Being vs. Becoming: The Metaphysics of Making Money

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“The American lives even more for his goals, for the future, than the European. Life for him is always becoming, never being.”—Albert Einstein

TO BE OR TO BECOME/Image: Michael Moffa

If you are a recruiter who is also a home owner or if you buy lottery tickets, you are well-prepared to understand the first of the two main points of this article: the real excitement in a recruiter’s job and more generally in life itself is quite commonly to be found in its moments of becoming, not of being, successful—in the process of effort, not in its product.  On the other hand, there are the savored unrushed moments of triumph—timeless Zen moments, so to speak, when your success feels or should feel like a snapshot sunrise suffusing your smile. The triumph of being over becoming.

The difference between these two is very easy to understand. It’s also very important. Because, if you don’t grasp the difference conceptually, there is a chance you won’t effectively apply it personally. The consequences can include being mysteriously unmoved by or unsatisfied with your own recruitment successes even as or because you are planning the next one.

Becoming vs. Being a Home Owner and Deal Maker

The emotional as well as metaphysical difference between “being” and “becoming” becomes very obvious to every home owner and all the neighbors and friends soon after the moving van is unloaded and the new house is occupied. It is manifested in the mysterious encroaching restlessness and puzzling dissatisfaction that, from that first day forward, never stop growing along with the vines and the lawn that come with the house, making never-ending and seeping demands on time, energy and dreams, thereby transforming what should have been one’s cozy nut nest into a nutty squirrel treadmill.

Seen as perfect on the day the keys are handed over, the house nonetheless immediately becomes the object and focus of endless repair, renovation, replacement, redesign, reconfiguration, re-landscaping and re-everything, including re-appraisal—until it is re-sold or otherwise re-linquished. Endless preoccupation with becoming as an escape from the perceived cage and stagnation of being.

Somehow, during one of many identical breakfasts, the perfectly fine Italian marble flooring of the kitchen suddenly seems out of place, style or sync and had better be replaced with French marble. After that project is completed, the gleaming kitchen cabinets somehow look as though they need to be refinished—walnut, to match the color of the proposed replacement carpet in the dining room—and so it goes, endlessly, needlessly and mostly pointlessly, save for having something to talk about with the neighbors besides the kids.

On the job, you have no sooner completed one deal and closed a placement than you are rushing off to the next one—like a carrot dangling before you, to be chased instead of the carrot in hand to be savored. Ironically, the pursuit of success comes to preclude enjoying it—despite your very modern insistence you want something more than “deferred gratification”, that you want your rewards and their satisfactions now and fast, like a Big Mac.

This kind of ostensible, if not ostentatious, home-owners’ “progress” is in many, although not all instances, a manifestation of a deep discontent: the feeling that “being” is not enough or at least not for very long at all.

Because the English language hides the distinction between being and becoming through the use of “-tion” suffixes, it is easy to overlook the otherwise obvious distinction between “home construction” as a becoming-process and “home construction” as the resulting being-product.  The former comes to dominate the mind of a home owner, at the expense of enjoyment of the latter. “Kinesis”—dynamic motion and change—displaces “stasis”—static states of simple being.

Lottery Winning vs. Lottery Winner

The same mentality governs the psychology of lotteries—including the crapshoots of sourcing, screening and placement: The phase of greatest, indeed, ecstatic (ex-static?), joy in winning a mega-lottery or clinching the deal is the process of becoming a winner, of discovering you’ve won, not in the state of being a winner—as attested by the innumerable sad, ironic and often tragic stories of what happens to the winners and the squandered or embezzled winnings after the photo ops.

Puzzlingly, the pleasure of becoming a winner seems to trump that of being one.

Expressing this mathematically, it can be argued that what excites humans is not the probability of any given event as a moment of being, e.g., the probability of being a lottery winner. No, the real excitement is in the sudden change in the probability of becoming a winner—i.e., in the process of becoming a winner, rather than the state of being one. When you buy a lottery ticket, the odds are astronomically against you. As the winning numbers are read out one at a time, you experience the rush of witnessing the process of the numbers you are holding becoming the winning permutation—a rush never to be matched again by their being the winning permutation. Ditto for the deal.

