More Than Money
Issue #3

Money, Work, and Self-Esteem

Table of Contents

“Reader's View: What are Your Experiences Regarding Money, Work, and Self-Esteem?”

We asked our interviewees: How has earning money (or not earning it) affected your self-esteem? How have you managed to disentangle your self-worth from your earnings or net worth? A few people focused their responses on self-esteem, but many had insights just about work and money that we found too interesting to pass by. We hope you enjoy this potpourri of stories; if you have empathy or wisdom to offer any of these contributors, send us your responses and we will forward them.


Every day, I dance a fine line between my two identities: as the dedicated college chaplain working for modest wages and as the husband of a multi-millionaire. On one hand, I'm extremely grateful for both my career and my wealth. I get to do work I care about, taking jobs based on how they fit my gifts and passions rather than by how they pay my bills. I am able to parent my three young children more closely than I ever could as a full-time working Dad. And although we live modestly compared to our wealth, we feel relaxed about spending in a way we never could on just a minister's salary. Sometimes I feel I have the best of both worlds, having wealth to supplement my earnings and a legitimate career that is respected by others and serves the world.

On the other hand, it is a constant challenge to do my job with integrity when I have all this money. I have to resist the temptation to work for extra-low wages and to put my own money into the Church. When independently wealthy ministers do that, they really mess things up for their successors: they set a precedence of unrealistically low pay and create a Church that isn't able to support itself.

My biggest challenge is as a man: when my father (who was also a minister) walked out the door to go to work, he was the breadwinner, laboring in service of his family. When I go to work-and sometimes my kids are crying for me to stay-I am doing it for my own fulfillment, not for them. I have to really love what I'm doing, since all my satisfaction has to come from the work itself, rather than from the need for a paycheck. I'm not complaining-but it is a challenging balancing act. - anonymous author

Going all the Way

Seven years ago, I gave away all my inheritance (about $350,000 dollars) and put myself fully into the world of paid work. I had been working for several years in a low-income housing organization where we dealt daily with issues of wealth and poverty. I loved my work and could imagine doing it for a long time. I believed that the concentration of wealth contributed greatly to the poverty I worked with every day, yet there I was, sitting on my own little pile! I knew of many pressing and better uses for that money, and gradually the determination to give it all away grew.

When you live counter to what you believe, it's harder to look people in the eye. And though I had been supporting myself for years, my self-confidence felt tinged by doubt because I knew I always had money to fall back on. Some people thought I was crazy for giving it away; others respected me more. Even though everyone dreams of free money, our society strongly values working for what you want rather than getting it for no effort. So giving away my inheritance and standing on my own feet wasn't really that counter-cultural. Now I work as the executive director of a state-wide housing coalition. I am proud of my job and delighted with all the projects my money funded. I can say "this is who I am" and look people in the eye. - anonymous author

Drawn by the Challenge

I suppose my self-esteem must have been strong from the start, or else I was just foolish-it never crossed my mind that the company I launched could fail! We nearly went bankrupt several times in the first few years, but then the business took off: $1 million in sales one year, $9 million the next, then $18, then $30... at its peak the company was grossing almost $700 million per year.

In the beginning, my business partner and I thought, "Gee, if we can just make $100,000 each, boy, we'll sell the biz and that will be that." But it didn't work that way at all. After my first few years in business, the money was never the point-the challenges were what drew me on, like a carrot hanging before me. I derived great satisfaction from developing the artificial leather itself, making it look aesthetically the way I wanted it to. I had an almost instinctive tendency to view problems as opportunities rather than obstacles. And yes, it was satisfying to provide employment to about 1500 people, especially to the many black people we hired and promoted, who had almost no opportunities back then. Twice the white workers threatened to strike over it, but we held our ground. - R.W.

Unpaid and Miserable

Every day I wake up and fight to find meaning in my life. I haven't held a regular job for 11 years, since I was 29 years old and my inheritance came through. That day I quit work as a word processor at a large law firm and began to give myself and my time to volunteer organizations.

