2.1.1: First per cent problems

The 1% is surprisingly subjective

You are already rich, so it’s wiser to focus not on making more, but on making more of what you’ve already got
So you want to be rich? I’ve got great news. You already are.
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What percentage of people, were they to be granted three wishes by a genie, would use one to request to be ‘rich’? It’s easier to contemplate who wouldn’t. From the dynastically wealthy to the dedicated yogi, increasing the depth of one’s pockets is seen as a universally Good Thing.
Yet having a goal of wanting to be rich is like having a goal of wanting food while not minding if it makes you fat, and unable to move or even breathe without pain. ‘No food’ being obviously terrible does not make ‘all the food’ obviously a good idea. Offer someone the chance to be rich but also a serial killer or a corrupt politician and no one would take it. We all understand that being rich is not an end in itself, that it's what you do with it that counts. Being rich therefore is a stupid wish. Why not wish instead for whatever you believe you’d do with the money that would make your life better?[1]
Wishing to be rich is an indication both that we believe life can be made better and also that we have no real clue about what a better life for us would actually look like. Wishing to be rich is an indication that we’re awfully confused about what it is that makes our life good. It’s also an indication that we have no idea what being ‘rich’ even means.
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What does being ‘rich’ mean? Outside of the proudly insecure, it’s rare you’ll ever meet a self-proclaimed rich person. For a decade my job was to advise ‘rich’ people, and every one of them would deny the label. The closest they’d get would be to mutter with bowed head and turned cheek something about being ‘fortunate’ or ‘comfortable’.[2]
The threshold for rich is subjective. H.L. Mencken quipped that ‘A rich man is someone who makes $100 more than his wife's sister's husband.’[i] In my experience, the threshold for ‘rich’ is reliably about 20% or so higher than one’s current position. It may sound insane, but even people earning £1 million a year claim not to be ‘properly rich’, because the next guy – and there’s always a next guy – is earning twice that.
As Morgan Housel reported: ‘Former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein is worth a billion dollars. But he told The Financial Times earlier this year that he considers himself well-to-do, not rich. “I can’t even say ‘rich’,” he said. “I don’t feel that way.” ’[ii] As Housel explains, ‘Blankfein is not even among the 10 richest people in his own apartment building.’ His short-sightedness is scarier than other people’s, but as far as his, and other people’s brains are concerned, it’s identical.
It helps, therefore, to be a bit more objective: to set the threshold first. Rich, as we commonly understand it, is a relative term. We’re rich in relation to other people. What matters to us is our place on the rich-poor spectrum. This means our threshold is going to be a percentage of a given population. But what population? Household? Local community? City? Country? World? Maybe it’s not geographical. Maybe within one’s office? One’s industry? Or should it be limited by time? Currently living? Ever lived? Ever will live?
We all have a propensity to compare ourselves to whichever group allows us to feel above most of those we can see, while also being sufficiently below enough others that we don’t get burdened by the responsibility of our riches or feel too guilty for complaining about the WiFi being a bit slow. Yet this feels like cheating.
It’s not the place of this book to give an authoritative answer, if such a thing can even be done. However, there are some stats everyone would be better off knowing. Because if you think your problems – the ones you would wish to solve – are a result of not being rich enough, then you’re going to waste your life searching for a solution where none can be found. What makes a life good is debatable, but wasting it is definitely bad.
Let’s agree that if you’re one of ‘the 1 per cent’ you’re objectively rich. So far, so uncontroversial. But let’s further agree, at least for now, that we’re all human, and therefore our richness should be determined on a global scale (suitably adjusted for relative costs of living). Still, I hope, uncontroversial. Yet this is at odds with what as-near-as-makes-no-difference everybody believes. Because believing it makes you undeniably rich, but robs you of your excuses for not doing something sufficiently brilliant on the back of it.
Going global brings ‘the 1 per cent’ an awful lot closer to home. If you’re in the UK and earn £40,000 per year after tax,[3] you’re the 1 per cent. That’s for an individual with no children. For a household of two adults and two children, a combined income of £110,000 gets you in.
But the top 1 per cent feels like a foolishly high bar. You could make a case that ‘richer than the median’ should count as rich. Let’s not go that far. What if we agreed that being in the top 10 per cent still counted as objectively rich? Our household now needs to earn only £33,500. And our individual? If you pay any sort of UK income tax,[4] you make the grade.
What’s the point of all this playing with numbers? It is to remind ourselves that being rich isn’t the aim of the game. Because what use is a game where even those that have ‘won’ don’t feel like they’ve won? If it’s to mean anything at all, living well – living ‘the Good Life’ – must be open to more than a handful of humans as measured by a single dimension. Does anyone really think it the case that only a select few people from a select few countries in a select few years of human history are able to look at their lives and smile?
You wish to be rich? Great. You already are. Now what? Your first idea is rarely your best idea; it’s time to think of a better thing to wish for.

