Money And The Meaning Of Life

Over a 30-year career, worldly philosopher Jacob Needleman has counseled the rich and successful on matters of money and meaning. His conclusion: “Money is like a mirror to our culture. What we see tells us who we are.”

What is more elusive or more compelling? More personal or more a part of society? More on everyone’s lips or more difficult to talk about? More linked with success or more separate from it?


Money takes some understanding. To help us come to terms with it, Fast Company turned to Jacob Needleman, philosopher, author, and lecturer. His book, “Money and the Meaning of Life” (Currency/Doubleday, 1991), captured the wisdom of his 30 years of teaching at San Francisco State University; his experiences in seminars with the wealthy, successful members of the Young Presidents’ Organization; and his encounters with high-achieving businesspeople around the world.

As a “worldly philosopher,” Needleman has made a career out of talking honestly about a subject that eludes most people and listening thoughtfully to people talk about a subject that most find hard to discuss. In fact, says Needleman, “Money today has become like sex was to previous generations. It’s damn hard, in fact nearly impossible, to think about money honestly. It has an immense influence on everything we do. Yet few people are able to acknowledge the power of money.”

Because of his insights on money and meaning, Jacob Needleman has become a popular consultant to businesses and philanthropic organizations; he also appeared as a memorable subject in Bill Moyers’s PBS series “A World of Ideas.” Fast Company interviewed Needleman in his Spanish-revival home in the elegant St. Francis Woods section of San Francisco. He was, as always, opinionated, self-effacing, bawdy, and brilliant — a down-to-earth intellectual who shares many traits of the successful businesspeople who have sought his advice.


How does money change people?

Having lots of money can be like a drug. It can make you feel powerful and giddy. It can convince you that everything’s going to be okay. Years ago they asked the great fighter Joe Louis what he thought about money, and he said, “I don’t like money very much, but it calms my nerves.” Money makes us unjustifiably feel that we’re better and more important than we really are. When money can make you feel humble, then I think it’s really useful. But if it fattens your ego, which it often does, then look out.

That way lies madness. That’s what all the Greek tragedies are about — hubris — and that’s part of the problem with money. It is greatness, it is power, it is beauty. Money is about love and relationships. It has a wonderful power to bring people together as well as tear them apart. You can’t escape money. If you run from it, it will chase you and catch you. Even Thoreau today would need a real estate agent to help him buy the cabin at Walden Pond.


If we don’t understand our relationship to money in this culture, then I think we’re doomed. If you don’t know how you are toward money and really understand that relationship, you simply don’t know yourself. Period.

From your experiences with people who’ve made a lot of money, is there something different about the way people get rich today?

The incredible pace of change triggered by modern technology has affected how people acquire wealth. There’s no precedent in human experience for the speed, scale, or age at which people today can get incredibly wealthy. When everything is quick and fast and easy, a certain part of ourselves is fed while another part withers away. Worse, we don’t even know it.


In the past, wealth tended to be something you built up over a long time, or inherited from your family. Today people are getting wealthy quickly in what used to be a long, hard-earned process.

Let’s see if we can make it more specific. Say that I’m a 25-year-old working in a company that just went public, and my options are now worth $10 million. What should I do? How do I keep this money from overwhelming me?

You need to find someone you can talk to. You need to see if there is any wisdom out there beyond the calculus of just getting and spending. Maybe you have a priest, a parent, a professor, or a friend. Maybe there are a couple of other people in your same situation who are also asking, “How are we supposed to navigate this life that suddenly is so weird?”


You need to realize that you are only 25 years old and that you aren’t wise enough to know what to do with this $10 million. Think about it: $10 million! Suddenly you can have anything you want. And just as suddenly it is going to be obvious to you that getting everything you want is not going to do anything for you. Pretty soon you are going to feel just as empty with $10 million as you did before.

Doesn’t having that much money mean you no longer have to worry about the basic necessities of life? Doesn’t that free you?

No. If you are worrying about vegetables now, you’ll be worrying about yachts then. You’re a worrier. It’s in you, not the money. Life, except for the obvious physical needs, is not so much defined by the external situation as by the inner one.


Having money won’t change your internal makeup. If you’re an anxious sonofabitch without money, you’re going to be an anxious sonofabitch with a lot of money.

Let’s say I’m the guy sitting next to the new multimillionaire, only I joined the company six months too late for the stock options. I’ve got a decent salary, but I’m not rich. Where’s the justice?

There is no justice. That’s what’s so fundamental about this question of money. It’s not really a matter of being rich. It’s not even about the money itself. It’s about our emotions. It’s a matter of envy. How do I get free from being devoured by envy? That’s a question that goes back to the beginning of mankind. It isn’t unique to computer companies.


Now let’s go to the top of that same company. I’m the CEO and founder. I have thousands of people working for me, my picture is on the cover of “Business Week” and I have a net worth of $450 million. How do I escape being a megalomaniac?

That’s an important question. I met a guy who worked his way up from zero to a half-billion dollars. I asked him, “What was the most surprising thing you discovered when you got rich?” He said, “Everybody asks my opinion about things because they think I know something. All I really know is how to make a lot of money.” See, this guy wasn’t fooled by his money. That’s the key.

