In the beginning, my personal story was not unfamiliar. I came from humble beginnings, my parents were immigrant laborers, with four kids and we grew up with little money. Then, in my late teens, I was influenced and inspired by Napoleon Hill's 1937 book Think and Grow Rich, and set out to become wealthy. I succeeded.
The peculiar thing was that there never seemed to be a finite dollar amount that would satisfy my needs, no finish line per se. It didn't come quite as an 'aha moment' or an epiphany, but as my fortune grew, so did my gradual gnawing sense of futility, in spite of everything I was achieving. I started feeling that classic, is that it? Is that all there is?
Excess Wealth is an Illusion
On the subject of excess wealth, which Andrew Carnegie defined in the article The Gospel of Wealth written in 1889, is any amount in excess of what one needs to take care of one's family, I have come to the conclusion that it provides nothing but an illusion to its owner. A mountain of money turns out to be quite useless when you die. It's only real purpose is to create even more wealth.
Learning to Give
I eventually became more and more philanthropic, for the simple reason that it gave me great joy and satisfaction that I never came close to experiencing while I was creating wealth. As I started turning my attention to how I could help others, I began to think a lot about the meaning of wealth, life and purpose. I have written and spoken on many occasions on this topic and more recently, began a Twitter campaign titled @dearrichpeople with the purpose of provoking thought.
You Can't Take It with You
A good friend of mine passed away last year. I visited him frequently in the final months of his illness and we often discussed life and death. One day he said, Frank, almost everything we work for and worry about in life is meaningless when you are about to die. All of this (pointing to the furniture and art in the room) is useless. You take nothing with you. Our belongings, our egos, our successes, what we stress about, it means nothing. The only thing you take with you is love, especially the love for your children. Having two kids of my own, this last point resonated in a powerful way.
I believe those of us who have had financial success often fall into the trap of forgetting that death is inevitable. As much as we know this to be true, we don't believe it. Conversing with a dying friend or family member may give us brief moments of absolute clarity, but we usually slip back into the daily grind and don't give it much further thought.
But what if we could only hold on to that clarity throughout our daily lives? Might we behave differently? How we make use of our wealth is an important consideration.
Philanthropy is Far From a Wasted Spend
We should remind ourselves that using wealth simply to create additional wealth, and hoping that will bring peace, happiness and immortality, is nothing but an illusion. Once the needs of family are met, we should use the rest for social good. Personally, I want to demonstrate the love I have for my children by making them proud of me.
Some see philanthropy as nothing more than band-aid solutions for issues that need long-term fixing, and use that as an excuse not to give. But, as philanthropy evolves, especially in the area of impact investing with organizations like the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, who focusses on sustainable, scalable and measurable results, that excuse is no longer valid.
Whether your legacy is built on charitable donations or impact investments, Dear Rich People, please give this some serious consideration.
If in the end, love is all we take away, why not give our children something to really brag about? Let's be examples for compassion and a life lived with purpose.
You can't take money with you, so use it to create a legacy your kids can be proud of.