A good friend related a story that goes directly to the heart of what’s broken in our way of life. My friend went to a reunion in Silicon Valley attended by the most successful cohort in America: super-smart, highly educated people in their mid-40s who have achieved the highest levels of professional accomplishment and built enormous financial wealth, with net worths not just in the millions but in many cases in the tens of millions of dollars.
These are people at the apex of the American economy and society, those who did everything right, worked hard and grasped the brass ring of conventional success.
Yet when the meeting broke into small groups and individuals were asked to speak briefly about their lives, more than a few people teared up and began weeping. My friend was struck by the disconnect between their tremendous success and their personal misery–of failed marriages, of being trapped in their jobs, in feeling their sacrifices weren’t worth it and in sensing the shallowness of their success and the poverty of their inner lives.
Not every super-successful person was miserable, of course; some had shifted gears to lower-paid work they found more fulfilling and others still loved their careers. But what was near-universal was the desire to get the heck out of Silicon Valley and leave its pressure-cooker lifestyle in the dust.
It takes a great deal of honesty and inner strength to admit in public that conventional success hasn’t delivered the glorious fulfillment and happiness we’re scripted to expect.
Ours is a culture of forced optimism. The scripts of forced optimism are repeated daily in endless loops: the “fix” for misery is gratitude (hence everyone interviewed after a “win” must express gratitude and humility) and a menu of self-help tricks: mindfulness, better management of our productivity, etc., in a near-infinite profusion of “5 things you can do to improve your life” lists that gush out of America’s prodigious self-help industry.
All of this is intended to obscure the reality that even the wealthy are poorer in everything that really matters. We measure “wealth” in financial terms, but as the super-successful and super-wealthy discover, financial wealth doesn’t translate into well-being, fulfilling relationships, agency, health or the other forms of intangible capital that make up “real wealth.”
I’ve just completed a book that explores these topics in depth: Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power and A.I. in a Traumatized World.
The book also examines the constantly hyped faith that technology will inevitably make us all richer, the implicit premise being that every technological advance is automatically making our lives better in every way, every day.
A corollary of this forced technology optimism is that robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will inevitably generate trillions of dollars in profits that will enable us all to 1) quit working because robots will do all our work and 2) draw a substantial monthly “dividend” from this endless gusher of tech-generated profits.
Nice, except every one of these assumptions is demonstrably baseless. AI might enrich the few who own the platforms and monopolies, but even that is unlikely, given that these technologies are rapidly being commoditized.
These are difficult dynamics to understand, but if we want to become wealthier in meaningful ways (including sustainable financial wealth), we have to understand these concepts at the deepest level. If it was possible to explain these complex realities in a 200-word list of 5 easy tips, I would, but alas, it took 38,000 words just to manage a modestly comprehensive overview.
As all the costs we don’t even measure pile up, we’re all getting poorer whether we are able to admit it or not. A society / economy that’s fragmenting and failing is not making us all richer, despite the signaling device of a rising stock market and gamed statistics (unemployment at a 50-year low, etc.).
This book is also the result of my personal journey through burnout, a topic I discussed earlier this year in Burnout Nation. The price we’re paying to keep our heads above water steepens while the pay-off is dropping off a cliff. While we’re constantly told to focus on the rising value of our stocks and homes (if we have any meaningful equity in either one, which many do not), our well-being, health, social mobility, agency, trust in institutions, non-financial capital and security are all declining.
Burnout forces us to re-assess costs, sacrifices and pay-offs in a wrenching reckoning that can no longer be put off. The recession that is slowly but surely unfolding will increase the stress on many of us, and force all sorts of personal reckonings on people who have spent years avoiding just such a reckoning.
My goal in writing this book was to help everyone going through a personal reckoning understand the impoverishment meted out by our broken socio-economic system, an impoverishment that may be invisible even as we sense it weighing more heavily on us every day.
How do we turn around this decline in everything that matters? The first step is to recognize and measure all forms of capital, tangible and intangible alike, and make a personal balance sheet of all the forms of capital we own or have access to, and prioritize which ones are the most important to us.
There’s much more in the book. Please take a look at the first section for free (PDF). There’s a 15% discount on both the digital and print editions through the month of October.
A note of thanks to those who buy the book: As an independent writer, book sales are a substantial part of my livelihood. I receive no funding from any trust fund, university, philanthro-capitalist foundation, think-tank, shadowy C.I.A. front, media giant or government agency.