Updated on 06.22.09

Money and Power

Trent Hamm

Charles writes in:

The real reason people want to be rich isn’t so they can buy stuff. It’s so they can have power over others. People want influence and respect and they see that people with money have influence and respect, so they seek money.

Vote for Skeletor.  Photo by Clinton Steeds.I agree with the point Charles is making – many people do want influence and respect. Similarly, people with money often seem to have a great deal of influence and respect. Thus, on a very simple level, many people who seek influence and respect do it by seeking money.

There’s only one problem: money does not result in influence and respect – instead, influence and respect often lead to money.

Many entrepreneurs want to be Richard Branson – he’s a billionaire, he’s dashing, and he has influence. What they don’t see is that in the late 1960s, he was selling records out of the trunk of his car at cheap prices. People came to him because he could help them find cheap, good records – not because he had a pile of money.

Many bands want to be The Beatles – they had more influence than pretty much any pop band ever and all of their members are/were fabulously rich. The Beatles had influence and respect first, though – they paid their dues for pennies in the clubs in Hamburg and played for years in obscure little clubs in Liverpool with barely enough money to put food on the table. They became THE BEATLES only after honing their craft for years and building not only a great local following, but good relationships with other bands on the Liverpool scene.

Many writers want to be Nora Roberts – her books are read by millions, she has an adoring fan base, and she brings in $50 million a year in royalties (my “writing hero” is Stephen King, but the same things largely apply to him). What they forget is that she wrote genre romances by the shovel full in the early 1980s for book-churning publishers like Silhouette, slowly building influence but not earning much at all.

What do these examples have in common? They built respect and influence first. Money came later when their influence and respect became clear.

If you’re sitting there worrying about how you’re going to become rich, it’s very likely you’ll never become rich. You might be able to earn a solid living in that area, but true and sustaining riches follow respect and influence, not a great scheme to put cash in your pocket.

So how do you get respect and influence?

You find something you can throw your heart into. If you don’t enjoy doing something, you won’t find yourself compelled to do it every day. If you don’t find yourself compelled to do it every day, someone else who does feel that compulsion will be the one who succeeds.

Many people tend to take this advice down the wrong path. They’re passionate about golf and thus they get in their minds that if they play obsessively every day, they might be able to get on the PGA Tour. Likely, that’s not true. You have to find a good balance of your passion and your natural talents. Perhaps you can become a golf teacher. Maybe you can become a salesman or an equipment designer for Callaway.

You work diligently at it. This isn’t just a matter of putting in long days of work – although that’s valuable, too. In order to really thrive, you have to practice the finer points of what you’re doing, smoothing them out until they’re perfect.

For example, if you want to be a writer, you need to write every day, even if it’s not for sale or for public consumption at all. If you want to be a great salesman, practice selling everything in a wide variety of situations. If you want to be a great musician, practice that instrument until your fingers bleed – and just attempting to play Seven Nation Army over and over again doesn’t cut it.

You find ways to share your work widely. The Beatles played several shows a night until they were ready to pass out from exhaustion. Nora Roberts wrote for a label that didn’t pay her greatly but distributed her work widely. Richard Branson carried his first record store around in the trunk of his car, taking the records to the people who wanted them.

The internet makes this easier than ever before. You can share your work as widely as you wish. However, there’s a new problem – a lot of people are doing the same thing. So how do you stand out? Be better than everyone else. Engage interested people as much as you can. Join in conversations that interest you even if they have nothing to do with what you’re doing (people will find your work if you’re interesting).

You live your life in such a way that you don’t need riches. The less you spend, the less reliant you are on what other people tell you to do. This gives you the freedom you need to actually throw yourself into something where you can build influence and respect.

It’s a lot harder to take a big risk if you need that fat paycheck provided by your employer, after all.

So, here we have it: my argument, in a nutshell, is that the path to riches comes from influence and respect, and the most powerful way to build influence and respect is to live your life so that you don’t need riches at all.

If you dream big, hop on board the train to your dreams. It passes through Frugality, makes a few stops at Passion, Diligence, and Hard Work, and finally finds its way to the twin cities of Respect and Influence – the place where your greatest dreams begin to come true.

