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McNellis: For the Class of 2017

McNellis, Class 2017, Puget Sound, Seattle

By John McNellis

“Even if all your desires and wishes were fulfilled, you still wouldn’t be happy…” Alan Watts

McNellis, Class 2017, Puget Sound, Seattle
Rather than focus on practical advice* in this year’s remarks, I offer instead a simple observation: I have yet to meet a self-made, wealthy man who has stopped working. Self-made men in their seventies, even eighties, are still at it. They may shift some of their attention to the non-profit world, they may become preoccupied with estate and longer-range planning, but they are working away, still wanting to do deals. Why?

Because it’s not all about the money.

Whenever the opportunity has arisen, I’ve asked the truly prosperous how much is enough and have yet to hear a real number. “It depends,” is the invariable answer. It’s not that they are being cagey, it’s that the successful seldom view their careers as a financial Mt. Everest, something one summits at his personal dollar equivalent of 25,000 feet and then calls it a day.

I have asked this question of both cinematic spenders–owners of private jets, boats that resemble floating office buildings and homes you need two hands to count–and financial hoarders, those psychologically unable to treat themselves to even the most commonplace luxury. Despite their vast differences in outlook and temperament, they still answer, “It depends.” They point out some people are content with a $100,000 a year while a $100,000,000 beggars others. One uncommonly blunt observer replied, “How often is he going to get divorced? Does he need a vineyard or a jet or a ball club or does he collect art? You can blow $50 million on a painting and still feel like a piker.”

But when does money become irrelevant, I would press. When are you working just to keep score? Again, it depends.

I concluded at last that I was asking the wrong question. The better question was the more direct one: Why are you working so hard? The usual answer? Because working is really fun, far more enjoyable than the pastimes of the retired.

Some couldn’t spend their existing wealth if they were to live another 100 years, but they plod on, their newly earned money almost a disincentive, because they must add it to the pile of money they have no idea what to do with when they’re gone. (By the way, no one seems to have that one knocked).

Dear Graduate, this then is the good and bad news: If you were born with the mercantile gene, if you were meant to be successful in business (possibly, as opposed to in life) you’re unlikely to ever stop working. Rather than haunt the country club for the last 20 years of your life, you just may be carried out of your office on your laptop. You will do it not for the money, but because you love it. If, on the other hand, you cannot wait to retire rich, if you crave a life full of fun and adventure unfettered by responsibility and obligation, you might consider lottery tickets because business is highly unlikely to put you on the beach at 30. Chasing wealth is like chasing your tail.

Tacking slightly, I once had a money conversation with a very wealthy man that turned memorably contemplative. In weighing life and its challenges, he mused, “If money can fix it, it’s not a real problem.” For a moment his observation seemed flawless in its simple brilliance. True, no amount of money can make someone love or even like you. And money is helpless against many of life’s worst tragedies, say incurable cancer (in fact, it may prolong the agony) or a loved one’s depression or addiction.

On reflection, however, his aphorism held up only for the 1 percent. Money solves a lot of very real problems for everyone else; it can fix your roof, pay your gas bill and get your kids’ teeth fixed. Money solves serious problems for almost everyone.

Yet, to his point, money’s power to make an individual happier or more content seems to attenuate rapidly as income levels rise. When does it lose its sway over your happiness? Again, it depends.

Liberal economists, those in favor of taxing the rich, have quantified to their satisfaction that your happiness stops at $75,000 a year, that is, you will be no happier making $250,000 a year than you were at $75,000. That number seems a bit low to defend in a business magazine, but the concept—that of diminishing returns—is hard to naysay.

On the other hand, conservative economists–the handmaidens of the rich–shake the bones over largely similar data and draw a different conclusion: Happiness is on the same upward-trajectory as wealth, the richer you are, the happier you are. All the way up to the stars. Are the truly wealthy happier? Not in my personal experience—some are, some are not—but you cannot deny their comfort.

My take, dear Graduate, is that people are just about as happy as they desire to be and, ultimately, above that ambiguous threshold, it has little to do with money.

*(See “For the Class of 2016” link if you are uncertain about the wisdom of tipping, calling your mother or flossing).

John E. McNellis is a Principal at McNellis Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.

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mcnellis-book-coverTo read more from McNellis, please consider his book Making It in Real Estate: Starting Out as a Developer.