true WELLth Podcast: Vicki Robin Episode Transcript

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Vicki Robin: As a human, I need many things, one of which is money. But I also need time. I need rest. I need good food. I need companionship. I need solitude. I need to be a little bit crazy. I need spirituality. So, basically, as a human you have many needs that have to do with time and relationship. And those needs very often gets sidelined when our focus is simply on the traditional understanding of wealth. We can sacrifice our whole lives for money and never feed those parts of ourselves that have been excluded and marginalized.

Manisha Thakor: Welcome to the true WELLth podcast, a show designed to help you thoughtfully align the way you spend your money and your time with what matters most to you in life. Today, my guest is a prolific social innovator, writer and speaker, Vicki Robin. Vicki is the co-author the iconic international best-selling book Your Money or Your Life, which over 25 years after its original debut, was rereleased in 2018 to much fanfare.

Manisha Thakor: Called by The New York Times “the prophet of consumption downsizing,” Vicki has lectured widely and shared her thoughts in literally hundreds of national media outlets ranging from NPR’s Morning Edition to “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” On a personal note, I should mention that I read Your Money or Your Life back in 1992. That was both the year it was originally published and the year I graduated from college. Hands down, it’s been the personal finance book that has had the biggest influence on my money mindset to this day.

Manisha Thakor: Whether this is your first exposure to Vicki and her work or you are a longtime fan, I have a hunch you’ll find Vicki’s insights on money, meaning and purpose to be extremely thought-provoking, so much so that you may feel extra called to share this particular episode with friends and family. So, let’s dive in.

Manisha Thakor: Freedom. It’s one of the concepts at the core of your current thinking, Vicki, tell us more.

Vicki Robin: I mean, we could discuss the dark side of that notion which is basically, the freedom to exploit, the freedom to take what isn’t yours from the natural world or do the dark side of that, but we’re not going to go there right now. We’re just going to say that like the founding idea, this sort of inspiring idea that we’ve all been brought up on a freedom. This is a free country. We’re free people and that makes us better. That makes us more advanced. that makes us the city on the hill. That something about this freedom thing makes us the greatest nation.

Vicki Robin: But it has over the years, degraded into entitlement. It is degraded into personal entitlement to enact whatever story you want. It has lost in a context of the social good. It’s just really about an individual pursuing his or her own personal desire. There’s one thing we all agree on, and that’s we’re all free somehow in some competitive marketplace.

Vicki Robin: And so I researched the source of these ideas and got down to that there’s a basic understanding in our society, a western liberal tradition, which is that there are two freedoms. There’s freedom from oppression. We need to be able to get away from things that oppress us, and there’s freedom to. Freedom to have the life we want.

Vicki Robin: So freedom from and freedom to, and this is really a lot of what we talked about when we said I want to be free. I want to be free from imposition and I want to be free to create.

Manisha Thakor: Up until this interview with Vicki, I had always thought about freedom as one all-encompassing concept. But how she did throughout this conversation, Vicki caused me to question my long-held beliefs which she parsed out freedom into four distinct types.

Vicki Robin: But that there are two other freedoms that are necessary to understand. We call them mature freedoms. And the third one is freedom for. So we have freedom from, freedom to. But the question of what is freedom for introduces the thought that there is some higher aim towards which we’re using our freedom to create quality for ourselves and others like having a purpose in life, having a sense of meaning that arises from a social purpose.

Vicki Robin: And then, the other one that’s even harder is freedom with. In other words, who else is out there who’s trying to also be free? And it turns out that everything that lives desires that space into which to grow. See, for me, freedom is the space into which we grow. It’s very interesting in that.

Manisha Thakor: What I found very interesting was Vicki’s take on how her concept or the four types of freedom relate to what she calls civilizational survival.

Vicki Robin: The only way we’re going to get out of this is to mature, to understand that self-interest is not a sufficient motivation to achieve the future we want where people survive the environment. We keep the temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. We have some parameters now about what survival means, civilizational survival. And I think that we can’t get there by competing self-interest. We can only get there through maturation process where we understand that all of us need to be interested in all of us- all of us winning. Everybody wins or we all lose.

