My son gave me a present. To be fair, I don’t think it was until after he realized the gift was monetarily worthless, but I appreciated it nonetheless. It’s a big hunk of the mineral pyrite, also known as fool’s gold. My son’s gift has value to me far beyond its function as an excellent paperweight. And, ironically, its worth to me is continually rising. It’s become a constant reminder to orient my life away from that which only appears valuable and towards that which truly is.
We all have our own versions of fool’s gold. It’s generally the stuff that, while largely worthless, receives an undue amount of our time, attention and investment. What’s yours?
Here are three ways to spot it:
1) Fool’s gold consumes time you’ve dedicated to other things. Not more than one paragraph into writing this post (on this topic, no less!) I found myself entering this Google search—“what is the best banjo ukulele”—and then navigating to this page, then this one.
You see, when I’m not financial planning, writing or speaking, it’s likely that music is forefront in my consciousness. It was only yesterday that I learned the banjo ukulele—or “banjolele” in some circles (seriously)—was a thing. But now, it is a thing that I don’t possess, making it my obsession of the month.
Last month, it was a foam surfboard (for my kids, of course). The month before, it was an inflatable paddle board (if you haven’t heard, it’s a good core workout). Of course, there’s nothing patently wrong with any of these things—or classic cars, or HGTV, or whatever distracts you from being productive—but when they start to consume time we’ve dedicated to specific, important pursuits, then that’s a problem. It’s a sign of fool’s gold.
2) Fool’s gold leaves you wanting more, but still dissatisfied. Another thing I just learned existed (from my friend, Carl Richards) is the occurrence of “phantom phone vibration.” Surely, you’ve noticed (or likely even experienced) manic phone-checking syndrome. Not only do we check when we get a call or email or tweet or update or the like, but sometimes we just check. And check, and check. Even when we don’t have a reason.
But have you ever stopped to take stock and examine the feeling that pervades at the tail end of an obsessive phone-checking episode? It generally falls somewhere on the continuum between dissatisfaction (if the issue involves the worship of tech toys or temporal emotional boosts) and desperation (if it’s a deeper emotional lacking that we’re trying to fill with an insufficient substance or sensation). Genuine treasure satisfies—fool’s gold doesn’t.
3) Fool’s gold steals attention from the genuine treasures in your life. Today I spoke with a successful executive. He has followed the career playbook to the letter, quite successfully. Title? Check. Compensation? Check. But he’s thinking about cashing it all in. Here’s why.
The nearer he gets to the top of the corporate ladder, the more he’s looking over his shoulder at other climbers aiming to unsteady his footing. The more responsibilities and accolades he’s given, the more he’s stricken with paranoia when he leaves work early to attend his kids’ soccer games. The more his head remains at the office, the more he struggles to be present when he’s trying to focus on those people he’s indicated are really the highest priorities in life.
A job in itself can be fool’s gold, but—while it need not be—it’s more often the title, the salary, the prestige or the deference offered by subordinates that seduces us away from genuine treasure in our lives.
I don’t presume to define for you what represents the real gold, the genuine article, in your life. That’s your journey. But I will leave you where we began, with the question: What is your fool’s gold?
This commentary originally appeared October 10 on Forbes.com
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