Understanding Wealth – A Letter To My Father’s Grandchildren
This is a letter I wrote to my father’s grandchildren today:
As you may know, my father left my mother and me when I was about 3. That’s when the physical separation occurred. Other kinds of separations, breakdowns in communications, probably occurred before then. I’m speculating, piecing things together – again, I was only 3. By 4, mom and I lived in another state.
By the time I was in my teens, I would spend summers with my dad, and he would look at me often with words and expressions that conveyed a dismayed, “How do you not understand these things?”
I did not have sufficient understanding at the time and I was not articulate enough to respond by saying, “Well, maybe it is because I didn’t have a father from age 3 until now, to give me the thousands of cues, boundaries, instructions, and definitions that come with having another parent around each day growing up.”
In the summers, dad would spend a great deal of time trying to explain things to me, probably much more directly than his father had spent time with him on those kinds of discussions. In those 3 generations, starting at the dawn of the 20th century, through to my generation, each newer generation tended to communicate more than the previous.
But for all of my dad’s amazing social and communication skills, he would still concede that sometimes he doesn’t know how to find good words. On some level, and for many other strong reasons (such as my deficits and inaptitude in those areas), that’s one of the reasons I studied writing, English, and literature.
I have never been a successful career person. So, any advice from me on those topics should be vetted with many salts. But I have done reasonably well at preserving and caring for the personal and monetary assets I’ve been given.
One thing I don’t think I understood very well until recently was the concept of wealth.
Dad once gave me a book to read by the famous real estate author Robert G. Allen, titled “Creating Wealth.” I have no recollection of how that book defined “wealth.” If my memory is correct, it was more a book about leveraging great personal debt to make money in residential real estate. In hindsight, the book understated the risks to such endeavors, especially if either: a) real estate values do not appreciate quickly, or b) vacancy rates rise unexpectedly (for many easy to understand reasons, such as: unemployment, an industry moving out of the area, or any other area-specific or nationwide economic decline), or c) your separate sources of cash flow (such as losing your job or other investment income) dry up.
Dad had me read other books that were more philosophical about definitions of concepts and philosophies, books and ideas that might not only motivate a person to build great wealth, but also might practically facilitate habits that could build great wealth.
If most people were asked to define “wealth,” I’m guessing a common definition might be: having a lot of cash or other income producing assets. Or on a personal level: having many good relationships with family, friends, and business colleagues.
And those people might be correct.
After visiting dad last weekend, and consciously and subconsciously thinking about these topics, here is my definition of wealth:
Wealth is not simply achieved by acquiring many assets.
Instead, wealth is having the knowledge, skills, resources, and connections to practically alleviate suffering, promote pleasures, disarm fears, and improve health for yourself and your communities.”
Why does a definition of “wealth” matter?
If a person’s understanding of “wealth” is childish (as portrayed in the current AT&T wireless commercials where “faster” is better than “slower” and “powerful” is better than “weaker”), then the pursuit of wealth can appear distorted or misplaced. For a child, wealth might be considered: Having the ability to pour even more sugar on your corn flakes.
But as you get older, and you realize you may not want more sugar on your corn flakes, literally or figuratively, then will that kind of definition of “wealth” deter someone from striving to facilitate more wealth?
When I was with my Dad last weekend, he was relaying some of the recent things he has been working on. Most of his tasks were elective, things he did not need to do, but problems he was choosing to take on. He was helping a family find a rental – where no rentals could be found. He was helping an entrepreneur with some business concepts. He was helping another woman with a personal liability legal claim. He was gutting and remodeling a house primarily for his children’s benefit. He was helping another woman fix her dental bridge. He was performing the teaching floor’s root canals that were too complex for the students, helping alleviate the pain that feels like a nail being pried slowly into your gums. And those were just some of the “other people’s problems” he was taking on during that one visit.
How do so many things get on his plate when he does not need to do any of them? As you my know, he only practiced for about 15 years. He has been volunteer teaching dentistry (for no pay) now for over 20 years, more years than he practiced. Why would he spend so much time teaching others for free? Why doesn’t he just live off the money he has saved and keep life simple? Why take on all the constant risks?
Remember, he came from a family that had little money.
Here is how I understand my father and the risks he elects to take on:
What if “wealth” is not having many assets?
Instead, what if “wealth” is having the knowledge, skills, resources, and connections to practically alleviate suffering, promote pleasures, disarm fears, and improve health for yourself and your communities?
My dad likes to help people. I don’t think he does it because he’s altruistic. I’m fairly certain he does none of it with hopes of receiving some kind of Heavenly favor or preferred status. If I had to guess, I’d guess my dad just thinks people who are suffering don’t deserve to suffer. And that is more than enough to motivate him from inaction into risk-taking on their behalf.
I was talking to myself in California, asking myself:
How did dad create so many good things for so many people around him?
And the answer came back to me clearly:
Every day he planned and worked to create many good things for many people around him.
He achieved what he pursued. Maybe more importantly (or at least more beneficially), he made sure his pursuits were large and aimed to benefit many people.
Dad worked so all his kids and grandkids could get advanced educational degrees. He wanted each of them to do smart work.
And at the core of the motivation for all of those expansive and diverse educations, I think he wanted his kids, family, and friends to be wealthy. Not in just the sense of having many assets. But rather, I think he likes to see individuals become very educated in as many areas as possible so they can alleviate their own suffering and the suffering of others.
He teaches dentistry for many reasons. But in many ways, he is teaching others how to help themselves and help others. The cycle and ripples don’t stop and fill up a finite-volume pool. Rather, the effects are intended to spill over and over.
Why am I telling you this now?
I’m not good at helping a person know what to study in college or how to pick “the one correct” career. But sometimes I’m okay at defining words and terms. And often, I’m good at fixing things and making sense of things in diverse areas of complexity.
So, if you’re ever in doubt about what to study or what to work at or what to focus on, maybe don’t worry too much about those questions, questions that tend to be framed toward singular answers. Rather, when in doubt, study it all, and work toward being able to help others fix as many things as come across your radar. That’s what your grandfather does.
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