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When our sole aim is to accumulate then we lose sight of our sense of self

09 May 2016

When Artist Michael Landy destroyed all his belongings...

In February 2001 artist Michael Landy unveiled his new installation artwork called ‘Break Down’. Over the course of a fortnight, in the window of the old C&A shop in London's Oxford Street, onlookers watched bewildered as Landy lined up all his 7,000 worldly possessions – everything he owned – and destroyed them. He destroyed not just clothes and furniture but highly personal, irreplaceable belongings such as his photo albums, letters, his university and childhood sports certificates. People were shocked because for many they have come to identify possessions with who they are. (The origin of this desire to possess material goods is best described by Erich Fromm in his seminal 1976 book ‘To Have or to Be’.)

A sense of self for many has become tied to what they own and have. 

£1000-a-roll wallaper - what we need and want are not the same 

In the West, we often talk about a person and their home and their car in the same breath. By defining who we are with what we own, we are essentially placing ourselves at the altar of consumerism and have become the very pawns that big businesses need us to be to perpetuate the cycle of upgrades and replacements. We open the door for the marketers to goad us into believing that a non-essential item is essential, a nice-to-have a must-have. This priming takes place from a young age, and the thinking, buying habits and desires created become part of how we see who we are and what we feel we need. Consumer goods that were once seen as wants, as luxury items – high-speed internet access, cars, cheap overseas travel – are now commodities, basic civil rights in the West.

What we really need has been clouded with what we want and come to expect.

Take now infamous ex-CEO of RBS, Fred Goodwin, whose record-breaking spending-spree very nearly broke the bank. Fred's arrogance, sense of entitlement and greed caused him to lose sight of what was important - his need to look after his staff and customers - with what he wanted to feed his hunger for status (my favourite example is not the volumes beyond count of companies he had RBS swallow up but his alleged demands for redecorating the lobby outside his office with £1,000-a-roll wallpaper because someone had made a minuscule stain on one surface, and twice changing £100-a-square yard carpeting in two vast boardrooms because he “didn’t like the shade of amber”). 

Our emotional relationship to money – what we believe money can give us and how much we believe we need to be happy – is fundamental to our well-being.

In a speech at the 2015 Superinvestor Conference in Amsterdam, multi-millionaire private equity financier Guy Hands stated:

“the people I interview for jobs have, over the years, become less and less happy. Interviewing private equity people makes one feel like an agony aunt – no one seems satisfied and everyone seems envious and critical of everyone else…It’s time for some therapy, and for people in the industry to make some radical decisions, unless they’re content to continue to get rich while feeling underappreciated and unfulfilled.”

When someone from the private equity sector says feeling appreciated and fulfilled requires more than money then you know that money alone is not the key to contentment. (It should be noted that when people earning under £10,000 a year are paid more they are happier, according to research by Richard Layard, the LSE’s Director for Economic Performance.) In fact, research has shown money actually makes people unhappy when they compare their own income with others. Richer people are happier because they have more money than others – a sub-zero gain.

Entrepreneurs often say it’s not about the money, it’s about being number one. Both have the same affect, which is that for them to succeed others must not. People prefer to see themselves as 'highly ambitious' but unbridled ambition is the same as greed: by comparing ourselves to others and wanting what they have, it creates one-upmanship and a ceaseless need to continually win. It means we’re in a constant battle with everyone else and everyone is our competitor. It's what drives many professional sportspeople who do ‘whatever it takes to be first’, but there are consequences not only for others, but crucially, for their own well-being. By creating the persona of the all-conquering sportstar their already fragile sense of self becomes completely lost in the pursuit of an inauthentic self, which is a tremendous great drain on their spirit and energy.

There Will Be Blood

In the film 'There Will Be Blood', Daniel Day Lewis’ character - the ‘oilman’ Daniel Plainview - concedes he hates seeing others succeed; he is only happy when other’s fail and this draining, bitter approach to life leaves him a pitiful man who cannot stand anyone’s company. He has, in fact, a poor-man’s mindset, believing tomorrow will not be as good as today, money could dry up so best wheedle out of others as much as possible as soon as possible.

