The most important thing I ever learned about “living rich” was taught to me by a former rich guy who dropped out of the moneymaking game to study Chinese philosophy and teach Tai Chi.
Jeff and I had been friends since high school. Twenty-five years ago, when we were still relatively young men, we were partners in a merchandise vending business that was making lots of money. Jeff’s annual compensation was in the mid six-figure range.
One day he quit. Since then, he has supported himself as a consultant and by teaching Chinese martial arts. His departure from business did not diminish our relationship in any way. Rather, it allowed us to pursue different careers and compare notes along the way.
I’ve written about Jeff before. He is a serious and careful thinker. And we’ve been having two or three extended conversations over the years – ongoing discussions about topics in which we are both interested.
We talk about ontology. We talk about sexuality. We talk about aging and health. One thing we rarely discuss is money. But several months ago the subject did come up, and it changed my developing understanding of wealth.
I mentioned to Jeff that I was working on a book about “living rich.” I explained that my thesis was that one didn’t need a ton of money to live well. I explained that most wannabe rich people spend too much money on the symbols of wealth, things that don’t matter. And they spend too little money on things that do matter… like mattresses.
“Mattresses?” Jeff raised an eyebrow.
“The average person spends seven or eight hours sleeping every night,” I said. “But when it comes time to buy a mattress, he looks for bargains. Yet the best mattress in the world will last ten times longer than a cheap one, and will provide him with tens of thousands of hours of good sleep.”
Jeff listened to me, amused, and then he asked: “What do you think of when you think of wealth?”
Besides being an expert in ancient Chinese philosophy, Jeff is a master of the Socratic dialogue. I knew that this question was just the first step of a walk I would be taking with him. I gamely went along.
“I’m not sure. I guess I think about the symbols – the big houses with swimming pools and fancy cars.”
“That’s interesting,” he said. “Now do this: Imagine yourself lying on a lounge chair next to a swimming pool next to a huge house with a big black car on the side.”
I closed my eyes and did as he asked.
“Do you have yourself in the picture?” Jeff asked.
“Yes,” I told him.
“And how do you feel?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Good.”
“Can you be more precise?”
I focused on the feeling. “Tranquil,” I said. “And safe.”
“That’s interesting,” he said.
We didn’t talk any more about it that day. But that’s typical of our conversations. They progress.
It intrigued me that the feelings I associated with wealth were very different than I would have guessed. Tranquil? Safe? Really?
A month later, Jeff and I had lunch at one of his favorite restaurants in Palm Beach, a small Italian bistro. When I arrived, Jeff was seated at his usual table, chatting with Giuseppe, the maitre d’. He stood to embrace me, and then offered me a glass of Prosecco from the half bottle that was chilling at the table.
This was going to be a long, luxurious lunch. First we had the sparkling wine. Then we had appetizers, then the main course, and, finally, espressos outside on the patio so I could enjoy a cigar.
When I eat by myself, I eat quickly – almost furiously. It is as if I see eating as a necessary evil. The faster I can get it done, the sooner I can go back to work.
But with Jeff, eating is very different. It is slow. It is deliberate. It is conscious. Jeff talks about the menu du jour. He savors the wine. He relishes the food. Time slows down, and I feel myself becoming more aware of the luxuriousness of the experience.
Sitting on the patio after lunch, sipping our espressos, I brought up our previous discussion.
“I’ve been thinking about how I feel when I think about wealth,” I told him.
“And…” said Jeff.
I told him that I thought my feelings about wealth came from my early childhood. We were a family of 10 living on a teacher’s income. We were the poorest family on Maple Street, which was one of the poorest streets in town. The feeling I had then was a combination of anxiety (the fear that my schoolmates would despise me for being poor) and embarrassment (because of the clothes I wore, the lunches my mother packed, etc.). I told Jeff that I realized my adult feelings about wealth – tranquility and safety – were the opposite of the feelings I had when I was poor – anxiety and fear.
“That’s interesting,” he said.
After a moment, he said, “Michael, you have been very successful in the acquisition of wealth – more successful than 99% of those people who seek it. Are you saying now that your pursuit of wealth was actually a pursuit of the two childhood feelings you associated with wealth?”
“Yes,” I said.
He nodded. “And what percentage of your time have you spent working to make money and buy the symbols of wealth?”
“Lots of time,” I admitted.
“And yet you found that when you had the money and the house and the cars, you still didn’t always have the feelings you were seeking?”
“Now let me ask you this. Have you ever spent any time trying to feel wealthy?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean seeking the feelings rather than the things?”
I admitted that I had spent almost no time doing that.
“And how often do you feel wealthy?” he asked.
“Not that often,” I admitted.
“When was the last time you felt wealthy?”
“I feel wealthy now,” I told him.
He nodded again.
“Let’s take a walk,” he said. “There’s a little store near here that has a great selection of international magazines.”
We meandered over to the store and spent 20 minutes looking through French and Italian and Japanese magazines that I had never seen before. The pace, like the pace of our lunch, was leisurely – almost languid. And that somehow opened me up. It gave me ideas for some of the magazines I publish. It gave me thoughts about art projects I might start. It left me feeling inspired… and something else. It left me feeling richer.
So this was, I realized, another feeling I had when I felt wealthy. It was the feeling of acquisition – not of things but inspiration and knowledge.
That was an “Aha!” moment for me.
I had spent most of my adult life stressing myself to acquire the symbols of wealth, yet I seldom felt wealthy. Jeff, on the other hand, had left the world of acquiring financial wealth, yet enjoyed the feeling of wealth most of the time!
Jeff doesn’t eschew the material aspects of wealth. Beautiful things and elegant service are real, and he knows that. But he understands something about those things that most rich people don’t: Having them doesn’t give you the feeling you are looking for. You get that feeling from being conscious of and enjoying them.
Instead of buying a yacht that costs millions and must be maintained by a staff of people and worried about all year long, Jeff reads about yachts and then goes to yacht shows to experience the boats he has read about. Instead of buying a $6 million condo in Aspen, Jeff is happy to spend three days vacationing there at the Little Nell hotel.
The feeling of wealth for me now has three elements: tranquility, safety, and emotional or intellectual enrichment.
You get the tranquility, Jeff has taught me, by simply slowing down. When you slow down, you can pay attention to what you are experiencing. You can savor the wine. You can taste the food. You can smell the roses.
You get the feeling of safety by not spending more than you can afford. This you can do on a budget by banishing the illusion that you need to own everything. Since learning this lesson from Jeff, my wife and I experienced the rich ambiance of the George Cinq Hotel in Paris without booking a $1,500 room. We spent an amazing 90 minutes in the terrace bistro drinking wine.
You need money – lots of money – to own the symbols of wealth. But you get the feeling of emotional and intellectual enrichment by understanding what makes you feel rich, seeking it out, and being fully aware of the experience. Again: Smell the roses![Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]