What does it mean to deserve?

Today’s culture is always telling us that we deserve more. Advertisers deluge us with images of shiny new products, declaring that we should indulge because we’ve earned it. Self-help authors say that we can attract great success by repeating affirmations along the lines of “I deserve to be happy” or “Next year I’m going to earn X amount of money because I am worth it.”

While that’s better than going around with our heads full of negative messages about not being good enough, it still leaves us measuring our worth against what other people have. Because deserving has to do with merit, if one person deserves something and gets it, then by implication others who don’t have it are not as deserving. Maybe they didn’t work as hard or couldn’t stay focused on those happy thoughts. From there it’s just a short step to believing that if someone is poor, unhappy, or sick, it must be their own fault.

Nobody ever wins that blame game, though. It doesn’t matter how many new cars we have in the garage, how well our investments are performing, or how healthy and happy we feel at the moment. Simply put, there is no way anyone can go through life always having more health, wealth, and happiness than the other seven billion people in the world. So if we’ve got the attitude that those who have less are to blame for their own misfortunes, then we naturally end up blaming ourselves for not being as rich and famous as those who have more—and there are always plenty of billionaires and celebrities in the news to make us feel undeserving, if we’re so inclined.

Who needs all that judgmental drama? We’d do better to take the concept of deserving back to its roots—to the original Latin word meaning “serve.” Historically, a deserving person was a good servant. Earning money had nothing to do with it—most servants earned little more than their keep, and many were slaves. Deserving, in its original root meaning, was about being loyal to one’s master and devoted to one’s work.

Roots of trees in a forest.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Although we no longer live in a world of masters and servants, we still spend much of our time serving others. Whether it’s by working for wages, owning a small business, caring for our family members, creating beautiful art, or volunteering with a charity after retirement, there are many ways to be a good servant. Giving our work to others is in our nature as human beings, as members of a social species. That’s how we create meaningful accomplishments and leave the world a better place for having been part of it.

Money measures something else entirely. In a capitalist system, money is supposed to be a means of efficiently allocating resources. When sales of a product or service increase, more people invest in it. Some of the profits go toward developing more advanced technologies; then new industries emerge and create jobs, more people can afford to buy products and invest, and the economy keeps on expanding. Of course, it’s not always as efficient as it could be; but that is generally how it functions.

Most investors, with the notable exception of socially-conscious funds, couldn’t care less about whether a company’s goods provide a benefit to humanity. They just want quick profits. A company may have a wonderfully innovative product that would solve many of the world’s problems; but unless enough buyers can be found at a high enough profit margin, nobody’s going to invest in it just because it is deserving in the abstract. The free market is not about making moral judgments and rewarding those who have faith in their products; it is only about getting bottom-line results.

Doing our work with passion and love—being good servants—is not measurable in terms of money or fame. All other things being equal, a passionate worker would make a better impression on people and would be more successful in the conventional sense. But of course, all other things are never equal. We live in a very complicated world where unexpected stuff happens all the time, so why blame ourselves or anyone else for not reaching some arbitrary level of success? When we stay focused on doing our work of service, other things will fall into place in due course.

It’s in the air. We can taste it on every breath—all that restless energy flowing through the culture, dancing wildly into the future, calling us to expand into infinite possibilities and create all the beautiful things in our minds that are just waiting for us to make them real. Life is supposed to be joyful, it tells us. There is so much more we can create and become. We only have to imagine it.

So we meditate, we visualize, we say affirmations, and we believe it’s within our grasp. We try to harness that wonderful creative energy to run before us like the chariot horses of the Roman arena, hooves pounding in a glorious cloud of dust as the finish line nears. We read self-help books that encourage us to follow our passions, whatever they may be, and trust that the Universe will reward our devotion—by sending a big fat bank account our way.

And I’m left wondering just how the passionate desire to create beautiful things got tangled up in our minds with Wall Street-style greed. Why are we so tempted to visualize ourselves quitting our jobs and effortlessly raking in a gazillion dollars from the books we haven’t written yet, the songs we haven’t composed yet, or the movies we haven’t produced yet? Why does everything have to be monetized on a grand scale? Seriously, are those sparkling joyful surges of creative energy telling us to grab the most toys? What’s going on here?

In general, whenever a narrative spreads so widely through the culture, it reflects something that already exists in present-day reality. I don’t mean to say that we’re all ruled by greed, but that we live in a time of vastly expanding possibilities. Modern technologies and cultural changes have empowered us to pursue careers we couldn’t have imagined in the past. So naturally we’re not willing to resign ourselves to a lifetime of soul-numbing drudgery just because people once thought there was nothing better. That, I believe, is what’s at the root of the “financial freedom” narrative—it’s not so much about old-fashioned greed, but about seizing those shiny new potential-filled moments and making the most of them. Money represents possibility.

And that’s all very well in itself; but the downside of equating money with possibility is that when the gazillion dollars never actually show up, it can feel like a personal failure, rather than simply reflecting the fact of a sputtering global economy that still needs time to expand. All that amazing creative energy takes a backseat to obsessively visualizing the big fat bank account and wondering what went wrong.