Ask people to remember the first time they ever held a large amount of money, and how it felt. Most will tell you it was like electricity flowing into their hands. I know that’s how I felt the first time I held a $1,000 bill.


That excitement is something we all have to acknowledge as part of ourselves. It’s important not to deny it. I’m as eager and egoistic and greedy as the next guy. The thing that is so important for these new millionaires is to see this greed not only in themselves but also in others, and to see the effect that it has on others. The more money you have the more likely you are to be surrounded by “yes” men. You must seek out people who disagree with you.

You need people around to tell you you’re full of shit — and be able to appreciate them for that. Too many successful people look with hostility upon anyone who disagrees with them. That’s something they don’t want to hear. That’s a very big mistake.

Based on your encounters with the super-rich, is there ever a time when they can put down their egos for a moment?


Death is the great equalizer. I’ve seen that phenomenon many times. I’ve had people in my classes come to me, men and women over 50 years old, and they say, “I made it. I’m rich. But what the hell is my life for?”

In the meantime, all you really need is a couple of hemorrhoids to learn humility.

Let’s go back to our hypothetical company. With the disparities in money among the team members and a CEO who’s become so rich he doesn’t have to listen to anyone, is it possible that we won’t survive our success?


Of course. I’ve never seen a business problem that was truly about technology or marketing or manufacturing. It always comes down to people problems. If you’re not attending to the people in the company, you may still get lucky and be successful. But you probably won’t be able to maintain that success.

That’s why companies sometimes implode when they go public. At that moment people succeed, but they don’t know why they succeeded. They only think they know. And when the company begins to fail, they don’t know why they’re failing either. The only way to succeed in the long run is to have somebody at the top prepared to handle the really difficult people questions, like dealing with success.

That’s true for a company. Does it also apply to an individual who has to deal with sudden wealth?


It’s very hard getting rich suddenly. We all laugh and say, “I could handle it.” It’s one thing to say that. But it’s another thing to have it happen. Mike Tyson is not the world’s greatest philosopher, but he did say one thing that I think should be over everybody’s desk. Years ago when he was being interviewed before the Leon Spinks fight, a reporter told him, “You know, Spinks has a plan for how to fight you.” Tyson said, “They all got a plan — until they get hit.”

We all have a plan for how we’d handle getting rich — until it happens. But we really don’t know ourselves well enough to know what suddenly getting rich would do to us. People think they’re going to behave a certain way with money: “This is what I would do.” But when they suddenly have money, it does something to them that they didn’t expect. People who win the lottery can be driven pretty crazy. I’ve seen it.

On the other hand, I do know people who have stayed quite stable through it. Often they are people who have strong ethical and religious lives. They have a sense that there’s something more important than the money. Even when they get very rich, it doesn’t really deflect them. Others get a wrong idea about their own importance, their own abilities, and they realize suddenly, unconsciously perhaps, that people are after their money and not after them. They get very lonely and it can really wreck their lives.


What is the most common misperception about wealth that you find among people who aren’t rich?

There’s a sense that if you’re rich, you’re bad. I quote one extraordinary man in my book who said, “What people don’t realize is that it takes a great deal of energy and intelligence to make a fortune and especially to keep a fortune.”

If the people who criticize the wealthy would be willing to meet those they’re criticizing, they would find the same proportion of good and decent people. If they looked at their own ranks, they’d find similar proportions of shits and morons.

Those who criticize the wealthy don’t realize that money is needed to do good things. Particularly in this culture, you have to have money if you want to save the environment, help reform education, feed the hungry, or stop some immoral practice. You need money and you need the help of people with money. Today idealistic people who are genuinely seeking to make a difference are becoming much more serious about money.

What would you say is the most common misconception that businesspeople have about money?

They forget the whole human condition. They forget we’re mortal beings and we’re meant to love and to serve, not just to get. Money is the most tempting illusion; it tempts most people to forget that we’re people. We live, we’re going to die, and there’s much more to life than making money — although without making money life is very difficult.

Given what you’ve said about surviving success and what getting rich suddenly can do to people, what’s your definition of success?

To be totally engaged with all my functions, all my faculties, all my capacities in life. To me that would be success.

I grew up around the Yiddish language, and in Yiddish there are about 1,000 words that mean “fool.” There’s only one word that means an authentic human being: mensch. My grandmother would say, “You’ve got to be a mensch,” and that has to do with what we used to call character. To be successful means to have developed character.

So how does a philosopher understand money and the meaning of life?

As the ancients said, we are angels and devils at the same time — and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two. Sometimes the two masquerade as each other. Caring for your friends and family and children is part of being in this world, though it may seem a spiritual act. Getting your kid through college is not a spiritual act but part of being in the world. At the same time, working and making money can have a spiritual dimension.

We philosophers can’t really figure this out better than anyone else. And money alone can’t buy you an answer. Only worldly experience with lots of adventures and making lots of money may finally let you come away from it saying, “There’s something money can’t buy. I can’t put my finger on it, but I sense it.”

And the ultimate connection between money and work?

You should be looking for the joy, the struggle, and the challenge of work. What you bring forth from your own guts and heart. The happiness of hard work. No amount of money can buy that. Those are things of the spirit.

Michael S. Malone ( is one of Silicon Valley’s most influential journalists. Jacob Needleman can be reached via email, .