Manisha Thakor: Vicki’s definitions of the four types of freedom raise immediate questions about the core economic tenants that I, like so many of my fellow free-market disciples, have been taught to hold dear. Thinking back to my days in business school, I was reminded of my unwavering belief of the bountiful benefits that would inevitably arise from the symbiotic dance between free markets and self-interests. Or in the words of Adam Smith, who many regard as the father of modern economics with his concept of the invisible hand, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interests.”

Manisha Thakor: So I asked Vicki, “Well, what about Adam Smith?”

Vicki Robin: Adam Smith lived in a time when most people never traveled more than 10 miles from their home. Basically, back in the day when most people didn’t travel far from home, from birth to death, and there were businesses in the community. The businesses had to be loyal to the community. They had to be good actors in the community because otherwise, they would foul their own nest. People wouldn’t work for them. They would be snubbed at church, whatever.

Vicki Robin: And now, when corporations are multi-national, corporations are not place based. They do not have to be loyal to anyone other than their shareholders.

Manisha Thakor: Having had the honor of sitting on several panels with Vicki in 2018, I knew there were several other big concepts that I’m embarrassed to say I’ve given far too little thought to during my 48 years so far on this planet. The concept include biggies like loyalty, morality, integrity and character. As you’ll hear, Vicki brings up some points that are very hard to brush aside from a raw human standpoint.

Vicki Robin: And loyalty is another one of those words like morality that’s really tough to talk about now. But there’s something about being a person of your word, being a person who does the right thing even if nobody is watching, being a person of character. That’s precious. That is a precious quality, and it’s not rewarded anymore.

Vicki Robin: As a matter of fact, we’re suspect of loyalty. We hear the word loyalty and we think sort of subcultures, loyalty to your cult master, your guru or your political party. We think of them and we think loyalty is a little bit dangerous because we feel like people could gang up on me. I just find there are certain essential things about being a community qualities that we’re losing, and one is connection, another one is loyalty, another one is integrity, another one is morality.

Vicki Robin: These are things how to be a decent human being who puts the interests of the whole ahead of self-interest, not in a way of denying self but in a way of understanding that what I am part of needs to be healthy for me to be healthy. There is no life apart from the community.

Vicki Robin: So there is an accountability that comes when you are in a community of place with people that you are going to spend the rest of your life with most likely. There is a morality that comes out of place-based living, whether you call it tribal living or living in settlements where if you cut down your neighbor’s trees, guess what? You’re not going to survive in your little local economy for very long because you are such a bad actor. And you’re probably going to have to go out there and plant some more trees for your neighbor.

Manisha Thakor: Vicki, in a world increasingly devoid of place-based living, where does that leave us?

Vicki Robin: We’ve gotten used to being uninhibited. We’ve gotten used to remaking ourselves. We’ve gotten used to fouling a nest and then going and finding another one. There’s places in this world full of people who have left messes behind in some other place and just go and remake themselves.

Vicki Robin: We’ve almost lost the habit of morality. We’ve lost a feel for it. We’ve lost a sense that I want to be a good actor in the system where I belong because it’s going to make it better for everyone. We only think … The only safe place in western mind is to think in terms of self-interest.

Manisha Thakor: Okay, Vicki. So what do we need to do? How do we need to change?

Vicki Robin: It’s really difficult when the general consensus is that self-interest. If you’re self-interested, I can trust you because I know who that is because I’ve got the same person in me. We don’t share values. It’s very transactional. It’s not a bad … I mean there’s many ways to make a society, but the thing that makes it untenable is that there’s seven and a half billion of us on a planet with a climate that is destabilizing. It’s a fact of the matter.

Vicki Robin: The fact of the matter is, is that we are actually losing capacity in the ecosystems to support us right at the time when we have an expanding population. How can we fall in love with limits the way we’ve fallen in love with freedom such that out of our own joy, out of our own desire we will engage in a collective conversation about what is needed? How can we enact the passionate journey of freedom in a full world?

Manisha Thakor: A common thing we talked about in business are the opportunities to breakthrough to the next level of growth or the ability to disrupt the market with a new innovation. So I was interested to hear what Vicki had to say about these time-honored business principles.

Vicki Robin: The western idea freedom is about breaking. I’m going to break up, and then I’ll feel free. I’m going to break out. I’m going to break through. So, entrepreneurs, everybody is trying to have the next big idea, have a breakthrough of idea or the idea of disruption. Disruption is totally that that kind of freedom. And at first, it seems like you’re getting away with it but you break too much and you don’t have a house so live in.

