How Rich is Rich Enough?

Since I started it a little over a year ago, this blog has turned into mostly political commentary.  This bothered me a little at first, but the truth is it makes the most sense right now.  I’ve lived in the Washington D.C. area for 4 1/2 years now, and up until recently, I had managed to steer clear of the political fervor that permeates this place.  But if you stay here long enough, I think it’s impossible for the political atmosphere not to make an impression on you.  It’s at the forefront of my thoughts now, and since this blog is the place where I put my foremost thoughts… well, there you go.

However I do feel that it’s time to bring the original theme of this blog back into focus.  I want to be rich one day, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means.  More specifically, what does that mean in light of the political and economic turmoil that we’re going through right now?

I’ve been conflicted about what it means to be rich lately.  If you asked me “Do you want to be Rich?” I would answer much the same as the author of this blog post did.  I just want enough money to not have to worry about it.  I think the majority of us just want to feel safe and secure.  We want to go have some fun occasionally and not worry about losing our house.  But then it struck me that this might be the real problem.  This definition is too vague.  How much is enough?  How rich do you have to be before you don’t worry about it anymore?

I was all on board with the outrage against paying AIG executives bonuses.  It’s seems ridiculous.  One of the first things a business does when it’s struggling is cut salary bonuses, right?  It just makes sense from a purely economic standpoint, right?  But like so many other things that have outraged America recently, the facts aren’t as simple as that.  Yesterday I read the already infamous resignation letter from a top executive at AIG. And like a lot of people, I felt bad for the guy.  If the situation is anything like how  Jake DeSantis paints it, all the political wrangling and the public outrage are actually making things worse.  We, the public, are on the outside and we don’t really understand the inner workings of Investment Banking.  We’re given these shallow, dumbed-down explanations of things because we demand them, and because they make for good news ratings.  And then we are given the power to dictate how things should go, based on our limited understanding.  And in the process, AIG loses someone like this guy who seemed like he was really trying to help.

But that’s not the point of this story.  I want to contrast that story with this one about the top paid Investment Bankers for 2008. Last year, one person made $2 billion dollars for doing the job that is bankrupting America this year. Let’s use the zeros here because it makes things a little more upsetting.  That’s $2,000,000,000.  That’s bailout money, and it went to one guy.  That boggles my mind.  Let’s put it on a scale.  If you made $100,000 a year, you’d probably be pretty happy right?  Well for every $1 you would’ve made last year, this guy made $20,000.  Let’s put it another way.  The money that one guy made last year could provide a decent middle class income for 50,000 people.  At a time when all of the political talk is about job creation, that guy is getting paid the equivalent of 50,000 American jobs.

Some people might say that kind of comparison isn’t fair.  But when we’re talking about this kind of wealth gap, fair doesn’t even factor in.  So after putting all of this together, I feel a lot less sympathetic toward Mr. DeSantis.  He received over $700,000 in bonus money for his work last year.  During his time as an investment banker for AIG, he has probably made more money than the average American will see in their entire lifetime.  More money than anyone has a right to expect.  And he himself even admits that he doesn’t really need it at this point:

I know that because of hard work I have benefited more than most during the economic boom and have saved enough that my family is unlikely to suffer devastating losses during the current bust. Some might argue that members of my profession have been overpaid, and I wouldn’t disagree.

The thing that is most disturbing about this statement is that it makes me jealous. There is no way I could go a year without pay.  Even if I did, there is no possible way I could decide to give up that pay when it finally came at the end of the year.  No matter how “disappointed and frustrated” I was that my employer didn’t support it.

If you want my 2 cent analysis of this whole bonuses episode, that’s what it boils down to.  Ordinary people are really getting a sense for how much these people on Wall Street are making, and it’s infuriating.  Because we’re all looking for that kind of security.  We get up every day and struggle to figure out how to get there.  We work just as hard as Jake DeSantis claims he has, but we aren’t rewarded so handsomely.  He is rich by all of the standards that I measure against.  Yet he acts indignant because we are asking him not to steal our money in his effort to get richer. We’re still trying to make it.  What he has now should be enough.

So after all this, I’m left to consider my own future.  What if I succeed in my efforts to get rich?  When will it be enough for me?  At what point will I be able to stop and say “This is enough, I don’t really need any more.”  Especially if it means taking it from others who are still struggling to get there?  That’s a tough question.  And I think it’s clear that most people on Wall Street aren’t even asking it.

The Problem With Blogging When You’re Neurotic

So it’s been about 3 weeks since I started this blog, and it looks like I’m averaging a post a week.  I’ve thought of a million things to post about, but only 2 of them have actually made it to prime time.  Let’s figure out why.

My intention with starting this blog was to write whatever I was thinking about.  Don’t think too hard about it, just get all the random stuff out of my head.  But therein lies the problem.  I have to think too hard about it.  I think too hard about everything.

Top 3 Reasons for discarding a blog post:

  1. I don’t think I know enough about that – One of the first things I read about starting a blog is you have to be prepared for people to think you’re stupid.  Clearly I’m not an expert on any topic.  But I’m still not quite ready to find out just how uninformed I am.  Combine that with the fact that I hate doing any type of actual research (even the internet kind that frequently leads to entertaining distractions) and you have a recipe for inaction.
  2. That subject has been covered to much already – I’m one of those people who is frequently surprised that other people value my perspective on things.  I don’t always have an opinion, but when I do, I can cite reasons and I’m able to articulate it well.  (FYI, this is not me patting myself on the back, though the tone is so similar as to be indistinguishable.)  Still, even if I feel that I have something to add to a particular discourse, I shy away if I feel that smarter and more well-known personages have already rambled on about it at length.
  3. Nobody really cares about that enough to read this – This one is the most common.  I read things on the internet all the time about a million different things.  But it’s rare that I come away from with anything more than a vague feeling of “that was interesting.”  To the more practical parts of my brain that translates as “waste of time.”  And who really wants to think of their work as a waste of time?

