We live in a culture where what we earn is highly valued and what do for work is highly judged. I’ve always been independent, industrious, and innovative. I started a non-profit organization, I started a for-profit business. I bought my first house when I was twenty-six and I leveraged the profits from the sale of that house to buy a bigger house and then another and then another.
Though I’ve never been a high-wage earner, by taking financial risks I have created economic security for myself. Even with these investments and the financial security they offer me, I don’t feel proud and accomplished, I feel like I should be able to earn more, do better.
I don’t need more. I have enough. If I could live my dream it would be to write all day long — to teach writing, to share writing, to experiment with different kinds of writing. But instead, I waste precious time figuring out how I can make money, prove my worth.
When I was forty I started dating my current partner Nancy. I was a business owner, relatively successful. As the owner of a yoga studio, I was never going to enter the financial realm of Jeff Bezos, but I felt okay, balanced. Nancy was (and is) an attorney and like all private attorneys in this country, charges a ridiculous hourly rate. Even as the owner of a successful business I couldn’t hold a candle to Nancy’s earning capacity. In those early days of dating, I felt insecure, like I was a failure of some kind because I couldn’t reciprocate the fancy dinners and weekend trips she treated us to.
Early on in our relationship when I was suffering a bout of loser-syndrome because of my comparatively low wage as a yoga teacher, Nancy said, “Your work is no less valuable than mine. I just happen to be in a profession that has an inflated value in our society.” She meant what she said. I believed her, but still the message that “money equals success” was like a neon tattoo on my brain.
It’s twelve years later and I still feel the pangs of insecurity because of the financial disparity in our relationship. Unless I get TicTok famous, my annual salary will never come close to Nancy’s. My feelings of insecurity are not her fault. The feelings come from the constant and pervasive message that is promoted in this country. It’s why half of the population drooled over Donald Trump and practically took our democracy down.
Last year I sold my yoga studio and netted a good profit which I socked away for the future. It’s a little nugget that I can put into another dream someday. I fantasize about creating another business, maybe a bed and breakfast or a tiny grocery store. The money sits in a high-yield savings account waiting for just the right moment. This modest profit is symbolic of twenty years of hard work and dedication. This nest egg is my backup. It’s the proof that I’ve done something, that I’m worthy. As long as it sits in that account and I can see it there, I am reminded that I have value, even if I’m not earning right now.
The message that “money equals success” is like Mr. T’s hundreds of gold chains around my neck. The chains are heavy and gaudy and I don’t want them. I am engaged in a committed battle to deprogram myself of this deeply entrenched belief. I take one chain off at a time but it’s a slow process.
I write this from a place of incredible privilege. My partner happened to choose a vocation that we throw money at. She lovingly and generously supports our family with her hard work. I have a golden nest egg in my back pocket that glows in the background of my consciousness reminding me that, though I’m not earning now, I did once and that makes me worthy, successful.
How do we break this cycle? How do I help my teenage daughter learn the feeling of real value when this message that “money equals success” is everywhere? I tell her to follow her heart, that if she does what she loves the money will follow. I tell her that she should choose a path that gives her a sense of emotional fulfillment.
But even with sixteen years of these messages from me, my daughter regularly asks, “Does that pay a lot of money?” My hope is that when my daughter does enter her work life she will remember some of the messages I’ve tried to impart, that she will remember her value no matter how much money she earns.
The misleading and destructive message that “money equals success” is a big problem, far bigger than I could ever imagine solving, but I want to deconstruct it for myself, for my daughter, for her children. I want to break free of this burden. I want the answer to be simple and I know it’s not. It’s an ongoing conversation, like the one I had with Nancy all those years ago about worth. I’ll just keep plugging away, taking one gold chain off at a time.