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What’s your net human worth?

Kenyans recently became fixated on the idea of net worth. Those nominated to join the new cabinet had to undergo something called vetting, and it seemed like the most interesting part of that process was the nominees’ declaration of their net worth. The cabinet in toto declared an eye-popping sum in excess of Sh. 15 billion. Clearly, those who line up to join senior government positions are already very wealthy people.

Every day, our media seemed to pick up on this issue above all others: the net worth revelations. Peculiarly, that seemed to be the news of greatest interest. And we recorded the net worth as offered, with little interrogation of how those folks came across such wealth. That is our society today: tell us how much you have, regardless of how you happen to have it. We value you for what you own, not what you do. Our scorecard has just one measure: how wealthy are you?

Given that most nominees came from humble beginnings and had a history of income earned mostly from modest employment, some wags on Twitter opined that perhaps we could all use their services—as financial advisors, not cabinet ministers! If modest money can be multiplied that easily, perhaps we should all be educated in these alchemical arts…

Jibes aside, what is net worth? Remember, all references were to financial net worth: what people own, minus what they owe. In other words, it was a calculation of financial assets (cash, property, vehicles, shares, etc), less what money is owed to others in the form of loans and mortgages.

Words have a natural, original meaning, though. What do the words “net” and “worth” say to us, if we remove the financial connotation? Your worth as human being is surely not just a record of your wealth. The value of your life must also capture the idea of merit—good work or deeds that deserve appreciation and reward. If we broaden the phrase to read net human worth, then we are on to something more meaningful.

Your worth as a human is not the total of your net financial wealth—unless we are convinced that thieves, scammers, killers, corrupters, conmen, polluters, drug lords and the like deserve our applause. People gain wealth in many ways that bestow no merit on them. And even when they record a high number, they do far more damage to the world around them than any positives their wealth might register. Their “net” effect on the world is disturbingly negative. It was perhaps lost on the populace that the richer your political leaders are, the poorer you are likely to remain.

If we expand the meaning of net worth, what do our assets and liabilities as humans look like? Financial assets accrue only to us—we own them, and they are for us. A human asset, however, gives value out. The greatest assets in our lives are those that impact the world around us positively, and you don’t need a qualification to figure out what those might be. A generous nature, a benevolent mien, a capacity for hard work, a sharp mind, a natural concern for others—those are the real assets of the human being. You will note, however, that we need not personally realize the value of those assets. They are indeed more valuable when their value accrues to those around us.

And our human liabilities? Any assessment of that part of the ledger begins with the appreciation that we did not become what we are solely on our own strengths and endeavours. We are all the product of the assets of others. We received love and succour and backing from parents; we gained knowledge from teachers; we got kindness from family and friends; we tapped into wisdom from mentors. And every last one of us stands on the shoulders of those who have come before. The science and philosophy and engineering and laws on which our lives depend are not our own work. Indeed, even the air we breathe and water we drink comes from a source far higher than any one of us.

We all owe, in other words. I am always amazed how this understanding seems often to be missing in the calculations of the very rich. Even as you sit there counting your gold, it is both selfish and obtuse to ignore the work that others have put into your success. You owe everyone—your ancestors, your family, your peers, your society—and it behoves you to repay what you owe.

You will notice how the nature of assets and liabilities changes once we consider those terms in their natural human meaning. What do we own? The ability and capacity to be of use and of value to the world around us. What do we owe? Pretty much everything. How then does someone focused on their net human worth live their life? By radiating outwards. As I have written before, the life worth living is not lived for itself.

What would leaders be like if we vetted them for their net human worth? And what is your personal calculation?

(Sunday Nation, 13 November 2022)

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