Home > Uncategorized > It sucks to be rich

It sucks to be rich

April 5, 2012

I often find myself uttering the phrase, “you don’t want to be really rich, because it sucks to be rich.” For whatever reason I’m always asked to explain that opinion. I’ll do so here so I can just reference this blog post from now on instead of having to repeat myself.

Just to be clear, it also sucks to be poor. I’m not saying it doesn’t because it really, obviously does. My experience going to Ghana and making friends with dancers who later injured their backs has shown me that, especially when there are unmet medical needs, being poor absolutely bites.

But I would (and will) argue it also sucks to be rich, in a more psychological, and less sympathetic (as in, people don’t have sympathy for you) kind of way.

This recent article from the New York Times, about a reported who lived like a billionaire for a day, is worth a read and is what spurred me to write this post. My favorite line:

“Somebody’s got to live this life,” he says, gesturing to the pristine view from his penthouse villa. “God decided it should be me.”

Not that this line supports my arguments, but it’s just awesomely grandiose and despicable.

Anyhoo, back to why it actually sucks. I am using evidence I gleaned from working at D.E. Shaw with quite a few rich people (as in never have to work in their lives and can take yearly ski vacations in the Alps or wherever) and a few insanely rich people (way more). So it’s a relatively small sample size, but even so it’s not empty.

The main reason I think it sucks, is that human nature has us worrying about stuff no matter what. And rich people don’t have normal things to worry about, so they make up really weird shit to worry about. That’s kind of the whole argument but I’ll give a bunch of examples.

The primary reason it sucks to be rich is that, counter-intuitively, rich people constantly worry about money. If you drew a graph of “have money” versus “worry about money” it would be a “U” shaped graph. I feel very lucky to be in the sweet spot where I make enough money not to worry about paying my bills or being on medical insurance but I don’t make so much money that I have to start worrying about it.

What do I mean? I mean:

  • Rich people worry about whether they’ve invested their money correctly (not a concern for me). This sounds like a joke but believe me, they talk about it for many many hours, probably more time than they spend with their kids.
  • They worry about whether the charities they give money to are really producing stuff, because the scale of their donations is so large (again, not a concern for me, if I give money it’s to Fair Foods and I know exactly where it goes, usually to paying for insurance for the trucks).
  • They scheme and plan how to affect politics and politicians with their money. Maybe not so much sympathy for this.
  • They worry about whether their kids will turn into good-for-nothing leeches and so come up with weird estate planning contracts with lawyers to keep money away from their kids, which in turn screws up their kids and their relationship with their kids. This stuff is for real and can get insanely nasty, see this article if you don’t believe me.

Who needs all that? I’m much happier having kids where I’ll say, when they are ready to go to college, hey here’s how much we’ve been able to save, here are your college choices, the rest you’ll have to pay for yourself so choose wisely.

In other words, it’s good to have nice and reasonable worries.

Besides money, what do rich people worry about? The answer is: absolutely everything, and nothing, at the same time.

My favorite two examples come from stories about David Shaw himself, who is massively rich. I didn’t actually meet the people involved, so these are myths I heard working there, but they are really good myths and have the ring of so-absurd-nobody-could-make-this-up.

First example: David hires a Ph.D. in English literature (he has a thing for “geniuses”, even in the mail room) to test mattresses for him. So that person’s job is to sleep on 15 different mattresses, for 8 nights each, and draw up a report to tell him the pros and cons of each mattress. This is to avoid him having an uncomfy night’s sleep. That’s what the risk was that we were avoiding with that.

Second example: David wants to be sure his trip to California goes smoothly, so he hires a Ph.D. in Something to take the exact same trip – same car service to the NY airport, same flight (same seat on plane!), same car service upon arrival, same hotel, exactly a week before his trip (due to understood seasonality issues of air travel) – to make sure there are no snags, and to draw up the report that presumable explains how much leg room there was in his plane.

You could say that he’s just a weirdo, but here’s where I’d disagree. Before making $2.5 billion, he was just a computer science nerd at Columbia. Sure, he was intense and probably competitive, but he had normal worries and isn’t famous for being a total jerk. For that matter he’s still not famous for being a total jerk, but he’s clearly got not enough to worry about.

In other words, I’m convinced that if I had that much money, I’d be doing stuff like that too, and so would you. The existence of asstons of money around you makes you weird and entitled. Add to that that everyone around you is either your servant or someone who assumes you are living a perfect happy life, and you become increasingly isolated and misunderstood on top of it, which leads to more weirdness.

Yuck! I’d rather be saving up for a family trip to somewhere nice, and in the meantime having stay-cations where the biggest expense is a Brazilian barbeque restaurant in Queens.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. richard
    April 5, 2012 at 9:13 am

    I agree with your post, albeit I’d put it in a different way.

    Works is the great commonality, a bit like high school (when we were younger) or maybe television (at least before the emergence of cable). Those who are wealthy, like the elderly in nursing homes or stay at home parents or the unemployed or those who are severely disabled, do not share in the great commonality of a 40 hour work week, along with the complaints and occassional high drama. In America, not having a job leaves you disconnected from the experiences of the large bulk of the working population, and tends to leave people isolated and alone


  2. batticus
    April 5, 2012 at 10:21 am

    Given there are counterexamples of billionaires that don’t act like your example (Buffet, Gates,Jobs,etc), your thesis isn’t supported very well. It isn’t a refutation that I know quite a few 10-100M+ net worth folks that could afford to waste their money like your David (but they don’t) but I would suggest he had an existing personal psychological issue (enabled and made worse by his financial situation) rather than a financial problem that applies to all high net worth people.

