What I want to say to the richest kids in the world

Right now some of the richest kids in the world are meeting at something called the Nexus Youth Summit. Their last powwow was at the White House and now through July 26, they are meeting at the United Nations.

According to its own website: “Nexus is a global movement of 2000+ young people from over 70 countries working to increase and improve philanthropy and impact investing by bridging communities of wealth and social entrepreneurship.” The “community of wealth” contingent includes some of the richest young heirs on the planet; people worth millions and in some cases billions.

Here is what I want to say to them and you might as well listen in.

Your wealth isn’t your fault

As you know, being born rich is like being born beautiful—it is not something you accomplished but more like winning a cosmic lottery. The poor and the plain imagine life would be wonderful if they were but rich and beautiful, and our advertisers seem dedicated to perpetrating this myth. But you know wealth and beauty is no guarantee of happiness or even success. Be secure in the knowledge that you are not responsible for what happened before you were born and do not let the judgments and desires of others get you down.

The world does owe you a living

My dad used to tell me, “The world doesn’t owe you a living.” What he meant was that I’d have to work for what I got.

But what he didn’t talk about was how money works. You see, money is debt, and if you have a ton of money then the world does owe you what it takes to live. The world might even owe you a fancy car or a yacht

You probably know this already, but when I do something or sell something the money I get in return is an I. O. U. drawn on all of us. When I walk into McDonald’s with enough money in my wallet for a Big Mac, then I am owed that hamburger, and when I pay with my money now, McDonald’s is the one owed something; perhaps by employees who provide labor or the factory that grows its food. I’m 61 years old now and I’m living on my retirement savings and that money-in-the-bank simply means the world owes me a living without me having to work any more.

If you are born with enough moola to keep you in hamburgers and houses for the rest of your life then you are born with the world owing you a living. That’s not a crime; that’s just a fact. As I said before, it isn’t your fault.

But you are wealthy only if people poorer than you say so

Reflect on the fact that while you are born being owed a living, nearly everyone else is born owing you one. That was, after all, what my dad was saying; I would have to earn the money others would pay me. But later, even if I accumulate plenty of money, if the people who might do my bidding decide to go on strike then I am not rich no matter how much I have in the bank. Protesters and pundits can rank us by beauty or wealth, but whether we divide ourselves into quintiles, deciles, or the 1 and the 99, the fact is we are all in this together. Whether we admit it or not, the rich need the poor as much as the poor need the rich. We don’t all need to like everyone we meet, but we need to care about each other if this puny thing we call humanity is to survive.

Money should buy freedom, not chains

I am named after my dad’s uncle, Brooke, who dreamt as a child that he would one day dig for gold and become rich. When he grew up he went to the Philippines and did precisely that. But his money did not buy him freedom when the Japanese took his mines and threw him in the Santo Tomas internment camp. They took his wealth but they did not break his spirit; and he did not yearn for renewed wealth but for freedom.

All my dad ever wanted was to be a sculptor. But having children derailed things for a while. From fine art, he moved into commercial art, advertising, marketing, marketing management, and finally management consulting. Then, in my senior year in high school he gave me $500 toward college and then went back to sculpture full time.

As he gave me that money, he said, “Money should buy freedom not chains.” He explained that with money you should be able to do all the things you can do without money plus the things that take money. But for many people money buys chains because they start wanting even more money and they forget about all the things they can do that don’t need any money at all, like watching a sunset or loving a child.

Choose what you want wisely, and denominate your wealth in freedom to yearn, not in dollars you earn.

Money can buy some happiness, but it ain’t much

In that same conversation, my dad said, “It is easier to make money doing what makes you happy than to buy happiness with the money you are paid for doing what makes you miserable.”

Making a boat-load of money isn’t easy whether you like doing what it takes or not. Making lots of money is mostly luck, which is something the lucky mistake for skill and the unlucky imagine must involve cheating. As my career arc took me from mathematics and programming through finance and eventually into hedge-fund management I can report that the key to making money is to do what makes other people happy. If you want to make a pile of dough then do what makes the rich even richer. If what makes you happy is playing video games or watching old movies on basic cable, then all I can say vis. a vis. getting rich is, “Good luck with that.”