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  1. Katie says:

    I wonder if Charles feels this way because the last few years have given us some politicians who were rich folk before and are now influential lawmakers. Mayor Bloomberg arguably holds more influence now as the mayor of a giant city than he did as a businessman. It seems easier to get involved in your true passion (especially politics) if you’re wealthy. But maybe I’m just jaded!

  2. teri says:

    I respectfully disagree with you, Trent, because money does often bring power–just think of the people and PACs behind our political system, the people with the most clout in many religious organizations, and (for a negative example) the people/businesses who have lost power and respect along with their money. I think, too, that for people like Warren Buffet or even Charles Branson, the respect they get now and the power they have definitely comes because of their ability to make/manage money.
    In Western Culture especially (not that it’s one monolithic thing, but in general…) money is a sign of something and those things plus the money somehow add up to power. If respect leads to money, why are there so many poor people who are just as deserving of respect? Why are there so many people–whole populations, even–without any power to change systems? Money talks a powerful language.

  3. almost there says:

    That is why the banksters run our government. Our three branches just bow and scrape to them.

  4. EF says:

    On this blog – the issue has *never been addressed* regarding people who no longer have an income – due to this economy.

    I’ve been a successful business person – working 1099 + self-employed for 7+ years, and now my work is all gone.

    I have good savings in liquid accounts (thanks to my own insights – had I listened to those who thought I would tie it up all in stocks – I’d be in deep trouble now), but now – due to no fault of my own – the work has dried up. all gone.

    have any advice?
    I wanted autonomy – not necessarily power.

    The jobs are gone – a recruiter told me there are 400 resumes per 1 opening these days.

  5. “My ‘writing hero’ is Stephen King.”

    Me too. :)

    Or rather, he’s one of my three (the other two being Jack Bogle and Seth Godin). His On Writing is one of those books that I’ve gone back and reread several times.

  6. Damester says:

    Trent writes:
    influence and respect often lead to money.

    Well, not all that often. I can think of dozens of people I respect in life. Very few make a decent living. They have little influence either, beyond their personal sphere of friends and acquaintances.

    In this group are doctors, teachers, some writers, educators, and a bunch of other professionals as well as artists and entertainers.

    But, I also know a few people with mega money who wish they had influence and power. They are quite amazed to realize that just because you have $$$ doesn’t mean you can rule the world. (It’s still a shock to many, because in this world, money, more than ever, means freedom to choose, and that’s the ultimate power trip.

  7. Charley says:

    I agree with you Trent that the proper approach is to pursue influence and the riches will follow, or rather may follow. I could toss into the ring the Mother Theresa example, an extremely influential woman who did not possess great material riches. I also thought about the lottery winners or trust fund kids, who haven’t necessarily done anything in the influence department but may in fact spread their money around to buy influence or respect (disclaimer: not every trust fund kid or lottery winner engages in these activities).

  8. J.D. Roth says:

    Trent, I agree with most of what you’ve written here, and even plan to include this post in a link roundup soon. However, after re-reading this, I realize your title is misleading. You talk about “influence and respect” but not power. These are very different things.

    I agree that money does not necessarily buy influence or respect, but I guarantee you it buys power. I’ve seen it in my own life. I’m not talking abstract power, either, but subtle power in day-to-day interactions. Here’s an example: I have a friend who has enough money to have a private banker. He banks at a major national institution. His account is flagged such that the tellers basically have to do what he asks (within reason, obviously). They can’t try to upsell him on anything, and they can’t challenge his requests if they’re not illegal. They just do it. Because he has money. YOU don’t have that power and neither do I. But he does.

    He also has power in plenty of other situations. For example, he’s able to access investments that the rest of us can’t access. Why? Because he has money and money buys him power.

    So, while I agree with the main thrust of your article, I don’t think it’s actually addressing the relationship between money and power. Influence and respect are very different from power.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Thinking about these things made me remember this quote:
    A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone—-Henry David Thoreau

  10. Marsha says:

    Hmmm, provocative. Personally I do not particularly want influence – I don’t aspire to achieve but so much respect from others (respecting myself is more important) – and I only wish for a modest amount of money.

