychiatrist I consulted helped me see that I was using stress to make me more effective in the business world—and that same stress was making me sick. And the more money I made, the more sick I was getting.

I realized that because l wanted freedom, and thought that money could get me freedom, I had ended up working in a job where I had very little freedom to do the things I really cared about. I thought that people with more money would be more loved and respected, but when I looked at the people l loved and respected—and looked at the qualities that made me care for them—money had absolutely nothing to do with it. I wanted security for my family and friends, yet I was hardly even able to see my family and friends because my life had become so excessively work centered.

In thinking about old age, I looked at my parents, and saw that their most important asset in dealing with being older was their ability to be competent, helpful, flexible, curious, generous, and involved with others. Money had very little to do with it.

So what did you decide to substitute for the goal of making a lot of money?

I decided the best thing I could do was to start right now to do the things I really loved, and to spend as much time as I could with the people I really cared about. Of course a person wouldn’t necessarily have to quit his job to do that—he or she could just begin to realize that they are not working primarily for money, and make their decisions accordingly.

Can you give us an example of that?

Sure. Let’s compare two doctors. One is a doctor who loves his work and sees it as a way of fulfilling himself, and the second is a doctor who doesn’t really enjoy his work and just does it to make a lot of money. The first doctor will be able to make day-to-day and moment-to-moment decisions based on how he feels. The latter must suppress his feelings and pain to a far greater extent because his work and his sources of fulfillment—the things money can buy—are much less connected.

If the first doctor finds himself feeling sad and tense, he’ll be more likely to ask a friend to help. He may ask a colleague to cover his emergency calls and take off early and go for a walk in the woods. The other doctor, in the same situation, being more dependent on money for satisfaction, would probably push himself more, and make it up to himself with money. He might say to himself, “Boy, I’ve spent all day seeing these miserable patients, and now I have to go back to the hospital to take care of this stupid emergency case. I’m really going to charge this guy plenty. Then I’ll go out and treat myself to a steak dinner and a few drinks. And tomorrow I’ll go have a look at that new sports car I’ve been wanting.”
Three guesses as to which of these two will be happier and healthier.

So people who are more concerned with money tend to be less sensitive to their bodies’ messages?

That’s certainly been my experience. A person’s ability to listen to his or her body is influenced by the extent to which he or she is capable of being open and relaxed. That calmness lets you listen to the world, listen to your body, and listen to your friends.

You were saying that for some people, a useful health goal might be to reduce their incomes.

If you reduce the amount of money you have to earn, you’ll have a lot more freedom to do the things you love, and more freedom to spend time with the people you love. One of my friends recently left a very high-paying job. He’s now living on $450 a month and doing work he cares deeply about and working with people he loves. He’s better off in every meaningful way than he was before. His friends have come through for him again and again

So is money bad in itself?

It’s neither good nor bad in itself. Money is something society pays people for doing what the society—or certain members of the society—want to be done.

Say you’re a craftsperson and you knit little hats. And suppose that red hats sell like mad, but what you really love to do is to make blue hats. If you end up making whatever sells, you’ll end up doing what the society wants.

The same is true if you’re working for a company. You might start out saying, “I’m just going to work for this company for a year to earn enough money so that I can go out and save bighorn sheep.” But you’ll find that by the time that year is up, the values that went with the job have creeped into you. You get used to the big lunches, the big apartment, the big car. You get used to the ski trips to Aspen.

One of the things American culture does very well is to appeal to peoples wants and needs and to get them to trade whatever skills they have for money.

So it comes down to a basic choice—to do what you want or to do what pays.

Not necessarily—many people are lucky and get paid a lot for doing what they really want to do. But for many people, it’s a choice. You can do what’s safe and secure and pays well, even though you may not like it much….

Or you can do what you really want to do.

Yes, but that’s easier said than done, because to do that you really have to know who you are, and how you’re different from everybody else. And that raises some bigger questions than most people want to tackle.

