In the early 2000s, I was an early employee at a Silicon Valley technology company that designs and markets cutting-edge computer processing chips. When I started, there were a few dozen other people. When I left, there were thousands. I was a computer processor engineer, architect, and manager. The company is now one of the largest and most successful in the world.
I made some number of million dollars. I never really figured out exactly how much it was. I think it might have been around $5 million. I know that my adjusted gross income in at least one year was about $1.5 million. I was making at least $500,000 per year.
Some people say that “money doesn’t make you happy,” yet they continue striving to be more wealthy in the hope of becoming more happy. It’s one thing to say it or think it, and it’s another thing altogether to experience it.
Money doesn’t make you happy, and it doesn’t make you content either. I remember getting to the end of a particularly challenging but satisfying project, putting my feet up on my desk, taking a deep breath, and realizing that I had it all.
I had the fancy million-dollar house in Mountain View (where Google is based). I had a small mortgage on that house, but I could have paid that off any time I wanted. I had a house in another country that I owned outright. I had the luxury cars that I purchased with cash. I had the attractive wife at home. I was highly respected where I worked. I had freedom to work on whatever I chose. I had a very high salary, lucrative stock options, and more money than I knew what to do with.
But I felt anxious and dissatisfied. On some level, my striving for success had been driven by a belief that my deep suffering would go away when I had enough wealth. I learned first-hand that once our basic needs are taken care of, the level of contentment and happiness we experience has nothing to do with how much wealth we have.
In fact, wealth can actually make life worse. We can use wealth to distract us from our deeper issues by spending money on things we don’t need, or worrying about losing our wealth. Life might also get a lot more complicated with wealth.
I have become aware that I tend to worry about not having enough money in the future, and that this fear has been with me all of my life. It is not correlated with my net equity or my net cash-flow.
You can only help people to help themselves
Instead of buying a holiday home at Lake Tahoe or a some investment properties, I purchased a house in another country for some members of my extended family to live in. I let them live there without paying rent for a few years. I was essentially giving them tens of thousands of dollars per year from my own pocket.
I later found out that these people resented me for doing this. They felt that I was treating them like children and claimed that I had not included them in the process of choosing and buying the house. They claimed that I had caused them to lose the favorable tenancy for a much smaller house that they had with their previous landlord. They claimed that they didn’t like the house that I had bought.
Financially, I lost not only the rent for that house, but enormous amounts of money in currency exchanges, in buying and selling fees, and in having a very low return on investment. The whole process consumed much of my time and energy over an extended period time.
I used to believe that people were inherently reasonable and good. This process taught me that I should not assume that people can be relied upon, or that other people will necessarily receive from me in the same way that I receive from others.
I learned another big lesson from this. I now never help people who don’t ask me for help, and even then I only help them to the extent that they ask. I also look for ways that I can help that don’t compromise my own position, and that require the least outlay of my money, time, and effort.
There will always be someone richer than you
If you equate your worth to how much stuff you have, then you will always be noticing people who have more than you, and you will always be feeling that you don’t measure-up.
If you suffer from this, you’re not going to get to some magical level of net worth and finally realize that you are valuable. In fact, the problem is going to just get worse. I bought a bigger, fancier house in Mountain View, mostly because I didn’t think that my house in Santa Clara was fancy enough. I couldn’t, at that time, buy the level of fanciness that some of my friends could. When I moved to Mountain View, one couple I knew moved from Palo Alto—which is already nicer than Mountain View—to Los Altos Hills, which is super-fancy.
The trick is to figure out how much money you actually need and want in order to get your pragmatic needs met. How much money do you need to live a reasonable lifestyle? Optionally, you could also work out how much wealth you need to accumulate in order to become financially independent while living your chosen lifestyle.
It’s also important to heal the wound that makes you strive to feel valuable based on what you have. I believed that I was fundamentally worthless. Through a process of psychotherapy, coaching, authentic friendships, and healing intimate relationships, I came to understand that I have a rich intrinsic value. Others enjoy me just for my essence, and I learned how to internalize that so that now I can enjoy myself just for my essence also.
Luxury is an addictive drug
The frugal blogger Mr. Money Mustache tells us that luxury is weakness. Luxury is an addictive drug. Until we understand this, it has the power to ruin our lives.
I remember driving my brand new luxury sports car and noticing that my identity was becoming tied up with the car. I realized that this super-expensive car would wear out and then I would need to buy another one. To keep my identity, I would need to keep generating a lot of money. It was like having a drug habit. The car didn’t make me feel that good, but the idea of not having the car felt lame. So I realized that I would need to keep having that fix to feel normal.
This process of getting the drug to get back to normal is a common experience for drug addicts. Also, tolerance to the drug increases with abuse over time. An amount of the drug that was once satisfying starts to not have the desired effect. We find that we need more and more of the substance or experience to get back to normal.
The problem is that, as the U2 lyric goes, “You can never get enough of what you don’t really need.” Once you have the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, you start wishing for a Bentley Bentayga. The more luxury you have, the more luxury you need, but luxury never really satisfies the itch that it promises to scratch.