    Our pop culture does promote wealth over substance though. Paris Hilton is one, but only one, example.

  11. Dena Bugel-Shunra says:

    I think you’ve gone and written the definitive essay on wealth, Trent.

  12. Steve says:

    How about “Money and Happiness” or “Money and Excellence” or “Money and Love”? It appears to me that the point raised here could be applied to these other things, with some adjustments/changes here and there, of course, and one could totally come up with a logical article which some would agree with and others disagree with whole-heartedly.

    I will agree with Trent, for now, because I do not have much money, yet… and take his approach and hopefully make money, in the process ;-)

    I think that when you have money, you can afford not to worry about too many things that other people who do not have money worry about, like, how I am going to pay my bills or send kids to college. Money is so pervasive that the defition, “medium of exchange” should be changed to “medium of life”… that then would explain why most people would prefer money than non-monetary “things”.

  13. Sandy E. says:

    I think the real reason why people want to be rich is because it makes them feel important – feel like they are a ‘somebody’. To them, it gives their life value and meaning. They want other people to respect them, and value them and be impressed with them, and they want to feel good about themselves too and feel like they’ve ‘made it’ — ‘they’ve arrived.’

    It’s true that the standard most worshipped by Western society today is financial success, and many people spend their lives pursuing it. However, trying to live up to this standard only contributes to a false sense of self-worth. What are you spinning your wheels for anyway? Genuine self-respect is completely independent of what anyone thinks of you. Financial success doesn’t make you a good person any more than fame does. Only by embodying real values and striving for moral courage do you attain genuine self-respect. When you have that, you don’t need to “be” a somebody — you already are.

  14. shadox says:

    I think it actually cut both ways – if you have influence the money often follows, but you can’t deny the fact that in many cases money DOES buy you influence and in some cases even respect.

  15. imelda says:

    I’m sorry, but I find so much about this article frustrating.

    1) Are we really accepting as a premise that people want to be rich so they can have power? I want to be rich so my mom can quit her job, my dad can get well and I can travel. That’s it. Idgaf about power.

    2) Of course money results in influence and respect. Let’s not be naive here. An illustration: A short while ago you linked to an article about the 25 things poor people do, and it was one long insulting list about how poor people don’t keep their houses clean or accept personal responsibility. I posted a comment that we expect the poor to be superhuman, and act “as if the rich have proven themselves to be responsible, hard-working, and all things good just because they have money.” The response I got? “Yes, they have! How do you think they got their money?” This idiotic society–OK, probably our idiotic species–immediately respects and gives greater credence to anyone who looks rich. Let’s not be naive.

    3) “Find something you can throw your heart into.” This is the same advice given by every career or personal finance or self-improvement guru. Why does no one accept the fact that most people DO NOT HAVE a passion? I have NEVER in my LIFE met someone who would do 1 thing every day for 10 hours a day happily, if only they had the money. 90% of people just don’t HAVE a passion like that; I certainly don’t. Why doesn’t someone offer some useful advice from there?

    *Breathes* OK, I’m a little angry. Sorry to take it out on your blog, Trent, but this post…well, like I said, it frustrates me, because it’s like the culmination of all the above stupid points that people make all the time. Grrr.

  16. I agree that if you want to be great you have to pay your dues. And if you’re going to pay dues then it certainly helps if you’re paying for something you are passionate about.

    Perhaps you won’t work 10 hours a day everyday but you’ll want to work for some time on some aspect of it everyday.

    When I finally found that marketing was the field of study I enjoyed, I began reading/watching/listening to lots of material to improve my skills and understanding; I began concentrating on my marketing courses more.

    I read something about marketing every single day without fail and it doesn’t feel like a chore. I certainly won’t do it in a 10-hour stretch (diminishing utility and all :) but I do it everyday.

    There’s something to be said for having a passion.


  17. Michael says:

    Dena, this is the definitive essay on wealth? Do you read anything besides blogs?

