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!

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