The wisdom in my dad’s words comes from the fact that it is very hard to buy happiness when you spend your days making yourself miserable. People who live for the weekend might be two-sevenths happy. You can do better than that.

Besides, happiness is overrated

Ask most people and they will say, “All I want is to be happy.”

On the surface it is hard to argue with happiness, but two things don’t sit right: 1) Happiness is kind of selfish, 2) Happiness is kind of meaningless.

I can hear my dad saying, “Great, so you’re happy. Whoop dee doo. What about everyone else?” Beside’s, happiness is a feeling, not a fact—you can learn to be happy sitting there doing nothing. Indeed, once you learn to master happiness, pretty much everything else is a distraction from being happy. Try it right now; set your worries aside, relax, and be happy. See, you can do it. And if it didn’t happen then practice setting your worries aside and relaxing because that’s the secret to happiness.

But, I prefer satisfaction to happiness. You buy satisfaction with effort, and it is in effort that I find joy—even more than in accomplishment. I’m not sure I know what I’m talking about so you might want to consult an expert. Consider watching this TED video by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania about what positive psychology has to say about the topic.

You need a purpose

Everyone needs a reason to exist, and the ironic thing is that the closer you are to starving, the easier it is to feel a sense of purpose: If you and your family will die next week unless you do something about it today then you’ve got your work cut out for you. But if you and everyone you care about will be just fine no matter what you do then now you have the makings of an existential crisis.

A financial adviser once told me that he doesn’t dispense financial advice so much as give parenting tips to rich people. He says, “Eventually you can become so wealthy that you must work for the benefit of people you will never meet, and then you will have to choose between people you will never meet who are alive today and people who you will never meet who will inherit your wealth.”

I cannot tell you which way to go, but I can recommend a quote from Rabindranath Tagore who said, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Feeling useless sucks. The cure is to be of use.

Start with a dream rather than a purpose

If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, the famous “Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch who had terminal cancer at the time he recorded it. Randy was the co-founder (along with Jesse Schell) of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ever since 1963, when I had Mr. Reiur in the sixth grade, I knew I was meant to be a teacher. And I still feel that way, even though I have no training in the art. I did not even have an idea of what I was meant to teach until 2004 when my eldest was getting ready to leave home and I began asking everyone what he would need to know that he wouldn’t learn in college. I collected 220 responses but the short answer is, “Everything.”

Now I knew what to teach (everything) but I had no idea how to teach it.

Although I found Randy’s Last Lecture inspirational, I found the key to realizing my purpose in Jesse Schell’s textbook, The Art of Game Design wherein he presents 100 questions to ask yourself about the game you are designing. He begins with questions like: What is the essential experience of my game? Is my game fun? What problems does my game ask the player to solve? and so on.

As I worked my way through the book it slowly dawned on me that if I substitute “game” with “life” nearly all the questions apply to designing a worthwhile life. And his book ends with question #100—which he calls The Lens of Your Secret Purpose—“To make sure you are working towards your one true purpose, ask yourself the only question that matters: Why am I doing this?”

I wrote to Schell and said that I think the secret of his book is that it was really about designing a life, and he responded, “Heh—you figured out the secret of the book, all right!” I drove to Pittsburgh and interviewed him and you can see that here. I tried to convince him to write a book on designing a life and he said, “I’m too young; I’ll write that when I’m 60.”

I was about to turn 60 so I thought I’d give it a shot, and I began by putting together a pretty good set of questions, which you can find at Q54Club.org. As with Schell’s book, I leave the question of purpose for the very end because if you imagine you need to have a purpose to your life before you can do anything significant then you’re likely to never get very far doing anything whatsoever. But if you start by doing things that both interest you and are of value to others then usually your purpose will reveal itself to you. Your purpose can be like a jigsaw puzzle where you don’t know what the finished picture will look like in which case you can only start trying to fit pieces together and see what materializes.

