“I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay, ain’t it sad
And still there never seems to be a single penny left for me, that’s too bad”
Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid grafted for decades before they made it. Their break came in 1974 at the Eurovision Song Contest. They never looked back. ABBA went on to be one of the most commercially successful bands in pop, selling over 150 million records across the globe.
But the path to success is strewn with boulders. Their original name was unimaginative and unwieldy. Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid didn’t exactly trip off the tongue. That and singing in Swedish guaranteed relegation to a cold, frosty corner called Scandinavian pop. They had privately used a shorthand for themselves — their four initials. But it took years before they wondered whether ABBA might be a better name. It’s funny how we can’t see what’s in front of us.
Even then they weren’t destined for greatness. ABBA was also the name of a Swedish fish canning company. After long negotiations, ABBA (the fish people) agreed to share their name with ABBA (the band), “as long as you don’t make us feel ashamed about what you’re doing.” Most likely they expected the band to be a flash in the (fish-frying) pan. Whether the band’s outfits made the fish people ashamed, we’ll never know.
Speaking of their outfits, ABBA’s flamboyant clothes were not born out of creativity. In Swedish tax law, the wilder a costume is, the more likely its cost can be deducted. A canny move to increase their profits. An accounting practice that meant ABBA would always stand out from the crowd.
“In my honest opinion, we looked like nuts in those years… nobody can have been as badly dressed on stage as we were.” Björn Ulvaeus
ABBA had the same fortune with their logo. During a photo shoot, each one of them held up a giant letter for their initial. Benny reversed his by mistake, making the two “B’s” back-to-back. At first it looked like a problem, but on reflection they realised it made a great logo and trademark. Another way to be distinctive and make money.
So much of success and money is down to luck. It’s never guaranteed, however hard we work. And money can also bring destruction. ABBA were formed of two married couples — imagine living and working together, day in and day out, for ten years. Predictably the marriages didn’t last and the band broke up in 1983.
Money has this power to divide. It can destroy friendships and ruin relationships. It isn’t always a guarantee for a happy life either. Whilst a good income can make us content (research says around £20,000 or $28,000 per year), more money doesn’t equate to more happiness.
Money seems quantifiable, like temperature or distance. How we feel about it is anything but. It’s more about our upbringing, values and self-worth than the actual number in front of us. We feel we have too little, or too much. We tell ourselves we deserve more, or we don’t deserve what we have. We spin so many yarns that we forget why we wanted it in the first place. We white-knuckle our lives because we fear less money will be our ruin.
Money came up in 80% of my Spoon by Spoon interviews. One person mentioned it 23 times and many said it drove their careers and lives. It can also act as a sharp edge on which to cut our values. Jake started working for a branch of a finance company in its early days when it was operating out of a rural double garage. He liked being in the countryside and it was laid back — the people were fun to be around and he enjoyed the work.
But when he transferred to the Dubai head office, things changed. “I just realised that I was working for a horrible, horrible company. A heartless group of people that were just interested in how much money we could make and how quickly. It was a Wolf of Wall Street type of thing.” Some salesmen were earning thousands of pounds a month from commission. Jake was on a normal salary and just processed their fees. But his role meant he got “a lot of animosity — people getting in my face about certain things.” He felt if the company didn’t exist “the world would still be perfectly happy. It got me thinking about what I wanted to do. What my morals were. What my ethics were.”
“Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’
They just use your mind and they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”
Dolly Parton, 1980
Jake felt like the salesmen “would sell somebody a finance plan that they knew the person couldn’t afford. None of them had any morals and I really struggled with that.” It wasn’t so much the money “that was difficult to stomach, but it was more of a fact that they just didn’t care.”
Jake is much happier now that he owns a zero-waste shop. “It just makes me feel like I’m putting something good into the world.” He feels that “even if I’m not making a lot of money, as long as it ticks along and I can survive off it I’m helping a lot of people. And I know that I am appreciated, which is nice because I get told that.”
Ruby came from a small town near San Diego, California and her family didn’t have much money when she was growing up, having to borrow from the government to pay for her education. “I just had this desire to be bigger and better than what I came from. I had this starry-eyed idea of what it was going to be like to work in advertising, what it was going to bring me.” She thinks it was probably “being able to tell people I worked on this campaign and the swagger that came with it. It became this thing about recognition.”
Ruby felt she could have it all — money, status and interesting work. A favourite client was a not-for-profit Cancer Research Centre in Los Angeles. “I was really excited because I thought there is a place for what I do and what advertising exists for. It can be used for good to tell, important, cause-driven messages. Things that really impact humanity in a positive way.”
But the more she worked on accounts like fast-food clients, the more it grated with her values. “I started to think I don’t care. We’re just telling people to buy these things and consume this and that. But do they really need these things?”
Ruby became disenchanted with it all. “There are other real problems going on in the world. We’re not dealing with cancer patients or doing heart surgery. We’re not dealing with people who are trying to prevent hunger.” But despite this Ruby struggled on for three years. “I wasn’t doing something that was going to make the world a better place. I was just really, really unhappy, feeling very stuck and not sure what to do.”
We often make career decisions based on money, opting for something because it makes us feel safe, not because we enjoy it. Maeve is from Ireland and studied a foundation course in art “because that gives you lots of different options and you gradually eliminate one discipline after another until you get to one you feel most comfortable with.” But she ended up choosing graphic design “for commercial reasons, because I felt at the time, I was more likely to make a living from it.” When she reflected back she said that if money had been no object, she would have “pursued printmaking, or sculpture. But at that point in my life, it was very unlikely I’d be able to make a living from it.”
Adwoa grew up in Ghana and ended up working in technology for decades, despite not enjoying it. “I did computer science for one semester at university and I knew I just didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy programming. I felt it was a cold subject. But here I was working, starting off a career in precisely the area I didn’t like it. I stuck with it because it paid well.”
At 40, Adwoa is trying out different avenues. “I want to make clothes, but I’m so scared of the unknown. I’m already thinking I’m not going to make enough money. I don’t know how to advertise. How am I going to brand myself?” She doesn’t believe she’s good enough yet and is still taking lessons. “When am I going to get to the point where I think I’m an expert?” Adwoa is trying not to listen to the negative voices in her head. “I think I have to take it slowly. Even if it’s one skirt I can do for now and try to start selling that. That’s where I’ll start.”
At the end of each of my interviews I ask what advice they would give their younger self. Emily said “Have a creative outlet, whether that’s in work or in life. Be sensible, a go-getter and be driven. But don’t think the only way to succeed is traditional measures of success. Don’t judge success by status or money.”