When I graduated from college, my Godfather offered some unconventional advice: “If you want to help people, work at an investment bank.” Andrew Young, my Godfather and former Atlanta mayor, further explained “Learn how to make money before you give it away.” I began a career on Wall Street. But after the financial crisis, I realized it was important to try to understand not just how to make money but why it plays such a central role in our lives. Initially, I wanted to study why people behave in irrational and bizarre ways when it comes to money. Over time, I grew obsessed with understanding the many dimensions of money and how it shapes us.
I researched this topic for over four years while traveling to over 25 countries. I detail my findings in my new book Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us. Here are but three of the most curious things I learned about money:
1. Money is like a drug. My father enjoys playing the lottery. Every week, he buys a ticket from the Shell gas station. After the numbers are drawn, he checks to see if he has won, and inevitably says, “I’ll have better luck next week.” I’ve explained to him that it’s almost impossible to win, and that he could spend [or invest] his money more wisely. But he gets excited with the prospect of winning. In one Harvard study, the brain scans of participants who were making money were compared to those who were high on cocaine. A reward region in the brain known as the nucleus accumbens was activated in both. In other words, money stimulated the brain in a manner similar to a drug. You don’t need a prescription to play the lottery, but it’s important to understand that money stimulates us in a similar way.
2. Money is dirty. I carry a bottle of Purell (refreshing aloe scent) in my book bag. No, I don’t have a germ phobia. I just don’t want to get sick from touching money. In one study, researchers examined dollars circulating in New York City and found bacteria that can lead to pneumonia.They found traces of anthrax and DNA markers of dogs and maybe even white rhinoceros.
3. Georgia began as a debtor’s refuge. I researched the history of debt for my book. I was surprised that debt played an important role in the establishment of Georgia. James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia as a refuge for debtors that wanted to flee Britain. As a member of Parliament in Britain, he chaired a committee that chronicled the gross mistreatment of prisoners. His work helped to win the release of many debtors who were languishing in British jails. He sought to create a new territory where these debtors could reside.
Kabir Sehgal is originally from Atlanta and attended The Lovett School. A New York Times bestselling author, his new book is called Coined: The Rich Life of Money And How Its History Has Shaped Us. He is also a vice president at a Wall Street investment bank. He will be speaking at the Carter Center on Thursday, March 12 at 7 p.m.