How — and When — to Walk Away from Money

About two years ago, a friend of mine asked me to help him start his own business. “Hey, Michael,” he said, “you’ve helped practically everyone we know in some way. Why not help me too?” Of course, I agreed to do it. I made some phone calls and put together a small support group of publishing-industry people who would work with him on my say-so, and I gave him an outline of how he could use them to plan and develop his business.

Because I was consumed with work for my largest client at the time (the business was growing in leaps and bounds), I could offer him only a modest amount of my personal attention. I would meet with him once or twice a month to review his progress, make some recommendations, and suggest further contacts. In return, he would pay me a consultant’s fee — based not on the profits of his business but on what he thought my contributions were worth. His business got off to a slow start.

There were several times, in fact, when I was worried that it would fail. But because he didn’t know enough at the time to realize how hopeless things were — and because he was always so willing to work longer and harder following my every recommendation — we eventually found a formula that worked. Little by little, sales picked up. He paid off his overdue bills, gave his employees considerable raises, and started to pay himself from the profit stream. As his fortunes grew, so did my consulting fees. It was a nice arrangement. Everyone was very happy.

As things developed, I introduced him to relationships with my other clients. Most of these introductions resulted in useful and profitable joint ventures. One of them, linking him with my biggest client, became very substantial. This worked fine for a while — but then it became complicated. Each of the three individuals, although sharing some things in common with the others, had different objectives. These differences led to conflicts, and some of these conflicts, unfortunately but necessarily, landed on me. I was the guy who had put everything together.

It seemed reasonable to think that I was the one who could make everything work out. But it wasn’t that easy. I did what I could over a period of about a year — but since my role was that of a consultant, I couldn’t tell people what to do. Thread by thread, this lovely fabric was unweaving. At about the same time, I realized that my friend and I had developed somewhat different career objectives. I was on the verge of scaling back my business interests, while he was still on the upswing.

This hadn’t led to problems yet — we had enjoyed a beautifully compatible relationship till then — but I could see how it could in the future. After one particularly frustrating day of dealing with all of these issues, I had the good sense to stop and ask myself, “Why are you putting yourself through this?” It wasn’t the fun of building a business. That had already taken place. It wasn’t the gratification of the relationships. They were becoming strained. It wasn’t the ego satisfaction of trying to resolve an insoluble problem; I knew I couldn’t. So what was it? “It’s the money,” I confessed to Kathy. “I think I’m doing it for the money.” “I thought you had taken moneymaking off your priority list,” she reminded me. Alas, she was right again.

And so, after a difficult good-angel, bad-angel weekend, I called for a meeting with my old friend and resigned from the account. He wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but he recognized that it was the right decision for me. Knowing he had learned everything I had to teach him, he was confident he could go forward without me. It wasn’t an easy decision. And it pulls at me a bit every time a big bill comes in and I realize I don’t have that extra income to count on.

But I’m doing fine financially, thanks to following my own advice (which is not always easy to do) these past five years. So I have nothing to complain about. In fact, my life has a good deal less stress in it these days . . . and that is something money couldn’t buy me. If you are financially independent but still working stressfully simply to add more gold to your pot, take a hint from my experience. Simplify.

If you are still building your wealth (and hoping that some day you will have this kind of “problem”), keep at it. You will succeed. The most important thing to keep in mind, it seems to me, is that you never want to be working “for the money.” It doesn’t matter how old you are, what your education is, or what field of work you are in — if you hate your job, you can’t have a good life.

If you do hate your job, do this:

1. Ask yourself why you hate it.

2. If the answer is “Because it sucks” or “Because I secretly don’t want to be working at all” — you’ve got to spend some serious time thinking. You are never going to find peace of mind and long-term pleasure in life by spending all your spare time playing. The secret to long-term contentment is work. The work you do with a companion (or companions) whom you love . . . and the work you do for a business (or businesses) that you value.

3. If you like to work but don’t like the work you are doing — and are only doing it for the money — it’s time for a change. Don’t do anything drastic immediately but do begin taking steps to change right away. Believe in yourself — that you can apply your skills and talents to a new job with equal or greater success.