Monday, August 20, 2007

Unhappy Millionaires

It’s the classic "man bites dog" headline: “Millionaires Who Don’t Feel Rich”.

The New York Times’ story is about the Silicon Valley. It’s an area with so many billionaires and mega-millionaires, that the average, single digit millionaire feels like a nobody. The report in the Times says that:

“People around here, if they have 2 or 3 million dollars, they don’t feel secure,” said David W. Hettig, an estate planner based in Menlo Park who has advised Silicon Valley’s wealthy for two decades.”

So there you have it: unhappy millionaires. For the Rabbis, this unhappiness is easy to understand. Pirkei Avot teaches us:

"Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot."

Of course, this discontent is often fueled by pure jealousy:

“Everyone around here looks at the people above them,” said Gary Kremen, the 43-year-old founder of, a popular online dating service. “It’s just like Wall Street, where there are all these financial guys worth $7 million wondering what’s so special about them when there are all these guys worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Mr. Kremen estimated his net worth at $10 million. That puts him firmly in the top half of 1 percent among Americans, according to wealth data from the Federal Reserve, but barely in the top echelons in affluent towns like Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton. So he logs 60- to 80-hour workweeks because, he said, he does not think he has nearly enough money to ease up.

“You’re nobody here at $10 million,” Mr. Kremen said earnestly over a glass of pinot noir at an upscale wine bar here."

It would be easy to mock these yuppie millionaires and their foolish insecurities. But for the most part, the people interviewed in the article are intelligent and thoughtful. They have thought a lot about their choices; but they feel driven and overwhelmed at the same time. What are they doing wrong?

Well, what they're doing right is working. People need to work hard. Even if ambition is rooted in some of our baser instincts, ambition is still very important.

The Talmud has pointed out (as did Adam Smith), without self interest and ambition, the world would not develop. We need productive, hard working people, no matter how large their bank accounts may be.

But even the Type A’s need to learn how to appreciate life. Ambition is wonderful, as long as it doesn't destroy our lives.

To this end, the Bible offers a simple formula:

Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the LORD thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work…

The Torah is reminding us that one must both work and rest. First, work six days and be productive. God made man in his image, to be creative and to improve the world.

However, with all of that work, man must still remember his own limitations, and that the divine blessing of life needs to be savored as well. That’s why one day a week, you need to put your ambition aside, sit back, and savor the world around you.

So to all those unhappy millionaires out there: Six days a week in the Silicon Valley, work away; but on the Sabbath, rest your ambitions and let your soul loose.

I can assure you that you’ll feel like a million dollars!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Joys of Cancer??

It’s hard to see a silver lining to cancer.

The very word cancer strikes fear into most people’s hearts. In Yiddish, the word cancer is avoided, and usually referred to as “yener machala” (“that disease”). So why on earth has Betty Rollin written a book about the bright side of cancer?

Well, because she’s a cancer survivor. Having lost a mother to cancer, and battled cancer twice herself, she can speak with some authority on the subject. She recounts in her most recent book that:

“I woke up one morning and realized I was happy. This struck me as weird. Not that I didn’t have all kinds of things to be happy about — love, work, good health, enough money, the usual happy-making stuff. The weird part is, I realized that the source of my happiness was, of all things, cancer — that cancer had everything to do with how good the good parts of my life were.”

Believe it or not, Rollins’ reaction to her disease is far from unique. An article in the New York Times lists several authors who have written about finding happiness while struggling with cancer. One author, Wendy Schlessel Harpham, put it this way:

“Without a doubt, illness is bad, yet survivorship — from the time of diagnosis and for the balance of life — can include times of great joy among the hardships. You can find happiness.”

Finding happiness while suffering from cancer seems impossible. Yet remarkably enough, several cancer survivors in the article agreed with Lance Armstrong’s sentiment that “cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

(I have to stop for a moment to add a disclaimer. Having observed too many times the havoc cancer wreaks, I know that one must write with sensitivity on this difficult subject. It is even more important to remember that each situation is unique, and certainly no patient or family should be judged by how “positive” or “negative” other people were. One must also remember, that even those patients who have reported positive experiences are not positive all the time; the “happy” ones cry a lot and suffer as well. And it would be a crime if the observations of these authors were used to make any person suffering or mourning feel guilty for not being “positive enough”.)

This notion is counterintuitive. Cancer makes it much harder to be happy. If it’s so difficult to grab a few moments of happiness, how happy can you really be?

