The recent New York Times article titled In Silicon Valley, Millionaires Who Donít Feel Rich evoked a lot of interesting responses on-line. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to comment when I first read it, but it's been sitting in the back of my mind ever since then.

dollar In one way this article really confirms some of the things that bug me about Silicon Valley. There's an awful amount (or an unhealthy amount, if you prefer) of both greed and financial insecurity around here. You don't have to live here very long before you start to notice it. And before too long, you might find yourself being pulled in yourself. I know that it happened to me on a few occasions.

I've had to actively work to make sure I don't fall into those traps. It can be really hard when you're surrounded (sometimes quite literally) by people who have millions of dollars at their disposal. And the funny thing is that the insecurity is almost always completely unjustified. The types of talented people who are drawn here really don't have a lot of trouble finding a job that'll pay the bills--and then some.

I take some solace in the fact that a fair number of the millionaires I know seem to be no happier than I am with all that money. Worse yet, they continue to work for reasons that mystify me. Many don't seem particularly happy with their jobs. And that's the saddest part of all in my mind.

Sometimes I think it's a lack of creativity or ambition. But I honestly don't know.

You see, I've given this some thought over the years. If, like some of the folks in the article, I had $5 million dollars sitting around, you sure as hell wouldn't catch me sitting in a cubicle. A wisely invested $3 - $5 million can provide more than enough to live on quite comfortably (assuming you've eliminated debt) while still growing the investment too.

There's a really big world out there and a lot of interesting things to do, people to meet, ideas to try out, and relaxing to be had. We all know that life is short. I'd take that to heart and act like time was a scarce resource--because it is!

I'd get outside more often. I'd fly. I might teach others to fly. I'd read more books. Get a telescope. Go for long walks and/or hikes in amazing places. I'd travel a bit more. I'd move a bit out of the Bay Area, where the focus on the next shiny thing and making millions of dollars simply doesn't exist.

Basically, I'd relax and really enjoy life. I wouldn't stress out over making another few million dollars or trying to be the next Big Thing.

Sure, I know that there are some people who can only ever be happy when they're working 12 hours a day to build the next big thing. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm definitely not one of them. My life's todo list has far more things on it that I'd like to get around to.

Now... anyone got a few million dollars that I can hold on to for the next 40 years? :-)

Posted by jzawodn at August 09, 2007 11:49 AM

Reader Comments
# Doug said:

Good article, but it should be "Greed" in the title, not "Geed".

And yeah, if I had that kind of money, I'd set up a trust fund and help out society along with enjoying life.

on August 9, 2007 12:13 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Heh. Fixed.

Thanks!

on August 9, 2007 12:18 PM
# BillyG said:

Dude, I am so ditto on that one!

on August 9, 2007 12:39 PM
# Barnaby James said:

Clearly having money doesn't necessarily make you happy (and quite often, the opposite). The article seemed to ignore the people who make a lot of money and then retire but selection bias is pretty common in the news.

Phillip Greenspun's essay on retiring early is a pretty good read on the topic:

http://philip.greenspun.com/materialism/early-retirement/

on August 9, 2007 12:40 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Yeah, I remember reading PhilG's article when it came out. He's had some good thinking on this over the years.

on August 9, 2007 01:50 PM
# jr said:

Ha! I've obviously solved that dilemma by not having a lot of money to begin with. (Tell me more of this "million" you speak of. Are they like these things called "options" which I hear tell are worth money to some folks?)

And, fortunately, I'm pretty happy where I work.

on August 9, 2007 03:55 PM
# Marcel Marchon said:

Totally agree with that one - I've had exactly the same thoughts.

on August 9, 2007 04:20 PM
# Mike Macgirvin said:


Do what you enjoy and forget about your net worth. These are words of advice from somebody who has seen the ugly side of greed up close and personal.

The whole point of walking away (e.g. 'retirement') is to spend time doing what you enjoy. If instead you make that your priority from the get-go, you may find that you're already 'retired'. No amount of money (or lack of) can change that. Sure there's always the issue of putting a roof over your head and perhaps 'beer money', but these are relatively trivial issues in the bigger scheme of things.

[Currently 'retired' in rural Australia and maintaining servers at a local university for 'beer money'.]

on August 9, 2007 04:23 PM
# Kasia said:

If I had a couple million in the bank, I'd live on the interest while pursuing a phd full time..