I got 2 useful things out of this brief introspection.

A) I immediately forgot the point of my starting to do this

B) I am frighteningly neurotic about everything I do and say

The first obstacle should be easy enough to combat.  I just need to stay focused on the fact that I started this blog for myself and not for others.  If anyone gets anything useful out of it, I will certainly be pleased.  But I shouldn’t get hung up on that and let it stop the forward motion.  This blog is about helping me gather my thoughts and put them some place where I can examine them from an objective standpoint.  I’ve tried keeping a journal several times, but it always ends up feeling like a chore.  Nobody’s going to see it but me, so there’s really no reason to spend any significant time on it.  But this blog is open to the public.  It’s outside the box.  I have a responsibility to make it into what it’s supposed to be, even if that responsibility has been arbitrarily assigned to me… by me.  Essentially I’m taking advantage of the fact that I have a strong outward work ethic to counteract my extreme personal laziness.  Pretty smart huh?

So, hopefully you’ll see more in the coming weeks.  But…

That second one is tougher.  This is one of those aha moments where you’ve known all along, but putting the right phrase around it brings it into sharp relief.  This is the part that was cleverly foreshadowed in the title.  Neurosis.  Let’s go to Wikipedia shall we!

Neurosis – “… refers to any mental imbalance that causes distress, but, unlike a psychosis or some personality disorders, does not prevent or affect rational thought.”

Well hot damn, that just about sums it up.  The important thing to note here is that it doesn’t mean you’re crazy.  It means you have mental problems despite the fact that you are completely sane.  I’ve been dealing with this my whole life, but just referring to it by different names.  I would say “I tend to over-analyze things.”  Some ex-girlfriends would probably say “You have to always be right.”  Hopefully my boss would say “He’s always on top of things.”  What this all boils down to is that I have a hard time taking action on anything until I’ve thought about it for at least 30 secs too long.

During that crucial period after my initial decision on a course of action, a few things happen.  I start to feel like I missed something.  I always feel like I don’t know enough.  Like everything seems to make sense now, but that’s a false feeling of security.  I’ve missed some critical bit of information that makes what I just decided to do a huge mistake.  I’ll give you an example.  I have missed every single first kiss opportunity in my life, except one.  You know what I’m getting at.  You’ve been hanging out with a girl for a while, things are going great, you both know it’s time to test the lip-lock chemistry.  She gives you all the signals:  getting really close, awkward pauses for no reason.  All she’s waiting on is for you to go for it.  But I don’t go for it.  I sit and have a conversation with that annoying little man in my head.  What if I’m reading these signals all wrong?  I don’t know what the signals look like – I didn’t get the handbook.  Did I check my breath?  Did I check her breath?  What should I say after the kiss?  What if it’s stupid?  How do I recover?  This goes on for a while and eventually the moment is lost. *sigh*  No blog post for you.  (Yes I know we were talking about kissing.  Try to keep up.)

Sidebar: I’m not gonna talk about the one time everything went according to plan.  There’s nothing special about it.  I’m sure you’ve been there.  It was a great kiss.  Her breath was  more than acceptable.

If you re-read the above, you may also be able to discern the other symptom of my neurosis.  See the over-thinking alone would probably be more manageable.  But add this and it’s pretty much game over.  My thought process isn’t a loop, it’s a spiral.  Let me explain.  If this was a simple loop process, then once I had examined all the factors related to the outcome of the current situation under review, I would arrive back at the call for action.  Maybe I would have a new decision on what to do, but it would be time to do it.  Unfortunately somewhere along the track, a lever was pulled, the track shifts, we’re flying past the station!  I keep processing data.  Who cares what happens after the kiss, right?  We’re trying to make something happen here.  Stay in the moment man!  But my brain often refuses to cooperate.  Next thing I know, I’ve planned for a dozen different scenarios that could potentially occur after the kiss.  And another dozen covering the more likely occurrence that I crash and burn and there’s no kiss to speak of.  I’ve literally had whole conversations in my head based on what I know about her and what she’ll probably do or say.  Yes, I know.  It’s getting a little scary.  Remember, this is not a mental disorder, just an “imbalance.”  Feel better?

So basically, whenever I have any kind of decision to make, I go into one of these neurotic spirals.  If it goes unchecked, it can last for a good long while.  It’s not all bad though.  It works well for my job as a consultant.  Part of a consultant’s job is thinking through all the various issues to identify risks and hopefully plan for them appropriately.  I do this almost instinctually.  Thankfully, everything in software takes longer than it’s supposed to, so it just looks like I’m making sure we’re prepared.  And there are always deadlines, which usually suffices to bring the train forcibly back to the station.  “On top of things” indeed.

Neurosis.  Well, it’s been proven that the better you define a problem, the better equipped you are to solve it.  So now we know what we’re dealing with.  Shouldn’t be too difficult.  In a peculiar meta-analogy that I just thought of, allow me to close the loop on this post by referencing my earlier train idea.  All I have to do is make sure that I realize when my train has gone off the track.  Once I recognize that, I’ll try to make sure the tracks land on this page.   3 down, lots to go.