Really happy. These authors have stumbled on the essence of the human spirit: the harder we try, the sweeter the success.

A concept championed by Kabbalists is the idea of the “bread of shame”. The Kabbalists believe that God created the world out love for mankind, so they can do good deeds and be rewarded for them. Well, if that’s so, ask the Kabbalists, why would God make being good so difficult?

The response is based on the analogy of the “bread of shame’. A person gains much more joy from a piece of bread he earned by his own hard work, than he does from a piece of bread handed to him. There is nothing more precious to human beings than their independence, their ability to be the masters of their own lives. When someone is handed a loaf of bread, they are embarrassed, because they have lost their independence and must beg for bread of shame.

For this reason following the good path is always difficult. To be good because it’s easy to be good would compromise human greatness, and would deprive man of his ability to choose his own destiny. If God had made it easy for us to be good, the rewards given for goodness would be the “bread of shame”. When we have to work hard to achieve the goal of goodness, the unique satisfaction of that triumph is the greatest reward.

These authors, writing about the joys of cancer, have stumbled on the concept of the “bread of shame”. When you must battle to find joy and happiness in times of difficulty, that hard fought joy is so much sweeter than anything else.

Happiness warriors know how hard we all have to battle for happiness. But we know that it is actually the battle itself that makes the achievement even more satisfying. Happiness is not served up on silver platters; but when you manage to create it on your own, it is a remarkable experience.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

5 Minute Jewish Wisdom

I’m starting a series soon on Radio Shalom, Montreal’s Jewish radio station, of short inspirational commentaries. They will comment on passages in an ancient Jewish book, Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), and center on insights related to day to day life: on proper judgment, the pros and cons of snobbery, the importance of focus, etc. Below is a written version of the first commentary, on the first Mishna (passage) in Chapters of the Fathers.

Be Deliberate in Judgment

The first Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says:

The Men of the Great Assembly said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah."

This Mishna is primarily intended as advice for judges; deliberate carefully before rendering judgment.

But the genius of this Mishna goes beyond the jurist, and provides excellent advice for the average man in the street.

The advice is simple: Don’t rush to judgment!!

All of us, whether or not we are judges, have to make hundreds of judgments a day.

You meet someone, you have to judge their personality; you buy something, you have to judge its value; you make plans, you have to judge their usefulness. We’re constantly judging every aspect of the world around us.

The Mishna is reminding all of us to judge carefully and methodically. Snap judgments are often corrupted by preconceived notions and emotional responses.

Many people have made foolish snap judgments.

An executive director at a large charity in Toronto (who will remain anonymous) can tell you about judging someone by their appearance. An older man in a rumpled suit and somewhat gruff manner showed up in his office one day, asking to join his board. The executive director dismissed him immediately, assuming that a lack of fashion sense and social graces meant he had little to offer. Unfortunately, he soon found out that he had turned away someone who was about to become one of Toronto’s largest philanthropists. Like all snap judgments, judging a book by its cover is simply knee jerk stupidity.

Richard Jewell can tell you about preconceived notions. On July 27, 1996, during the Summer Olympics, Jewell alerted the Atlanta police about a suspicious package that turned out to be a bomb. Because some of the elements in Jewell’s life resembled a hypothetical FBI profile of the bomber, the FBI immediately assumed Jewell was guilty. Only on October 25th, 3 months later, did the FBI realize they had besmirched the reputation of the one true hero of that July evening.

Jesse Ramirez can tell you about emotional decisions made in haste. As the Arizona Republic reports:

“Ramirez suffered major brain injuries in a car accident on May 30. Doctors said the injuries could have left him blind or in a permanent vegetative state.On June 8, his wife, Rebecca, asked doctors to remove his food and water tubes….Now, he can hug and kiss, nod his head, answer yes and no questions, give a thumbs-up sign and sit in a chair...”

Luckily, Jesse didn’t die because the rest of his family stopped his wife from removing life support. But it’s not just Jesse; hasty hospital decisions affect a lot of people. I see people overwhelmed by emotion, frightened that they will have to watch a loved one linger in a permanent vegetative state, make foolish and hasty decisions about a relative’s life. Tragically, snap decisions made in an ICU have life and death consequences.

The Mishna is advising judges to be thorough in researching a verdict. But its advice goes beyond judges. It is reminding the rest of us, who make multiple judgments every day, never to rush to judgment.