Why I Want to Give Away $1,000,000 (Part 2)

(Photo courtesy of jedimasterbuilder)

My office chair is blue, faded in places where the previous occupier rubbed against it. There’s coffee stains in some areas, crumbs and hair and dust bunnies in the crevices between the cushion and the black plastic of the arm rest. It’s my home for at least 14 hours a day.

One morning, I opened my excel model and–

Why is my heart beating a million miles an hour? Why is my whole left side numb? Aren’t I too young to have a heart attack? I can’t catch my breath. Am I going to die?

So I did what you do when you work at a hedge fund. I stayed in my chair.

I’d rather leave on a stretcher than on my own two feet.  

It’s Because of Erin.

“I have an appointment, so hitch a ride home after school from Erin. Tell her to drop you off a few blocks from our house.”  

I nod. Fourth graders don’t ask their fathers why.

Erin is sitting at the front desk at Ronnie’s Car Rental–one of the many family businesses that would fail–when I arrive. She’s a young art student from Ireland. When she sees me, she stands up and grabs her portfolio.

“Time to go,” she says.

We walk past glossy compact Fords in the parking lot until we reach a boxy, avocado green Chevy.

“Where to?” she asks.

“Oh, that corner over there.”  

“Where? Which one is your house?” she asks.

My eyes dart left then right then left again. Erin’s car puffs and snorts. It’s hot inside. What if she waits in the car until I’m inside “my house?”

“Why won’t you tell me which house is yours?” she asks.

I tell her. I tell her to make that left onto the cul-de-sac. And when the Chevy rounds the corner, I see it.

I see it with her eyes. That blotchy, white, clapboard house–that ramshackle shanty–was where I lived.

That’s when I realized that we were poor. That’s when I felt the shame.*  That day, my worship of money was born. By my twenties, in that chair, it had grown into a monster.

Read the Fine Print.

Up until 1990, McDonald’s used to fry its french fries in beef fat (tallow). For health reasons, it switched to two oils. The first one is a vegetable-based oil. The second adds corn oil and something called tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), which can cause stomach tumors in rats at high doses. It’s no healthier than beef tallow. Some would say it’s even worse.

There was a promise of better health, and it failed to deliver. This is upsetting, but not enough for revolt because of its low cost**: $2

Likewise, money makes claims about happiness. The moment I felt that shame, I dove in head first to redeem that claim. I was going to get the grades to go to the college to get the job to get the money to get the happiness.

Money said that if I traded the best decades of my life for it, I would never feel that shame again. It said that I would live the life I always wanted.

How did my bet turn out? Although I worry less about money, I’m really no happier today than I was when I was living in a Spanish Harlem hostel, making $30 a day working at Banana Republic. It failed the test of time. I duped myself. My decision cost me a heavy toll: my entire 20s.

Not only did it not meet its claim, it made my life worse. I was lonely. While friends would go out to dinner, I was eating takeout in my chair. While friends were enjoying being young and becoming energized in New York City, I was grinding down my youth, depleting my battery, in my chair. To the point where my body literally started breaking down.

That is the old testament of my life where I acquired as much money as I could for myself. And once I hit my financial goal, it was a let down. Now that I have seen what money can and can’t do, I live by a new testament where I leverage my abilities to make life better for others.

What Money Can and Can’t Do

It can make you happy, but only up to a certain point. That happiness comes when you make enough for food, clothing, shelter, a little travel, and some savings.

Princeton University researchers place that figure at $75,000, but it depends on the cost of living of your city.

After that point, you get diminishing marginal happiness returns on every dollar earned. Go even farther and something surprising happens–you get a negative return, especially as a parent.

Malcolm Gladwell writes in David and Goliath about a rich Hollywood parent:

He was well past the point where money made things better, and well past the point where money stopped mattering all that much. He was at the point where money starts to make of the job of raising normal and well-adjusted children more difficult.

