Everyone wants to get rich the sexy way. Buy Amazon in 97, throw a few hundred at Bitcoin in 2011, or pick the top performing investment funds. But the truth is that Wealth isn’t built through exotic investments or earning a ton of money. True Wealth is best built through Workability.
According to Michael Jensen, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration Emeritus at Harvard Business School, our workability is a function of our integrity.
Before we get too far into how workability leads to Wealth, it is important to have a common language around the use of the word integrity. Although often used to express a degree of ethics or virtues, integrity is more about reliability. We are persons of integrity when we keep our word, and organizations have integrity when they follow through on their commitments to stakeholders. In this sense integrity is amoral – neither good nor bad – it just is or is not present.
Think of a time when you experienced a system, product, company, or person who was unworkable. The internet may run at less than half the speed you’re paying for, a company may shortchange you because they are not legally obligated to make things right, or you may be late for an event because a friend said they were on the way when they hadn’t left their house yet. These situations negatively impact our experience and change what is possible in the future.
Jensen notes that our workability is dependent on two forms of integrity – integrity in relation to ourselves and in relation to others.
Our personal workability, or our integrity in relation to ourselves, is our aptitude to follow through on the commitments we make with ourselves. Because these commitments are more private than the commitments we make with others, they are easier to break. Without the layer of accountability from our actions directly impacting others, there is less incentive to take our word seriously.
Rationalizers by nature, we excuse our non-aligned behavior because we intimately know the uncertainty and stress of our daily lives. We don’t go to the gym because we had a long day, we watch TV because our brain is too clogged to read a book, or we use part of our emergency fund to splurge on a vacation because we’ve earned it. But if we lack integrity to commit to what we feel is right, what hope do we have for healthier bodies or accumulating enough for a down payment our first home?
The reality is that we create the future through our commitments, irrespective of if we follow through or not. If we commit a savings account for a rainy day, then any possible future is less likely to derail us. The other side of that coin though, is that failing to meet our personal commitments is worse than not having committed. In addition to being knocked off track, lacking integrity in relation to ourselves establishes an internal culture of unworkability. Operating without integrity is a choice we make that reduces our future possibilities.
If we dig ourselves into credit card debt, we are robbing our future self of resources to experience a more fulfilling life. If we ignore our commitments for a healthy lifestyle because we work so much, illness may limit our opportunities once we have the financial resources to “finally enjoy life”.
Our personal workability is built on acting in alignment with what we know to be true regarding how our actions impact our future. It is informed by our assessments of what is possible and is strengthened by operating within accepted standards of behavior.
Although our personal workability may not directly impact others, our unworkability opens us up to being inconsistent in the eyes of others. When viewed as unreliable, others will likely exclude us from being an integral part of the future they are creating out of fear that we will make their future unworkable.
We don’t use speech to exercise our mouths. Language is also for more than transferring information from one person to another. We communicate to build relationships, communities, societies, and possibilities through our commitments with each other. The value of our word in relation to others, or our level of social workability, influences the potential futures that are accessible to us.
Keeping our commitments with others increases our credibility. When the skills and positive habits we’ve built through our personal integrity meet an opportunity to prove our social integrity, others are more likely to invite us to co-create a mutually beneficial future. As persons of high credibility, others are open to our ideas and assessments about which futures are possible. Buying into our vision, they also help us create our vision for the future through a shared expectation for what might happen and what is worth pursuing.
Strong social workability fosters a sense of interdependence that builds trust. This credibility can also protect us from the risk of co-creating with those who have low workability. For example, when trusted by our community, our observations of Greg’s history of unworkability can influence the collective opinion on whether he will be a good addition.
If we find ourselves as Greg in this situation, our possibilities diminish. Social unworkability doesn’t just reduce earning potential over our lifetimes. Social unworkability reduces the strength and number of deep relationships. A lack of mutual trust closes doors that may be important to our sense of community and connectedness, resulting in fewer shared experiences.
Personal integrity is the foundation for what is available to us in life. Social integrity is our capability to co-create and follow through, which dictates our realm of possibilities. This means that workability isn’t an aspect of life that is “nice to have”, workability is essential to live a prosperous life.
Please understand that this claim does not mean those who are “poor” lack integrity and those who are “rich” are completely workable. As discussed, how we communication shifts what is possible, so it is necessary to revisit the distinction between money and Wealth.
Money, while necessary to thrive in 21st century America, is simply a tool to efficiently exchange our resources (skills, knowledge, time, effort, property, etc.) for the resources that someone else can provide. Throughout history people who lack personal and social integrity accumulated tons of money. They may receive an inheritance, take advantage of others to get more than their fair share, or maybe they bought Amazon in 97.
The point is that having a lot of money doesn’t mean you have integrity or True Wealth. In fact, those who prioritize money over workability are likely to rationalize actions that erode integrity for the sake of earning more money. It’s easy to see how justifying unworkable behavior is a slippery slope. This is a major issue in our society because we see material success as a qualifier to be a role model. So, we mimic the “rich”, irrespective of their workability, as if their behavior is an acceptable standard for how to treat ourselves and others.
On the other hand, our definition of Wealth is “subjective well-being”. Ambiguous, yes, but purposefully so. My vision of a “rich life” should be different than yours because we are different people and have different experiences and interests. Once we have financial resources to support our basic needs (food, water, shelter, safety, etc.), the purpose of money is for use toward aspects of our lives that increase our well-being. There is plenty of research that illustrates what makes life worth living – autonomy in the paths we choose, the freedom to develop our skills and explore interests, an ability to be part of something bigger than ourselves, close friendships, and a connection to our community.
A life worth living requires personal and social workability but does not require a lot of money. This means that our workability leads to Wealth, but Wealth may or may not lead to a lot of money. Wealth is an authentic prioritization of our resources, which may favor investing in the community or finding flow in our hobbies over more money in the bank. Similarly, having a lot of money does not necessarily lead to workability or Wealth. Workability comes from striving to operate as our best selves in relation to us and others, which has nothing to do with incomes or investment accounts.
How our lives play out is simply determined by which rewards we prioritize from our workability. As persons of integrity, workability compounds to create futures with a Wealth of possibilities for money, autonomy, freedom, and strong relationships.