One of life’s great mysteries …

Today’s report comes in two parts — a debrief from last week’s assignment which had me attend an all day seminar on the meaning of money yesterday and later today, part two, where I’ll introduce my next assignment.

So, one of life’s great mysteries goes like this:

Why is money and what it really means to us one of the most unexplored of topics? It’s not like money is some sort of minor aspect in life. It’s not like our attitudes towards money haven’t triggered a situation making front page news most days of the week. It’s not like the non-fiction section of the bookstore isn’t teeming with social-psycho or neurological investigations into why we are the way we are.

And yet … my own personal experience reading up on money over the course of the past year (from my month-long blogathon on the topic in May 2011 to this year-long experiment in 2012) were echoed by yesterday’s tutor, John Goff. He and I are both mystified by just how little there is to read on the subject, how few philosophers or psychologists or sociologists have anything to say about MONEY.

Even the behavioural economists ever so popular lately are only looking at our relationship with money along a narrow line of inquiry. They point out how predictably irrational we are when it comes to financial decisions for which one might have assumed we’d rely on the sound logic of the mathematics in which money is grounded. Money is about numbers and it’s very easy to compare numbers (as opposed to say comparing colours or moods or music or poetry) — so why are humans so illogical about numerically obvious choices? The behavioural economists show us the ways in which we do the math wrong, but not WHY.

Because these choices aren’t really about numbers, that’s what I say. And this is where we have blank pages and unexamined theories about what financial choices mean to us.

Sure, there are people out there theorising about it, including (obviously), ME. But we are few.

For this and no doubt other reasons, John selected the only substantial philosophical work concerned with money to guide our day — The Philosophy of Money written by Simmel back in 1907.  The aim was to let the book structure the debates we would have from 10:30 until 4:30 — one about the philosophy of money, one about the psychology of it and one about the ergonomics of it. (I have no idea what we were talking about when we got to that final section, so don’t ask.)

What stands out from the deluge of yesterday’s discourse are the two following observations:

1. Too much philosophy gives me a headache. It’s too circular and abstract and it makes me feel stupid.

However, according to our professor, that’s sort of the point. To be philosophical is to be stupid. Let’s assume nothing, question everything and reach no certain conclusion. For me the real merit in that is that it helps us detach ourselves from the crazy world around us and our own involvement in it so that we can hit the pause button which just might put all our financial troubles into a different and perhaps more soothing perspective.

2. People really want to talk about this but they can’t say why. A combination of intellectual curiousity and frustration with the status quo seemed the motivation behind why others came to the class yesterday. Three times John asked the twelve of us assembled why we’d come and only I had an answer.

I had no choice. I picked up card saying I had to go to a money seminar.

Of course that’s not what I said. What  I said was that I couldn’t find a course or a process to help me change my relationship with money so I designed 52 weeks of assignments for myself (aka Counting Zeros) and attending this class is one of my assignments.

No one else had an answer no matter how gently he (and later I) probed.

We were practically a full house. Being the first time the class had been offered it was arranged as an informal tutorial for roughly 15 people. Twelve people came. Except for a Scotsman and the tutor, we were all women. Many were middle-aged but not all of us (read “us” … I am NOT middle-aged yet!!). From the accents and our appearances and stories we were a broad mix of both class and race. And what really struck me was that everyone there spoke up and contributed and was frighteningly intelligent. I mean really smart.

Both the women to my left and right were what the money psychologists would call “hoarders”, they like to save and hate to spend. Their descriptions of this were hilarious. The Australian (of Scottish descent which she thought might explain her attitudes to money) — talked about how she was raised to believe that each dollar you spend “was one of your little soldiers matching off without you.”

The girl on the other side of me quizzed me extensively on the break about my project and admitted to being driven by an intense pleasure in amassing whatever money she could. She was certain more people would want to attend such a class except that the cost of it was too prohibitive for most.

Really? I can’t remember the last time I paid such a modest amount for a 6 hour class — it was only £37? Or am I out of touch?

Once again I was pleasantly surprised by a money seminar that I was in NO mood whatsoever to attend (the last one was about property investment back in February.) And I feel strangely affirmed that lots of people feel very strongly that something is wrong with how they handle money but that they too aren’t sure what to do about that.

Finally, while I thought I was crystal clear to the class that the point of Counting Zeros is to address my own financial fuckwittery, it wasn’t long into the day that our tutor started to assume that I am some sort of financial counsellor for troubled souls — he even suggested I leave my card since no doubt I had future clients in the room.

Still, I’ll take that as a compliment and a sign that I must be on the right road.

* * *

For those of you who want to know what we talked about check out this introduction to Simmel by someone called Professor Anton. It gives you the gist and explains how I arrived home afterwards exhausted.

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