In 1982 it felt easy to live simply at a grand a month. I just wanted to be with people. I loved sitting with people who were dying. I was happy putting on a mime outfit and going into hospitals to be with kids.

Over time, disability rights became a passion. I was a full-time volunteer, sitting on committees and boards of directors, chairing committees and advising the city council.

But I felt empty and wished someone would give me a job. Since all my work was unpaid I could dabble; I didn't feel whole. I envy the people I see in San Francisco's Civic Center dressed smartly on their way to their jobs. I felt robbed of self-esteem that comes from working hard for something and getting a regular paycheck. I ache to be "normal."

Now I'm in law school, but I question daily whether this is the right choice for me. I feel strongly that my rootlessness stems from getting an inheritance so early in life. - anonymous author

Unpaid and Delighted.

Ten years ago I quit my job as an engineer and left the straight working world. After several years exploring different types of work, I realized that fifteen years ago in college I had discovered my true passion: with my inheritance to live on, all I needed now was to go ahead and do it...

I used to feel terrified when people asked what I did for a living. But now I find it an interesting and enjoyable exercise, to make sense of what I do to someone who leads a very different life from mine. Sometimes I start a conversation with "I lead a totally eccentric life." Or I say, "I do something you've never heard of." And then I tell people that I play the game of Go.

First I give them some inkling of what the game is about: it is an Oriental board game, a two-person, no-luck strategy game like chess, only the rules are quite different. It's the world's oldest board game. Then I explain why it's important to me: it's the most difficult intellectual challenge I have ever found, and I can't get better at the game without improving my psychological health. For example, skillfully handling my children's problems helps me become a better Go player, and vice versa.

People are surprised that I am attracted to spending thirty hours a week in front of a computer screen or over a wooden board, pondering the placement of little black and white pieces. It makes for some very interesting conversations!

I play on Internet, an international network of computers, where I can play Go twenty-four hours a day with people from all around the world. I study books, play and study games, write articles, and serve as the president of the American Go Association.

Every day I am grateful that the money has enabled me to do something with my life that is absolutely perfect for me. To choose this life I had to accept and see myself clearly, so my sense of self-worth has grown. I feel I am using my resources in the best way I possibly can. - anonymous author

Advice from Mid-life

I made the choice in my late twenties to live off my family money so that I could do social change work, for which there were little or no paying jobs available. At the time I believed that if I could live at a decent level without drawing pay, I should do so, and leave the paying jobs to those who really needed them.

However, about eight years ago I realized that not supporting myself was robbing me of a very basic measure of self-worth, so I changed directions. The timing was unfortunate, as I became a parent about the same time. Developing satisfying paid work while raising a child has been a huge challenge. I am a middle-aged woman as well, and we are notoriously undesirable members of the work force.

The benefit of the money is that it has allowed me to figure this out without major time pressure. I am very grateful for this cushion. However, if I had it to do over, I would figure out satisfying paid work in my twenties, rather than now. - anonymous author

Finding my Worth: Journal Excerpts

1992: I go into business for myself as a CPA and psychotherapist. While I have no trouble charging $100/hour for financial planning, I find myself uncomfortable charging psychotherapy clients more than $40/hour.

What is going on? I see I have internalized the message that nurturing work is women's/spiritual work, and so should be given away, while money-related work belongs to the masculine world and is okay to charge for.

Just like that Girl Scout plaque I made from popsicle sticks and macaroni: GOD FIRST, OTHERS SECOND, ME THIRD. Ridiculous! Unless I earn enough money to support myself, I won't have the resources available to help others. - anonymous author

Inheritor's Challenges.

I applied for a job as museum curator, for which I was amply qualified, but was offered $2000 less than what my predecessor had been paid. I told them, "Thank you, but no thank you." They replied, "But you don't need it-you have plenty of money!" Eventually they came round to paying me the full amount that I insisted I deserved. - B.J.

