Defining Your Personal Wealth
Success has many measurements, but the
universal scale is wealth. Yet, wealth seems to
escape a simple definition—either in the mind’s
eye or on the balance sheet.
How do you define wealth?
Has your definition changed over the years?
Is wealth only a matter of money?
How do you keep score?
When will you have "enough"—if ever?
If you see wealth as a financial target, it’s a number
that probably changed over the years—refl ecting not only
inflation, but also your own achievements. If you originally
wanted to be a millionaire, you
may have already reached that
goal. After all, until recently the
booming stock and real estate
markets easily helped lift youthful
dreams of becoming a millionaire
When you achieve a level of
success, your dreams and goals
have a way of expanding. Reach
one milestone, and you’re ready for
another. That original $1 million
goal may have long ago moved to
$10 million, or even higher.
Now that there are more than 400 billionaires in the
United States (or at least there were at last count—in
October 2008), you might not be willing to settle for mere
Money has a way of coming—and going. A reality check
of your investment performance over the past year might
prove that point. If it were as easy to keep millions, as well
as create them, the task might not be so highly motivating!
There’s nothing like an economic slowdown and a bear
market to bring money goals into perspective. In fact, if
money is your only definition of wealth, you’d better fasten
your seatbelt. This rough ride is not over in either the
economy or the investment markets.
I’ll never forget a billionaire musing to me
about the value added by his latest acquisition.
He said: “Hell, it could be lollipops. The dollars
are just for the counting.” Already having more
money than he could spend or enjoy, the wealth-building
process was just a way of measuring
his stake in the game, his performance against
more to wealth than keeping score by counting financial assets."
Much as weight lifters want to press more
pounds or swimmers stretch to break world
records by milliseconds, those who compete in
the world of business and investments strive to
add zeros to their balance sheets.
It’s a race that starts
early, and for some, a race
that never ends. Most
recently, the focus has
been on youthful accumulation
of wealth. Google
co-founders Sergey Brin
and Larry Page are under
40 and each is worth more
than $18 billion. They’re
still working at it—an
inspiration to countless
But is the accumulation
of wealth ever finished?
Few billionaires throw in
the towel and quit. Sure,
Bill Gates is devoting his life to being charitable,
but he’s still deeply committed to the
continued growth of Microsoft.
Rupert Murdoch, approaching 80, continues
to expand his media empire, though Forbes
estimated his net worth at $8.3 billion in
2008. Kirk Kerkorian, 91, is ranked No. 41 on
the list of global billionaires with an estimated
$16 billion net worth. Last year he lost billions
on his shares of Ford and MGM. But he’s still
in the game as Las Vegas’ largest casino owner
by room count. Or by lollipops!
There’s more to wealth than keeping score
by counting financial assets. Any one of these
wealthy people would trade their wealth for
good health. Just ask billionaire Mike Milken,
who has famously invested his fortune to
fi nd a cure for prostate cancer, from which
Obviously, not all your wealth is in the form
of countable assets. For some, it’s fame. For
others, it’s family. John Travolta would surely
trade his fame and fortune if he could have
saved the life of his teenage son.
After a certain point, some find their wealth
becomes merely a tool to be used on behalf of
others. They turn to global projects like curing
disease or feeding starving children in Third
World countries. Warren Buffett joined Bill
Gates in his global philanthropic endeavors.
Oprah has endowed a school in Africa and
countless projects in America.
The one thing money cannot buy is time.
That’s a humbling thought. Which is the most
precious asset: time or money? Fortunately, life
doesn’t require us to make a decision for one or
the other—only to balance them wisely.
In the past year, many
wealthy people have come in
for a rude shock. Real estate
and stock market values
collapsed. Financial institutions
like Lehman and
Bear Stearns have wiped out
fortunes that were once taken
for granted. Bernard Madoff is
accused of stealing the assets
of charitable foundations
and retirees who considered
themselves wealthy, or at
The wealth is gone, the
people remain. For many, it’s
too late to start over. Others
are too dispirited to attempt the climb again.
Yet, one way or another all will survive. And in
the losing of wealth comes greater perspective.
The lessons that cost the most, teach the most.
Wealth is tough to achieve and even more difficult to maintain.
Human nature teaches that we will continue
to strive for success, for wealth, for accomplishment.
In that regard, today’s economic problems
create the opportunities for tomorrow’s
Americans are fortunate to live in a free-enterprise
system that promises—and almost
always provides—equality of opportunity. But
America has never guaranteed equal results.
That is the definition of socialism, a system that
has been tested to death around the world.
American success stories are motivated by
aspiration, not by guilt. It’s not our style to play
the politics of envy, attempting to take away all
the rewards of success. Instead, we’re inspired
by the achievements of others. Successful
people become role models for others. That
is perhaps America’s greatest gift—the ability
to inspire and offer hope for others within a
system that rewards creativity.
So look forward, not back, in your quest for
wealth. And be sure to give yourself broad-enough
definitions of success and wealth to
recognize your accomplishments—as well as
the time to appreciate them.