“...one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.”
—Luke 12:15

After my friend sold his beautiful, spacious boat, he told me that there’s no better place to learn about one’s inclination toward covetousness than on a harbor dock. He also informed me of the boater’s maxim, “Comparison is the killer of contentment.”

He continued, “On the water you can be as content as possible, no matter how big or small, cheap or expensive your boat is. A man on a dinghy can be as content as a man on a yacht while afloat. That serenity lasts until you dock it next to the boat three times as big and 10 times as expensive as yours, and you quickly start feeling pretty small.” The harbor, in this context, is a window into the nature of covetousness. While we are alone with our possessions, we enjoy the experience, the environment, the contentment of the breeze and sunshine. As soon as we enter the distraction of what others have achieved, our contentment evaporates like the morning fog, and we start feeling diminished by comparison.

Feeling small is the real problem. Who told us we were inconsequential? This suggestion occurs when we open our ears to money’s voice: a voice that haunts our insecurities regarding our supposed lack of progress in this world. This voice plays upon a prevailing need for affirmation, telling us that if we had more, or were more, we would be somebody.

It is the voice of covetousness: the canker sore devouring the fruit of contentment––the worm boring its way into the deep recesses of our brains, tinting every view with a longing for something better. The perspective of what we do have is spoiled by what we could have; the meal in front of us sours in our stomachs because of the illusion of a banquet elsewhere. The greener-grass thinking grows in our brains, spoiling the moveable feast we should be enjoying.

Being consumed with what we could have is rooted in the need to appear as achievers in the eyes of others. If it were not for our interest in how others perceive us, how many of us would care one iota about a bigger this or a better that? We would focus more on taking care of what we have, rejoicing in what we have been given and deriving more pleasure from the provision at hand. Letting go of appearances is parallel to letting go of others’ opinions of us. The following quip speaks to this futility of leaning on the opinions of others:

“When I was 20, I was worried about what others thought of me. When I was 40, I didn’t really care as much. When I turned 60, I realized that they weren’t thinking of me at all.” —Anonymous

The Good Life
We can get so busy chasing down the good life that we miss the true life designed for us. Maturity, in a spiritual sense, is coming to the awareness that life is defined by what is on the inside of us, not by what adorns us on the outside.

When I was in my early 20s, an elderly British missionary told me, “That which is good is often the enemy of that which is best.” I remembered the phrase and wrote it on the inside cover of my Bible. I suspect that this guidepost may have prevented some mistakes of compromise around money––and it continues to be a needed reminder for me about what truly is best. How ironic that the best life could be most threatened by obsessing over the good life.

A person’s true life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Focusing on possessing more materially inevitably leads to a “shadow” life. The great paradox financial professionals must wrestle with is that although they are in the business of increasing wealth, they are well aware that having more can answer only so much.

Sometimes the issue isn’t having more but rather helping clients learning to utilize what they have in ways that will bring more satisfaction to their lives. Just learning to enjoy where they are at may be the greatest payoff of all. If clients can’t enjoy the place they are in, what guarantees are there that they’ll enjoy the next place they are in? Will a few hundred thousand dollars profoundly change their attitude?

This is not to imply that living the good life is a bad thing. The land of milk and honey doesn’t sour until individuals get to the place where the good life calcifies the conscience and insulates them from human need. The bounty is good and to be enjoyed without guilt. Crossing the line into a false or shadowed life is when obtaining that good life becomes the aim and not the consequence.

My aim is to give love and wisdom to my wife and children. As a consequence, they write touching notes and cards for me now and then. What a beautiful and tender consequence to receive these notes of loving affection. Imagine the oddity if I began demanding the consequence, thereby losing sight of the aim. What if I began manipulating or coercing my loved ones to give me more of these affirmations?

The meaning would be lost. Beauty would drain out of the exercise. Minus the aim of love and wisdom––and allowing affection to come as a natural result––this scenario becomes odd, polluted and vexing. So it is with making things the aim instead of the consequence of hard work and successful endeavor. People who make money the chief aim in their lives, instead of allowing money to arrive as a natural consequence of industry and effort, take on this same odd and unnatural air.

True life is about why we are here. The good life is more about how we live materially. We must, under no circumstances, let how we adorn our lives smother out why we live. Purpose is the daystar of the true life––allowing the why to lead all-important decisions, including decisions around money. For example, shortly after you tell me what you do, I want you to tell me why you do it. If you tell me what you do and start hinting at how much you make, I will sense that the purpose is lost in the shuffle.

Ask yourself, “Where do I feel inspiration?” The Greek word for inspiration in the New Testament (“theopneustos”) is translated as “God breathed.” Think of the gentle comfort and refreshment you feel when breathing in fresh spring air after a winter of cabin fever. It is this feeling of invigoration that will nourish your walk down the path of true life.

Finding Our Way
To discover what true life is intended to be, entertain the idea of your life on a map where you have the prerogative to go any direction you choose at any time you want. On that map is a trail leading to your truest, most fulfilling life. At any point in this journey, you are susceptible to making wrong turns, going miles out of your way, suffering angry backtracks and—to borrow a cliché about men—refusing to ask for directions purely out of pride. It stands to reason that if there is a true life, then there is a fraudulent version of life as well. Each one of us is susceptible at any juncture on the map of choosing fraudulent paths, including:

• Taking a job for the prestige;
• Changing careers for the money alone;
• Telling ourselves we worked hard enough and don’t need to be concerned about others anymore;
• Telling ourselves that there are a lot of people that aren’t nearly as good as we are (as a justification for a wrong turn); and
• Isolating and insulating our lives from the needs of the world.

At any time on this journey, each of us has the option to stop, reassess our position on the map, locate the path back to our true-life path and continue forward on the journey designed for us. We each possess a magnetic sense abiding inside of us, which affirms when we are moving in a true north direction on the true-life map. It just feels right, even if everything is not perfectly settled in terms of circumstances. This sixth sense or “settledness” is the calm that verifies our direction. While at times we may feel lost, this sense of “lostness” forces us to re-evaluate our situations and examine the paths that brought us to a lonely place.

We can also be in the right place with the wrong attitude. Take, for example, the man I knew who was running a nonprofit charity and feeling purposeful each day but was worn down to disenchantment by his wife’s constant agitation regarding his career choice. “You are so talented,” she berated him constantly. “You could be doing so much better.” “Better for whom?” and “Better for what?” were the questions stirring consternation within him. The statement illustrated the existential divide in their views of what constitutes true life.

A step out of the true-life path is literally a step out of our true selves. By taking a turn that robs us of our calling, we have not helped ourselves. To step out of ourselves in this manner––for material promotion alone––is akin to purposely injuring ourselves for the sake of a disability settlement. We may enjoy the easy check, but how discomforting is it knowing we did harm to ourselves for a payoff?

We have a choice in all this. We can utilize and manage our money to help us stay on the true-life path or we can chase the money and hope things work out in the end. When we counsel clients on money matters, it’s important to realize what the ultimate payoff is—living the best life we can with what is available to us. That is the essence of a greater Return on Life. 

Mitch Anthony has been recognized for his pioneering work in financial life planning. His innovative tools for strengthening client relationships are available through his Advisor Insights™ at mitchanthony.com.