This essay is one of three (including the introduction) I wrote for the Enough book (Enough: Unlock a life of abundance starting right where you are). For more information about the book and my fellow authors (and to buy your copy), go to enoughthebook.co

How to avoid being ambushed by a meaningless life

Nov 1, 2021 | Essays

I now understand that a world based on compassion and service is infinitely more rewarding than one based on greed and self-interest.
It is July 2014, and I have returned to Lourdes after a break of over forty years. The first time I travelled to this holy shrine in France was in 1972. Now, for the second time in my life, I am part of a group of pilgrims taking over 80 sick and disabled people to Lourdes for a week of spiritual, mental and physical renewal.

This week of service has become deeply significant for me. It is the most essential week in my year, and I have returned to Lourdes once or twice nearly every year since 2014. The disappointment I felt at the pandemic-enforced cancellations of 2020 and 2021 have only reinforced Lourdes’ importance for me. It has cemented a fundamental understanding that has grown in me over the years: meaning is found by focussing on others, not by looking inwards.

In Lourdes, for a week in July, compassion takes the number one slot. It is hard work for the volunteers. From five or six in the morning, we are involved in looking after those in our care. And whilst we can take breaks, we don’t really come off duty until ten at night, after which there is a need to unwind in one of the local bars – a process that can go on until two or three in the morning.

A conventional career

Lourdes now epitomises the life of meaning I have sought since I was a young adult. However, after my first Lourdes pilgrimage in 1972, I go ‘conventional’. I follow a career in the Services, then the City, where a combination of bad choices, bad mistakes and unclear values leads to a meaningless life in which fear and scarcity predominate.

So this is the story of how I came full circle back to a world where compassion takes precedence over egotism and contribution is more important than consumption. I felt I never had enough in my younger days and that I was not enough, hence the greed and fear. Now I know I am enough and have enough. So I tell my story to inspire and encourage those who instinctively feel that they are not in a good place, especially those who know it but don’t know where or how to move forward.

In truth, my metamorphosis came about partly through meeting the right person at the right time. However, it also came from making mistakes and learning from them. I now see my mistakes as my greatest asset, even if the world was pear-shaped at the time.

My story begins in the late 1970s when I make an inept error of judgement. As a result, I crash out of the Services in a blaze of bad publicity. Sadly, the references, thanks and support I receive from my superiors and brother officers are not enough to set me back on my feet. I spend the next two decades in the City imitating Chuchundra The Muskrat (1). Like Chuchundra, I fear being seen lest the cobras Nag and Nagaina in the form of the press and other enemies pounce on me.

I have joined the crowds following the money, and I live on a diet of fear, egotism, greed and alcohol. I survive by protecting myself with a skin-deep profile, staying close to the wall and in the shadows.

So I remember well the sheer horror at addressing an audience of over two hundred City captains at a fund launch. Some of this fear comes, of course, from the physical act of standing up and speaking. However, I am also petrified at being found out. I realise now that this fear also comes from the risk to my integrity. My meaningless life has the potential to ambush me.

The lack of faith in myself and my work back then contrasts sharply to the ease with which I can speak or write about the things that matter to me now.

But, looking back, I realise that the biggest mistake in my life is not dealing with my earliest mistakes. I only learn to do this properly much later from Brené Brown (2), who encourages us to write our story free from the confabulations and lies we used to shield ourselves from the pain and shame of our mistakes. It takes countless iterations, starting with the advice from author Anne Lamott to write a ‘shitty first draft’ (3). But, over time, the truth overtakes the lies, and I learn about myself from my mistakes.

Living with scarcity and unhappiness

Back in the City, I am not happy, and if I refuse to admit this to myself, it is evidently clear to others. Even my parents tell me to my face and ask me why I don’t leave my job. The answer, of course, is that I am living a life of scarcity, or so I think. I do not have enough money, prestige, self-worth, meaning or company, and I feel the only place I will find enough is in the City.

