I’ve mentored teens and young adults for more than 25 years now, and part of that role is inextricably linked to education in some form or other. Whether it’s finally helping kids make sense of the quadratic equation, or teaching them new strategies for dealing with conflict, I love the look that comes over kids’ faces when they finally get whatever it is that’s been stumping them up to that point.
(I equally love the feeling of learning a new thing myself and knowing “that look” has crept over my own face, though I’ve never actually seen it … which is good, because that would be weird.)
As you might imagine, over the course of a couple of decades, I’ve worked with an awful lot of kids and covered an awful lot of topics. One especially fun exchange is whenever I get to explain to a kid for the first time how money works. (And mind you, this is often during high school or even early college years.)
I take out a dollar bill and ask, “How much is this worth?” And they generally say, “A dollar.” And I reply, “Nope. It’s worth basically nothing.”
Mouths quirk in a mix of confusion and curiosity. It’s clear that I’ve got their attention.
I then take out my checkbook and show them a blank check. “How much is this worth?” They generally try to guess the “right” answer at this point. “Nothing?” they’ll ask more than state.
“Yes, that’s right. Nothing. But what if I write it out for one hundred dollars? Then how much is it worth?”
“A hundred dollars?” they suggest, still unsure.
“Nope. It’s still worth nothing. It’s just paper with printing on it, and now some of my handwriting. It’s worth nothing.”
Here’s where I really get them.
“Hold the dollar up to the check. What do you notice?” I ask, handing them the money and the checkbook.
First, they’ll look for words or numbers that match. Not finding any, the realization I was after soon dawns on nearly everyone: “They’re the same size.”
“Yup. Do you think that’s coincidence?”
They’re really thinking now.
To sum up, I explain that cash is just a check from the government — a promissory note, just like my own checks. It’s just that each bill denomination is written out ahead of time for a specific amount. But it’s all worthless. The only worth each has lies in the assumed trust that, if called in, I can eventually trade those promissory notes for precious metals. And therefore (theoretically, at least) there must be enough precious metals stored somewhere — gold, silver, platinum — to back those worthless pieces of paper.
However, even in my lifetime, this has changed. In truth, our paper money and coins and checks are actually worthless, given value only by mutual consent:
“The entire modern world operates with ‘fiat currency’ as the medium of exchange. The term ‘fiat currency’ refers to the notion that money is money because the government says it is. However, while the government sets the value of paper money and coins, the system would not work without the consent of the public. If the public stops believing that money has value, they will stop using it, and the whole system will collapse.”1
Wide-eyed wonder (and something akin to fear) usually follow.
Of interest, we’re now seeing the emergence of cryptocurrency (e.g., Bitcoin), as people realize that government-issued paper and coins do have only the value we give to them.
All that is to say that we’re two shakes of a lamb’s tail from being back to trading clam shells as currency.
What’s certain is that the more of something there is in play, the less it’s actually worth.
I’m going somewhere with all of this, I promise. But lest anyone feel they are falling down the rabbit hole over the money situation, let me bring it all back to something a little cozier.
I wrote a recent post after having seen Disney’s new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast (now for the third time). In the opening montage, Belle enters the closest thing to a library in her “little town.” It appears to be a chapel of some sort. There is a small wooden table upon which perhaps a dozen leather-bound books stand in a neat row. Belle returns the book she’s been reading (Romeo and Juliet per her quote about “two lovers in fair Verona”) and chooses another. It’s made clear that she’s read them all time and time again. And yet, because of their scarcity, they remain precious to her.
Later, in the Beast’s castle, as he lies recuperating from a wolf attack, he wakes to find Belle quoting from Romeo and Juliet.
“Blecht!” he blurts, following derisively with “Why am I not surprised?” He then makes the assertion that there are so many better books to read.
After a short walk down a corridor, enormous wooden doors creak open … and Belle is ushered into a vast and elaborate library containing a dizzying number of books, stacked floor to 40-foot ceiling. After recovering from her initial shock and speechlessness, Belle exclaims, “It’s wonderful!”
Beast looks around, with a blasé shoulder roll, unimpressed. “If you like it so much, it’s yours.”
How is it that Belle’s little corner table of 10 or 12 books was so precious to her … and yet the Beast’s seemingly endless library had lost all value to him, to the point where he’d give it all away without a second thought?
Too much of a good thing.
The more of something there is in play, the less it’s actually worth.
Consider how this might apply to the perpetual and inexhaustible source of information now available thanks to the Internet. I don’t think that calling it “miraculous” would be overstating things.
There are those who will decry the “ever present evils” afforded to modern society due to technology. I’m not one of them. In fact, for the time being, I’m talking about all of the good and helpful offerings.
Videos capturing remarkable people doing inspiring things.
A rushing river of wisdom and encouragement, available to all, around the clock.
I myself contribute to this flow as an author and blogger. I believe it makes a difference.
And yet lately, I’ve found myself keenly aware of just how easy it’s become, as such positivity proliferates, to see it, read it, feel momentarily stirred, click “Like” or “Share” … and then move on, without its ever really making a difference to how we live.
It wasn’t always this way. Like Belle with her tiny assortment of available reading choices, wisdom was something you came by only ever so often. You’d borrow a title from the library, and some tidbit would stand out. Or you’d get a card in the mail with an inspirational quote, and you’d stick it to the fridge for a while with a magnet.
The glut is a relatively new phenomenon. I think we’ve all felt at times a negativity overload. But I really do believe there’s also such a thing as a positivity overload — where none of it really sinks in anymore.
What’s to be done about it? How do we go about restoring value and weight to wisdom in our lives, in a way that changes us rather than merely blurring past us at light speed?
I do believe we can.
What would it take?
Images of Greek scholars sitting on marble steps. Rodin’s The Thinker. They depict scenes that seem purely historical. But despite modern tendencies to embrace fads, some things that worked thousands of years ago — still work just as well today:
And that doesn’t require the seclusion of some monastery or Zen garden.
Here’s a challenge to you.
Today or tomorrow, after you hit “Like” on what seems a meaningful meme or quote, take 10 seconds and write it down. Then place it somewhere you’re likely to see it many times over the course of the next few days.
Or fold it up and put it in your pocket. Then every time you feel it in there during the day, or when you remove it at night, take just a few minutes and consider it. (This is really the basis of what some call “meditation.”)
Another variation I often use is sending the quote to myself as a text message, and then opening it. That little red bubble does wonders by way of reminding me to think about what I’ve sent.
But don’t just think about what it means. Think about what it means to you.
What changes or choices might it require of you, if you were to put that piece of advice or wisdom into practice? When might be the next time you could put some feet to that?
How does it encourage you toward a specific goal you’ve set?
You could even jot down on your piece of paper, or in your phone’s Notes app, anything that occurs to you.
And don’t keep it to yourself. Share your thoughts with a coworker, your spouse, your son or a friend. Imagine how that might change an otherwise predictable dinner conversation.
With just a little extra effort, we can each restore a sense of significance and value to what might otherwise be just another blip of data whizzing by at light speed on the information superhighway.