There is also a subtler trap, which is that we have been culturally conditioned to use the word “dream” to describe doing what we enjoy on a regular basis. That language puts it into the realm of distant fantasy, rather than within reach in everyday life. As a result, we can’t just be happy writing a blog or a novel or whatever because that’s what the creative energy calls us to do in this moment—no, that’s not good enough, we’ve got to have the glittering fantasy of being a super-wealthy celebrity. Otherwise, the culture might always dismiss our efforts as insignificant and leave us stuck forever in a dismal wage-slave existence.

Of course, we don’t really need that big fat bank account before we can take control of our lives. Nor is there any requirement to be a glitzy celebrity before anyone appreciates our creative projects. In fact, there are many celebrities and rich people who are notorious for their totally messed-up lives and always get laughed at in the tabloids. So if wealth and fame aren’t really where control, possibility, and respect come from—then how do we go about getting them?

Simply put, it’s all in the details. Not so much in those bright gleaming visualized details of future grand accomplishments, but in the words and images we use to frame our everyday acts—the details in present tense. I don’t, for example, dream of being a writer. I write stories. Fact. I write a blog. Fact. I control what I write and what I publish. Fact. These aren’t dreams—they are options I have chosen from among the many possibilities open to me in the here and now.

And though I can’t control what other people think of my writing, I have a fairly good idea of how to find readers who appreciate my work. First of all, I need to be consistently kind and courteous, showing others the same respect I’d like to get from them. It’s also important to take the time to put together quality work, free of careless errors. I need to be open to learning from constructive criticism and improving myself and my writing. And last but not least, I just need to get into the flow, relax, and have fun! If I became rich and famous, I still would need to do these things to earn genuine respect. There are no shortcuts to be bought.

I set up my blog on Kindle two weeks ago—not because I had any expectation of making money from it, but just because it seemed like a fun thing to do, as well as a convenience for any readers who might prefer following blogs on Kindle. Here’s a partial screenshot of my page on Amazon, which itself has a screenshot of my blog. I decided to put it into this post because the recursive effect looks cool.

Screenshot of my blog subscription page on Amazon.com. 

So far nobody has subscribed to it, but that’s okay because it is just a fun present-tense detail of the intentional life I’m in the process of creating. If I had been seriously planning to monetize my blog, I probably would’ve felt disappointed about not becoming an overnight gazillionaire. And we all know what we attract when we feel disappointed and unsuccessful—yup, more of the same. Simply enjoying the small details may not be as glamorous as the rich celebrity fantasy, but I believe it works out better as time goes by and more of those details fall into place.

We all have different perspectives on managing our money. One common approach to curbing wasteful spending is to think about each purchase in relation to the work done to earn it. Before buying an expensive new gadget or a trendy pair of shoes, a person first stops to reflect on how many hours of work were needed to earn that much money.

While this may be an effective way to break a bad habit of impulse buying, I believe it creates more problems in the long term by conditioning the subconscious mind both to see work in a negative light and to see scarcity rather than abundance. When we measure everything in small increments of time and money, weighing one against the other, we’re left feeling as if we never have enough of either.

Psychologists doing research in this area have found that when people look upon their work in terms of how much they’re paid by the hour, they are more likely to feel that they don’t have time to get everything done in their personal lives. Business owners and salaried professionals actually spend more time at work than hourly employees, on average; but they often feel that they have more free time.

Some of that is because they have enough money to buy their way out of time-consuming chores, such as by hiring a maid instead of having to clean the house themselves. However, I’m inclined to think that much of it really is just a matter of belief. Because business owners look upon their work in terms of challenges and accomplishments, rather than hours, their work doesn’t feel like it deprives them of personal time.

In contrast, when people avoid making impulsive purchases by reminding themselves how many hours of work they did to earn the money, this necessarily implies their job took time away from other things they would rather have been doing. Too much of that attitude builds a wage-slave mentality in which work is seen as a misery to be endured for the required number of hours, all for the sake of buying one’s carefully rationed rewards when each paycheck arrives.

One of the reasons wealthy people don’t think like that is because wages are not their only source of income. Maybe they’re working 60 or 70 hours a week to build up the business, but they have investment accounts earning a good return. They probably also have a substantial amount of equity in real estate and other assets. So when they go out and buy things, the cost is only a small percentage of their total wealth. They don’t see it as chunks of time sucked out of their lives in exchange for wages.

Most of us aren’t wealthy enough to make withdrawals from investment accounts and go on shopping sprees whenever we feel like it. We need to put reasonable constraints on our buying habits, while going about it in a way that won’t leave us feeling deprived of time, money, material goods, or some combination thereof.

I believe the key word in that last sentence is “habits.” We live in a very complicated society, and we navigate its complexities every day by relying on whatever routines we’ve developed. When these routines become unproductive or harmful, then they need to be modified by substituting another habit that works better.

