It’s in the quirky way we relate to money’s countability, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton explains to Barking Up The Wrong Tree. We counted five reasons why.
We are what we repeatedly do–yet funnily enough, we don’t repeatedly do the things we know are good for us. Echoing the work of behavioral economists Dan Ariely and Daniel Kahneman, Norton observes the everyday disconnect between our ideals and our actions:
- “I know I should exercise and I don’t,” he says. “I know I should eat healthy and I don’t. I know I should spend time with my kids and I don’t. I know that, yes, money isn’t going to make me happy and I still keep trying to make money.”
People need signals to know if they’re doing well–and money is one of the most immediate ways.
- “One of the things that we want to feel about ourselves is that we’re getting better over time,” he says. “My life is getting better or I’m making progress or I’m growing or learning. It would stink if you felt every year was worse than the year before.”
The feedback loop on quantitative things like money is much more obvious than qualitative things like the relationships you have with your family. Like Clay Christensen cautioned, the investment you make in your children, naturally, takes years to mature–and doesn’t fit into metrics.
- “‘Am I a better dad than I was last year?’ Norton asks. “Well, there’s no objective scale where I can look back and someone says, ‘Last year you were a 71 dad. This year, you’re a 74 dad.'”
As we learned from Leslie Perlow, workaholics aren’t addicted to the work that they do; they’re addicted to the validation they get from the success.
In a similar vein, Norton argues that money gives us a convincing, validating signal that we’re doing well:
- “We’re just unable to correct for it because the other things that are important are hard to count and counting is great,” he says. “It feels like math and math feels like science and we feel like we’re better off because there’s a confidence that I’m doing better, and it also works better with other people: ‘Am I better off than you? I don’t know, but if I have a bigger house than you, I beat you.'”
Norton calls this measuring ourselves by the metric of money the curse of counting things–which is how people land themselves in soul-sucking career tracks.
Instead, Norton says, we need to reorient our perspective to money and time:
- “Knock it off,” he says. “Knock off counting how much money you have and start thinking about what you’re doing with it. What you’re doing with your money and time is a lot more important than how much money and time you have.”
Which gives us another way to understand why the happiest people have the hardest jobs.
Bottom Line: When we break the counting curse, we can do the work we’re meant to do.