Alas, I get to work while pursuing a master's part time instead :)

on August 9, 2007 05:07 PM
# Joe Duck said:

According to some recent research your satisfaction and happiness actually go down at the highest wealth levels. Optimal contentment appears to go to those of "modest wealth".

I wonder how many stick around to get access to resources and stay in the big game vs ego driven folks vs other motivations?

on August 9, 2007 11:39 PM
# Casper said:

Jeremy,

Great post that touches upon the meaning of life. Making money, persuing professional ambitions, etc. should ideally be your hobbies. We both live in parts of the world where this is totally possible. All it takes is having a child. I know it might sound sterotypical, but I used to be thinking a lot about priorities and how to get the most out of my life, however, the puzzle kind of solved itself 10 months ago when my son was born.

My best guess is that in a couple of years (maybe even before) you and your beautiful soon-to-be wife (congratulations, btw!) will experience the same thing.

on August 10, 2007 12:02 AM
# John said:

If I ever win the lottery, I would gladly help fund you!

Yes, life is short. I know his for sure, shortly graduating from undergrad and someone I loved dying suddenly shortly after graduation.

on August 10, 2007 01:03 AM
# Mark Matthews said:

Jeremy,

Go ahead and get that telescope! I've wanted one ever since I was a little boy, and my wife and girls finally indulged me and got one for me for Father's Day this year. It's just a little Orion Starblast (listed as a "kid's" telescope, but it's nice and portable and has decent optics all for sub-$200).

The first time you see Saturn and its rings, or Jupiter and the cloud belts and her moons, you'll be amazed. My wife thought I was 10-years old again when I came running into the house: "You _have_ to come outside and see _this_!".

As I get older, I'm learning more and more to _not_ wait for tomorrow for things, so if it's a dream, just like wanting to learn to fly (and astronomy can be a lot cheaper to get into, trust me, I've done both!), go for it, today, not later!

-Mark

on August 10, 2007 08:06 AM
# blah said:

reading this NYT article the other night made me throw up a bit in my mouth

these people definitely have enough money to live without worry, even in silicon valley. by "without worry", i mean, your house is paid for, your kids education is paid for, you can buy yourself a new car without financing it, etc. 98% of americans would love to have this level of financial security. to hear people grouse about their relative poverty is obnoxious.

these people will never be happy, they will just use any future gains to move to a new neighborhood where they, once again, feel inadequate and cannot keep up with the joneses.

on the other hand, for the people here talking up their own artificial boundaries - just erase them. person who wants to do a phd - just go do it. jeremy, if you really want to leave the bay area and buy a telescope, just go do it.

on August 10, 2007 08:17 AM
# Terry Starbucker said:

Interesting take on that NY Times piece Jeremy - as someone who lives in Fairfield County Connecticut, I see the agnst that many people have over their neighbors relative fortunes. I drive past hundreds of multi-million dollar houses every day. But after 13 years of living here, I've managed (thankfully) to avoid the financial insecurity that appears to befall these Silicon Valley folks. I do my best to measure the quality of my life in ways that go beyond personal wealth - do I love what I do every day? Am I continuing to learn? Am I "smelling the roses"? Oh yes, it's nice to have a few bucks to facilitate some things, but I just don't wanna go play that "oh woe is me" game because the person next door has a Ferarri and I don't. Thanks for the reminder.

on August 10, 2007 12:57 PM
# D said:

Ok, I'll bite (anonymously).

I'm a software guy around your age with about $2M (I know your blog post was talking about slightly larger amounts).

As it happens, I still work mostly because I love what I do: I'm a startup addict.

But, let's look at whether you could live in SV with $2M in the bank and no job. Well, the answer, of course, is yes.

However, not as well as it sounds at first. The risk-free rate of interest you get is around 5% now (you have to keep things low-risk b/c if you get wiped out, you not only lose your money, but no longer have marketable job skills). So, you make ~$100K per year.

Let's say you're trying to raise a family of four on that. Well, you'd like to raise your kids with a) enough space to be kids and b) somewhere with good schools. A house that meets those constraints could be had for $1M (mortgage=~$5900/mo or $70k/yr). Taxes are lower on capital gains, but are still real (say $10K/yr). Oh year, property taxes too (another $10K). You don't have a job, so you need health insurance for a family of four. I don't know current prices since I have a job, but let's say $500/mo ($6000/yr).