We’re all familiar with the need to change our routines in the context of managing our weight. Those of us who have full-time sedentary jobs can’t eat as much as when we were teenagers, unless we want to spend large amounts of time at the gym. Many people avoid eating too much by reminding themselves of how many hours they’ll have to run on the treadmill to make up for all the calories in that fried chicken and biscuits. This is exactly the same trade-off that is often used to curb impulse buying—time vs. overeating, time vs. overspending, measured in calories and cash respectively.

I’ve found that a more effective way to avoid gluttony (of both the food variety and the consumer goods variety) has been to replace an overindulgent habit with a moderate one. It’s basically an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. I don’t often think about eating fried chicken and biscuits since I started regularly buying baked chicken and salad instead. If a particular store or website seems like it’s getting too much of my money, I change my routine so that I’m not visiting it.

And on the time side of the equation, I don’t force myself to do workouts that I dislike. There are plenty of ways to get exercise that are more fun and are just as effective. If a workout routine is so unpleasant that the thought of doing more of it stops a person from overeating, then the person isn’t likely to be motivated to do enough to get results. Same goes for jobs. Anyone who feels stuck 40 hours a week doing a crummy job probably isn’t performing well enough to earn much money there. It makes more sense to change jobs. Granted, the economy isn’t at its best right now; but as time passes, more opportunities come along.

Although it may sometimes feel like a struggle to control time, spending, and food, this doesn’t mean we should obsess about rationing them. Looking at it from another perspective, we have an unlimited supply of time because there is always more of it as long as we’re alive. As time goes by, there are plenty of things we can do with it. What’s needed is to choose wisely from among the vast possibilities available in today’s world, picking those that are well suited to form enjoyable, lasting habits.

Finding work in today’s economy is not easy. The recession has had lingering effects, and many people have been put out of work by globalization and automation. Some of those jobs are never coming back.

Retraining programs are available to help people start new careers. Many workers are skeptical about the long-term benefit, though. Getting certified to operate a manufacturing robot, for instance, wouldn’t be much use if the robot became obsolete soon afterward. Rapidly advancing technology has created the specter of a nightmarish future where workers routinely get laid off every few years as their occupations vanish.

Modern technology also has created great wealth for those in the right place at the right time. So it’s not surprising to see people changing careers in the belief they’ll find more success pursuing their dreams. “Do what you love, and the money will follow,” is a common adage nowadays. It often goes along with the New Age notion that visualizing success creates good vibes and thus naturally attracts the desired success.

We all filter our reality through the narratives we use to describe it. When we frame our circumstances in more positive terms, we’re likely to believe that more is within our reach. Visualization can be an effective tool for self-hypnosis and focusing the subconscious mind on a goal. The subconscious doesn’t distinguish between fantasy and reality as the conscious mind does.

To that extent at least, we do attract what we imagine, simply because we pay more attention to events that fit the storyline. We are more likely to overlook things when they don’t match what we expect to find. Some of that is just confirmation bias; but visualization also has a dress-rehearsal effect, making us more aware of the necessary details.

Regardless of what opinions one might have about attracting success with good vibes, I think it’s helpful to consider just what success is. Today’s culture encourages finding ways to “monetize” whatever we do. Until very recently, that usage of the word wasn’t even in the dictionary; monetization was something that governments did when they printed money and managed the public debt. But nowadays, there is a widespread belief that anyone who loves something ought to make a career out of selling it.

Of course, not everyone feels that way. The Information Age also has brought about a huge explosion in free creative content, such as open-source software, wikis, Creative Commons, and so forth. Free access is very important to these communities. Their philosophy can be summed up as “Do what you love, for its own sake.”

Although these two very different approaches to “Do what you love” may seem to be diametrically opposed, I see a lot of practical overlap. Putting time and effort into a hobby can improve an existing career. For example, when a software developer spends his evenings writing open-source code, he may end up getting a better job as a result of keeping his skills sharp. Hobbies and volunteer work also can provide valuable networking opportunities. And even if a hobby is completely unrelated to a person’s real-life career, developing a new skill has general positive effects such as feeling more capable and confident, which can lead to more success on the job.

Starting a new career based on one’s passion may seem a tempting idea. Anyone seriously thinking about it needs to be aware, however, that passion often is not the determining factor in whether a new venture succeeds or fails. Having a great love of gardening, for instance, does not ensure that a new landscaping company will be a success. The owner also must have enough business savvy to find clients, keep the corporate paperwork in order, manage the employees, and so forth.

Even if a small business owner does everything perfectly, the business may fail if the economy turns sour. Many companies went bankrupt during the recession because some of their clients went out of business or placed smaller orders, and the banks didn’t have credit available to cover the cash-flow shortfall.

That said, a business venture that doesn’t work out should be viewed as a temporary setback, not as a lifelong failure. Much can be learned from trying new things, whether or not they make money. As to both hobbies and career changes, when we do what we love, something good is likely to follow. It’s not necessarily going to be money, though, and we need to frame our expectations accordingly.