The Secret Meaning of Money

Last Updated Jul 6, 2010 6:45 AM EDT

Super-affluent people aren't like us. Oh, sure, they eat and sleep and reproduce and die like everyone else. Yet somewhere along the way -- regardless of how they were raised, it seems -- the ultra-rich acquired the elusive wealthy gene. You and I could have it, but basically we just don't.

Countless books have been written on the subject of how to develop and nurture the gene. It's tricky, though. One major problem is that you have to read at least three or four chapters of pretty dull material before getting to the main points. And even then, it's often buried in a lot of froofy stuff. So here's the bottom line up top: For obscenely loaded individuals, money is just money. And making it is a game.

Obviously, you and I have a whole different set of conditioning from childhood. Money, the way it usually is for us middle class-types (unless, like the precious few, we become liberated and enlightened) always means something. How we earn it, who we have to serve to get it, the degree of basic dignity our role permits, the voice in which we get to speak, the mask or costume we have to wear. Those are only a few of the metrics around money for us. They also include being needed and valued and appreciated and respected and all that emotional crap. I know...right?

Here's a prime example. Why does a job candidate turn down a job offer at $195,000 but accept one at $200,000? After taxes, the difference is negligible. What can someone at that level of income possibly buy with $5,000 that he or she couldn't afford without it? You know the answer: It's not what the money buys. It's what the money means. The round number has a special meaning that the other one doesn't convey. Because the candidate -- like most of us -- lacks an essential gene, which, if we had it, would gently remind us that money is just money.

Clearly one of the most devastating effects of the economic downturn has come in the form of ego deflation -- namely, the crushing realization that "career yardage gained" can be reversed in the blink of eye. While people believed they had turned an important "corner" or pulled themselves over a "hump" or matriculated to the next "level" in their professional trajectories--there was, in fact, no corner, hump or level. Such images exist only in Dungeons and Dragons. Practically speaking, these are nothing more than self-sustaining stories we tell ourselves as we lumber toward the ultimate finish line: retirement. So the myth of building on past income and accomplishments is a limitation to be overcome. And the very rich get this.

That's why we can get close to "comfortable, thanks" but still not become wealthy. People who have the wealthy gene aren't necessarily addicted to luxury or think they're above the rest of the world. They're not hungrier and I don't believe they work any harder. Financial independence materializes for them precisely because it is all a big game, because money is just money (you have to keep repeating that in order to get your head around it) and because it doesn't matter how or where they earn it (Wall Street or Walmart, no difference) or what denomination it comes in, as long as it's more or less honorable and they don't leave anything on the table when they go home for dinner.

So we're kinda messed up in that way. Psychologically, I mean. No, seriously. The very rich are totally healthy and we are messed up. Money is just money in the major leagues, and possibly everyone who ever earned a giant boatload of it had to learn that lesson first.

Whatever. At least we'll always have our youthful figures.

  • Mark Jaffe

    As President of Wyatt & Jaffe, Mark Jaffe has been called one of the 'World's 100 Most Influential Headhunters' by BusinessWeek magazine. His firm, Wyatt & Jaffe, works with a select list of financial services, high-tech and consumer companies worldwide and has been called one of the 50 leading retained search firms in North America.