Sometimes not even a billion bucks can give you the feeling that you have enough.
Joseph Heller (1923-1999) was a popular American satirical novelist, short story writer and playwright. He wrote the famous novel Catch-22 about American servicemen during World War II. The title of course became accepted usage in the Queen's language to refer to logical paradoxes, no-win situations with impossible outcomes or when a negative outcome is certain regardless of choice. In the United States, Heller is regarded as one of the best post-World War II satirists.
Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), another influential American writer and a good friend of Heller's, published an ode to Heller in the New Yorker magazine, following Heller's death. The setting of the poem is a party thrown by a wealthy hedge fund manager that both Heller and Vonnegut attended. Here's a copy of the short but extremely insightful poem about money, life and above all Heller's wonderful attitude towards both:
True story, Word of Honor
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer/now dead,/and I were at a party given by a billionaire on Shelter island./I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel/to know that our host only yesterday/may have made more money/than your novel ‘Catch-22'/has earned in its entire history?” And Joe said, “I've got something he can never have.”/And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”/And Joe said, “The knowledge that I've got enough.”/Not bad! Rest in peace! By Kurt Vonnegut
This column has spent a lot of time and energy in educating readers about money: how to earn it, spend it, save it and grow it. But at the end of the day irrespective of how much money you have, it is unlikely to give you the necessary satisfaction, security, comfort or happiness without the feeling that you have “enough”. While there are a million ways to make money, there is only one way to feel that you have “enough”: by changing your attitude towards it.
Isn't it funny that our nest egg of savings and investments is referred to as our “net worth” in today's parlance? Does this mean that the entire worth of human life is the sum of his/her portfolio holdings? It is inherent in human nature to derive comfort from our nest egg, but it is easy to get enslaved by the very thing that is meant to give us comfort. This especially happens when growing your nest egg becomes the only purpose of your life and the limit is determined by how big someone else's nest egg is.
One of the key reasons for thinking that you may not have “enough” is “envy”. Charlie Munger, the famous investor, often says that it is not “greed” that drives the craziness in this world, but “envy” – the feeling that someone else has more than you. Both Munger and Warren Buffett agree that envy is the worst of the seven deadly sins, because it makes you feel miserable without offering any upside. In fact there is no end to envy. If envy is what drives your life, then it is most likely that you would feel unhappy throughout because there is always someone to feel envious about.
I would like to share with you the story of my grandfather, whom according to me has the best attitude towards life. Here is a man who made his living from scratch with only a diploma in his hand. He has led a healthy middle class life; nothing extraordinary but not short of enjoyment or honesty, worked for the Government throughout, built a house, financially supported his wife, raised three kids until they became independent, married them off, and now well into retirement earning a modest pension of Rs. 15000 a month. Believe it or not, as far as I can remember he has never complained about money as an issue. Recently he confessed to me about how his “net worth” has surpassed his wildest imagination, and frankly he doesn't know what to do with all the money, other than bequeath it to his kids! What I would like to learn from him is how to make the best of what you have, and I think we all should. Once we shape our attitude towards maintaining a sustainable lifestyle out of what we have, it is easy to stay out of the vicious circle of always yearning for more.
The writer is a finance specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.shyamscolumn.com