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Leaving the Cult of Never Enough
At age 50, Manisha Thakor realized that she'd sacrificed her life at the altar of work. Her new book tackles how to unwind a toxic relationship with work and money.
When Manisha Thakor pops into my virtual studio, she's wearing a blue plaid flannel shirt. She appears to be in a rustic cabin—lots of exposed wood, the space is open to the roof. And she's glowing.
She's glowing—I learn as she flips around her laptop to show me the view—because she's sitting in front of a window that looks out over a lake reflecting the mid-morning sun. Her cabin—indeed, her tiny rustic cabin—is just a few steps from the cold, clear New England water.
This isn't the first time I've spoken to Manisha. I'm fuzzy on the details, but I know it was in Manhattan. I know we were dressed to impress. And I know that we were both living very different lives.
Manisha's new book, MoneyZen, opens with these lines:
If my experience is any guide, there are two paths to becoming part of a cult. One is a conscious decision. The other is a series of small, consistent, unconscious steps toward the flickering flame. Looking back, I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
The cult in question is what Manisha calls the Cult of Never Enough.
Keep reading or listen on the What Works podcast:
The Cult of Never Enough
Manisha worked in the financial services industry for over 25 years. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School. She's published previous books about financial literacy for women. She's been all over national media outlets like the Today Show, NPR, CNN, and Fast Company.
She has all the institutional markers of success—and yet the woman sitting in front of me seems... radical. Or perhaps, radically whole.
But this radical wholeness?
It's a relatively recent development.
"I subconsciously found myself in this position where I was living my life to optimize an unbelievably sick and toxic equation," Manisha explains. "And that was that my self-worth equals my net worth." A successful advisor, speaker, and author, you might think that she would "know better." But Manisha tells me that between little-t traumas, social and cultural influences, and even some evolutionary psychology influences, she needed "several serious smacks in the head" before she could see what she was doing to herself.
"I subconsciously found myself in this position where I was living
my life to optimize an unbelievably sick and toxic equation.
And that was that my self-worth equals my net worth."
She suffered two serious illnesses with long recovery periods. Her marriage ended because she wasn't present in her relationship. To top it all off, she realized that the only holiday cards she received were from professional colleagues. "All my friends had dropped me off the list," she tells me. Perhaps ironically, it actually took an experience at work for her to realize what was going on.
"The firm I was working with had a unique way of showing the value that we brought to clients as wealth managers and financial life advisors," Manisha explains. They took the time to do a full financial history with a prospective client—including a lengthy interview where they would uncover the prospect's numbers—but also their mindset, feelings, and stories about money. Then, they could offer a more holistic projection of the prospect's money future.
One day, they had a prospect who was very private about her financial history. But Manisha was still tasked with putting together this in-depth presentation. "It's such an intimate process talking about your money," she tells me, "I didn't want to come up with makeshift numbers. So I used my actual financials, and the team interviewed me as if I were the potential client."
As Manisha laid out her financial history, dug into her values, and considered what she wants her life to look like and what really matters to her, she started to feel nauseated. "I realize it looks nothing like my current life," she recalls. This was all before they really got into the numbers. "We did the analysis of what I have, how much I spend, [and] how long I could live." As they did, it started to dawn on Manisha that she could live to be over 100 years old and spend twice as much as she was currently spending—without running out of money. Her needs are fairly basic, so she doesn't need "private airplane world" kind of money.
"Tears just started gushing down my face when I realized that I had been chasing after financial security—among other things—and I'd completely missed that I had it because I was trapped in society's drum beat," Manisha tells me. And that drum beat? It's the message that the solution to any problem is to "do more, earn more, be more."
Manisha's aha moment was the realization that she had been so caught up in the doing—working more, earning more, accomplishing more—that she completely missed the fact that she had what she wanted. One way philosophers might describe this is that Manisha had become alienated from herself.
The Roles We Play
Philosopher Rahel Jaeggi describes the experience of alienation this way:
Someone who lies is not herself merely on the outside, whereas someone who is alienated is not herself also on the inside, and in a way that is not easy to understand.
The alienated subject, she explains, relates more to the role she plays than to herself as the player of the role. There's a sense of "impenetrability or inaccessibility to oneself."
This can be deeply painful. This is deeply painful. And in many ways, this pain just feeds the cycle of alienation.
It keeps us stuck in the Cult of Never Enough.
Manisha recalls the plane ride back from spending her junior year of college aboard at Oxford. She remembers being really taken with Virginia Wolfe's "A Room of One's Own." From that inspiration, she realized that what she really wanted from life was having the space to do things she loved, to self-actualize, as well as the money to allow for that space. "And so I drew this triangle on a cocktail napkin," she recalls, "and at the top of the triangle, I wrote simplicity. I wanted that really to be my guiding force."
