What Do Gravitational Waves and Money Have in Common?

Scientists recently proved that gravitational waves, predicted by Albert Einstein in 1915, actually exist. The great physicist believed they would never be detected because they are so faint. But new technology has allowed their measurement. These gravitational waves, which were created by the collision of two black holes a billion years ago, distort the fabric of space-time. When they go through a building, for example, the building actually contracts and expands as they pass through! The wake of the collision of the black holes apparently roiled time around it, making it go faster, then slower, then faster. Go figure.

Money is a bit like a gravitational wave. Money can, potentially, influence everything around it—your attitudes, behaviors, and even the trajectory of your life. And, although it can dramatically roil our characters, the effect is often invisible.

gravitational wave

A simulated image of two black holes colliding and creating gravitational waves

I’m all for getting amply rewarded for the value we create. But keep your eyes open so that you know why you’re doing things.

Money can make us take on client engagements that we might otherwise pass up. It can even affect the advice we give clients. For example—imagine these (quite realistic) advice scenarios:

  • One reasonable recommendation will lead the client to take a step that will dramatically increase the need for your services.
  • A second, also quite reasonable recommendation will lead the client to do something that will dramatically decrease the need for your services.

How do you avoid being biased in your choice of what to say? Studies show that when doctors own their own imaging and testing equipment, they order more tests. I’m betting they don’t even realize they are doing so. Money’s influence is subtle but pervasive.

When we sold my old firm, The MAC Group, to Cap Gemini in the early 1990s, I noticed how the prospect of receiving substantial payments had a gravitational wave effect on my colleagues’ beliefs and behavior (and no doubt mine as well!). People changed their views overnight, from “We have a great firm and we should never sell out” to “We can’t hack it strategically and our demise is  only a few years away–the only reasonable alternative is to sell!” Small wonder that acquisitions are often lubricated by change of control clauses that grant senior executives large bonus payments if their company is purchased.

Setting aside political beliefs, I couldn’t help but smile at people’s disbelief that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had endorsed Donald Trump. What was so puzzling about it? Christie has a well-documented penchant for private jets and the finer things in life (nothing wrong with that…but it could be at odds with a political career as a public servant) and now that he’s out of the race, why not ingratiate himself with a local billionaire who could help fuel his business career and lend him his jet once in a while? Revenge on Marco Rubio may have also played into it. In this case, the prospect of money blinded Christie to Trump’s rather awful character flaws. What—you thought he endorsed Trump because of his admiration for Trump’s exemplary vision and leadership skills? As a restaurateur friend once told me, after he had closed his money-losing but super popular restaurant frequented by business heavyweights: “Everyone was making deals here, and making big money. Except me!”

My advice: Always do what is right for your client, even if it makes you redundant. Ask for fees commensurate with the value you add, but don’t ever mix up your thinking about what is best for your client with how much you’ll make from it—those should be two different discussions in your brain. Show great enthusiasm for your work. Focus on producing quality and delivering value to your clients, not on how much money it earns you. Do great things for clients, and the money will follow as a natural consequence.

Oh, and listen to my mother. She grew up in the depression, and after her father died when she was 6 years old, she and my grandmother lived in a cold-water flat on the lower east side of Manhattan. Eventually, my grandmother became an entrepreneur, started her own business, and bootstrapped them out of poverty and into a middle-class lifestyle. Mom always said, “Money doesn’t buy happiness, but having some of it does make life a lot easier.” She understood, from hard experience, the difference between money as a means to an end and money as the end itself.

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