Is Plenty Enough?

money_bagHumans are strange creatures.  We seem compelled to learn and relearn, but then we ignore what’s in our own best interest.  Consider the concept that “If I just had ‘X‘, then my life would be perfect.”  This is where life experiences (and a bit of hard knocks during those experiences) become beneficial.

I was thinking recently about large-sum lottery winners who end up in fragile financial and psychological trouble soon after they gain their windfall.  This always seems contradictory to folks like me, who grew up playing the “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” game.  The most respected and evenly balanced millionaires we know of will tell you that the only appropriate answer is, “Start making the next million.”

That may not sound sexy.  It may even sound crass at first blush, but it certainly gets to the heart of the dangers inherent in becoming too wealthy too quickly.  I think the idea of focusing on making the next million actually pulls some of the power away from the money.  It speaks to the concept of continuing on a path focused on achievement, reinforcing the simple idea that it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.  Any kid who has gone trick-or-treating on halloween understands this concept intuitively.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, there were lots and lots of houses to hit up for a late October sugar fix.  I used to take a heavy pillow case and after 2 hours of beggary, lug that sack of sucrose home.  I even recall one or two seasons where I would come home, offload, then hit the streets again.  Woo hoo!  Dump it, sort it, trade it, then dive in.  The results?  Broken sleep, tummy ache, and the classic sugar hangover.  It was awful.  Then for two weeks I’d end up eating my candy more judiciously, not because I was rationing – I just didn’t want another candy-crushing, belly busting head splitter.  There would even be days when I would (gasp) forget about the candy all together.  Three weeks later, and the rest of the candy would get dumped into the trash.  No favorites left, most of it was stale and besides, Christmas candy would soon arrive – yay!

We’ve all heard stories of large-sum lottery winners scoring 3 million dollars.  Within a year they’ve blown through it all, gotten divorced, wrapped the Ferrari around a utility pole and ended up in a more unhappy place than they ever were before.  We immediately think “Wow!  That would never happen to me!”  Don’t be so sure.  Let’s flip this scenario onto it’s head in order to get a better picture of the psychological discrepancy between what we think will happen, and what will actually happen.

This is easy to consider, we need only go back to the stock market crash of 1929.  (NOTE: If you’re under the age of 30 you are required to click that link!)  I’m thinking now about poverty instead of wealth, looking at the psychology of dramatic financial changes for individuals.  When the crash occurred it basically hit the U.S. population this way:

  • The poor were not dramatically affected financially, they were already poor – but suddenly they had an awful lot of competition.  If you were poor before the crash I hereby give you permission to be smug about it.  Get out of my breadline you newbie!
  • The middle were dramatically affected, especially those who never had a real sense of fiscal responsibility.  Consider this; do you have any money in the bank right now?  Any stocks or mutual funds?  Imagine that it all zeroed out this instant, never to return.  Really imagine it.  You know what immediately leaps into my mind?  My family, and how much food we currently have in our pantry.  Oh yeah, and don’t bother coming to work today, you’re job is gone too.
  • The rich were pretty much crushed as well.  They were easy to identify, they were the ones jumping off the tops of those beautiful skyscrapers.  Why jump?  I like to think it was because they made the mistake of believing that the money itself was important.  Some of them may have jumped because they felt guilty about their own role in bringing the crash about.  OK, don’t be glib, stop clapping, this is serious stuff.

If we look back at the overall impact of the ’29 crash over the next two decades we begin to see some astonishing and selfless behavior.  We stopped being so judgmental about our neighbor’s status because we were all in the same boat.  In other words, humanity crept back into our humanity.  People (politicians included) began focusing attention on how to fix the problems.  We had hit rock bottom so we all looked for solutions.  We didn’t pass out blame, we offered up potential remedies. One important remedy was to live within our means.  As individuals we focused on having enough.

This is not a history lesson on finances, it’s a history lesson on being a human mammal.  In the 21st century it is critical that we think globally about everyone currently trotting around on ol’ mother earth.  No one ever said capitalism is perfect and if they did they were lying.  The trick here is to see that no system dealing with large populations will ever be perfect.  That said, we don’t need any neg-head doomsday predictors, blathering on about the evils of western ways.  Neither do we need any more self-rightous  “we deserve it, na-na-na-na-na” finger-waggers, blind to the needs of others.  If we as individuals can keep our heads cool and recognize what we actually need (not what we want), then the larger population (including our global neighbors) all benefit as well.

Charity does indeed begin at home, and a large part of that charity has nothing to do with money or possessions.  Included in that self-help charity is understanding how much you need right now.  Charity can then spread outward when we as individuals, families, communities and countries take a sober look at our own psychological understanding of plenty.

In reply to my initial question “Is Plenty Enough?”, I’m going to check the ‘YES’ box.  When you recognize that you yourself have plenty, that’s enough.   ~TH~

Comments?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!