The Safety Net

The following story is true, I’ve just changed the names and told it in parable form.  The material numbers and circumstances are roughly accurate, and Alice is a friend of mine who may tell the story herself on video here soon…

A True Story

Alice was feeling particularly poor at a certain time in her life and because of this she was under a lot of stress.  Her friend, Bob, was a billionaire many times over and he disliked seeing his friend in pain and so he wrote her a blank check and said, “Alice, whatever amount you cash this for, it will relieve me of the burden of figuring out what to do with it.  Will you do me the favor of accepting this gift?”  Alice was stunned because she knew she could have cashed the check for $30 Million and Bob would not have missed it at all.  And she knew Bob was sincere in what he was saying.

Alice was overwhelmed with Bob’s kindness, but instantly relieved of the stress.  It was a big decision though, how much to take, and Alice didn’t want to make it hastily.  She put the check in her safety deposit box at the bank so she could sleep on it.  But she still hadn’t figured out the answer the next day and so the check remained there.  This went on for a week, eventually a month.  Bob didn’t mention the check and while Alice thought about it every day, the amount of time she did so diminished.  Life has a way of crowding out unnecessary thoughts, and despite Alice’s financial difficulties, there were other realities that needed more attention.  Alice knew she’d get to it soon enough and wanted to choose the right amount of money to accept, both because it was important for her future, but also out of respect for Bob’s gift.

Twenty years later, Alice was very successful financially (and otherwise) and Bob asked her to meet him.  Bob was under some stress because a relative of his had fallen on hard times and was in desperate need of cash.  Bob knew his cousin was too proud to ask Bob for help and was thinking of how he could give the money to his cousin anonymously without the cousin figuring it out.

The amount of money to give was an important detail, but Bob was stumped, so he asked Alice’s advice.  “Alice, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but my memory isn’t so good anymore and it was a long time ago that I gave you that blank check, but I can’t for the life of me remember how much you cashed it for.  Would you mind telling me so I have some idea of what an appropriate amount would be for my cousin?”

Alice smiled, “Bob, I’m happy to tell you, but first I need you to understand that what you gave me that day was the best gift that anyone has ever given me, for which I am eternally grateful.  And because your gift has allowed me to become successful and realize my dreams, I’ve been giving similar gifts to those around me who I know will be similarly helped by it.  Also, I think it’s time I return what you gave to me that day, after all it’s been 20 years….”

Bob began to protest; he didn’t want the money back, he just wanted to know what amount to give to his cousin, but Alice ignored him and reached into her wallet and came out with a check.  “Here’s the check you gave me that day.  I never cashed it.  I don’t know what the right number of dollars is for your cousin, but the right amount for me was zero.”

Angels and Devils

While true, this story is also an archetype.  It appears in many forms we are all familiar with: The Wizard of Oz; music lyrics; the Bible; and so on.  What I like about the version above is that it’s particularly relevant in these times of financial hardship and uncertainty about the future.   It helps us realize that sometimes what we think we need most is really an illusion, preventing us from seeing how we can be living right now the life we want for ourselves in the future.

Quite often in American society, the illusion happens to be money or time.  But it’s different for all of us.  For many it’s an immature egoic construct — an emotional mechanism that served our needs as a child (e.g. I have to clean up my room for my parent to smile and play with me), but which fails to mature and keep pace with our lives.

One form of emotional immaturity is overgeneralization — we unconsciously apply childhood mechanisms to situations which are more nuanced.  Just because I had to achieve a clean room for my parent to reward me with one particular outward demonstration of love, doesn’t mean that I now must achieve career success to deserve the love of my spouse and friends.  Yet so often, that’s what it boils down to, doesn’t it?  Or if not exactly that, some variant in which parent, spouse, friend is replaced by society, church, God, child, and so on.

These immature emotional constructs become scripts which we memorize as a child and we shorten into mantras that go through our minds subconsciously thousands of times a day, even as we get older.  Cleaning my room yields affection, but I wanted to play with my toys instead, so I got scolded and it made me feel bad, and maybe that means I am a bad person and I don’t deserve love, and if I want to not be bad and thus deserving of love I need to do something that I don’t want to do or that I fear, and so I don’t do it, which brings me back to that feeling bad about myself, and so on.  Ultimately, it just becomes mantras: I’m a bad person; I don’t deserve love; I’m afraid of failing; etc.

Mantras are the emotional version of the music that gets stuck in our heads and reverberates.  They color how we feel in the moment and how we perceive the world around us.  They can be devils or angels, depending on their form.  They lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.  If we believe we need more money, then indeed, we need more money.  But the devil is always in the details.  It’s not the money that’s the problem, it’s the conflict between money and “more”.  Money is finite, more never ends.  The illusion is complete and we become blinded to the more nuanced reality.

The Safety Net

We are born with infinite possibility to create the lives that we want and it is only through the scripts, mantras and illusions we spin that we become distanced in time, space, and emotionally from most of them.  We are all both angels and devils, the distinction itself being just an illusion we create.  And just as we can become reconnected to the world of abundance by presuming it exists, we can protect ourselves from becoming fallen angels with a safety net.

The key is, remembering that the safety net is equally as real as the illusion.  The yin does not exist without the yang.  The need for more money does not exist without the perception that what we need is different than what we already have.

Alice shared her story with me two months ago, and I have been telling it to many people since as my way of paying it forward.  If you feel inspired by her story, please pay it forward by sharing a safety net story of your own in the comments.  It doesn’t matter how trivial you feel it is, others will be inspired by it who you won’t ever know about.

Alternatively, if you know someone who needs inspiration, tell them the safety net story they need to hear most, right now, whatever it is.

  • Chris H.

    I would not have found the success I've had so far if it hadn't been for my parents being faithful supporters throughout my early career. I made a lot of choices that, on the surface, seemed foolish or backwards but I knew were imperative to going in the direction that I needed to. A lot of those decisions I couldn't have made if my parents didn't have my back. They gave me just enough financial freedom to follow the dreams that I had for myself, without giving me a blank check. The best metaphor I can use is that they invested in a bridge for me to get from one side of the chasm to the other, based on faith that there was something on the other side.

    In the end, their unwavering support gave me the ability to go after what I wanted, and the confidence to do so with all the energy I could. And because of that, it's my responsibility to live up to that for the remainder of my career.

  • John L

    Rafe, sorry I didn't make it to DC10. Sent Nick in my stead, who is a co-founder at one of our non-profits, and an amazing guy. I hope you had a chance to meet him. He came back calling DC10 among the most inspirational three days of his life. Thanks so much for the connection.

  • As a classic overachiever, this resonates with me. I’m driven by a fire in the belly to do better, be smarter, reach higher, whatever because I continue to believe that’s what it takes to be seen. Truly seen. So I drink from the fire-hose daily, pushing myself to find new limits – always testing my capacity and my capabilities – each limit becoming the new norm. You’re absolutely right: the safety net is equally as real as the illusion. So I practice that by being still – perfectly quiet, perfectly still – and giving myself permission to exhale, while leaving things up to the universe. Trying to control every outcome is exhausting and pointless.

    Never Say Die and The Art of the Possible do not have to be mutually exclusive.

    Thanks for sharing, Rafe.