Because I have not fully resolved or learnt the lessons of my first mistake, I make the next big mistake in my life. Egged on by the scarcity I feel and the siren songs of fabulous wealth and great careers that come to MBAs, I borrow money, take a year out and study for an MBA.

As I finish my MBA, the 90/91 recession hits, and I cannot get a job. My finances deteriorate. I hit a low point. I feel like a fraud and a failure because I am supposed to be an expert with money, and now I have no income, no assets and significant debts. I am worthless, ashamed and humiliated, so much so that I cut ties with my family and friends, which only makes things worse.

However, this precipitates, at last, a seismic shift in my thinking, giving rise to the powerful insights that shape my future career and life. I tell myself I have to get control of my life. I don’t want to get control of money, which has been my main driving force to date, but I realise I have to get control of my life. I start to recognise that money is a means to an end, not an end in itself. To think only about making more money misses the point of money.

At last, I am beginning to learn some of life’s most important lessons, not least that facing up to my mistakes is far better than running from them, even if it’s painful at the time. However, I am still in thrall to the power of money, which has such a constricting effect on my life, but I realise that something has to change. It’s just that I don’t know where to go or how to change.

A turning point

So it is fortunate that in July 2004, I meet George Kinder, the father of life planning. He takes me on a journey that changes everything and brings me back to a contented, compassionate life, focused on others, not myself, and which revolves around contributing more than I consume.

The meeting was no coincidence, even though it came just at the right time for me. We meet at Kinder’s signature Seven Stages of Money Maturity workshop, the first to be held in the UK. By then, I have built a good network of contacts, one of whom mentions the event. In fact, he does more than mention it. He overcomes my cynicism and sells it to me even though I remain sceptical of this American who preaches such ‘alien’ concepts as empathy, listening and compassion (4).

Kinder is the kick I need, however. I spend the next ten years or so in his company, off and on. And it is not just Kinder. The community of people I meet in this new arena are the antithesis of my earlier values. They teach me the power of compassion and care. They are supportive and non-judgmental listeners. They encourage me to be vulnerable and help me come to emotional terms with my experience in the Services. They encourage me to work with a therapist. This helps me regain my confidence, find my purpose in life and discover a new world where ‘you’ is far more significant than ‘me’.

I build my own financial life planning business, Planning for Life, on the back of this newfound confidence and my revised values. It is slow and steady progress as I create a long term client base founded on trust, service and a defined charging structure incorporating full fee transparency.

I relinquished my authorisation to provide financial advice in 2016. Thirty years of rules and regulations are more than enough. I hand over my clients to a fellow financial planner I know I can trust. As I leave the industry, the financial rewards that accrue to me are far greater than anticipated. I accept them with grace as the returns from building a long-term business defined by the lessons learnt from my earlier mistakes. This is the value of trust and putting my clients ahead of their money.

Completing the circle

And now, I am beginning to recycle that wealth for the benefit of others. I used a small amount to get formal coaching training and a postgraduate certificate. More of it is being used to develop my new Crazy for Change programme, designed to help people achieve meaning in their lives by helping others find meaning in theirs. As Lynn Twist, author of the Soul of Money, succinctly points out, wealth is like water (5). It stagnates if it remains in a pond, whilst wealth that flows like water creates change and makes a difference in the world.

Now, I wake up in the morning with the knowledge I have mastered my own life and money. I can look at myself in the mirror and face the world. I am happy and have found meaning and purpose in helping others deal with similar problems to my own. I now understand that a world based on compassion and service is infinitely more rewarding than one based on greed. In short, I have enough and I am enough. I have gained emotional and financial maturity and am, at last, in a good place.

 

References

  1. Chuchundra The Muskrat is a charater from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. He is the timid and fearful opposite of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the fearless mongoose who takes him under his wing.
  2. Brown, B (2015). Rising Strong. Vermillion, London
  3. Lamott, A (1994). Bird by Bird: Some Instructions On Writing and Life. Pantheon, New York
  4. See https://www.kinderinstitute.com
  5. Twist, L (2003). The Soul of Money. WW Norton, New York

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