  18. Ken Siew says:

    Simple truth to journey of success! The thing about balancing passion and natural talents is very true. Not everyone will be Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Tiger Woods. Also, regarding passion, we should note that we might have many passions, not just one. I know it’s really tough to settle on one passion and decide that’s what you want to do for the rest of your life. You might want to explore a few passions of yours and see which one actually works out.

    Also, I agree with imelda that most people might not have a burning passion in them. I’d say this: find your interest first. It might just be something that you like to do even though you might not be VERY passionate about it. Realistically, there will be stuffs about it that you don’t like to do, but that’s what separates the successful from the crowd — they do it anyway because they have a goal to reach. And really, 1% of the population earns 96% of the wealth in the world, and thus explains why most people do not have a passion. So if you want to be successful, find your interest, and then turn it into your passion.

    Anyway, love this post man. Keep up the great work!

  19. moneymonk says:

    Wow what a tough audience, I hope u write something good on tomorrow Trent to make up for today’s post

  20. Tommy Kirt says:

    I agree and live by almost every principle you have discussed, and I have to say I’m going to have to add one more vital element to this equation.

    Without taking action and pursuing these dreams with a strong purpose and commitment and in a meaningful way that can result in a commercial success, nothing will result from these elements alone. Remember, The Beatles didn’t just follow their dreams to make great music by playing in their garage, they went into the real world and produced their music, that if successful would lead to monetary wealth. So taking action in a real world environment is equally crucial in this equation.

  21. lurker carl says:

    Those who actively seek respect and influence seldom obtain it genuinely or permanently. The money may have been there but little else of substance was. Business and government are now littered with those who played that game.

    True influence and respect have nothing to do with money. The same is true with riches and wealth.

  22. MoneyEnergy says:

    I agree with the general argument as the ideal that could/should happen… but it reminds me that there are unfortunately also people who work passionately, even intelligently too, but the money might not come on its own that way all the time. Switching strategies, even being more strategic might be necessary. And I’m reminded, too, of all the other hockey players in the example used in Gladwell’s Outliers who were simply born later in the year (that kind of thing). Those sorts of factors might also unfortunately conspire against any easy “law of attraction” type path to money. In other words, I guess I’d say that money doesn’t always follow merit as equitably as it should? Even so, that doesn’t detract from what’s argued in this article. It’s still a good idea to pursue and hone one’s passion, etc.

  23. Gargy says:

    Of course those with wealth are at a tremendous advantage! Are you on crack? Wake up! This is no fairy tale where you are born once upon a time as a peasant and live happily ever after as a princess. This is AMERICA. We ALL fight, claw, scratch, tear, bite, punch, kick, sue, steal, and pour out our hearts in the process. It’s called living. It’s not just for the regular people, the wealthy do it too. It just so happens they are on the team with the fancy uniforms and the newest equipment.

    Wealth greases the gears of power and influence. That’s the contradiction that some of us love, some of us hate, but all of us have to live with every day. It’s a struggle between the haves vs the have-nots. Those who have are on the top of the mountain and the view is so sweet that they never want to leave it to go back down to the valley. And as we all know, in king of the mountain, the king does not let anyone else on top of the mountain for fear of losing the sweet view. Meanwhile, the have-nots are clawing up the steep slope, eating the rocks and dust from above. They are working to get their own sweet view.

    It’s a dog eat dog world. We are all going for the high ground but it just so happens that some of us are getting a head start.

    All a rich kid needs to succeed is father’s checkbook and a right hand to shake the hand of all of the other rich people who will be giving him his free ride based on wealth. How can you preach hard work, determination, passion, or patience to someone like that? He can, will, and already did have influence, power, and sadfully respect. It was decided when he was born, no climbing needed, it’s all in the bag already. A head start. From here, hard work is subjective since it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. He will still wake up rich tomorrow.

    For the poor kid, the recipe is closer to a perfect storm of talent, passion, creativity, drive, hard work, intelligence, LUCK, and a good mentor. A true underdog story. Doesn’t America love the underdog? Why are we obsessed with TMZ and T.O.?

