Your 'Net Worth' Means Something Totally Different Than You Think

Recently I received an e-mail from a friend. The subject line was "Worth." The e-mail had a link to an article from the Daily Mail, a UK-based publication. The article was a "Rich List" of colleges and institutions that had the wealthiest alumni. Turns out the college I attended has the highest percentage of self-made billionaire alumni in the United States.

The college in question doesn't matter (unless you are in charge of alumni relations at this particular college), but it does raise the question of worth. I read the entire article (only because it was short), learning that my college has nearly 500 "super-wealthy" (the Daily Mail's quotes, not mine) alumni worth 31 billion dollars. I felt sorry for the fact checker who had to count all that money. I hope it was mostly large bills.

I suppose I am proud of my fellow alumni for making their money on their own, although there is also no telling what may have fallen by the wayside in the process. The pursuit of wealth takes time, and we all have the same amount of time in each day. What to leave in and what to leave out? It is up to us to decide, and it is those decisions that make a life.

Lists like this "Rich List" are everywhere, and it's not just because money is easy to measure. We are intrigued (fascinated? hypnotized?) by wealth (different, as you know, from worth). Who hasn't wondered about the world of private jets, European villas, and fine wines -- price-be-damned-and-likely-not-even-noted -- not to mention never again worrying about paying next month's bills? What would it be like to call your private pilot right now, and without packing (you have an entire wardrobe waiting at your destination), fly, right now, with the one you love, to a private Caribbean island? I know the woman I love deserves nothing less. But I don't have a pilot on standby and I have a wardrobe you can run a hand across in ten seconds, although I do know certain hidden Caribbean beaches and one day I am going to take my bride there. I have spent enough time on secluded beaches to know the stars shine down on all lovers. But we will have to fly with our fellow travelers and look at the prices on the wine list, and probably turn down things we would like to try, because in the course of our lives we have made decisions that have seen us divert from the path that might have seen me boost my alma mater's "super-wealthy" list by one.

It is okay.

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As a freelance writer of twenty-five years, I have always had a flexible schedule. I could have worked harder. But there were soccer teams that needed a coach, and teachers who needed parents for field trips, and two small boys who needed someone to walk them around the corner to the playground, and then needed rides to their friends' homes, and then needed to borrow the car so that I couldn't attend any business meetings unless they were held at the playground. I worked hard enough, but I missed plenty of desk time, too. And so I do worry a little about next month's bills, and the month after that. And lists like those of my fellow alumni turn me mildly embarrassed by my own glaring deficiencies on this front.

I know I'm not alone. In another recent article about billionaires -- I told you, there are a billion of them -- I learned that in 2013 the wealth of the world's billionaires reached a record high. Meanwhile, the rest of the country's net worth has fallen. According to the Federal Reserve, real net worth per U.S. household currently hovers at about 95% of its 2007 level.

But I am not so sure the real net worth of all those people looking anxiously at their bank accounts can be so tidily quantified. Maybe right now they're sitting on a bench at the neighborhood playground, watching their kids scamper, swing, slide, and scale, while their office phone takes messages. Maybe they're not even sitting on the bench. Maybe they're playing, too; kicking their heels to the sky on the swings, sitting stuck halfway down the slide, or trying (more than likely futilely) to catch a darting, laughing child. Yes, they will likely always be on the list the Federal Reserve uses to counter the happy rise of the billionaires. It's okay. Maybe, as they tuck their child in at night, small hands stop them. "Daddy, can I write something?"

ILOVYO.

I still have the note on my office wall.

Still, I often wonder if I made the right decisions. On many quantifiable fronts, the answer is a definitive no. Regarding bank accounts, I am not a very good provider. Maybe I am writing this because I am trying to make my failings right.

But most of the time, I think it's okay.

I will never buy a yacht for $1 billion (Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich) or a Jackson Pollock classic drip painting for $140 million (Mexican businessman David Martinez), but I have lots of drip paintings. I also have ceramic dolphins and stacks of homemade birthday cards and drawings of things I can't even recognize. I have food on the table and a roof over my head. Two healthy young boys have become two healthy young men. I am married to my best friend. Last night, I waited for her in a restaurant. When she walked in, my heart forgot to beat. These things, I cannot tabulate their worth.

In this time of thanks, I cannot number the things I am thankful for.

It's okay.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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