“We can all – even the poorest of us – increase our wealth daily by doing some small thing to enhance the value of our property, our knowledge, our skills, and our trustworthiness.”

– Michael Masterson

Principles of Wealth #38* 

When most people think of building wealth, they think of building net worth. And although having a high net worth eliminates so many vexing problems, it cannot, by itself, give you a rich life. 

When we think of wealth, we usually think of financial wealth. But they are many other forms of wealth.

One can, for example, be wealthy in education or in skill or in knowledge. One can be wealthy in friendship and good will. One can be wealthy in wisdom or common sense. And most important of all, perhaps, one can be wealthy in good health.

We know these things. We believe them to be true. Or, at least, we believe them. But too many people believe them only in theory or, worse, in moments of solitude and desperation. But if one commits to becoming rich, as I did 45 years ago, it would be wise to give these forms of wealth the consideration they deserve.

I didn’t and I paid the price for it. It wasn’t as high a price as it could have been. In my relentless drive to make money, I could have lost friendships and family and even my health and self-respect. I got close a few times.

What saved me, I think, was being married to K, a woman that cared next to nothing about money. No matter how much money I made, it never impressed her. What did impress her – negatively – was all the time and attention I was giving to my businesses and investments at the expense of her and our children.

I’d also give credit to my parents. They, too, cared little for money. They gave their children three of the most important gifts parents can give: a respect for education and hard work and the obligation to take responsibility for one’s own life.

When you accept those three ideas as fundamental values, they shape the way you value yourself. So when my wife (and later my children) chastised me for neglecting my other treasures, I knew, even if I wouldn’t admit it, that they were right.

It’s a cliché to say that money can’t buy happiness. That became apparent to me during the two years I lived in Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world. With the $50 a week I was making as an assistant prof at the University of Chad, I was able to pay for all our living expenses for about $30. And with the other $20, I paid for the full-time employment of two Africans: a property “guardian/groundskeeper” and a “garçon/housekeeper.”

Pascal, the guardian/groundskeeper, lived in a straw cottage next to our small concrete-block home. He had a wife and three kids. He was, as was Pierre, the garçon/housekeeper, diligent and resourceful. And he, his family, and Pierre all seemed to be perfectly happy. They were certainly as happy as or happier than more than 90% of the middle-class people I knew back in the States.

Pascal and Pierre were wealthy in family and friendship. They were wealthy in the skills and the knowledge they needed at work. I never once saw them angry or even anxious or despondent. Their characters seemed to have been forged in a different world.

And now I was part of that world.

I remember sitting on my porch one rainy afternoon, working on a lesson plan and looking now and then at the little garden we had planted weeks earlier. Vegetables and flowers were sprouting. Missy, our Italian greyhound, was barking at a monkey that had taken shelter on the porch. K was inside reading a book. I remember thinking, “One day, you’ll be rich and live in a mansion, but you will never be happier than you are right now.”

Not too long after we returned to the States, I got very busy getting richer, eager to buy my family and me everything I never had growing up. On top of that wish list was a big, fancy house – the very one I had imagined in Africa. I eventually built that house and then, some years later, an even bigger and fancier one. Did they make me happier than I was in that first little cottage? No. I had been right about that. Still, making money was my priority for too many years.

When I turned 50 (19 years ago), I realized how lucky I had been not to lose K and the family through neglect. I had done just enough, through guilt or good judgment, to include in our lives at least some of the important values that I had nearly abandoned. And now it was time for me to step away from the money and start building more wealth in those areas.

I wish I had done that sooner. How could I have forgotten that all wealth compounds over time? Including the kinds that aren’t measured on a balance sheet.

* In this series of essays, I’m trying to make a book about wealth building that is based on the discoveries and observations I’ve made over the years: What wealth is, what it’s not, how it can be acquired, and how it is usually lost. 

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