How much money is enough, and what will I do with myself when I get there?
This question is just as challenging for multimillionaires as it is for dollar-a-day farmers. The dilemma is tantalizingly similar for both.
For the one-acre farmer whose family now has enough to eat for the whole year because they have increased their income to three dollars a day, the question is what's next? Do they keep increasing their income from farming, or focus on educating their kids, stabilizing their income, and living a happy rural life?
For the multimillionaire, the question is what's next?
Do they keep making deals and growing their income just like they have been, or take advantage of their economic freedom to make a passionate commitment to write a great novel, make the world a better place, or pursue some other dream?
Small farmers who live on less than a dollar a day often have surprisingly big dreams. A one-acre farmer in Himachal Pradesh, India had just gone deeply into hock to build a small greenhouse where he had started growing carnations and roses for the Delhi market. His eyes widened as we talked about what he could do with low cost drip irrigation. After we finished our tea, he asked for my card. Eight months later, he sent me an email from his newly acquired Apple computer connected to the internet. He told me his business was growing fast, and he would continue growing it.
When you start out below the survival line, enough money means access to food, shelter, and clothing. But how far should poor people go beyond that? How much is enough?
At the other end of the spectrum, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, with $53 billion and $47 billion respectively, have decided to give their money away.
Why give it away? Because it gives meaning to their lives, and because the marginal value of wealth beyond a certain amount becomes trivial.
I have several friends who have accumulated millions of dollars from a variety of enterprises, and I ask each of them the same thing.
"What's your number?"
"What do you mean? They ask.
"Your number is the amount of money you and your family needs to live comfortably." For example, if you need $100,000 a year, and expect to earn 5 percent each year on your assets, your number is $2 million. Once you've reached your number, you can start doing whatever you've always dreamt of doing all your life."
"What is it that you've always dreamt of doing?"
This is where it gets to the hard part. They may very well say
"That's interesting. But I like doing deals, so I think I'll keep doing it"
"That's fine" I say, but some people dream all their life that if they don't need to be a working stiff any more, they dream of writing the next great novel, or becoming a professional scuba diver, or a minister, or a philanthropist, or an actress. What's your dream?"
That's when we get into a really interesting discussion. Because a deep exploration about living the next dream often turns out to be the most challenging, upsetting and happily transformative things they have ever done.
What if you dream of writing the next great novel, and once you have time to do it you find you really can't write worth a lick? Sadly, a great many just pass on the creative struggle of learning about their deeper gifts and dreams, and just keep on doing what they've been doing all along without thinking about it too much.
I have no doubt that the greatest peace and satisfaction comes to people who become passionately committed to something.
Warren Buffett's passion and commitment is to continue making money to hand over to Bill Gates, whose passion and commitment is to make the world a better place through the Gates Foundation. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, announced in 2010 that he will donate $100 million toward improving public schools in Newark, New Jersey, and a friend of mine who is an internist in Toronto is passionately involved in a nature preserve he started in Ecuador connected to his university.
What's your passion and commitment for the years you have left?
For me, the opportunity to satisfy my insatiable curiosity and tackle the problems of extreme poverty that most people see as unsolvable has been more fun, and has brought more of a sense of deep peace, than anything I could have ever imagined. It all started when I reached my number from real estate investments 45 years ago.
The challenge is the same for the family who has moved from one dollar to three dollars a day and the entrepreneur who has become a multi-millionaire. How far up the economic scale should the poor family dream of moving to be happy? And how should the person who has become a multi-millionaire decide what to do next?