Money has an inverted “U” shape, Gladwell writes, where the happiness in the curve rises the more money you make, peaks at $75,000, and declines back to unhappiness with every dollar above $75,000.

If this is true–and I’ve seen it to be true among my friends and colleagues–why are we killing ourselves? Why do we keep aspiring for more money and “stuff?” What would life look like if we allocated our time instead to the things that did make us happy? According to Amherst College professor Catherine Sanderson, those things are meaningful conversation, giving to charity, exercise, high self-esteem, and nature.

Only one of those things can’t be done without money, and even then you can still give away your time for free by volunteering.

Money is a tool. Used properly, it can be a mechanism for astounding good. Used improperly, it can destroy you and your family.

To me, using it properly means that if you no longer have money problems, you use it to solve other problems.

To me, using it improperly means a greed for it, over-allocating your resources to acquire it… basically, the way I viewed it in my twenties.

That’s why I give now and why I want to give more. But I want to ask you:

Why Not Give?

Fear 1: You fear not having enough if you give. Can you afford basic food, basic shelter, basic clothes? Yes? Then you have enough.

Fear 2: You fear that you can’t buy that 4K TV or lease that BMW if you give. The happiness from “stuff” evaporates within weeks. They are poor happiness investments.

Fear 3: You fear you won’t have enough to retire if you give. I suggest dipping your toe in the water. Pack lunch one day a week or buy one fewer coffee cup per day and use that money instead on a charity where you can see the effect of your money, or on research you care about. See how it feels.

If money beyond basic needs doesn’t create happiness, while giving does, shouldn’t we at least give giving a try?

Lien On Me

Homeowners: who owns your house? You can fix up your house, paint it whatever color you want. You don’t have to answer to a landlord. It certainly feels like it’s yours.

(It’s not.)

Your bank has a legal claim on your property, what’s called a lien. Perform by paying your mortgage or they can kick you out (foreclose). Does that sound like you’re the homeowner?

“Owner” in that word is a dangerous misnomer because people don’t fully understand the risk. A more appropriate definition should be “indentured tenant.” (Would you like to indenture yourself with the 30 year fixed or 5/1 ARM today?***)

By the same token, we may walk around feeling like we have ownership of our hearts. We feel like we have complete agency. We don’t. Something else has a lien on it. And like your mortgage, it brings with it certain performance expectations. (For example, approval from others have a lien on your heart? Better do whatever they say or else you’ll lose their approval!)

Tim Keller puts it like this in Counterfeit Gods:

Just as we serve earthly kings and magistrates, so we “sell our souls” to our idols. Because we look to them for our significance (love) and security (trust), we have to have them, and…essentially obey them.

What Keller is saying is that each of us has our own worn out chair–our heart’s throne–upon which we place things we love and trust. We can see what’s been sitting on our chair, since the cushions of our lives show the contours of whatever we place on it. So be extremely choosy what you put on that seat of power–read the fine print.

The choice really comes down to putting on something that takes life or gives it. And to me, there’s only one worthy of that seat–someone who became poor so that I could become rich in ways deeper and more sure than money.****

Breaking the Shame

I’d been working my life away for money. And when it asked me to die for it, I was only too willing to pay that price. One day, I finally got up from that chair and walked away.

Since then, I’ve turned down job opportunities and promotions that were six figure pay increases when it required me to spend less time with my family. My wife did the same, stepping off a great career track and six figure job herself, even though it means we live a much much less fancy lifestyle.


“Are you wearing those running shorts again? You wear them all the time,” my wife says.

My azure blue shorts were a gift from my children, on sale at Ross. When they are not in the hamper, I wear them. I wear them inside, outside, on date night, and even when there are toothpaste stains on them.

People who see me might think I’m barely employed. They might think I’m poor. I don’t really care.

I guess you could say I’m shameless.

Next: The power of giving


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* My father’s shame had passed onto me.

**To be clear, I still enjoy them on occasion.

***Bond loan agreements are actually called “indentures”

****2 Corinthians 8:9

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