While at a party during the 1920s, the young F. Scott Fitzgerald observed a man named Leonard Zelig who had an uncanny ability to take on the demeanor and even physical appearance of those around him. Over the following two decades the chameleonesque man showed up again and again, fitting seamlessly into dozens of different social circles, from Nazi Germany to the White House, always blending in perfectly. Amazing

Except that none of it ever happened. The real Fitzgerald never saw or even heard of Leonard Zelig. Because like his heir apparent Forrest Gump, Zelig was a complete fiction.

Zelig—Fitzgerald party, White House appearance and all—was invented by Woody Allen for his 1983 film of the same name. Gump, the creation of novelist/satirist Winston Groom, was brought to life on film in 1994 by Robert Zemeckis. And like the brilliantly clueless Chance the Gardener, created by novelist Jerzy Kosinksi, filmmaker Hal Ashby and actor Peter Sellers in Being There (1979), they are fascinating characters precisely because they are not really characters at all but take on whatever characters others see.

Something like money.

On a recent radio interview, I was asked to describe the gist of the book Dave Krueger and I had just released, The Secret Language of Money. My answer: “Money is like tofu: it has no flavor of its own, but takes on the taste of whatever you put with it.”

I might as easily have said, “Money is like Zelig, or Forrest Gump, or Chance the Gardener…” Because money has no character of its own: it is a mirror-mirror on the wall, a movie screen onto which we project the desires and fears, prides and suspicions, hopes and ambitions that make up the stories in our heads.

Have you ever been deep in debt? Ever earned a million dollars? Been broke? How much do you earn today: barely enough to live on? Well into the high six figures? Do your debts outweigh your assets? The other way around? And the $64,000 question: What do your answers to these questions mean?

Answer: They mean whatever you say they mean. Life, as it turns out, is not a box of chocolates: you not only know whatcha gonna git, you determine it.

I have earned millions. I have also been so broke a big repo guy named Chris came to my door one night at 11:00 to haul away my car. In both cases, I made the same mistake: I thought it all said something about who I was.

But money, or lack of it, does not decide who you are. You decide what money is. And then, it appears: just as you said.

JOHN DAVID MANN is Consulting Editor to Networking Times.