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Wealth is more than a number

This is an edited transcript from a recent Standard Deviations podcast episode by behavioral finance expert, Dr. Daniel Crosby, which offers a sneak preview of an essay from his upcoming book, The Soul of Wealth.

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Even if we achieve one success after another, you and I will still fall short of the accolades earned by Alexander the Great, the legendary king of Macedon. By the age of 30, he had built up one of the world's largest empires. Geographically, he had power over land stretching from Greece to northwest India. Undefeated on the battlefield, he was widely regarded as among history's greatest military thinkers.

Towards the top on Alexander's resume was his conquest of the mighty city of Tyre. A coastal city located on an island, it was considered to be impregnable with its formidable defenses, but Alexander was determined to capture it. The Siege of Tyre was crafted by Alexander in 332 BC as part of a broader campaign against the Persians. He established a blockade during the seven-month conquest, then built a causeway, truly an engineering marvel at the time, to erect siege towers with catapults atop. Ultimately, his soldiers breached Tyre's defenses. He was said to be so heated about how Tyrians defended their city, killing a sizeable portion of his men that Alexander destroyed half the city. It was a monumental victory and sent a message to the rest of the world.

A sour victory

For a commander like Alexander the Great, surely a feeling of pride and some chest pounding was deserved. That did not happen, though. Alexander felt profound disappointment and heartache, because during the Siege of Tyre, he lost one of his most crucial generals, who was also his best friend. Hephaestion died from illness, and this devastated Alexander emotionally. It's said that their friendship was among the most enduring in history. Grieving deeply, Alexander could hardly consider the victory at Tyre a sweet win. Some accounts portray him as so grief-stricken and emotionally unstable, following Hephaestion's passing, that the once-calculating and strategic Alexander began to turn reckless. He was known to drink heavily afterward, potentially a contributing factor to his death at the early age of just 32.

While the loss of his confidant may not have directly led to Alexander's downfall, there's little doubt that the event played a pivotal role and even prompted him to make some off-center decisions. His health and well-being were in bad shape as a result of refusing to eat or drink, while he reportedly had the physician who failed to save Hephaestion executed. Alexander's military prowess also diminished in his later years as he became preoccupied with seeing himself as divine, more than just a powerful man.

So, was losing a dear friend the root of Alexander's demise? That might be a stretch. After all, there were many factors at play. One thing in life often impacts another, and a new sequence of challenges ensues. It's clear, however, that Hephaestion's death was a turning point for both Alexander and the Empire he ruled over. For 15 years, the king never met defeat. His wartime triumphs made him the second wealthiest person of all time, surpassed only by Genghis Khan. Estimates of his net worth vary widely. There weren't exactly zeros in a checking account in 325 BC, ranging between 1.6 trillion and 32 trillion. But whatever the actual number, Alexander was rich in a way that is nearly incomprehensible to the modern mind. By the most conservative estimate of his wealth, he is 10 times richer than Jeff Bezos. By that same low estimate, he surpasses the collective wealth of the 10 richest individuals globally today, people who fly to space for kicks and have private islands. And yet, with all of this opulence, all of this power, Alexander was undone in large part by something so very human, the death of someone he cared about.

What Alexander the Great's story says about wealth

His sad story tells us something very real about true wealth. We tend to chase a number as an external marker of riches, but real, soulful wealth is about much more than a number.

A tragic illustration of society's tendency to pursue numbers at the expense of values is seen in how we establish and tailgate goals as we journey through life compared to when we reflect upon our years. For those in their prime, goals generally centre around a number of predictable categories like fitness and money. According to a Gallup survey conducted in late 2022, 7 in 10 people planned to set some kind of New Year's resolution. For goals setters in 2023, the top three categories were fitness at 80%, financial goals at 69%, and career goals at 59% among those of working age. And if you're anything like me, these goals probably feel very familiar and aligned with the ones that we set and then promptly forget around the beginning of each new year.

But goals for those in reflection at the end of life look a little bit different and take on a profound shift. A 2012 study on the regrets of the dying highlighted five common sentiments. The first was that they wished that they had not worked so hard. The second, they regretted living a life that was not true to themselves. Three, they felt remorse for not having had the courage to express their feelings. Four, they wished they had stayed in closer touch with friends. And finally, they lamented not having let themselves be happier.

What do you notice? None of the things, not one, that seem to matter so much to us as we move through life make the list of what's important when the imminence of death has brought what truly matters into such sharp relief. Work, one of our primary aims in times of health, emerges as one of our most significant regrets when we reflect back on our lives.

I posed this disconnect to Twitter and received poignant replies. The short-term list is more about measures while the long-term list is more about meaning, said one individual. A financial planner remarked, we are confused creatures who don't see the truth until there is no time left.

