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Reinterpreting Wealth to Mean What You Value, Not What You Own

3p Contributor | Monday May 13th, 2013 | 4 Comments
Image source: Katharine Bierce

Image source: Katharine Bierce

By Katharine Bierce

What is wealth?  What if wealth were measured in different ways, like intelligence?  Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has been around since 1983. After all, there is more to intelligence than just IQ. Let’s examine wealth in a similar way.

For some people, wealth is financial: the amount in your checking and savings accounts, retirement fund, and the monetary value of everything you own. In New York, a lot of time and energy is spent chasing more financial wealth – sacrificing sleep, health, social time, sartorial comfort (suits are not sweatpants) and more, for money.

As the saying goes, many people can end up “working at a job they can’t stand, to earn money to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like.”  For those who don’t work in highly paid jobs, life in New York City can be a different sort of struggle, where making ends meet means longer commutes from more affordable neighborhoods, and juggling several part-time jobs. But what unites New Yorkers in a way I haven’t found in other cities, is the sense of ceaseless striving that goes with living in one of the financial capitals of the world.

Wealth can also be found in a spirit of community.  When I visit other cities, like Chicago, I’m often struck by the spirit of friendliness that contrasts to the “ignore the stranger next to you” mentality of NYC. People don’t have emotional defenses up as much; they seem to assume the best in others. To generalize: those in a community who expect the best in others, who care about their fellow citizens and colleagues, who offer help without expecting anything in return – those people are wealthy in terms of community spirit.

One thing many city dwellers miss is the wealth of nature.  I think that San Franciscans are some of the luckiest people on the planet, since they have an economically and culturally vibrant city near some of the most accessible parks in the U.S.  The air is clean, the buses run on electric overhead wires or natural gas, the city composts its food waste and you can bike half an hour from downtown and find yourself in the middle of magnificent forests.

Although Central Park in New York City is pretty nice, it doesn’t compare to Muir Woods, full of redwood trees overlooking to the Pacific Ocean. Natural wealth is a catalyst for introspective growth. The magic of natural beauty is that something as simple as sunlight on cherry blossoms can remind you of how precious and fragile life on this planet is.

Human capital is also a kind of wealth. To paraphrase Shabana Basij-Rasikh’s TEDx talk, Dare to Educate Afghan Girls, your education is “what remains when the Taliban take away everything else.” If that sounds too far afield from your experience to really “get it,” try imagining that you’re moving all your stuff from one place to another. Imagine that as you’re driving along to your new home in a separate car from the truck with your stuff, you cross a river. A crazy driver swerves ahead and cuts off the truck, driving it off the guardrail into the river.  Suddenly, everything you own is gone. Or imagine your house burning down in an electrical fire after you evacuate due to a hurricane. That happened to some unfortunate New Yorkers just a few months ago. If you had no possessions left other than the clothes you’re wearing – what remains?  Your education and the value of the knowledge in your head will still be there. Human capital wealth is what you can do with the sum total of what you’ve learned.

In Adam Baker’s TEDx talk, Sell your crap, pay your debt, do what you love, he asks, “What does freedom mean to you?”  People have fought wars and thousands have died for that question. But have you ever thought about what it really means, not for your parents or your friends or your colleagues, but for you?

Economists assume that people are rational utility maximizers, but they do not define what utility is. It’s very easy to measure utility in terms of money, though, because it illustrates tradeoffs quite sharply: hours of leisure time vs. hours of work time, and varying incomes therein. But economics can’t measure everything that matters.

As Robert Kennedy said in 1968:

Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product…if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

What if you prioritized your life to maximize the kinds of wealth that YOU value? 


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  • litwileinlo

    As H.M. Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan once said: “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product” – it is an interesting concept worth exploring further I think.

    When it comes to sartorial comfort though, the finer the suit, the more comfortable the fit. Only joking.

    Great article!

  • http://www.kevinfadler.com/ Kevin F. Adler

    Wealth in the spirit of community = social capital. Nice piece.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephanie.a.sharma Steph Sharma

    Awesome article! Thank you for challenging us to redefine wealth with value at the heart! The next generation of Millennials tends to ‘live’ and ‘think’ this way. Research shows they are seeking to give to a greater purpose or just to purpose, they are seeking more relationship, community and integrated based lives. Corporations and organizations of all types have at the same time lost sight of their mission – their reason for being; mostly because they are not held accountable to it on their balanced scorecard like they are profit, margin or fundraising. A shift back to the mission and purpose, with the intentional connection back to the humans they employ and serve might just yield a return to those metrics they watch vs. track.

  • Tom

    I want to live by the values that you propose here instead of by moneys values. The problem is it is VERY hard in our society today. So how do we live by these values!?!