From there, she wrote small joys in the lower left corner of the triangle and financial independence in the lower right corner. She believed that those three values would allow her to live the way she wanted to and be who she wanted to be—for herself and others.
"But I realized, as I was approaching 50 and not long after the meeting with the client that made me burst into tears, how disconnected I had become from that triangle," Manisha explains. In hindsight, she can see that the triangle got flipped upside down. Financial independence had become her guiding force, while simplicity and small joys were relegated to the back of her mind. She'd lost track of who she wanted to be amidst the Cult of Never Enough.
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How We Play Our Roles
Jaeggi's book, Alienation, considers the condition of alienation without relying on the idea of a "true self" buried beneath layers of conditioning and socialization. She sees value in alienation as a theory of critique and wants to reclaim it from essentialist or deterministic modes of understanding the self.
"The self" isn't a singular and enduring phenomenon. Instead, the self is developed over time in relation to others through the roles we take on and make our own. Jaeggi explains that "the problem is not that we play roles but how we play them."
For Jaeggi, playing a role becomes problematic when we lose our distance from that role. In other words, we start to over-identify with the role we're playing. We get so close to the role we play that we mistake the role for who we are.
In the moment of realization that Manisha describes, she recognizes that she's mistaken the overachieving striver role for her identity. In a flash, she understands that she's gotten so close to that role that she couldn't see the ways she's already achieved what the role was designed to achieve.
The Manisha I see in her rustic lakeside cabin is a woman with distance from the roles she plays. She is radically whole—capable of playing the roles of successful author, engaging keynote speaker, or savvy financial planner but not subsumed by them.
If there's no distance between me and the role I play, it's no wonder I never quite feel like enough. No role is ever enough to make a radically whole being. But a radically whole being can play many different roles, keep them in perspective, and move through the world embodying "enough."
Or, as Jaeggi puts it:
…the crucial question is not how many aspects of a successful life or how many features of an all-round developed personality someone realizes. The question is rather whether what she does leads her into a dead end or whether it offers her further possibilities for integrating and continuing her experiences—whether it limits her possibilities or opens up options for her.
Getting out of the Cult of Never Enough and finding some distance from the roles we play is key to another one of Manisha's core concepts from the book—understanding the difference between money worries and money problems.
Money Worries vs Money Problems
"Money problems," Manisha explains, are "issues that can be resolved with financial solutions, tactical solutions." For the individual or family, it's things like credit card debt, student loans, retirement savings, childcare costs, etc. On a community or society level, it's things like wage stagnation, inflation, wealth inequality, healthcare costs, etc.
Money worries, on the other hand, "require emotional and intellectual solutions." She writes, "[Money worries] are a collective aching, a feeling that I will never measure up no matter how hard I try."
Financial experts tell us to cut down on our oat milk lattes, dinners out, and credit card spending.
There are countless financial “experts” who assert in their books, podcasts, and TV appearances that all it takes to solve your money problems is to earn more and spend less. I would argue that that’s much too simplistic. Financial health doesn’t come in one-size-fits-all protocols, and many money problems are exacerbated by forces beyond any individual’s control.
In fact, in Manisha's first two books, she focused on financial literacy herself. She wanted to equip women with the facts about money and how to manage it so that they could solve their money problems. "But I realized that just because I give you answers to your financial problems," she tells me, "I'm not necessarily creating zen in your money life."
Without distance from our money problems, we learn to identify with our money problems. I might become the person with loads of student debt or the person whose mortgage is underwater. I lose the ability to distinguish myself from the money problems I need to address. And I lose any perspective on the way that factors outside my control exacerbate my money problems.
My identity collapses into a pile of money worries.
While the financial industry is coming around to incorporating work on mindset and money stories, Manisha tells me that this still doesn't get to the root of the issue. "Those tend to be the symptoms," she explains, "not the root cause of this painful, toxic relationship that so many of us have with money and work."
And while the specific root causes that individuals face vary, they're all based on a fundamental dissatisfaction with what's happening in our lives. Instead of addressing that dissatisfaction, we end up doing more—and further entrench ourselves into the Cult of Never Enough. Manisha proposes an alternative—cultivating emotional wealth: "Emotional wealth is the ability to use your voice in the way you want to and make the choices you want to make to create a life that makes your heart sing."
"I myself, at age 50," she notes, "had woken up to realize that I had sacrificed pretty much all of my adult life to the altar of work. And I wanted to know how the heck this happened, and more importantly, what do I do about it?"
“I myself, at age 50, had woken up to realize that I had sacrificed
pretty much all of my adult life to the altar of work.”
The Image of Our Dissatisfaction
"Capitalism bombards us with the image of our dissatisfaction," writes critic Todd McGowan. Open a magazine. Turn on the TV. Scroll through TikTok. Drive down the street. Bombardment is right! The image of our dissatisfaction is everywhere—along with, of course, the promise of its relief.
