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The Dark Side of Wealth: Risks associated with growing up in an affluent family — Risk #2: No sense of direction or purpose in life


13Oct 2007

Following up last week’s entry on the risk of drug and alcohol abuse in wealthy families, the second risk from growing up in an affluent family I see among second- and third-generation family members is an overall sense of being “lost” in life. I frequently “interact with” individuals who have been raised in a wealthy environment, and they really don’t have a sense of purpose or meaning in their lives. Sometimes they are just “floating” and sort of hanging out. Other times they want to “go somewhere” and do something meaningful, but can’t find the right direction.

I have some observations about this dynamic and some possible underlying reasons. Although work is not the sole purpose or reason for living (thankfully), work does bring structure to our lives. As I have stated before, our culture has misperceptions about the purpose of work — primarily that we work to earn money. Thus, if a person or family has excess money for their needs and desires, they sometimes see no reason why they should have to work.

The problem with this view is that work is much more. The process of working provides us with the opportunity to learn, to try new tasks, to be exposed to new information and experiences, to develop new skills and abilitites, to problem solve and persevere, to create, to serve others, to accomplish tasks with our hands and see the results of our efforts. Just like the pleasure that comes from completing a difficult physical task out in nature — like climbing a mountain or running a marathon — so there is an innate sense of satisfaction that comes from working hard and completing a task. Also, when one does have to earn money to pay the bills or to save up to buy a car, there is the pride of accomplishment.

Individuals who come from families of wealth in some ways could be seen as being deprived of the opportunity to experience some of these feelings. There is an ancient Middle Eastern proverb that states, “The worker’s hunger drives him to work”. That is, when you are in need, you are motivated to work. Conversely, (and many political and economic policies are based on this belief) when a person feels no need or want, many people are not as motivated to work.

This issue speaks directly to parenting in our country and in wealthy families. If a child has everything they need, want, or could ever desire given to them (or provided for them), why should they work? What is the purpose of saving money if you know you will get the latest video iPod at Christmas or a luxury sportscar when you turn 16? If all you have to do is wait for the next holiday or birthday, and you will get whatever you want, why plan ahead or work on long-term goals?

So I propose that parents (and grandparents) engage in planned non-giving. Yes, you have the money to buy x,y or z. And yes, it would be a neat opportunity for your grandchild to go on an educational trip to (fill in the blank). But I suggest it would be better for them to have to earn some things (and experiences) themselves — and it will take longer for this to happen or they may “miss out” on some experiences, but the overall results in their life will be healthier.

One very wealthy family ($100M+) with whom I worked in Texas had it right, I think. The teenage kids had to pay for 50% of the cost of their first car. And their money had to come from either wages earned or birthday/Christmas money (that is, no trust money was involved). Plus, they had to pay for one half of their auto insurance. So the kids had choices to make. Play sports and work less, or work more and not go out for cross country. Buy a car now or save some more and get a nicer car in six months. This created an interesting problem for the family. One of the sons bought an older “beater” car, which was fine with the family. But many of the family’s wealthy friends would not let their children ride in the car because they did not feel it was sufficiently safe. Oh well.

One of the ancillary results of this issue — the lack of purpose and direction in life — has led me to do quite a bit of career coaching for family members. From teens to college students to young adults, and even middle aged adults — helping them find purposeful activity where they feel like they are using their skills and talents to help others or to do something productive with their life. Note that this is not necessarily an easy task, as has been addressed by a number of books, (see some of the resources put out by The Inheritance Project).

The “answer” to this issue is obviously not simple (“What is the purpose and meaning of your life?” “Why was I born into this set of fortunate circumstances?”). However, I do believe it is easier for individuals to actively engage in seeking the answers when there is a sense of struggle in life. Just like muscles become stronger when we push against resistance, so the fabric and core of “who we are” develops and becomes more clear when we have to struggle in life.

So, if you are a parent or grandparent, do your kids and grandchildren a favor. Don’t make everything easy for them. Don’t problem-solve for them all the time. Let them struggle. Give them the opportunity to persevere and overcome challenges (or maybe not) on their own. Through these difficulties they will gain the true sense of satisfaction in life that you want them to experience.

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