Businessmen like Philip Green, Dick Fuld and Fred Goodwin are figures of derision because their sole pursuit has been painted as the pursuit of excessive wealth, power and status. There are no outwardly altruistic motives to their dealings; all is driven by ego, which at its source serves to pleasure oneself. Yet these people wouldn’t describe themselves as greedy. Though there are exceptions, most of us believe we deserve the wealth we earn. But if greed is defined as the pursuit to acquire more than we need, we are then required to understand exactly what we need to be satisfied and learn to live with this.

How to reassess what you want from what you need

When is enough, enough? By thinking about whether the material wealth and status we seek is actually helping us be us, and by reassessing what we actually need then life will invariably become simpler, less stressful, and landfill sites emptier. The single most important action is to develop a clear sense of self - but this in itself takes many years and is the topic of many books. However, here are some quick wins to help you reassess what you truly need:

a. Stop comparing yourself with celebrities
With average earnings of £24,000 per year across the UK reading newspaper reports about the vast sums celebrities and businessman earn can be disheartening: 19-year old Harry Potter actor, Daniel Radcliffe making £26 million in 2009; the footballer Renaldo earning £500,000 per week; or Bill Gates’ personal fortune of $67 billion. The fact is that newspapers love reporting on anomalies for the simple reason that they make good headlines, and it is not reality. A small population of extremely wealthy people exist, and have always existed, in all cultures (including socialist and communist states), so we’d be better served by spending our time thinking how we’re spending the money we have rather and what it can bring us rather than dreaming about what vast wealth might buy us. Are we spending what money we have wisely – is it spent or invested in honouring our values on things that matter, or fritted away trying to impress others and conforming?

b. Stop determining worth by wage 
At parties the stock question in the UK seems to be: “What do you do?” By knowing what somebody does for a living it serves to help us place a person in a society, and with it determine his or her worth. If you then determine that person’s worth by whether you think they earn more or less than you, you'll judge that person not on what they offer as a person but what they have. Or better still, stop judging altogether. It might be hard to feel happy for someone when they have what you want, but judging just makes it worse. Try the Buddhist notion of describing something or someone instead. 

c. Develop an abundance mentality
Greed and abundance are opposites. If greed is driven by a fear of poverty then if we cultivate an abundance mentality we can become free from greed. Abundance thinking believes there is more than enough for everyone. If we become free from greed then the air of desperation that follows the greedy will be replaced by a relaxed, more authentic aura, by someone who sees opportunities not as a chance to line their pockets but by a chance to grow and to help others. 

d. Take the '100 Thing Challenge'         

In 2008 I was fascinated when author David Bruno published a book called the ‘100 Things Challenge’. It made the case for living with 100 items or less in an attempt to simplify our lives, curb our excessive consumerism and the end the endless cycle to buy more and more things, more stuff. A number of celebrities took up the challenge, including Leonardo Di Caprio – though he sided with attempting to cut back to 150 things including some of his father’s books. Any attempt to declutter should be encouraged, yet one caveat I’d add is that it we should be looking to get rid ‘things’ that do not tie in with our values. (One stumbling block that all those who have tried the 100 thing challenge is that what does a ‘thing’ constitute. One celebrity put down shoes as one of her ‘things’, yet she has 1200 pairs. So, to clarify: one pair of shoes is one thing!) If you were to take the 100-thing challenge, with each ‘thing’ you consider choosing, ask yourself: ‘Does this thing fit with my values?’

Reassessing our attachment to material goods is difficult, but it is possible. I like the Eastern philosophy idea that the material goods we have in our possession are simply on loan to us while we’re alive. We cannot take our belongings with us when we die.

Written by Peter Willis, Director of Lequin

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