Respect and Admiration

I like the idea of the reverse obituary: Write down what you want your obituary to say, then figure out how to live up to it.

Everyone’s will be different, but I suspect most people would want their obituary to say: You were respected. You were admired. You were helpful. You were a good parent, and good spouse, a caring friend. You were an asset to your community. You made a contribution to your industry. You were wise, funny, and smart.

Now realize what’s not in there.

Virtually no one in this exercise would think about their obituary mentioning how much horsepower their car has, how many square feet their home is, or how much they spent on jewelry and clothes.

I like nice things. I have some fancy things. But I’m always struck by the contrast here of what people want vs. what they aspire to.

Just after my son was born I wrote a few things I thought he’d find helpful as an adult. One of them was:

You might think you want an expensive car, a fancy watch, and a huge house. But I’m telling you, you don’t. What you want is respect and admiration from other people, and you think having expensive stuff will bring it. It almost never does – especially from the people you want to respect and admire you.

Eight years later I still believe this to be true, and I might even double down.

Let me first distinguish nice stuff from fancy stuff. Someone once noted that a high-end Toyota is a better car than an entry-level BMW, because the nice Toyota is filled with things that make driving more pleasant, while the entry-level BMW is mostly just status and bragging rights. Using money to buy nice stuff is great. Fancy stuff is a different animal.

This isn’t universal, but there are cases when people’s desire to show off fancy stuff is because it’s their only, desperate, way to gain some sense of respect and admiration. They don’t have any wisdom, intelligence, humor, empathy, or capacity for love to gain people’s respect. So they rely on the only remaining, and least effective, lever: Look at my car, beep beep, vroom vroom.

Former football player Chad Johnson once explained why some people think he’s cheap: There’s no need to show off your material wealth when your name is so big that people already respect and admire you for your talents alone:

If you can get to a point in your career where your name becomes bigger than anything you can purchase, there’s your value.

There is nothing I can buy that is bigger than my name alone. So it made no sense [to buy jewelry]. I’m me. It’s pointless.

My guess is that if your favorite comedian, or actor, or athlete turned out to be broke, you wouldn’t care. It wouldn’t impact how much you admire them, because you admire them for talents that money can’t buy.

Even when Amazon was huge and successful, Jeff Bezos used to drive a Honda Accord. Today he has a $500 million yacht. Is he respected and admired more for it? Not in the slightest. He could ride a Huffy bike and people would consider him the greatest entrepreneur of our era, because he is. Steve Jobs didn’t have any furniture. It didn’t matter. He’s a genius. He’s Steve Jobs. Material stuff makes no difference when you’re respected and admired for internal traits.

The same is probably true for the people you admire most. I love and admire my parents, and let me tell you it’s not because of their clothes. Isn’t there so much to learn from that? Shouldn’t gaining respect and admiration through what you do instead of what you own be the goal?

Once you see people being respected and admired for reasons that have nothing to do with the stuff they own, you begin to wonder why you have such a strong desire for those possessions. I tend to view material desire as a loose proxy for the inverse of what else you have to offer the world. The higher my desire for fancy stuff, the less real value I have to offer.

I think if you keep it in mind, a lot of higher priorities come into view.