Scrooge McDuck made his wealth tangible by filling a room with gold coins and then diving in. Ouch. Doing the same thing with paper money is softer, but no less ridiculous. Do you know where all that money has been? Imagine the paper cuts. Most monetary wealth today is intangible. Even the phrase, “you’re only rich on paper” no longer applies because most assets are stored as magnetic patterns. There is considerable, tangible wealth, that isn’t in my wallet, and sometimes I have to remind myself of how rich I am.
I went for a walk the other night. My neighborhood is almost as quiet and dark as I’d like. We’re down here on the tip of the island, six miles from the highway. We aren’t on the way to anywhere unless you have a boat in our marina. A nighttime walk can be right down the middle of the road with no traffic and just enough street lights for a walker to connect the dots without disturbing the views of the stars or the clouds. I’ve said before that I think I don’t have “enough”. That was on my mind as I wandered the neighborhood.
Intellectually I know that I am wealthier than most of the people on the planet. I live in America well above the poverty line. I ponder having enough to sustain a happy, healthy, long life. The majority of the species is hoping to have enough for tomorrow’s meal. Logically I have nothing to worry about.
Emotionally I worry. Write a book about my personal finance (Dream. Invest. Live.) and such issues as enough and wealth are far less private, even without blogging. Despite the book and this blog, I’d have the same internal conversation. Part of my emotional response is tied to my mathematical appreciation for my financial situation. The numbers might add up, but nothing is certain and some highly probable events haven’t happened yet. So, I worry.
I am also an optimist and a dreamer. “What If” games are one of my favorite pastimes. As I strolled, I wondered. What would be different right now if I was rich? Years ago, when I first pondered that possibility, the answer came slowly and as a revelation. Now it comes quickly and with a chuckle. The answer is almost always “nothing”.
I was out for an evening walk. If I was worth ten million dollars (a man can dream) I’d probably be out for a walk. I’d possibly live in the same house and therefore the same neighborhood (I might own the adjoining vacant lots though.). The stars would look the same. The weather wouldn’t be any different. The neighbor’s dog stranded on a wintry porch would still be barking at me.
The same revelation came to mind while I was walking across Scotland in the Fall of 2010. It was Scotland. It was autumn. Why wasn’t I on some warm, sandy, sunny beach? What would be different if I was worth a lot more? I realized that I was walking because I wanted to. I was in Scotland for many reasons. Sitting on a beach is a nice stereotypical vacation, but I wanted to move not sit, and I wanted to walk hundreds of miles through a place that was friendly, safe, and comfortable. More money wouldn’t change the fact that most towns only had one inn. More money wouldn’t change the weather. Rocks would get in my shoes, and rain would fall on my head regardless of my bank account.
The other day I was day dreaming again while looking out at Puget Sound. I’m a space cadet, so I am aware of the desolation of every planet that our probes have visited. I put myself in the position of a galactic tourist who was given the opportunity to travel to the richest planet they could imagine. Then I looked at the view again and laughed. The forests, mountains, clouds, water were all rich in detail; and, the much of the richness wasn’t static. A tree is infinitely rich in detail because of its fractal nature. Temporally it changes from seed to maturity to termite dust. Expand the view to include its neighbors, overlapping but not intertwined branches, and the neighborhood populated with squirrels, crows, and the requisite termites. I laughed when I realized the richness of my view.
Such wealth is to be appreciated. It doesn’t fill the fridge or pay the bills, but it shouldn’t be discounted either. We overlook considerable wealth every day.
I don’t feel wealthy when I pay my bills, but am glad that I can pay them. I do feel wealthy though when I list my skills, my talents, my network of friends, my good fortune to be born in America, my lifestyle, my books, my photos, and even my work history as an engineer. There may be great chaos under heaven, but the situation is excellent – probably. I even feel wealthy when I look at my portfolio. It isn’t enough now, but I’m glad to have that much invested in good companies.
Most people I know are worried about money, even those with enough. One of the downsides of American culture is the problem Johnny Rocco had in Key Largo (a fine Bogie and Bacall movie).
Frank McCloud: He wants more, don’t you, Rocco?
Johnny Rocco: Yeah. That’s it. More. That’s right! I want more!
Our culture frequently teaches that more is never enough. Resisting that societal pressure is difficult, but highly beneficial.
Of all the people I know who worry about money, I am impressed the most with the ones that have an idea of what enough means for them, that they are invested in something, and are positive about their possibilities while being realistic about risk and their situation. That level of understanding is more than mathematical. Understanding enough and understanding risk means understanding self.
The greatest wealth is in appreciating what you already have within you and around you. The old axiom is that the best investment is in yourself. That usually refers to education or entrepreneurship, but I think it extends to an appreciation for experience and connections. The most tangible wealth that I know of is each other and this planet. Reach out and touch someone – and go for a walk.