  24. Lenore says:

    I liked this article till I scanned through the comments and started questioning my own opinion and judgment. Sheesh, there are some picky and easily peeved people out there. Not that I’m never one of them, but I think there was more food for thought and validity to this post than some will admit.

    One other point: never underestimate the impact of simply acting like you have money. If I assume an attitude of entitlement and wear my best clothes, I seem to get treated better than when I’m slumming it. There are several books and films that explore this idea, one of the best being “Six Degrees of Separation” with Will Smith. A rich vocabulary and gracious manners can sometimes garner more influence or attention than a full wallet.

  25. Strick says:

    Interesting, though I think most of us are just shooting for having enough passive income to have significant power and influence over our own lives, not others…

  26. Amanda B. says:

    The last paragraph of this post was the cheesiest thing you have ever written. I still love you though.

  27. Kevin says:

    I’m conflicted about this article. A lot of what Trent writes is true, but it’s sprinkled with tidbits that are just plain nonsensical. Like this one:

    “Money does not result in influence and respect – instead, influence and respect often lead to money.”

    It’s trivially easy to disprove this. One can disprove the first part by listing off a bunch of rich idiots who command influence for no reason other than their wealth (Paris Hilton, Mark Cuban, several lottery winners, etc.). There’s no shortage of rich morons who get VIP service wherever they go.

    Conversely, one can disprove the second clause by listing off a few of the many highly influential and respected individuals who live/lived in relative poverty, like Gandhi, Mother Theresa, pretty much any member of Doctors Without Borders, etc.

    That said, I think the underlying premise of this article is flawed. I disagree that “the real reason people want to be rich [is] so they can have power over others.” I think the reason most people want to be rich is because they crave the freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Whether it be traveling the world, building a library in a poor neighborhood, or just sitting on their porch and watching the sun set every night.

  28. fairydust says:

    @Kevin: “I think the reason most people want to be rich is because they crave the freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Whether it be traveling the world, building a library in a poor neighborhood, or just sitting on their porch and watching the sun set every night.”

    Yes, that’s it exactly!

  29. Joey says:

    One of the longstanding issues with TSD has been the prescriptive, “this is how the world works and this is how you should try to work it” aspect of so many of your posts. This latest entry isn’t an exception. I’m not sure if you’ll ever understand this (it’s been more than two years since people started pointing it out), but if you ever do, and act upon it, you’d have far less disagreeable posts.

  30. Carrie says:

    @Kevin: “I think the reason most people want to be rich is because they crave the freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want.”

    Yes, you nailed it. Most people want to be rich because they don’t want money, or the lack thereof, to be a factor in their life decisions. That kind of freedom is priceless.

  31. meredith says:

    According to the latest The New Yorker, Nora Roberts says the key to success in writing is “ass in the chair.”

    Seems to tie in to Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion in Outliers that 10,000 hours of dedicated effort is required to achieve success in an area.

  32. Brian S. says:

    The real reason I want to be rich is so that my family and I would never have to worry about how to pay the bills, how to afford health care, or worry about losing a job. I do not want power over others, rather, I want the power to live my life without limits.

  33. I have my own art business and I’m starting a new one offering healthy home and body products. Thanks for the great advice, I needed this!

  34. russds says:

    Man, another great article Trent. You really have a gift of writing. I really like the idea of finding what you love to do, and worry less about the money. Something i’ve been learning more and more. Just do what you love. if money comes fine, if not fine…live modestly and it won’t matter.

  35. jaya says:

    kevin, well said. in fact, better than trent’s original post:)

    i agree with what lenore said about attitude.

    i see that imelda has a valid point too, people do judge books by their covers. i’ve often seen that people judge me on my looks first(frumpy middleclass sahm look on most days) , then treat me like who they assume me to be. the moment i speak, they do a doubletake and treat me with more respect..i have to say clothes and attitude do affect the respect and influence of the general public. if you look poor, expect to be treated so.

    yes, in my mind, being rich is “having enough money so that i can take my life decisions without regard to money.”

    i do not confuse Rich and Super-rich.