It's the Journey, Not the Goal

A lot of people who become successful-in business, athletics, or whatever-feel confused and dispirited once they've achieved their goals. After becoming richer than they ever dreamed, their lives feel meaningless. I might have gone that way, but for the grace of a miraculous moment.

It was evening, and I was walking across the empty skating rink after winning a national speed-skating championship-a goal I had been working toward for nine years. To my amazement, everything began to move in slow motion, as it does sometimes for people in a car accident when they fear they will die. I stopped under a light. "My God, I won!" I thought. "But I don't feel any bigger, any stronger. What's it all about?"

Suddenly I saw vividly that my life couldn't be about winning. It had to be about the journey, and especially about whatever ways I could touch other people. I kept on skating after that, even went on to win the world championship, but my whole focus changed. What mattered was the children's exhilarated faces in the stands and the joy of the old people who shook my hand after races. I've since left competition, but I've never lost that focus. - anonymous author

A Legitimate Worker

I've been a committed, deeply involved volunteer for several years at a large non-profit organization providing services to people with AIDS. I don't have to do the administrative work the paid staff has to do: hardly any paperwork, no boring staff meetings; I get to do really satisfying and stimulating work. But I'm sick of always feeling peripheral, not being a real part of the team. Some of the paid staff seem resentful that I have the option to volunteer. Just to get my mail slot put on the same wall as the staff's was a battle.

I've finally decided to apply for a full-time job there, even though I doubt I'd enjoy the job as much as I do now. Maybe it seems strange: I don't need a paycheck for my pocketbook. But I need to be a legitimate worker. I need to belong. - anonymous author

Creating Useful Work

I lived on inherited wealth from 1968 until 1991, using up my "capital" to work as an environmentalist and activist. I loved my work and have never regretted investing in it.

I experimented with all sorts of money arrangements during those years. For four years in Arkansas I directed an environmental advocacy organization, unpaid. Later I worked for a small salary with the American Rivers Conservation Council in D.C., but contributed the salary for my replacement when I left. I volunteered full-time with the Mobilization for Survival in Philadelphia.

After a year, I felt uncomfortable working as hard as the staff members did without the credibility. So I asked for (and received) an unpaid "staff position," and continued there for two more years. Later I worked as a philanthropic advisor for a wealthy individual. She gave me $6,000 to $10,000 per year as a gift, not salary, which enabled me to continue my various volunteer work.

The last bit of my inherited capital was spent shortly after I got married. My wife, who was about to have our child, pointed out that I needed to make an income. Even though I had known for years that the day would come, it was a bit scary to create a new career for myself in mid-life. Fortunately I had many connections in my home town, despite my unusual resumé.

I have been able to create my own job, a new position, with the city parks department. I am now in my second year of teaching "hands-on" gardening to all the science classes at a couple of inner- city public schools. The gardens will eventually fill an area the size of a football field in the city parks contiguous to the two schools. I am pleased that I am able to fundraise my own salary and that of a part-time assistant. I am also very involved with a city task force on youth violence.

Wherever I go, there's some way to be of use. That's what is important, not where the money comes from. - anonymous author

No Longer Defined by Work

I started a business when I was 22. My father, a self-made workaholic millionaire, was an influential role model in my becoming an entrepreneur. My mother was also very achievement-oriented and always active in community service. My three siblings and I all became over-achievers.

For years my identity was tied up with being successful in business. Although I felt a certain emptiness inside, it wasn't until I lost money in an investment and felt my self-esteem sinking that I realized my self-worth had become directly linked to my net worth, and I didn't like that feeling!

After some years of therapy and serious self-examination, I finally got to a place where I felt less attached to my money. Since I had the privilege of not needing to make money, I decided to move from New York to New Mexico and slow down. I still own my business, but I'm not active in it on a daily basis. Now I meditate more often and spend time in nature.

When someone asks me "So what do you do?" I don't automatically say, "I have a small business designing and manufacturing contemporary lighting." Sometimes I say that I drum or that I'm supporting projects that are hopefully helping the planet; other times I say I'm just not sure. I'm much happier now discovering sides of myself unrelated to work. - R.D.

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