03 October 2008

What if Money Weren't the Why?

One of the fascinating moments in Man on Wire was when Philippe Petit, who has been driven by a vision of walking between the Twin Towers since he first read of their construction, is asked "Why?" by the American press. He is at a loss and simply replies, "I have no why." [For a fascinating article and interview about Petit and his feat, read this in the Telegraph.]

Why do you like love making, eating, sleeping, the feel of water on your skin, conversation with good friends, or playing? Because we are human animals, we enjoy the first three on that previous sentence; because our humanity includes a mind, we love the last two in that sentence. I have no idea why we love the fourth - I just know that we do.

Why is such an odd question. There is, ultimately, no real why. Some things are simply intrinsic to our being.

Americans love the practical. They want this to lead to that and the "this" in question is most comprehensible when the "that" it produces is money. "I did it for money," can make sense of even murder, as countless TV shows, movies, and books testify.

But the really sublime things we do, the most human of our activities, have no why. Why does a toddler play? To be a toddler is to play. It is a doing that emerges from being. And in that pure expression is pure contentment.

Philippe Petit's story of his obsession with defying laws, logic, and gravity is at least in part so captivating because of the purity of his doing, something that seems to emanate from his being. There is no why. His quest emerged from some purity of being that audiences want in on.

For me, ideas are a why. More than once I've been at an utter loss to explain to a friend inquiring about why I would take such interest in something as arcane as social evolution or topics like religion, politics, and business. I've managed to parlay my interest in business into a career, but that is not why I find organizations, profits, and the clash of dynamics so fascinating. I can answer why I am interested in money from this interest - money is necessary. But money is not why I am interested in the topic.

One way to find your way is to ask, if money were not an issue, what would animate you? Once you find that, you should use money to help to fund your why rather than let money bribe you away from your why.

Americans are practical people. They also consume huge quantities of feel good therapy, therapist hours, and anti-depressants. I actually think that some of this is good because it shows that we've evolved the point of taking this matter of happiness seriously (or, could I say, proves that we've begun to take silliness seriously.) But some of it must surely trace back to the fact that we demand to know why, demand that pursuits offer some end.

It seems to me that it makes far more sense to learn what intrinsically motivates us and find some way to fund that. This intrinsic motivation can become our ordering principle - the answer we offer to the question of why we are doing what we do.


Dave said...

You are absolutely right. But, for most people, money at whatever level a person feels comfortable with, gets in the way of the pursuit of satisfaction.

texasholly said...

Well said! I am a believer.

Ron Davison said...

I like being absolutely right. Thank you. I may just lay off blogging for a few weeks and revel in being that right. :)

Thank you, thank you.

Gypsy at Heart said...

"One way to find your way is to ask, if money were not an issue, what would animate you? Once you find that, you should use money to help to fund your why rather than let money bribe you away from your why..."

What an absolutely superb observation. I've decided to inscribe it somewhere where I'll be able to see it everyday.

This was also a motivating and thought provoking post Ron. It put me in mind of something I ask my husband almost every night. It is a sort of mantra between us as well as a running joke. Why do you love me I ask. He always replies just the one word: because...

Some things just are and we'd do better to stop the asking of their reason for being and just accept it.

Ron Davison said...

Thank you. And that mantra between you and your husband - I can't tell if it is profound or funny, which seems to me to be about the best thing that anyone could say.