  36. Camille says:

    I understand why folks like Charles & Kevin link influence and money in the order that they do, but I think that’s only true in the narrowest sense.

    For one thing, making huge generalizations about why “people” do things overlooks the variety of us out there. Personally, I have absolutely zero desire for power and influence. I want money because to me it represents security and independence. Maybe it’s a female vs male thing, and probably it’s even more complicated than that, but it’s certainly not correct to apply that “power” motivation to all or even most people.

    And for the folks put up as examples of money leading to power…I’m not sure, but I think some are confusing celebrity with influence. Sure, Paris Hilton can command her paid lackeys, and she can set up a clothing line or a signature fragrance if she feels like it, but is that really power? Mark Cuban may influence a sports team…but so what?

    Real power and influence are when you can make a substantial and lasting mark on the world – and like Kevin said, people like Mother Teresa show that power and money don’t always go hand in hand…which is probably why Trent wrote that they “often” do, not always.

  37. Harry says:

    Thank you Trent. This is a very inspiring post about the truth of becoming rich.

  38. Judie says:

    The reason I would want money/wealth isn’t for power. It’s for security, to have options/autonomy, and to help other people.

  39. Angus says:

    Where did you get that “Vote for Skeletor” picture? I thought I was the only one supporting him in the last election!

  40. George says:

    Security. Freedom. Fun. That’s why people desire money, because money helps buy those things.

    Security in the sense of “I know I have shelter, food, and will not likely be attacked”.

    Freedom in the sense that I can choose what and when and where.

    Fun in the sense that I don’t have to worry about my dependents or myself and am free to explore my interests.

  41. SteveJ says:

    I think it’s interesting to read why individuals want to be rich. I’ve read power, freedom, security, fun, etc. It seems to me the conflict arises because we, as a society, have imbued money with the power to defeat all things. Sick, ugly, weak, or stupid, money fixes it all. As far as I can tell, the only collective wisdom we’ve come up with is money can’t buy you love. Except of course when it helps.

  42. Thank you. I needed this, this morning.

  43. a conscience life says:

    it seems like trying to say that “money leads to power” or “power leads to money” (influence and respect are signs of power) are both over simplistic. We can all think of many instances of both of these as well as instances of the exceptions to these statements. The truth is that it is some combination of these things that make the most ‘successful’ people.

    Perhaps it is more correct to state that people with skills and money have an easier time succeeding in this world. This is of course only true if you subscribe to the world at large’s idea of success, which seems to revolve largely around the idea that one can be remembered after one is dead.

    If instead one defines success as enjoying life, then perhaps it become a bit easier to obtain. Instead of focusing on power and money (ie. how you can ever increase your influence on the world around you), why not focus on the world that you are presented with directly? What I am really trying to say is that perhaps it is more useful to concentrate on living a life in which *you* can be happy with, rather than looking for exterior signs of approval (ie. money and power). But perhaps I am wrong.

  44. Kris says:

    I think both your statement and Charles’ statement tries to oversimplify a complex thing. Having money and having influence and respect are not necessarily linked together and gaining one does not mean that you will attain the other.

  45. reulte says:

    I want to be rich so I have time. Someone else to clean my house/clothes/car so I have time to play or read or simply enjoy the day in a hammock.

  46. jc says:

    Kevin, receiving VIP service has nothing to do with receiving either respect or influence.

    Conversely, the influential people you list could have easily and at any time “sold out” — but didn’t, and that’s part of why they’re still so influential.

  47. Bill in NC says:

    I think most commentators would agree with Kevin rather than Trent.

    I’d bet most of us would love to simply have a few million in cash.

    Preferably without everyone knowing about it, so we’re not the targets of con artists (as are most lottery winners, sadly)

    I suspect Trent’s perspective is influenced by his political ambitions.

  48. imelda says:

    Um, my comments were kind of way harsh. Sorry about that. I didn’t think this was such a bad article, although I do stand by the basics of the point I made (maybe I would restate the 3rd point a little less categorically, though).

  49. Interesting point of view. Money buys better health care, better “justice”, and better equality . . .

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