So, we've already blown our $100K without even owning a car, clothing, stuff for the kids, saving for kids college, buying food, worrying about repairs for the house, gas, electricity, internet service, entertainment, travel, etc. And those add up.

Moreover, you're spending your interest, and that's in today's dollars. So, in 50 years, inflations will make this amount tiny (and you haven't been contributing to social security). All while you're not current with marketable skills. Imagine getting a resume that said "I want a dev job; 30 years ago I saved $300K and retired; I still remember COBOL very well."

Granted, you could get a cheaper place. But I wouldn't sacrifice my kids' education (and I doubt I'd be a good homeschooler).

You could move, but that means dropping your life, your friends, your kids' friends, etc.

I'm certainly not complaining: I've got a wonderful life, I can work for high-risk startups without worrying about a lower salary or about them failing.

on August 11, 2007 08:53 AM
# Joe Zawodny said:

I finally got to the point where I could relax a couple of years ago. Retirement savings are already sufficient (and I don't worry about market fluctuations), Kid's college is covered, house will be paid off in 3.3 years, other debt - zero, and I can and will retire in 10 years. So, I bought the telescope and have been taking some family trips. I do not worry about the folks down the street living at the edge of their means with huge mortgages, huge boats, car payments and the constant urge to keep up with everyone else. And you know what? It feels pretty darned good. I really do not know what I'd do with many millions other than retire early. I would not create complexity/worry that I really can just do without.

on August 11, 2007 04:07 PM
# liatris69 said:

i've been thinking about this almost weekly for the last 4 years since i took up flying - on occassion i will take a "mental health day" and on those days I thin this is what it would be like to not have to go to work - i realize it is about the freedom to chose what you will do with your time as opposed to being constrained by meetings and other work imposed schedules - if I could retire I would not be idle - in my current situation (working 9-6pm) 5 days a week i find myself flying, boating, hiking, camping almost every free day which does not require for me to be in the office - I wish I could that everyday and not just on weekends

on August 12, 2007 11:10 AM
# Ryan said:

I'd be much happier if I was out of debt, and it would sure be nice to travel more. The thing a lot of us would love is to have the freedom to go without a paycheck. I just don't understand why people stay in a larger corporate environment when they don't have to. The only reason not to start up a company is risk -- take the risk away (in terms of keeping a steady cashflow in order to pay the bills), and I can't imagine still spending 50 hrs/wk in a cubicle.

on August 12, 2007 11:40 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

D: you might have missed the bit about "assuming you've eliminated debt." That means no mortgage or car payments.

on August 13, 2007 04:49 PM
# Patrick Mullen said:

Are you saying people in Silicon Vally, as well as everywhere else in the world, need to balance their priorities?

The reality is some people have too much money.

Here in Tijuana, we recently had a local gazillionaire fail in his election bid for governor of Baja California. Apparently, he quit campaigning a few days before the election. He might have figured that he didn't really want the job, and now he is viewed by many as being the local buffoon. Money isn't everything.

He made his money building a network of betting parlors. He has three wives and 17 children.

If you have money and power, don't waste it by doing something stupid.

on August 13, 2007 11:23 PM
# MarceloL said:

Jeremy,

Though I've been tempted to comment in the past, but have not. This time is different. You've not only hit the nail on the head, but you've countersinked it as well.

I know for a fact that if I had that sort of money, I'd pursue some sort of beneficial endeavor for my community/city. I wouldn't be racing from one meeting to the next. So long as I didn't have to worry about my mortgage, I'd find something more positive and fulfilling to do with my time. Hanging out at "Margaritaville" wouldn't be a bad pursuit for a while, but that would get old too. So there's more useful and fulfilling things than to hang around the cube farm, and try to keep up with the "Have mores".

on August 15, 2007 07:25 AM
# Andrew S said:

I found it most interesting that the article came in the New York Times, located in Manhattan, where there are more millionaires, more insecurity, 3x rental prices, 2-10 times housing prices, and is the home of "Greed is Good".

I like New York, but i wouldn't live there.

on August 23, 2007 04:04 PM
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