The Highest Forms of Wealth

Wealth is easy to measure but hard to value.

When George Vanderbilt moved into Biltmore – the largest home in America at 178,000 square feet – one newspaper in 1899 wondered what the point was.

The goals of the country’s richest during the Gilded Age, it said, seemed to be “devoting themselves to pleasure regardless of expense.” But often they got the reverse: “Devotion to expense regardless of pleasure.”

George didn’t spend much time in the 250-room mansion which, by the time he died, had nearly bankrupted him.

Twenty years before Biltmore was constructed, the New York Daily Tribune wrote that “The Vanderbilt money is certainly bringing no happiness to its present claimants.”

That wasn’t closet jealousy. Armed with the world’s greatest fortune, the Vanderbilt family seemed committed to proving the idea that money doesn’t buy happiness. They took it a step further, showing that when managed poorly money could in fact buy resentment, insecurity, and social anxiety. It could buy it in bulk.

Money buys happiness in the same way drugs bring pleasure: Incredible if done right, dangerous if used to mask a weakness, and disastrous when no amount is enough.

The highest forms of wealth are measured differently.

A few stick out:

1. Controlling your time and the ability to wake up and say, “I can do whatever I want today.”

Five-year-old Franklin Roosevelt complained that his life was dictated by rules. So his mother gave him a day free of structure – he could do whatever he pleased. Sara Roosevelt wrote in her diary that day: “Quite of his own accord, he went contently back to his routine.”

There’s a difference between working hard because you want to and working hard because someone else told you you had to, and how to do it, and when to do it. Even if you’re doing the same work, the independence of doing it on your own terms changes everything in the same way that sleeping in a tent is fun when you’re camping but miserable when you’re homeless.

To me, the highest form of wealth is controlling your time.

Wealth can lead to time independence, but it’s never assured. It can be the opposite, as whatever created the wealth – whether a company or an inheritance – creates a claim on your time in equal proportion to its financial reward. A great number of CEOs fall into this category: They have an abundance of wealth and not a moment of free time or scheduling control even when it’s desired, which is its own form of poverty.

Charlie Munger summed it up: “I did not intend to get rich. I just wanted to get independent.” It’s a wonderful goal, and harder to measure than net worth.

2. When money becomes like oxygen: so abundant relative to your needs that you don’t have to think about it despite it being a critical part of your life.

There’s a scene in the documentary The Queen of Versailles when the son of a man whose ability to make money was exceeded only by his desire to spend it, causing a family fortune to shrivel near the edge of bankruptcy:

On my wedding day my father gave a speech, and he looked at my wife and he said, “You will never have anything to worry about in your life.”

But now we worry every day.

A high form of wealth is avoiding that mess. And it isn’t necessarily tied to how much money you have.

Keep two things in mind:

A thing I’ve noticed over the years is that some of the wealthiest people think about money all the time – which is obvious, because it’s causation. But it’s an important observation because most people, despite aspiring to become one of the wealthiest, actually want something different: the ability to not have to think about money.

It’s a different skill, but it’s powerful when you make it work. A person whose expectations relative to income are calibrated so they don’t even have to think about money has a higher form of wealth than someone with more money who’s constantly thinking about making the numbers work.

3. A career that allows for intellectual honesty.

This includes: Being able to say, “I don’t know” when you don’t know. Being able to speak critical truths about your industry without fear of retribution. The ability to make reasonable mistakes, and be open about them, without excessive worry. And not pretending to look busy to justify your salary.

There are high-paying careers that allow all those things. But there are so many that don’t, and a lot of what people pass off as “hard work” and “grinding” is just finding ways to bury the truth. A job that lets you be open and honest pays a bonus that’s hard to measure.