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Rich lessons in wealth management

Mar 05, 2006 Success, Sunday Nation

We are a little crazy about wealth in this country. It sometimes feels like every person wakes up every morning with the same wild-eyed obsession: More money! More property! More everything!

A labourer can be found dreaming about when he will be able to move into a permanent dwelling; a junior executive might be in a reverie about that smart new car; even the billionaire is knotted up with frustration about not having the chalet in Switzerland, to which to invite his friends for skiing trips (the latest fad amongst Kenya’s elite).

Nothing wrong with that, many would say. We Kenyans are natural capitalists, and capitalists always want more. The desire to have more plots of land, more houses, more cars and more necklaces is what keeps the economy humming. Don’t knock it; don’t mess around with our entrepreneurial zeal. But is ‘zeal’ really the right word for this psychosis?

I listened to a talk given recently by Swami Swaroopananda of the global Chinmaya Mission. This organisation was set up to modernise and promote the ancient wisdom of India’s “Vedanta” philosophy. The Swami himself is quite a character: he gave up a thriving business in Hong Kong in 1984 to become a spiritual teacher.

In his own words, he renounced “a fat wallet, a flashy car and gelled hair” because of the lingering suspicion that there must be more to life than senseless accumulation. Over time, he became an international leader in the Chinmaya organisation. He was in Nairobi last week to give a series of talks on “life management”, and spent a bit of time on the subject of wealth.

There is nothing wrong with wealth, says the Swami. Let us not deny the part of our nature that wishes to build wealth – even priests who lecture you about the evils of wealth will end the discourse with a request for a donation. But let us first broaden the definition of wealth, for it is more than money and gold, land and property, stocks and investments.

Time is perhaps the greatest part of our wealth. Time is actually all we have, and it is finite. We are all given a certain lifespan; and we must conduct all our affairs within the bounds of this (uncertain) span. Yet time is what we fritter away without a second thought.

By devoting all our waking hours to the accumulation of money, we lose all perspective. We live to earn, and earn in order to earn more. We lose touch with our growing children, our spouses and parents, our once-close friends, all in the delusion that we are focusing our attention on what is truly important. Yet time lost can never be reclaimed. It is the most precious of resources, and the one that we treat with most disdain.

Most of us, in fact, are never even in the present moment of time. We place our attention in the past or the future, almost never in the present. We keep raking over what is gone, or planning for what may be. Yet the wise tell us that the past is history, and the future just an idea. What we actually have before us is the present; but this is where we least want to live. Some studies actually suggest that the average person spends no more than 7 seconds out of every minute in the present moment.

If time is ignored as a component of wealth, what of health? It is self-evident that material wealth cannot be enjoyed without good health; yet Kenyans can be found obsessively working all hours, eating badly and caught in the throes of a stress that eats away at their fundaments. Another (unnamed) sage put it thus: “Many of us lose our health gaining our wealth; and then lose our wealth regaining our health.” Idiocy indeed, but are the posh wings of our hospitals not filled with rich people tormented by heart disease, hypertension, ulcers and cancers accumulated in the race for money?

If we understood the broader definition of wealth, balance would return to our lives. We would value our time and expend it on the things that matter most: family; friendships; thoughtful reflection; the needs of society. We would spend more time being aware of where we are and what is around us at any given moment, rather than existing in a constant fog where we are rekindling regrets from the past or indulging hallucinations about the future.

If we could put health and money on the same pedestal, we would eat more carefully and work more sensibly. We would get less angry and accept that life is inherently unpredictable. We would seek to prevent more and cure less; we would spend less time in courts seeking redress, and more time in retreats seeking peace; we would spend more on florists and less on chemists.

A balanced view of wealth would also bring about a fundamental realisation: that wealth is only a means, not an end. We need wealth in order to do something bigger with it; not to heap it in stockpiles. This applies in corporations as much as it does to individuals: the company that merely accumulates reserves year after year is soon forced to reinvest and rethink from first principles.

Charles Handy, the renowned management thinker, put it so: “The purpose of business is not just to make a profit, full stop. It is to make a profit so that the business can do something more, or better.” Businesses are as much about improving lives as they are about turning a profit. They provide careers, apply and spread technology and improve productivity. At their worst, they are empty vehicles that feed the accumulative urges of an individual; at their best they are active agents for the improvement of society.

Whatever your earnings (above a basic minimum), the Swami has a prescription for you: spend 50 per cent; reinvest 20 per cent; and save 20 per cent. And the final 10 per cent? Just give it away. This “tithe” is found in all societies and cultures; but few live up to it. Indeed, the person of modest means often finds it easier to give away a tenth of his or her earnings, than does the billionaire who looks at the absolute amount and recoils in horror.

Ultimately, we will only be balanced in our view of wealth when we learn to give it away. Hoarding it creates clots and blockages; letting it flow freely into and out of our lives makes it a truly creative force. As the Swami put it: if Lake Victoria only received water, it would become bloated and stagnant and a place of disease. Because it is the source of the great Nile, however, it waters the soils of many a land and creates fertile conditions for millions.

Sometimes, the best lessons in managing wealth do not come from financial advisors and investment analysts; they come from those who have discerned the true place of wealth in our lives, and who can value it without worshipping it.

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