Retirement and wealth

Those were both great observations, and the same dynamic extends to how we view retirement. For most people, retirement is their single biggest financial goal. And why not? It's a distant and somewhat ambiguous milestone that will most assuredly require vast sums of wealth to achieve. Investors tend to simply chase a bigger number on a spreadsheet, constantly shifting around those goalposts mentioned earlier, and we all too commonly fail to prepare for the other non-financial facets of retirement.

Retirement is also appealing, since we also generally don't like work. The 9 to 5 drudgery is seen as robbing us of freedom and enduring multiple Zoom meetings each day hardly sparks joy. But for all of its annoyances, work still serves as a source of engagement and socialization for many people, which has a positive impact on happiness.

Wealth is fantastic, to a point

Alexander the Great devoted his short life to the conquest of nations and hoarding treasures, eventually becoming the second richest person in history, only to have his achievements unravel at the loss of a cherished relationship. Similarly, we labor for decades to reach a certain financial milestone, only to fall into a deep malaise when we realize that other paths to flourishing may have been neglected. We spend our lives setting goals focused on career advancement and amassing wealth that, when the clarity of life's brevity is before us, seems like wasted time.

True wealth is not about finish lines or numbers, it's about using whatever material abundance we have to enrich the other more enduring paths to fulfillment. Money can buy us simple pleasures like ice cream, cherished memories on vacation with people we love, and freedom to engage in spiritual and political pursuits, all of which can bolster our joy in real ways. However, if we relentlessly chase wealth as an indent to itself at the expense of other facets of well-being, history and science both teach us that it will lead to a hollowing out of life in an impoverishment of spirit.

 

Dr. Daniel Crosby is Chief Behavioral Officer at Orion and a New York Times' bestselling author. All opinions expressed by Dr. Daniel Crosby and podcast guests are solely their own opinions and do not reflect the opinion of or endorsement by Orion and its affiliate subsidiaries and employees. This material is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a basis for legal, tax and investment decisions. The opinions are based upon information the participants consider reliable.

 

9 Comments
Edward
April 29, 2024

Highly recommend: "The Psychology of Money" by Morgan Housel.

Kevin
April 27, 2024

Bogle is dead Harry. A man that fascinated me was Markowitz,a Nobel prize winner,the too much diversification is never enough man.

A genius or the start of the maximise the funds under management,and clip the ticket People swear by him,he must be right,a Nobel prize.

Then of course we have LTCM,long term capital management. 4? Nobel prize winners,and complication,the black Scholes equation.Didn't that go well.

Long term wealth,started with nothing and did it all myself,with the help of society of course.

Bought a thousand shares in CBA ( slightly more actually),and 1,000 shares in NAB.A long time ago,boy did that work out well,just reinvested the dividends.Then stopped,dividend income is great,excess income still goes into the DRP to increase the number of shares,and dividend income .You try and tell that to the young people of today,or the old people of today.

Investing is fun. The person at the far left of a bell curve ( the dumb money ) ,can make the person at the far right of the bell curve ( smart money,Nobel prize winner) look a fool.

James
April 27, 2024

Got a spare Time Machine? Harry Hindsight.

Kevin
May 01, 2024

The only lesson that history teaches us is that people refuse to learn the lessons that history teaches us. Useless noise.Worthless. I bought a company and understood compounding.It compounded well for 3 decades.They seem to have the skills to ride through setbacks and select the next management After 30+ years,repeat that useless noise . After 50 years repeat that useless noise After 100 years,repeat that useless,worthless noise. The simplicity of an above average return for decades produces great wealth.

Dudley
May 01, 2024

"compounded well for 3 decades":

A = P * (1 + r ) ^ t
Do you have proof that the compounding rate, r, in the next t years will not be negative?

Jill
April 25, 2024

Reminds me of the book "Enough is Enough" by John C Bogle, the founder of Vanguard - one of the most thought-provoking and wise books I've ever read.

DamianS
April 25, 2024

I have just turned 60 and realised I cannot retire because work has consumed my identity. I don't want to go from being a member of crew to just another passenger. To retire I will need to find some activity which will consume my life and fill in the huge void due to not working.

@Jill: The title of the book is actually "Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life"

Disgruntled
April 26, 2024

I can not wait until I reach 60 and retire.

I will be grateful for everyday I don't have to get up and go to work anymore.

We are dead too long to work all our lives IMHO.

Being a good little worker ant and contributing to society and keeping the GDP numbers strong is not for me. I've done my time. It will be 45 years of working, nights, weekends, public holidays, normal Monday to Friday and overtime.

I worked because I had to. Come 60 years of age, I won't have to.

Somedays will be a case of, I'm doing nothing today, I did nothing yesterday but I'm not finished.
Other days I'll have things to do.

Harry
April 27, 2024

Yeah but the founder of Vanguard is probably fabulously wealthy. Funny how keen rich people are to tell you
1 money doesn’t Mater
2 I started with nothing. Did it all myself.

Very predictable

 

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