    Agreed that your problems change when you have a higher net worth but these are not worse problems compared to not being able to afford health care or take care of your kids. They are problems that you can mitigate with prudent investing/giving and restrained consumption (i.e., setting an example for your kids so they don’t feel entitled).


    • April 5, 2012 at 10:24 am

      Wait, do you mean Steve Jobs and Bill Gates? Because they are kind of perfect examples actually.

      Buffett I’ll give you.


      • David
        April 5, 2012 at 9:22 pm

        Cathy, I tend to think that David Shaw has probably always been weird. I have heard stories (from people who were there) about him spending hours debating whether to use word X or word Y in the abstract of a DESRES paper and other stories about his obsession with details; you don’t have to be rich to do that.

        Also, I don’t think that both stories are that crazy; I don’t think he lost sleep (no pun intended) worrying about the matress research. If I really cared about sleeping comfortably and I could hire a random person to test matresses for $1 and a PhD. in physiology of sleep for $10, I would probably choose the latter. Scale up my net worth 1,000x (or 10,000x, or whatever), and you get the first example.

        What’s wrong with Bill Gates?


      • batticus
        April 7, 2012 at 9:38 am

        Your thesis is that being super rich is bad for you, it sucks to be rich. Bill Gates retiring rich by an measure from Microsoft and devoting his energy and money to his foundation that works on malaria drugs, safe nuclear reactors, education, HIV and family planning. I’m not sure what metric you would be using that grades that in the “sucks to be rich” category. Warren Buffet would also disagree with you. As for Steve Jobs, whatever you think of him as a person is not relevant to your thesis, money didn’t change his passion. His life didn’t suck each time he got rich (Apple 1980’s, NeXT, Pixar, Apple 2000’s), he married, had kids, had commercial success; once again, I’m not sure what metric you use to label that his life sucks because he was rich?


  3. sciencecafenorman
    April 5, 2012 at 11:13 am

    I think you’re letting these folks off the hook a bit easy here, Cathy. Just because many of the existing rich culture behave this way doesn’t mean they HAVE to behave this way. And there are a lot that don’t, it’s just that nobody tells stories about them.

    I’ll give you the one about spoiled kids, but I would argue that this problem is as true for middle class families like mine in America as it is for the rich, though perhaps on a different scale. My kids are spoiled, too, and I worry about how that will affect their futures. In this country, I’m guess that all but the very poor worry about that.

    Anyway, I don’t think having lots of extra cash has to consume a person this way. It’s only the needless ambition to turn that excess cash into more excess cash. They could just as easily put it into safe, slow growth investments, or into a safe deposit box. Nobody requires them to spend their time making more money hand over fist.


  4. madalife
    April 5, 2012 at 11:33 am

    King Solomon (a rich guy) wrote about this. Here are some excerpts:
    1) Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
    2) The abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.
    3) I hated all things I had toiled under the sun because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun.

    The more money we have, the more control freaks we become because we know we are not in control.


  5. Sandra
    April 5, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    This post is weirdly comforting. On the other hand, how do you rid the world of parasites??


  6. Becky Jaffe
    April 5, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    This reminds me of something you told me when we were teenagers that has stuck with me. I was lamenting not being one of the pretty girls, since it seemed desirable to be relentlessly catered to and forever fawned over. You told me that I needn’t envy the pretty people, since beauty is a burden of its own. I have considered that comment for over twenty years and now find it to be a precocious bit of wisdom. Everything is a trade-off.

    With regard to poverty in particular, I have noticed in my travels to places like Madagascar, where material poverty is widespread and extreme, that there appears to be an inverse relationship between material and spiritual wealth. I don’t mean to glorify poverty with this observation, simply to note that the cost of pursuing material wealth can be greater than the return.


    • Sean Crowell
      April 6, 2012 at 11:00 am

      That’s right, but it’s the pursuit that’s the problem, not the wealth. If you happen to be wealthy, there’s no reason you have to pursue more of it. I spend my days doing science and being a dad, and if I were offered a job that paid me lots of money and didn’t conflict with these two things, I’d take it, because that money would be useful for paying debts, etc. However, I’m not going to chase money for the sake of having it. That’s the difference.


    • madalife
      April 6, 2012 at 11:38 am

      When did you travel to Madagascar? I don’t know the accuracy of this information but this blog claimed that David Graeber, one of the initiator of OWS spent nearly two years in Madagascar in 2007 http://dagonewsreader.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/occupy-wall-street-madagascar-is-the-inspiration/
      Madagascar has experienced “the 1% and 99%” since 1975.
      I disagree that in Madagascar, there is an inverse relationship between material and spiritual wealth. People over there tend to do spiritual-related things (turning of the bones of dead ancestors, consulting mediums, joining prosperity gospel churches,…) for the hope of material blessings.


  7. Dan L
    April 7, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    I happened to read this bit about Jack White (from NYT) that seems relevant. I guess one could say that this has to do with being an “artist,” but I think it has more to do with being rich:

    He was also installing microphones under the eaves outside his window. Thanks to some quirk of acoustics, he said, “I can’t hear the rain.” He wanted to pipe in the noise to speakers in his bedroom and listen to the rain while he fell asleep.


  8. Scott Carnahan
    April 8, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    If these stories about Shaw are true, then count me as somewhat disappointed at the lack of imagination. I feel like he hasn’t fully completed his journey to crazy land. You’d think that if he really appreciated what 2 billion dollars could do, he’d buy houses and condos at every planned travel destination (perhaps having Ph.D.s live in them for a while to weed out the ones with weird neighbors and traffic noises), fill them with his Ph.D.-tested furniture, and stock the fridges with his favorite foods.


  1. April 6, 2012 at 5:56 pm
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