The link between being rich and living well

Being self-avowedly satisfied with life and being miserable are not mutually exclusive
Money makes the world go around, but mostly in circles. Maybe that’s why it makes everyone’s heads spin.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be rich, or making a ton of money (assuming it’s done morally, and to have more resources with which to do wonderful things, rather than chasing the impossible dream of identifying as ‘a rich person’). But both those that chase ‘richness’ and those that denounce it fall into the trap of believing having riches enables living well.
Money can lead to a Good Life, but because of how we commonly think about and use it, it doesn’t. For it is not the depth of one’s pockets, but the depth of one’s thoughts that enables the effective conversion of one’s resources into a Good Life.
As we saw earlier,[5] while being rich may make you more ‘satisfied’ with your life, after a very low point it won’t make you feel that life is Good. ‘Life satisfaction’ surveys don’t tell us a lot beyond that we all feel like we should be satisfied if we’ve got money, so we say we are, which, ironically, could even drive a feeling of dissatisfaction.[6]
What could be a good reminder to be grateful for what we’ve got more often ends up being a grudging gratitude, not a gleeful one. It’s perfectly possible to be ‘satisfied’ with a life that still feels quite miserable a lot of the time. And in the words of Bertrand Russell: ‘What is the use of making everybody rich if the rich themselves are miserable?’[iii]
This may sound obvious, or even trite, but it’s crucial to understand. The people you think have what you want do not actually have what would make your life better – one part of which is understanding this very thing. Being rich fundamentally changes nothing; it just amplifies things. If you’re to avoid amplifying unwelcome itches, therefore, you need to know how to behave if you become richer, before you get there. Becoming ‘rich’ usually involves big sacrifices. You need to know they’ll be worth it.
More pertinently, much as we may declare ourselves satisfied because we think we should be, we can also think our relationship with money is broadly fine, on the grounds that we’ve got some. As if not needing to know how much the weekly food shop costs is the same as money playing as positive a role in our lives as it should do. Compared to a healthy relationship with money, ‘fine’ translates in the same way it does from the mouth of a moody teenager who’s just locked themselves in their room. We can all be more mature than that.
Money can be the most helpful thing there is, but we negate almost all of its benefits by the way we think about it. This isn’t about the specifics of how we earn it, or spend it. Even seemingly universally ‘good’ things can be done in wanky ways.[7] Think of orthorexia. Or spiritual one-upmanship. Or people who go to gigs and view them through their phones. The point is that money can both bring focus to our deepest values and help align our lives with them, or it can blur those values and deceive us with a trillion distractions. It does all of this while remaining inanimate, often invisible, and sometimes entirely illusory. Because in truth money doesn’t do anything. We do. It’s all on us.

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[1] Or indeed just wish for a better life and see what happens?
[2] The irony of being apparently ‘comfortable’ when talk of money turned their knuckles white and their shoulders to stone was rarely spotted.
[3] Source: Giving What We Can (https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i/). Yes, numbers will change, and yes, these can only ever be broad estimates, but the point is not diminished because of this.
[4] I.e. a shade under £12,000. The UK personal allowance for income tax for 2020/21 is £12,500.
[6] As Matthieu Ricard explains in Happiness, ‘Average satisfaction remains relatively stable because the material conditions of life in the developed countries are generally excellent. On the other hand, it is eminently fragile. Should just one of these conditions suddenly vanish — due to the loss of a loved one or a job, for instance — that feeling of happiness would crumble. And in any case, declaring ourselves satisfied with life because there is no objective reason to complain about its conditions […] in no way prevents us from feeling ill at ease deep within ourselves.’
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[i] H.L. Mencken, quoted in Richard Shell, Springboard
[ii] Morgan Housel, The Collaborative Fund blog https://www.collaborativefund.com/blog/obvious-things/ quoting The Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/b8961936-51a6-11ea-8841-482eed0038b1
[iii] Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
Last modified 1yr ago