Another reason to leave purpose for later is because if you don’t have integrity, good values, strength of character, skill, and an understanding of how the world works, then a sense of purpose can be dangerous. This is particularly true if you happen to be wealthy; the misguided fantasies of the poor seldom amount to much but if you have enough money and a desire to feed a nation facing drought then if you don’t know what you are doing you might end up bankrupting all the farmers and doing more harm than good. The poor can afford to learn by their mistakes but they cannot afford to learn by yours.

Don’t sweat purpose. Work up a sweat doing hard work for people wiser than you. Your purpose will come once you’re strong enough.

Poor people do not begrudge the wealthy their riches; they begrudge them their cowardice

Another friend of mine became a financial adviser to the wealthy and he told me that the thing he was most surprised to discover is that the rich are afraid of their wealth. People with nothing will take risks and hit it big but once they have money in the bank they will do everything they can to avoid losing it. This well known psychological effect is called loss aversion, and while it might have had survival value back when we were evolving, these days our species gets hurt when the rich get scared.

Since Yesterday, the 1930s in America is a very readable history of the Great Depression. In it, author Fredrick Lewis Allen (not a relative) explains why the rich came to believe the poor wanted to confiscate their wealth and the poor came to despise the rich. He says, “For the rich and powerful could maintain their prestige only by giving the general public what it wanted. It wanted prosperity, economic expansion. It had always been ready to forgive all manner of deficiencies in the Henry Fords who actually produced the goods, whether or not they made millions in the process. But it was not disposed to sympathize unduly with people who failed to produce the goods, no matter how heart-rending their explanations for their failure.”

When times get tough, the rich need to act as shock absorbers because they can bear risk the rest of us cannot. When the poor are out of work, the rich cannot go on strike. Being of use during hard times is the main reason to be rich. When you think of a better reason then tell me, but until then this is the best one I’ve found.

If you are lucky enough to have an existential crisis, then that is the point of your wealth

I was raised to be irreligious and as a younger man I would envy friends who would react to setbacks with confidence that God has plans for them and all they have to do is figure out what they are.

I am still irreligious but I’ve discovered a trick… You don’t have to believe in God to imagine that he exists and that he has a plan for you. Do that, and when you find that plan—as you shall—it does not necessarily mean you have unearthed evidence God exists. It means that we humans are meaning-seeking machines, and we find what we seek, be it a God, a purpose, or a pattern in the plot of a stock price.

A good multipurpose reason to exist is to be of use to people like yourself. Even if you aren’t screwed up, some of your peers sure are. Helping them will help you more than merely helping yourself alone. (See: The Problem with Rich Kids.)

Less wealthy people might imagine that when rich kids get together at places like the United Nations for things like the Nexus Youth Summit it is to plot world domination or at least compare notes on the best places to moor a yacht.

I suspect that is not what you are doing.

My guess is that you’re trying to help each other solve the predicament you are in, and I see that finding a purpose is on the agenda. Bravo!

Tell me what you think

I don’t really know what happens at Nexus because my application to attend was denied; apparently only a very limited number of spots are available to people over 40. That’s OK—I can handle it—after all, yours is a “youth summit.” Besides, my generation didn’t trust anyone over 30, so you’re making progress of sorts.

It doesn’t matter because if you are reading this then I’ve gotten to tell you what I think anyway, and if you write back then you get to tell me what you think. Your response will turn this sermon into a dialogue, and it is more important that we communicate than where we do it or over what drinks.

One last thing

Given how much you are owed by the world, you might ask if you owe the world anything.

You do.

You must strive to be the best possible version of yourself that you can be. We all owe that to each other and to ourselves. All other species follow this mandate and those among us who are born better endowed are not exempted from living up to their potential just because they have more of it. You must do your part because we humans are humanity’s only hope. With the possible exception of our house pets, all other species are too busy being the best they can be and they don’t have time to care if we pull through.

This story first appeared in Quartz on July 24, 2014.

Author: Brooke Allen

Founder – Viral Virtue, Inc.

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