Once you really start doing what you yourself want to do—start making blue hats when what people are buying are red hats—you’re going to become different from a lot of your friends and neighbors. You’ll almost certainly make a lot less money. Some people may think you’re irresponsible or weird. It means the beginning of a long quest to find out who you are and what kind of work you really want to be doing.

And the ironic thing is that once you really do find out what you want to do, really get your act together, the society will support you. If you really go into yourself, you will end up developing something that there’s a need for. No matter how weird it all sounded starting out.

Can you give an example of that?

My favorite is a man I heard give a concert at the YMCA in Chicago in 1954. This guy came out on stage, played a note on the piano, read some stuff out of a book, then he’d play another note. After half an hour of that the whole audience had walked out—and there were only six of us to begin with. At his next concert, he came out, put four radios on the piano, tuned them to different stations, and left. That was the concert.

Now I’ll tell you, this guy was as weird as anyone I’d ever known. It was very hard to believe that this madman would ever have a community to support his work, his maniacal ideas of what music was all about. But that man, John Cage, has since become one of the most respected composers and theorists of modern music theory. He’s had a profound influence on thousands of musicians and composers.

He let himself pursue his real interest, despite how far-out it seemed in the beginning. He kept working on it and developing it—and a community grew up around him. No matter what you do, if you get good enough at it, a community will find you.

Once you see that, it’s much easier not to be tempted by the kind of quick money the society may be tempting you with.

How can you find out what you really want to do?

The only place that answer exists is within yourself. There’s no external standard, no teacher who can teach you who you are. There’s no one way to get there.

One useful exercise is to write down the things you want to do with your life—the experiences you want to have, the skills and talents you’d like to develop, the kind of person you’d like to be. Then stop doing the things you dislike doing, and start doing the things you really want to do. If you want to be a world traveler, for goodness sake don’t take some horrible job to make a lot of money to travel with. Join the crew of a sailing ship. You’ll get to travel, you’ll learn about sailing, and you’ll have great stories to tell about hitting sharks on the nose in the Bahamas.

The effort of going out and earning the money to do what you really want to do is almost always less effective than just going out and doing it. By the time you do have the money, you may have lost all your vigor and joy.

Is there something about striving for money that makes people put less energy into their friends?

That is an absolutely great question. It takes us back one step to an even more basic choice people make, the choice of how much of themselves they’re going to be willing to share—”How open am I willing to be?” And as you make that decision, you’re also making the decision between friends and money.

Somebody once asked Einstein what was the most important question facing human beings. He said the question was this: “Is the universe friendly?”

Yes, and in making the decision to be open or not, a person decides whether his or her own universe will be, very literally, a “friendly” one. Because if you are open, friends will come to you, and help you meet your needs. If you are closed, you will need money to get the things you want.

I see a real connection between this kind of openness, and the kind of calmness, the ability to sit still and do nothing, that we were talking about earlier. If your life is chronically hectic, if you don’t have many friends, if you’re doing work you don’t really like, then the world will be a pretty hard, tight-fisted place for you. If you’re calm and relaxed and doing work you love, you can very easily be open and generous.

We seem to be getting into the realm of religious values.

Well, I think that our obsession with money verges on making it a religion. In the minds of many, money equals happiness, security, respect, and freedom, the very same things religion offers. I think that if people really believed you could take your money with you, the religion of money could compete successfully with Christianity.

The ideas you’ve been describing sound very much like the Buddhist idea of right livelihood.

I really don’t know enough about Buddhism to say, but I do know that these ideas can be found in the wisdom and teachings of every spiritual tradition.

The institution of the sabbath comes to mind. Isn’t the sabbath just institutionalized sitting still and doing nothing?

Yes. And the same idea is to be found in the practices of the Amerindians who lived here in the San Francisco Bay area. The teachers of all traditions have told us that the goal of amassing material wealth will not lead to good results. The wise people of every culture have advised us, for the longest, happiest lives, to love and care for one another and to do the work we love.

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Written by Tom Ferguson MD

Explore Wellness in 2021