Vicki Robin: That’s part of the dark side of freedom is that attitude of entitlement and breaking will eventually put you in a degraded environment. I differentiate cheap thrills and deep thrills. A cheap thrill is breaking and harvesting that little bit of energy. Like every bond that’s broken has some energy in it. So you break it, you harvest some energy, and on you go.

Vicki Robin: And deep thrills are being able to create containers. This ability to create containers that maximize the purpose to which you are dedicating your time in life or to which the community is dedicating its time and life.

Manisha Thakor: All this talk about breaking bonds and breaking society brings up the question of, who am I in this world and what am I doing to contribute in even some small way to the lives of my fellow 7.5 billion citizens of this planet? Keep following that ball of yarn and especially if you are type A and driven, you can easily find yourself asking that gnarly knot of a question, “Well, what about the work I’m currently doing? How do I think about that?”

Vicki Robin: So, we put in the job bucket. And job is the parts of your life, the hours of your life that you spend to make money. That’s your job. It is like the word job is like a job is a specific bit of work that you can complete, get done. That’s your job. It’s the work you do for money. But we put into that bucket of job our work, and so I don’t see those two things as the same. I see everybody works from the day we’re born to the day we die. We work to get born. We work to learn to walk.

Vicki Robin: Children work very hard, even when they’re playing. They’re trying to figure out relationships and how this thing works together and how their body works and how society works. We’re working. We’re learning. We’re learning the language. We’re learning the history. We’re learning science. We’re learning math. We’re learning, learning, learning, learning, learning how to get along in this world and that’s all our work. That’s the work of childhood.

Vicki Robin: And then also if you think about your proclivities or your talents or your gifts, basically you say your work is giving you gifts. And sometimes you can do that at a context of a job, but not always and people are very frustrated now because they expect that their jobs are going to provide them with the sense of satisfaction that comes from doing your work and they don’t get it from there but they have to do the job for money.

Vicki Robin: Your work is you’re going to do it from the day you’re born to the day you die. It’s after you retire. In other words, you leave your job with enough income. You still have work to do whether it’s the work of staying healthy. The older you get, the more you have to work at that or it’s the work of volunteering and service work or the work of learning and growing or the work of caring for others. All of that is your work. And if you understand that as your work, you can be happy because you could always do your work no matter what context.

Vicki Robin: And then in the job bucket, we also put our identity like what we do for money is who we say we are. I am a doctor. I am a lawyer. I am a plumber. I am a wife and mother. We identify with our economic roles in society and that’s not totally who you are. You’re an aunt and an uncle and a daughter and a son. And you’re a wife and a mother, and you’re an artist and a painter. And you’re a person who lies in the grass and looks at the clouds. You are myriad, as what women says. There’s millions inside you. And you are not simply what you do for money.

Manisha Thakor: I’m asking this from a highly personal place, I’ve long identified with what I do for money. And honestly, I can’t say that mindset has brought me peace and contentment, to put it mildly. So what advice do you have for people like me or other listeners who may feel caught up in that trap? What are the questions to ask to figure out what’s worth doing?

Vicki Robin: No matter what your job is, no matter how many years you’re going to devote to producing income, I think it’s really worth asking, if I were contorting my life to fit into the corporate capitalism project of making money, if I were contorting my life to just stay afloat which many people are, what would I be doing? If I didn’t have to have a job, what would I be doing? In another words, thinking about what you came on earth for, what kind of life would you really like to have?

Vicki Robin: So, what’s worth doing? Let’s go back over to that. What’s worth doing, I would say criteria are, is it in line with your purpose, whatever you say your purpose is? Is it congruent with your values and not going against your values? Because if you start to break your own promises to yourself and other people, you’re not going to be a happy camper eventually.

Vicki Robin: Are you enjoying yourself while you’re doing it? I mean there’s plenty of people sort of like me who are activists, who just like desperately trying to change things. And if you’re doing it with joy, then great. But if you’re miserable, then you’re also spreading misery while you’re also spreading justice.

