Do You Believe in Ethical Wealth? Cover

Do You Believe in Ethical Wealth?

In Germany, we have a saying: “Geld stinkt nicht.” It means “money doesn’t stink” and goes back to emperor Vespasian.

Urine builds ammonia over time, which can be used to tan leather. Therefore, the Romans collected it in public urinals. When Vespasian levied a tax on those, his son Titus challenged the ethics of this move. The emperor grabbed some of the money and held it under Titus’s nose. “Does the smell bother you?” “No,” his son replied. “And yet, it’s made of urine.”

Eventually, the phrase morphed into “pecunia non olet” — “money has no smell.” When we use it today, we usually mean the exact opposite. It’s code for “something’s fishy here” or “don’t ask where this came from.”

Given how old this story is, this meme has influenced our culture for a long, long time. That’s a problem because now, a lot of us think money stinks.

Everyone you meet is on some grand mission. Maybe, they want to save the ocean, write great novels, or change education. While I do believe in our lofty aspirations, I think they’re just half the truth. Because what we also want, what most of us want even more, is to be rich. We tell people one thing, but the priority list in our head is another and, if we’re honest, its structure is clear:

1. Get rich.

2. Do all the other amazing things.

I know it’s true for me and I’m sure I’m not the only one. But then why do we twist the story? Why is it so hard to admit this? I try to be more upfront about it, but I’m struggling too. Why does it feel icky to admit wanting to be rich?

Well, “money stinks.” From Cleopatra to King Arthur, from the Rothschilds to Rockefeller to Elon, contemporary culture tends to demonize rich elites, regardless if they’re clean or dirty. You can build a billion-dollar empire on enabling cheap, digital payments, designing beautiful electric cars, and reducing space travel costs by a factor of 10, but Twitter will still brand you based on your flawed decisions, even if they’re comparatively small.

It’s the kind of movie we don’t want to see: The hero can do almost everything right and still die. That’s why, deep down, most of us don’t believe in ethical wealth. We tell ourselves it’s impossible and stick with the socially acceptable story: saving the dolphins, feeding the hungry, inspiring the kids. It might not be a lie, but it’s also not the truth.

Ironically, I think this is the exact limiting belief that’s holding us back. Screw dirty money and screw being fake. I want to be rich and I want to be good. As long as I know both are true, shouldn’t that be enough?

This is new for me and I’m sure I have a lot more to learn, but since I started pulling on this thread, I’ve already spotted some deep-seated anti-wealth behaviors. Subliminal ways to reject money, based on this ancient, toxic story.

Here are ten patterns and how I remind myself to try and avoid them.

1. Stop Seeking Status

Most people don’t want wealth for the freedom it brings. They want power. We’ll admit this even less than wanting to be rich, but just look at how you spent your last financial windfall.

Did you buy things to make a statement? To signal your improved lifestyle to yourself and others? Or did you quietly invest it? Tuck it away for a rainy day?

Getting a table in your town’s best restaurant, being revered, feeling superior, these are status games, not wealth games, as Naval would say. And they won’t get you an inch closer to your true goal.

2. Stop Wasting Your Leverage

Wealthy people are leveraged thinkers. And, up to a certain amount, money is just that: leverage. Nothing more. Most people don’t understand this.

$10 million is freedom. $100 million is too much. But $1 million is merely decent leverage. If you have a Western, upper-class standard of living, it won’t last until you die. But you can build a lot of assets with it. Spend it on growth.

Initially, money is the only form of leverage we have. No one’s working for us. No one wants to give us capital. We haven’t created any software or art yet.

But then why do we give away the one tool we have to enhance our decisions? The more you invest and reinvest, the faster everything compounds.

3. Stop Giving Away Your Time

Time isn’t leverage because it doesn’t multiply anything. So it’s not as valuable. But it’s the most limited resource we have. The underlying asset on which we build everything. Ergo, the more you can use your time to build leverage, the better.

Working for $15/hr is making a living. Spending one hour writing an article is carving out freedom. Don’t let immediate payoff trick you. Pretend your time is worth $1,000/hr. Would you spend five of them doing extra work for free? Would you waste one on being angry?

