The Curse of the Lottery

The story 20/20 did on Jack Whittaker, winner of $315 million in the Powerball multi-state lottery in 2002, was heavy, to say the least. (Since he opted to take a one-time payout, Whittaker actually received “only” a little over $113 million after taxes.) His is yet another in a long line of tales about people who suddenly find themselves immensely wealthy – and subsequently miserable.

The first reality of newfound wealth that Whittaker was confronted with was an endless parade of people with requests for money. Some folks didn’t even bother to ask for a handout in person. They just sent letters – 50,000 of them! – telling him they needed some of his green stuff.

Whittaker forked over about $50 million before he came to his senses. But when he backed away from his role as year-round Santa Claus, the moochers became angry. A number of them even threatened him.

When their threats failed, many of the good folks in West Virginia started suing Deep Pockets Whittaker for a variety of alleged torts. (He’s counted about 400 legal claims against him since he won the lottery.)

Confused and intensely unhappy, Whittaker began carousing, drinking, and propositioning young gals in strip clubs. His wife of 44 years threw him out, and, after giving away millions, he found himself with no friends.

But there was one glowing light in his life – his beloved granddaughter, 17-year-old Brandi. Whittaker gave her four new cars and an allowance of $2,000 a week. It was a real-life Beverly Hillbillies saga, only played out in West Virginia instead of California.

As one might have predicted, having that kind of cash in her pocket led Whittaker’s granddaughter to drugs. Soon after that, in September 2003, her boyfriend, Jesse Tribble, died of a drug overdose in Whittaker’s home. Then, a little over a year later, Brandi, too, was found dead of an overdose.

Stating the obvious in his tearful 20/20 interview, Jack Whittaker said, “Money is not what makes people happy.” Of course, every half-sober, mature adult already knows that. But it’s also important to understand that money doesn’t automatically saddle a wealthy person with unhappiness.

Money, contrary to the popular aphorism, is not “the root of all evil.” And, in fact, that’s not what the source of those words – The New Testament (Timothy, 6:10) – actually says. Rather, it states, “For the LOVE of money is the root of all evil.” (My emphasis.)

What makes money (and, I would suggest, fame) appear to be evil is the way some people react to it. From Marilyn to Anna Nicole to Britney, it’s as though money is a demon that brings certain people to their knees.

It seems to me that the trouble begins when people who find themselves with instant riches relate to it in a way that causes them to reflect on that age-old question, “Is that all there is?” And the answer to that question is always, “No, that is not all there is.” As Jack Whittaker discovered, money cannot buy friendship, money cannot buy love, and money cannot buy a meaningful purpose in life.

I think the reason we see so much of the lost-soul syndrome among Hollywoodites is because the odds of achieving success in the world of glitz and glitter borders on the same odds as winning the lottery. When you’re suddenly making $10 million to $25 million for memorizing someone else’s words and mouthing them in front of a camera, it’s not difficult to understand why it might have a detrimental effect on your psyche. In all honesty, I’d probably feel guilty, too, if I got paid that kind of money just for pretending to be someone else for a few weeks. (I’d take it, of course, but I’d feel guilty.)

This, I believe, is what causes so many celluloid stars to desperately search for meaning in half-baked causes, redistribution-of-the-wealth politics, or adopting needy children halfway around the world (when they could do just as much good by adopting needy children right in their own hometowns). To paraphrase Richard Bach in The Bridge Across Forever, when you suddenly come into a lot of money, it’s like being handed a glass sword, blade first. You had better handle it very carefully while you take the time to figure out what in the heck you’re supposed to do with it.

Bach should know. He went from journeyman writer to author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull (which was then the biggest-selling non-fiction book of all time) to bankruptcy! In other words, he’s been there. He took the bait and grabbed the glass sword by the blade.

If you are fortunate enough to one day find yourself the recipient of great wealth, heed Bach’s warning about money. Handle it carefully. And before doing anything foolish, ponder long and hard what it’s for.

Even better, start pondering that right now. By doing so, you not only will be ready for the glass sword if and when it makes its appearance, but, should it never get around to showing up, life without money will be much more meaningful to you.

My heart goes out to Jack Whittaker. May he find meaning in his travails with his windfall fortune… and a meaningful purpose in his life.

[Ed. Note: If you’re ready for a treasure chest of proven ideas, strategies, and techniques that are guaranteed to dramatically improve your dealmaking skills — and, in the process, increase your income many times over — you won’t want to miss out on Robert Ringer’s best-selling dealmaking audio series, A Dealmaker’s Dream.

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Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is a New York Times #1 bestselling author and host of the highly acclaimed Liberty Education Interview Series, which features interviews with top political, economic, and social leaders. He has appeared on Fox News, Fox Business, The Tonight Show, Today, The Dennis Miller Show, Good Morning America, The Lars Larson Show, ABC Nightline, and The Charlie Rose Show, and has been the subject of feature articles in such major publications as Time, People, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Barron's, and The New York Times.