It’s the rate of change, not the result of change that counts most.

Forget Zeno

But is this distinction between becoming and being valid? Apart from exceptions like the philosopher Zeno of Elea, who  in the 5th-century B.C. argued that all change is an illusion, and that therefore nothing becomes anything, the commonsense thinking of homeowners, gamblers  and recruiters assumes change and becoming are real—and a real option. That stubborn homeowner belief defies Zeno’s logic, even though he made a pretty good case against the existence of change. One of his simplest and most famous arguments is called “the paradox of the arrow” and can be stated in one sentence: If an arrow in flight is at every instant in some place, there is no time at which it is changing places. That’s it.

The implication is that since motion requires a change of place, motion cannot exist (given that there is no time at which this is happening or can happen). Of course, motion is only one kind of change. However, Zeno’s very simple argument that has sustained lively and high-powered debate for millennia applies to all change. Simply replace “arrow” with, for example, “chemical reaction”. The result will be the same—at least a headache if you think about it too long and a nagging frustration in trying to find a flaw in Zeno’s thinking.

Anyway, being practical, you should or will forget all about Zeno now that you can.

Time is Money vs. Money is Time

Back in your real world, ask yourself this question: “Which mistake am I more likely to make: Dwelling too long on my most recent successful placement, or not relishing it long enough?” The odds are that you will regard the former as the bigger mistake and the one you are less likely to commit.

After all, time is money—even though chasing the money can cost you the time that should be spent on enjoying it (which proves the logically obvious, yet frequently psychologically invisible point that if time is money, then money is time—time waived as the opportunity cost of money.) Actually stopping to enjoy the moment—any moment, including a moment of stunning success—is far less likely than racing away from it to resume the chase after the next placement. Why is that?

Opposite Cultures, Identical Priority

Perhaps the dominant reason for this in the U.S. is cultural: America was built on a unique vision of a hopeful, opportunity-blessed future and a rejection of an oppressive king-ridden past. This future orientation represented not only a displacement of the tradition of worshipping tradition by an ideology of unending progress; it also represented and established a general, diffuse, collective and very personalized preoccupation with what lies ahead at the expense of what is to be left behind.

Hence, Einstein’s observation about a relatively American preoccupation with becoming at the expense of being, quoted above, has a credible and historical underpinning.

Hence, closing a deal is like establishing a New England colony: in both instances, one’s restless gaze is and was forward to what is next, to the ever-beckoning future and its rich, better possibilities.

Ironically, starting from, because of and despite a totally opposite cultural premise, the average tradition-bound Confucianism-influenced Chinese has a similar, largely unrecognized addiction to “deferred gratification”—with one key difference: While the American lifestyle idealizes immediate gratification, e.g., fast food, fast service and buying now, on credit, it makes an interesting exception in somehow immediately pursuing the next target of  personal or professional desire without really enjoying the last one long enough. In effect, despite wanting everything “now”, Americans are very prone to deferring real enjoyment and savoring of accomplishment until later, which mysteriously and predictably somehow never comes.

On the other hand, the far more tradition-worshipping Chinese I got to know in my years in China will target their next fear, e.g., not passing the next exam, or not getting a job immediately after graduating as soon as having survived the last one—without allowing any time to fully revel in and indulge what should have been a blissful, lingering sense of relief.  Roughly speaking, despite the comparatively greater American emphasis on desire as the driving force (and happiness as positive pleasure) vs. the my Chinese acquaintances’ focus on fear as the prime mover (and happiness as relief of anxiety), in both cultures, large segments of the population—especially the professional classes—seem to manage to spoil the rewards of the moment by rushing on to pursuit of the next one.

To Be or to Become?”—That is the Question

This tendency to want to become more than to be, to enjoy becoming more than being and to answer the paraphrased query of Hamlet—“To be, or to become?”—with a resounding “Become!” is as easily demonstrated as it is virtually irresistible.

That’s why, by the time you reach the period at the end of this sentence, rather than pause to ponder what you’ve just read, you will probably and immediately click your mouse to rush off to read something else, which is metaphysically and emotionally OK…

….if it is another one of my articles.

Read more in Employee Compensation

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).