Living in frenzy is a sign we’ve squandered too much. If you’re stingy with time, you’ll always have enough for what matters, whether it’s an emergency with someone you love or calmly thinking through an important decision.

4. Stop Obsessing Over Work-Life Balance

“It’s very hard to be successful in business if you’re trying to live a well-rounded life.”  —  Naval

I like the Four Burners Theory. It says there’s family, friends, health, and work — and you can only focus on one or two at a time. Maybe, you can’t do it all at once, but you can live your life in seasons. I’m not telling you how to make it, but there is a tradeoff to be made.

The good thing is that deliberately making it is enough to feel content.

5. Stop Betting on Weak Links

Just like your work-life-balance will never be perfect, you’ll never have all your ducks in a row. A soccer team is only as good as its weakest member, but a great salesman carries the bulk of the profits.

Weak links can take many forms: a failed video, a botched talk, a toxic business partner. You’ll build those too, if just by accident. That’s okay. But when you find them, stop. Don’t fall for sunk costs. Ditch hopeless efforts.

Ultimately, you’ll always be your own strongest link.

6. Stop Fearing Solitude

There’s an exception to every rule, but if your plan doesn’t involve the internet in some capacity, it’s probably not worth executing. Whether it’s an online store, a contact form, a paid product, or a thriving podcast, the internet is the greatest form of close-to-free leverage we have. But building on it is lonely.

It means fiddling, googling, and tweaking, a lot of which you’ll do on your own, unleveraged time. At least at first. Time you won’t spend among friends, family, or in the company of who you love. But if it’s time spent wallowing in self-pity, it can’t possibly be productive. Solitude has its perks too.

It builds confidence. You’ll realize the world won’t fall apart. Don’t be scared. Learn to step out into the cold. It’s where most of the rewards are anyway.

7. Stop Offloading Responsibility

99% of people’s actions in big corporations are moves in a giant shift-the-blame game. Junior employees blame senior employees who blame their boss so they can blame their boss’s boss. And leadership? They hire consultants and point to the next company, where the cycle starts all over again.

The easiest way to wow people in this world is to take responsibility without being asked to. “Oh my, so generous of you, how can I thank you?” It’s sad how simple it’s become to stand out.

But the truth is we all have responsibility for our own lives anyway. 100% of it. Can’t outsource that. So why should anyone reward you for trying to push it away? Take it. Embrace it. And then get some more.

Stop wanting, start deserving. Jump in the mud. Dig in. What can go wrong? And if things do, you’ll try again. Outcomes don’t matter to the responsible man, because the responsible man knows he can get any outcome to change.

8. Stop Outsourcing Your Judgment

The terror of responsibility is just another broken story the world keeps telling us — but you can’t see that if you’ve handed your judgment to the masses. You need to take it back and exercise it.

Good judgment attracts leverage. But building it requires making calls and seeing them through. You’ll be wrong, but you can learn.

What you can’t do is build independent thinking on imitated decisions.

9. Stop Giving Away Your Agency

Life is full of narratives like wealth being unethical or responsibility weighing you down. But that’s what they are. Just narratives. You can reject them. You can do something that’s never been done before.

You have so much more power than you think. Not the kind we fear, but the kind you can use to be creative, to solve problems. If someone tells you something’s impossible, does that shut you up? Or send your brain in 100 different directions, looking for ways to prove them wrong?

Stop giving your agency, your say in how your life — how the world could be — to opinions and conventions. To invisible social agreements you never consciously signed up for, but deep down still believe anyway.

“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”  —  Steve Jobs

10. Stop Regretting

Of course, it would’ve been great to start practicing all this yesterday. But the best you’re gonna get is today.

It’s very hard to let go of regret if you try to fight it with emotions. I just tell myself it’s unproductive. An obstacle at work, like a frozen laptop screen. So I reboot the system. Take five. Remove the friction.

The only assets I can work with are the time and leverage I have right now. And the only direction I can build in is forward. So that’s what I’ll focus on.

Until I have the money I want. Not too much. But enough.

And not a single dollar is going to stink.