Real wealth is perishable

“Real wealth, such as food, is perishable,” wrote Alan Watts in his 1951 classic The Wisdom of Insecurity.

Is that really so?

Surely, the pyramids have immortalized the wealth of the Pharaohs. Students at Yale will dine at the Schwarzman Center for decades to come, courtesy of the Blackstone founder’s massive $150 million gift.

In addition to fortifying one’s legacy, not only does wealth not perish – it grows – courtesy of compound interest (the so-called eighth wonder of the world). And when properly allocated, it can beget more wealth… and more wealth…

Much ink has been spilled about the “playbook” to achieve said wealth. The metaphors usually involve laddersstep functionspyramids and vertical spectrums (our friend Nick Magiulli, author of Just Keep Buying has a particularly great post). This trajectory is “Maslowian:” first basic needs, next psychological needs and ultimately culminating in fulfillment and self-actualization.

Along this journey, one increases their autonomy and freedom – while converting money into time.

Enter the perishability.

Watts use the metaphor of his “childish desire to send someone a parcel of water in the mail.” In this flippant example:

The recipient unties the string, releasing the deluge in his lap. But the game would never work, since it is irritatingly impossible to wrap and tie a pound of water in a paper package.

You know what’s also irritatingly impossible to wrap and tie? Autonomy, freedom, and time. Just like your corporate vacation policy, they all share the distinct perishability property of “use it or lose it.”

Why the memento mori, so early on a Saturday?

It means that the tiny speckles of life are infinitesimal sources of wealth. An idea that I actually find quite calming.

In Peter Barton’s memoir Not Fade Away, the 47 year old media entrepreneur – hugely successful, happily married, and the father of three – receives a sudden cancer diagnosis.

In this moving passage, Barton describes a jet ski trip he takes with his then-teenage daughter. Frail and breathing oxygen through tubes coming from his backpack, together they:

Zipped and bounced along. Kate held on to my back; her cheek was against my shoulder. It was like she was a little girl again, and I was a young and healthy and protecting father.

We explored a bunch of little coves around the resort. The water was a hundred shades of blue and green; sunlight glinted off it so brightly that it almost hurt. Everything amazed us; we just pointed at things and giggled.

I choke up when I recall this story. But not because I’m sad. Because there’s more joy in the recollection that I can hold. There was a lifetime worth of pleasure in that single day.

In that moment, Barton encounters imperishable wealth: “That excursion on the water taught me that each moment is a life, that life is renewed every time we’re walloped by beauty, every time we’re shaken up by gratitude and love.

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