Going for broke

Searching for Sugarman  In the span of a month, two compelling, not to mention unfortunate, tales caught my attention.

The first, captured in an Oscar-winning documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, portrays the life of a gifted, prolific songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez. With talent rivalling that of Dylan’s, Rodriguez toured the club and concert circuit, which led to a modest following and, more importantly, to the support of music insiders and heavyweights, which culminated in the release, in the early seventies, of two record albums. Each of which went nowhere.  After which Rodriguez quickly and completely disappeared.

Not wanting to give it all away—in case you’re keen on watching the movie yourself—let’s just say the next 40-odd years of  Rodriguez’s  professional life were somewhat less attractive—doing hard labour in construction and renovation.

Success, however, did not elude him forever. Thanks to a string of fortuitous events, transpiring half a world away, Rodriguez-the-artist eventually reappeared, and he finally found the fame (and yes, fortune too) that his prodigious talent demanded.

But here’s the thing. Despite the increased exposure, despite the increased fame, and despite the massive increase in income, Rodriguez continues to live a simple life, in the same simple house, in downtrodden Detroit. And he shuns money, giving all of it away to family and friends.

And that, for the purpose of this discussion, closes story one.

Story two, so well captured here, is an even more troubling tale. One of a lady who, after winning a $10 million lottery, proceeds to, over only nine years, blow it all away. Resulting in her now being as broke as a pauper and having to support herself and her six children with part-time work.

As Jonathan Chevreau so thoroughly explains here, she made many (and, I suspect, many all too common) cash management mistakes. Chief of which: she should have sought the services of a professional financial adviser.

And yet. And yet. I can’t get over another side of both these stories that haunt me still.

The question that always pops up (for I’ve seen similar, though much more subtle, cases creep up elsewhere) is “Why?”

Why do some people, faced with the opportunity of comfortable money, do everything they can to deny themselves of that opportunity? Why do they spend it? Shun it? Give it away? Blow it?

What process causes someone to go from poverty to wealth and then back to poverty again?

Yes, one can call it mismanagement. One can call it lack of financial acumen. One can call it irresponsible or downright stupid even.

But my question is, is there something else at play here? And if so, is there something we can learn from it?

Lets face it, money plays an important role in each of our lives. And as with other important aspects of life (religion, family, politics, etc. etc.) we all have strong views, and stronger opinions, about money.

And I wonder if those opinions—those beliefs and attitudes—might at times lead us lead us to perceive money in perverse ways, leading us to, therefore, behave in irrational ways.

For instance, take someone who, subliminally or not, buys into the theory that “money is the root of all evil”, or take someone else who adheres to an “easy come, easy go” philosophy. Might they, unconsciously or not, incorporate strategies to ensure money doesn’t touch, taint or otherwise adversely complicate their lives?

And the reverse is true too.

Take, for example, a person who equates money with security. One who believes that ever-greater amounts of money result in more and more security. Or take one whose overriding desire is to leave a legacy, to be remembered fondly, and to be spoken of—long after they’re gone—with respect and reverence. Wouldn’t they do everything in their power to amass an excessive amount of capital? Sometimes at the expense of so much else that life has to offer?

One more question that always pops up, by the way (and one that, for now, I’ll leave unanswered): why are we so quick to criticize the former example and compliment the latter?

People are complex, emotional beings. As much as we want to think otherwise, the fact is that logic and rationality don’t always prevail. And many of us, especially when faced with life’s momentous affairs, veer too far away from reason and analysis, and too close to emotion and sentiment. (And if you don’t believe me, just ask any advertising expert about the truth of that statement).

And so, let’s not be quick to judge the action of others. Let’s not use our logical minds to explain someone else’s seemingly irrational behaviour. Instead let’s explore our own beliefs and attitudes about money, just to see how the former impacts on our habits with the latter.

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