April 7, 2022
Written By: Andrew Hallam
“One of my grandfathers went completely crazy,” said my student. “He was a really successful businessman. But around the time his personal wealth hit an all-time high, he started giving away all his possessions. He got rid of his business. He gave away his house and everything in it. He then moved to some kind of monastery, hardly wore any clothes, and lived his remaining years there until he died.”
I had assigned my tenth-grade students something our high school English department called, the Outlier Project. Most (if not all) of my students were from wealthy families. They attended a private international school in Singapore where I taught for 12 years. About 70 percent of them were American passport holders. The remaining 30 percent comprised 54 different nationalities. The Outlier Project was a research assignment that answered the question, “How did I get here?” In this case, “here” was an expensive private school and a materially privileged life.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success, inspired that project. Gladwell argues that successful people work hard. But they also experienced at least one lucky break. For example, Bill Gates was given free, unlimited time in his university’s computer lab to play and learn. That was lucky. Someone gave The Beatles unlimited playing time at a club in Germany, where they honed their skills. That was lucky, too.
When my students dug into their families’ pasts, they also found moments where luck or fate played a pivotal role in their family’s success. The girl with the grandfather who gave up his possessions focused her Outlier Project on her othergrandfather. But it was the grandfather-turned-monk who fascinated me. Selfishly, I asked her to find out more.
I learned that the family shunned him for what he did. I asked my student, “What memories do you have of him?” She said, “I remember him sitting cross-legged in a loincloth, meditating on a rock. He was kind and he helped everyone. But he was crazy for giving everything away.”
Unlike his family, I don’t think he was completely nuts. Some might say the man was “enlightened.” Eckhart Tolle, author of the runaway bestsellers A New Earth: Awakening Your Life’s Purpose and The Power of Now: A Guide To Spiritual Enlightenment might suggest that he had stripped himself of his ego. His sense of self was no longer tied to his reputation as a businessman. He cast aside his material acquisitions to embrace his true, inner self.
Such ideologies are centuries old. But it might have been Chogyam Trungpa who first popularized such ideas for westerners. In 1973, he described this in his book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. This is hard-core stuff. Trungpa asserted that even when we make efforts to become better people the act of self-improvement is often a way to develop and refine the ego. This, he said, isn’t a good thing because our egos should be empty.
Perhaps that man who gave everything away did successfully empty his ego. But I believe wisdom lies in balance. We can’t strip ourselves of ego. It’s part of our DNA. Contrary to what Trungpa taught, perhaps we should partially collar it for self-improvement. We can harness our egos in an attempt not to judge other people. We can harness it to keep calm, and not react when our egos are bruised. We can harness it to research and understand why someone would vote for a political party that we don’t support. We can harness it to keep FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in check when the world goes bonkers over speculative investment products.
A free-running ego can be destructive. It can push us to follow other people’s consumption habits. It can seduce us to invest in something if our friends and neighbors look to be making a fortune with it. Our ego causes us to sell sensible investments at a low because we fear short-term losses. Our ego tempts us to try to beat the market through hot stocks or high-flying actively managed funds. Our egos cheerlead us to try to time the market.
But if we want the best odds of long-term investment success, we need to control our ego. We shouldn’t expect a lucky break that might not come. Instead, we should build a diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds. By doing so, we would have exposure to thousands of stocks from around the world. We should ignore market news and market forecasts. We should maintain a consistent allocation and invest as soon as we have the money. This is tough, requiring almost Zen-like power. It requires putting our ego on a really strong leash.
Few people could fully let their egos go. Our egos, after all, are part of who we are. But if we can embrace humility, accept people of different beliefs, forgive ourselves for our mistakes, keep calm when our buttons are pushed, follow a consistent investment plan and ignore the seemingly easy-made fortunes of those around us, we can use our resources to help ourselves and assist those who need our help. Fortunately, we could do this without living like ascetics. But if you happen to know someone who embraced asceticism, gave everything away, and chose a life committed to service, respect that decision as something cool and rare.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas
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