"So many of us are stuck doing things we don't like," Manisha explains, "to purchase stuff to make people we don't even really care about impressed with us." But at the same time, many of us hold on to a vision of life that's much more accessible and obtainable than we might assume.
Sean and I often talk about paring way down. We could figure out the bare minimum we need to live a rich life, as Ramit Sethi would say, and move to a cabin in the woods off the grid. I told Manisha that her rustic lakeside cabin is my idea of heaven. There are reasons we haven't done this—yet. But the list of reasons gets shorter every day.
What I really want to spend my time doing, to surround myself with—it's really affordable. Emotional wealth, in my world, is cheap.
But inertia is real.
Keeping on keeping on requires far less psychic energy than making a different choice. Manisha gives a painful example.
"I didn't go to my grandmother's funeral because—this is how sick my mindset was—I was in the peak of the big go-go part of my corporate career," she tells me as her voice falters just a bit. "I thought, 'well, gram's dead. She's not gonna know if I'm there.'" She realizes that it didn't even occur to her that "funerals are about the survivors, too." She didn't see the value in the social ritual because she was so caught up in doing and achieving.
Being able to recognize the value of relationships, rituals, and everyday experiences that don't fit neatly into the corporate ladder or 80-hour workweek is central to Manisha's concept of emotional wealth.
The way we create our emotional wealth will change from person to person. But Manisha says that the key to discovering what would make you emotionally wealthy is to ask yourself questions like, "Does this make your heart sing? Is it in line with your values and the way you want to live your life? And what makes you happy?"
Todd McGowan, the critic I mentioned a bit ago, argues that our inertia, our desire for more, is baked into the capitalist system. The growth of the economy is contingent on our dissatisfaction—because our dissatisfaction leads to consumption. For McGowan, the "essence of capitalism is accumulation." We imagine that there is something out there that we could acquire to ultimately satisfy our desire—"the object that would quench [our] desire and allow [us] to put an end to the relentless yearning to accumulate."
In a line that I take as a personal attack, McGowan writes that the psychic toll capitalism takes on us "infects even those who believe that they have opted out of the system and live off the grid."
When we achieve the pinnacle of success, we seek out a way to return loss into our existence by imagining a new challenge or embarking on a new project.
McGowan's work on the nature of desire in capitalism and Jaeggi's work on alienation help us recognize the ways we end up part of the Cult of Never Enough. Manisha wrestled with the same stories to reach her own insights.
We're not broken, and we're not stupid—we've been indoctrinated into a system that achieves this predictable result.
Knowing that there's a profound hope of escape. We might not be able to escape the sociopolitical systems that structure the world at large, but by knowing they exist, we can be more intentional about how we move through and beyond them.
It's no coincidence that my book and Manisha's book share a distinct family resemblance. Both spend a lot of pages deconstructing the stories, beliefs, and systems that fuel our worry and dissatisfaction. I looked at it from the point of view of a goal-obsessed overachiever, while Manisha's book considers the money side of things. She tells me that was the part of the book she had the most fun with:
It was understanding what are the various systemic factors that can lead someone to have such a toxic relationship with work and money and accomplishments and success—such that it sucks the air out of your life.
"I tried to do all of the stuff that you read in the self-helpy books," she recalls. She tried meditation, journaling, touching grass—but none of it helped. "They're all good tools, but they're bandaids," she tells me. There was something bigger that needed to be pulled apart and examined. "[It] broke me, and I think it is breaking so many other people. We all get broken in different ways."
Without addressing the cultural, political, and economic systems that break us, we can't make use of even the best money advice. But once we do understand and address those systems, the way out is pretty clear. The problem isn't that we don't know what to do. The problem is that there are psychic bonds keeping us from that action and systemic factors limiting our access to help.
Deconstruction of our beliefs about success, work, money, and even who deserves what is critical to our ability to construct healthier, more satisfying lives. If we want out of the Cult of Never Enough, we have to do the work to understand why we started to believe we weren't enough in the first place.
New workshop for premium subscribers!
Self-sabotage—any of the myriad ways we can make it harder on ourselves to make or do the things we want—is something most people deal with. And once you're in the self-sabotage cycle, it can be hard to break out. Self-sabotage behaviors tend to feed other self-sabotage behaviors.
"Follow-through isn't about the quantity of energy you bring to a project. It's about the quality of energy. It's finesse."
This workshop is based on Chapter 11 of my book, What Works: A Comprehensive Framework to Change the Way We Approach Goal-Setting.
Date: August 24, 2023
Time: 12:30pm ET (New York)/9:30am PT (Los Angeles)
Price: Included with your premium subscription!