Make Meaning – Not Money

    By   Shlomo Maital   

   My late grandmother Rivka, a small slip of a woman under five feet, with a crooked leg that had been broken and not set properly, was widowed early, with five children to raise and feed, (including my father), in a poor village in Bessarabia, today’s Moldova. Then, as now, there was deep poverty.

     She spoke only Yiddish. I remember her saying often, in Yiddish:   “Er iz nisht a mentsch.” (He’s not a good person).  It was the worst thing you could say about anyone.  …And “Zol ir zayin a mentsch”. (You should grow up to be a good person).

     Being a “mentsch” ( a good person, with strong values) was her core value for herself and her children and grandchildren.

      I often recall this when speaking to entrepreneurs and giving them guidance. Bobba Rivka’s sage words are echoed by an unlikely person:   entrepreneur, innovator and venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, who said memorably: Make meaning, not money.     He added: If you make meaning, you may make money. But if you only try to make money, you probably won’t succeed.  It’s all explained in his fine book The Art of the Start.

       Today’s New York Times brings an Op-Ed by David Brooks, about Gen Z (those born after, say, 1995), the generation that follows Gen Y, born 1981-1994.

     The title of his Op-Ed: Will Gen Z fight to save the world? The answer is: happily, yes.

       Brooks cites a study by Pew Research Center (in the US), showing that “a shocking number of respondents described lives of quiet despair”.

    The data support this.   People do not find meaning in their lives.

       “Some 300 million people around the world have depression, according to the World Health Organization. 16.2 million adults in the United States—   6.7 percent of all adults in the country or one person in every 14 —have experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.”  Suicide is a major cause of death among the young.

       What has gone wrong? Per capita GDP in the US is $60,000. America is wealthier than ever before? Why are so many people depressed?

       Here is my take, echoing David Brooks.   America has embraced capitalism. Even those Trump calls “socialists”  (Democrats) embrace social democracy, which is capitalism combined with a strong safety net.

     Today’s Capitalism is based on a false premise. The premise is: If you make money, you will be happy. And the more money you make, the happier you will be.

     It doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. Above a certain minimum necessary level of income, money does not bring happiness. Stuffed closets don’t bring euphoria. They bring clutter.

     The pursuit of happiness is guaranteed by the US Declaration of Independence, celebrated last Thursday. But this wonderful document doesn’t say HOW to pursue it.

     Bobba Rivka and Guy Kawasaki knew and know. Make meaning in your life, with your life.   David Brooks:  “Many seem to have rediscovered the sense, buried for a few decades, that one calling in life is to become a better person. Your current self is not good enough. You have to be transformed through right action.”

     That is what it is to be a ‘mentsch’ and to become a mentsch.

     If Gen Z is indeed rediscovering this old truth, we have cause for hope.

     Meaning in life comes from the love of those we love, whom we help and support,   from family, friends and even strangers, and from the value we create in the world.

      Capitalists love to quote Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, published in the year America got its independence, which praises capitalism and the struggle to gain wealth. But they forget Smith’s earlier book, on Moral Sentiments, 1758, which says that our happiness comes from the love and esteem of our fellow human beings.

         There is a solution. Reframe capitalism as the drive to use innovation and creativity to create value for others (‘make meaning’).   Dump the ‘greed is good’ credo.   Teach our children to become ‘mentschen’. Help them find a cause that brings meaning to their life. Help Wall Street rewire its brains.  And start early.

         Find meaning. Make meaning. It’s that simple. But so hard to do.

         

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