Vicki Robin: So, what’s worth doing? It’s up to each of us to understand that. And I do think that we are individual souls in human form with individual destinies. We all have our hands on the web of life. We all have our fingers on one little nodule in this whole web of existence and not everybody is on the same little nodule. So, am I fulfilling my role in this large story of life on this planet, large story of my family, humanity, my own personal life. Am I fulfilling my role? So each one of us has to really grapple with this ourselves.

Vicki Robin: The shortest answer I would say is that if something is not of service to this larger project called the web of life for the human family, if something is not and somehow in service, if it is only in service to your personal preferences, then I think it’s not as worth doing as things that you might choose that really are using yourself to the maximum to make life more beautiful for everyone.

Manisha Thakor: Let’s go back to where we started with the re-release of your book, Your Money or Your Life. What parting advice do you have for us, both about the life part and the money part of Your Money or Your Life?

Vicki Robin: I think it’s really worth it to do some inner exploration no matter what your employment circumstances so that you feel grounded not in your economic identity, but you feel grounded in your purpose identity, if you will. You feel grounded in something that travels through job to job to job or that kind of personal development work, discovering what kind of critter you are, so that’s really worthwhile.

Vicki Robin: And I think also the more we can be prudent in our spending, no matter what our job, and I know there’s people who for all the prudence in the world, they can’t even make ends meet. So I think this is the larger picture of economic injustice. So no matter what we’re doing just to like put a little bit more every week aside to save, to become a saver, to put more and more distance between yourself and the potential, the need to debt in order to get through a hard time, just like save and save and save and save. Not obsessively but just keep spending a little bit less than earn, so that you have a little bit more than you need and that that pile gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

Vicki Robin: And it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to leave your job anytime soon but it certainly means that you are the mistress of your own time because you are financially stable and secure.

Manisha Thakor: At the end of an interview, I often have one or two crisp actionable takeaways. If you diligently do action X, then outcome Y will surely follow. What I loved about this conversation with Vicki was that in place of clear solutions, what bubbled up were a range of thought-provoking phrases and themes with all sorts of potential implications to mull over.

Manisha Thakor: The five most pronounced ones for me were the four types of freedom, the shift away from place-based living and the resulting ability to work easily foul our own nest, being grounded in your purpose identity versus your economic identity (i.e. you’re not simply what you do for money), falling in love with limits the same way we’ve fallen in love with freedom, and lastly, service to this larger project called the web of life for the human family.

Manisha Thakor: For those of us who by free will chose to be birthed and bathe at the altar of free markets and the power of self-interest, I found myself comforted by coming back to the words of the economist, Adam Smith whose book, The Wealth of Nations, is often referred to as the “Bible of Capitalism.” Yet surprising to me after listening to Vicki, the quote of his that spoke loudest to me was one that might give cause for pause, for Adam Smith was not just an economist but also a philosopher of sorts.

Manisha Thakor: And wearing that latter hat, he sagely noted in 1759, “That to feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature, and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consist their whole grace and propriety.”

Manisha Thakor: With that, we’ll leave you to ponder. And while I shared with you some of other things I took away from Vicki’s interview, the true WELLth team would love to hear what you took away. So, please, come on over to our show notes for this episode at truewellthpodcast.com. And remember, that’s WELLth, W-E-L-L-T-H, and share your thoughts with us.

Manisha Thakor: And the show notes will also have links to some of the wonderful profiles of Vicki that have appeared in The New York Times, Money magazine and others, as well as to her two website, one for Your Money or Your Life, and one for her current thinking about the topics discussed today. And yes, in a gesture that encompasses both self-interest and a desire to help the greater good, here is my personal ask.

Manisha Thakor: If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review on iTunes sharing why. Your thoughts will help other people who may be on a journey for which this material is exactly what they need to hear to take their next steps. Of course, your review will also help us a lot, but it will help others as well to find us. I am Manisha Thakor, and this is true WELLth.

Announcer: The true WELLth Podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones, an innovative wealth management firm founded 20 years ago in Seattle. Today, Brighton Jones serves a nationwide client base with the singular goal of helping them live richer lives.

Announcer: Today’s episode was edited and produced by Stan Hall with help from John Dougherty, Hallie O’Reilly, Michael Stubel, Marc Asmus, and Chris Sylvester. For more info on today’s show, visit truewellthpodcast.com.