Oh, sure, some want to change the world, repair its tears and heal its suffering. They talk about ministering in Asia. Advocating in the Middle East. Digging wells in Africa. Inoculating children in the Andes.
But many, in this season of Pomp and Circumstance, dream of becoming rich. For all the bad-mouthing of the 1 percent, the possibility of great wealth beckons sweetly at graduation. So along with altruism, I hear the chords of ambition, too. My children’s friends, and probably my own kids, too, want to invent the next revolutionary app, launch the next Google, or develop a moribund neighborhood into the next South Beach.
Nothing wrong with that. We need dreamers and disrupters, strivers and seekers. But let me add my two nuggets of advice to the heap that young people will hear at this time of year.
Money isn’t everything — but it is something. I wish I could say otherwise. I wish this were a perfect world, where the zeroes in your back account hardly mattered. I wish money were nothing more than the currency of a transaction, like cowry shells or sea glass. I wish money was more than the end-all and be-all some make it out to be. Wishes, though, aren’t always practical.
So let me suggest another way of looking at the riches that call to us. Money is a tool. It has a purpose. Enough of it allows us to live life as we want to. However, no matter how much we have, not managing it correctly — and boy, do I know people who let money slip through their fingers like water! — can make for misery. Learning to budget is one of the best skills to learn ever.
I think everyone is entitled to make as much as they can, honestly, without undercutting or backstabbing others. But the accumulation of money shouldn’t become a goal unto itself. I doubt the Grim Reaper has ever looked at anyone’s stock portfolio. The finish line remains the same whether you’re rich or poor, but in the meantime a few dollars can buy you more and better education, top-notch healthcare, experiences to last a lifetime. I, for one, wouldn’t want to do without.
Money can also help us do good, and there’s magic in that. Ask the philanthropists. I love the idea of Warren Buffett’s and Bill and Melinda Gates’ The Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world's wealthiest people to give most of what they own to charity. Few of us will accumulate those billions (or anything close to it), but there’s a lot of power in sharing what we do have.
Money buys us freedom, too. To pursue a passion, to retire early, to enjoy grandchildren, to start a business, to go back to school. It’s poison to the soul, however, if we let it define us. And certainly we shouldn’t make it the yardstick by which to measure ourselves.
Which leads me to my second piece of hard-earned wisdom. Letting others define our personal success is a fool’s errand. We are a society consumed by a collective hunger for showy status symbols. Prestige is conferred by the heft of our bank statement. By the car we drive. By the neighborhood we live in. By the brands that clothe us. It’s hard to decline, resist, object. But do, please do. Be yourself.
In the end, most of us go on to live pleasantly ordinary lives. Our names won’t light up marquees or be recorded in history books. Instead our success will be gauged by the relationships we built, the depth of our commitment to family and friends, by the values that guided us. True class will be found in the quality of our compassion.
Everything else — the money, the stellar accomplishments, the possessions — they’ll be merely extra flavoring.
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