ezekiel's chariot - 張敦楷 (pjammer) wrote,
ezekiel's chariot - 張敦楷
pjammer

The Burden of Wealth

h, how time flies. Had lunch this Sunday with an old friend from college I haven’t seen in over three years. As an early employee of a prominent Bay Area software company, his stock options left him in the enviable position of being young, rich and completely independent at the age of 25. This is the stuff of workaholic twentysomething professionals' dreams. The big score. Powerball jackpot in the casino of capitalism and ambition we call Silicon Valley.

Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow. The story usually goes something like this: young man, flush with cash from an IPO or favorable merger deal, goes on colossal spending sprees that would make Imelda Marcos look like a bargain-hunting coupon-clipper at Wal-Mart in comparison. Young man throws lavish parties and joins others who hit the jackpot, quickly getting membership in organizations like Ferarri Club of America, indulging extravagance after extravagange. Indeed, an entire industry in the Bay Area has sprung up to service this sudden-wealth euphoria. So if you ever wondered why there are three Lamborghini dealerships in the Bay Area … and only one in Los Angeles – now you know.

But if wealth can change so many people into spendthrift maniacs, it seems to have little effect on my friend. His three major purchases consisted of a house for his parents, a larger house for himself so he can host bigger gatherings, and a top-of-the-line Accord, with a custom sound system.

The rest was invested in a variety of funds and he spends most of his days trying to figure out how to give it away so that it yield the greatest benefits to its recipients. Typically, this means dodging calls from big corporate charities with massive overheads in favor of small, well-run programs.

At Mambo Jack’s

And this is where I came in. It was a bit surprising to hear from him after all these years, and I delighted to meet and catch up on old times. So after three years we meet again. He was exactly as I remembered from college – tall, gangly with the wide, playful eyes of a ten-year-old.

“Must be nice,” I said, over appetizers. Nice indeed. From what I’ve heard, his net worth was somewhere between 8 to 10 million.

“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “It’s really screwed things up between my father and me. A lot of relationships, actually.”

“Really?”

“Like how all of the sudden, dad gets approached by guys trying to use him to get to me and engage this or that ‘joint venture business opportunity.’ And when I say no, they end up giving him grief over it, which then, of course, gets taken out on me.”

“Christ. I’m sorry.” I knew he was never close to his father, and I could imagine how such a scenario could drive them further apart.

Disclosure – Wealth’s Hidden Price

And he went on. How it got increasingly awkward to hang out with old friends, since he began to pay for all the dinner checks wherever they go. After all, the interest his money earned in the time they finished dinner would probably cover the cost. He didn’t mind, but people started becoming abusive. Previously frugal friends started to suggest pricier and pricier restaurants, and used his generosity like an open bar tab. Nobody likes being played – but that was the choice he was driven to: be a chump and continue to get used, or be a tightfisted jerk and demand they pay their own way.

Rather than trying to choose between being a chump or a jerk, he withdrew further and devoted more time researching educational charities and randomly surfing the Internet.

“I’m betting that most people would roll their eyes and say something to the effect of ‘Poor baby,’ he pursed his lips and switched to a nasal whine ‘My life is soooo hard. What will I do with all this money?’ … which is why I sent you an email, after all these years I guess. I remembered that you always seemed to be pretty good at stepping into others' shoes, and I didn't know who to call. And I am honestly sorry that I didn’t stay in touch for so long and it took something like this for me to look up old friends.”

I laugh ruefully. “Don’t worry about it. It’s as much my fault as it is yours. So I guess you want to figure out what you want to do.”

“Yeah. It’s always great to see the effect that a well-placed donation can have on a good program. But it’s a temporary high. By the time I pull out of the driveway, I’m usually all moody again.”

Wow. With millions of dollars and a healthy body in the prime of youth, he was the envy of aging tycoons and penniless peasants alike. Ironic that he could be so desperately unhappy. But I had a good idea why.


(to be continued)
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