#11: If all the world's a stage, then what does it matter where you stand?

30th November, 2020

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that does its own stunts.

This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that circumstances are your stage, not your script.

‘We like to make people feel at home here,’ I say to Mark, as he slumps into and then shifts about in his chair. His eyes flick from phone, to window, to whiteboard, with no concern for subtlety, like a crap spy scoping out his surroundings, or a fugitive getting ready to run.

Of all the clients to whom I’ve offered any sort of helping financial hand in the last few years, Mark is the one I’ve most longed to meet. From his glamorous career both on and behind the screen, to his objectively interesting close companions, to the inside story of what his wealth did to the inside of his head, he’s a fascinating fellow. Being averse to both meetings in general, and meetings in offices in particular, and now spending most of his life in America, I’ve had to be patient.

Mark’s eyes scan back to his phone, then to my boss, then finally to me. He’s slowly settling from the top down. The head is now still, but the fingers continue to fidget, and I swear I can feel the floor vibrating from a thumping foot.

‘I can only assume that talking to me and’ – with a gesture towards my boss – ‘him, across a boardroom table in London is much the same as sipping cocktails under and with the stars in the Hollywood Hills…’

I don’t know Mark that well yet. The second I start to speak, I feel uncomfortably conspicuous. Creepy gossip columnist was not the look I was going for. Mark responds with an almost imperceptible eye-roll that says either he isn’t sure if I’m joking, or he knows I am, but thinks it’s a damn terrible joke.

‘Seriously,’ I stutter on, ‘you’ve been in Hollywood a few years now. The family’s settled into your dream mansion. And if meetings with moviestars are a decent metric, it sounds like “breaking America” is gaining traction, while the money’s still rolling in from your UK projects…’

Mark cuts me off. ‘It’s all circumstances,’ he says, with a sort of friendly disdain, before lurching more enthusiastically into words it feels like he’s repeated often enough to qualify as a mantra.

‘All the stuff – the house, the money, the moviestars – it’s all circumstances. Life – mine, Anna’s, the children’s – they’re really no better or worse with or without them. There’s more, er, surface-level excitement perhaps, but there’s also more time spent faffing around with, y’know, architects, builders, accountants, security people… investment people,’ he says, with a smirk.

‘As for the stars,’ he continues, ‘you can get a meeting with anyone… once. That can be pretty cool. But the novelty soon wears off. And if you don’t have something useful to offer them, there’s no second meeting, nor any more firsts with anyone they know. If LA teaches you anything, it’s that you can have all the money in the world, but unless you’ve got something to do with it, it’s often just a cue for wasting time.’

I know Mark is friends with a few celebrity stoics, but I’m still surprised to hear how well it’s rubbed off on him, especially given some of his life choices (and indeed how championing stoic virtues tends to be an indication of their absence). There’s a lot of mental and physical effort (not to mention money) gone in to proving his ‘just circumstances’ theory.

‘That’s great to hear. Superb, really. I’d love to record that and play it on repeat to goodness knows how many of our other clients, let alone find a way to implant such thoughts into those that sacrifice everything chasing those circumstances… I have to ask, though: how do you square such thinking with your continuing keenness to see your net worth hit the £20m mark? Especially as that mark changes with the dollar:pound exchange rate, the shifting subjective and sporadic valuation of your houses… and the knowledge you’ll blast way past it in any case when the cash from the latest show comes in.’

‘Hah. Fair point. I guess I can’t. It’s pretty daft, I suppose. It’s something to do, I guess… and it’s definitely better than nothing. And it’s obviously a lot better than it was. You know about–‘

‘I do,’ I say, seeing no need to dwell on past impostor-syndrome troubles, especially as I’m told he’s previously made it pretty clear that’s his therapist’s job, not my boss’s, or mine.

‘I guess there’s still a bit of that floating about… still feeling the need to wear the badges, even though I know deep down they don’t mean shit. I’m reading Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety at the moment. He makes the point that however well one may grasp the nonsense at a given point, because everything – us, the world – is shifting all the time, it’s incredibly easy to fall back to the default of letting society determine our significance, consciously or otherwise, even when we know it's crap.’

I stave off the urge to both share some of my favourite quotes from that book, and recommend a thousand others in the process by asking a follow-up: ‘Is it perhaps easier to be more perspectival about the whole charade when you own all the stuff? Because you know experientially it’s always about the narrative, not the numbers? Or does it make it harder because there’s so much more opportunity to add to those lingering clouds of impostor syndrome?’

‘Neither. It’s just circumstances.’

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