Why Even the Wealthy Can’t Stop Working

[Note: I’m currently leading a group of Edge members in a Group relating to “Transitions,” or how they will wrap up their design careers and how they will determine what comes next. As I do research for them, I’ll be sharing a few posts with all Edge members including our younger ones who can file this information away for a later time.]

A recent article in the New York Times addressed why even billionaires have a hard time ever slowing down, not to mention completely giving up the idea of working at all. While I’ve yet to meet a design billionaire, I felt that this article hit on many things that are relevant to all of us.

For instance, studies show that while their “work” may be conducted from fabulous homes, yachts, or private jets, they do work and they work a lot. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple who is worth hundreds of millions, still gets up at 3:45 a.m. every morning to mount his daily assault on competitors.

Elon Musk, the man behind Space X and Tesla is worth some $23 billion, but nevertheless considers it a victory that he has at last scaled back his 120-hour workweeks to a more “manageable” 80-90 hours.

These individuals are also motivated by the next big thing, just as you may be motivated by the next big project.

And they want to continue to buy whatever they want without feeling like they have “gone negative” in their net worth. In other words, to live the lifestyle they want, they need the income to keep flowing and even growing.

Whereas there used to be talk of “the number” that would allow one to retire comfortably, say to Napa, today that number is just the seed capital for the next bigger score.

When asked why they don’t develop a hobby, or do philanthropy, they admit that they derive transcendent meaning from capitalism. Without their money, what else would they have?

Even if they want to get out of the rat race, they may find life in the slow lane unsatisfying. Without ambitious projects to fill space, there is often a void that makes it hard to avoid life’s truly challenging questions. They avoid that void as if staying busy with business will keep evil spirits away from their hearts and minds.

Hard work is the American story, the American ethos—the Puritan ethic that many other cultures neither embrace nor admire.

Driven people (by definition, all successful entrepreneurs) are just driven,” says Fox Business anchor, Maria Bartiromo. “They want to stay fresh and relevant, and to do that requires consistent practice. If you want to win, you need to be all in.”

One psychologist goes as far as to call money an “addictive” substance, and certainly I have heard from many designers in the latter stages of their careers who say they could step away, financially, but they would have to lower the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. And who wants to do that?

There are many complex issues to letting go of the business you’ve spent a lifetime building. Some are financial, some are emotional, and some are psychological. But one is clearly money, and there’s something about human nature, or at least entrepreneurial nature, that says, “We don’t want to earn less than we used to earn, and we don’t want to live a lesser, more frugal lifestyle.”

The attitude blows a pretty big hole in the classic financial planning approach of building an asset base sufficient to throw off interest or dividends which, in addition to a paid-off home and Social Security will allow you to live on the proverbial “fixed income.”

So, before you start thinking about exit strategies, you probably need to deal with this question: “Will you really be content to earn less in the future than you do today…and probably a lot less?”

Ironically, you may need to get bigger before you get smaller.

If the answer is “no,” it will change your career arc and the strategy of your last decade working full time. Ironically, you may need to get bigger before you get smaller. More on that at a later date.

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