I grew up in an affluent suburb of Chicago, a place of large houses with expansive lawns, and two or more cars in every driveway. I was educated privately, among peers who were the children of doctors and lawyers and financial executives. Leisure took place in tennis clubs and shopping malls. I think of it now as “the belly of the beast.”
But everything is relative. I never felt secure in that setting, and my family didn’t especially fit into the surrounding culture. My parents both worked hard to earn enough for that private education – no stay at home mother, no home help to manage the domestic chores. We belonged to no clubs, took no summer holiday trips, and shopped at Sears. (Unless you grew up there you’ll miss the cultural reference. Suffice to say that the kids in our family wore Toughskins brand denim rather than designer jeans – and it marked us.) To our minds, we weren’t rich: we lived modestly and we got by.
The message drilled into me by this place was simple: achieve, make money, achieve, make money, achieve, make money. Self-worth? Achieve, make money. Relationships with others? Achieve, make money. The meaning of life? Achieve, make money.
It wasn’t until I left for university that I found some relief. Leaving the country was even better. I discovered people with less onerous value systems, places with less privilege and pressure. I made connections and assembled my tribe. And I made choices about how to live that would have terrified my younger self: even now, I own no house or property, I find my clothes in charity shops, I take the bus or walk.
In The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist explores what money means to us, and how to change our perceptions. As a tireless fundraiser for the Hunger Project (an international development organisation which aspires to end world hunger) Lynne has worked with people from myriad economic backgrounds – from wealthy philanthropists to backwater villagers, from bejewelled trophy wives to starving street beggars. In this beautifully written book, she “demonstrates how we can replace feelings of scarcity, guilt and burden with experiences of sufficiency, freedom and purpose.” She calls scarcity “the great lie” and sufficiency “the surprising truth,” and digs into these assertions fully with a rich mix of personal experience, sincere reflection and above all, warm compassion.
Since reading her book, I’ve been able to look back on that high-stakes environment of my upbringing with gentle regard rather than anxiety or resentment. I can recognise the pain behind the habits of spiteful judgment, and the need behind the relentless competition. To have so much, and still feel so driven – to own so much personal wealth and yet feel so little personal wealth – is living in a fairy tale curse for sure.
When my friend and I named our social enterprise Personal Wealth, three years ago now, we received many confused responses. Were we a financial services provider? Were we money advisers? Did we play the stock market? No, no and no – we worked with people and organisations, and tried to open up the conversation about what wealth really is. It usually took a moment for our response to sink in, and then typically our inquirer would say “ah-ha” with a delighted light in their eyes.
I will be revisiting the conversation on Saturday 1st April, when I host the first of four experimental workshops. Participants will be invited to play with the phrase “personal wealth”and we will learn more about the ‘great lie’ and the ‘surprising truth.’ If you are in Edinburgh and fancy coming along, please do add your name to the event list here.