Many moons ago when I was a younger wolf, I worked in the non-profit sector. I wrote grant proposals and direct mail pieces to raise money for various pro-market organizations. It was rewarding to the soul.
The problem was that it was quite non-profitable.
But I felt empowered, doing my bit to fight for liberty and free markets. There were more important things to me than money.
I was on a first-name basis with a half-dozen libertarian millionaires at the time. All of them were self-made men. Only one had been born with a lot of money—and he turned that fortune into a much larger fortune. All of them had done this by pursuing something they were personally interested in and passionate about. All of them were smart, nice people whose company I enjoyed.
None of them looked sinister or wore black capes. None of them tied beautiful young widows to the railroad tracks because they couldn’t pay their rent. None of them spent every waking moment counting their gold. None of them were “rich jerks.”
And then it hit me…
I had an attitude problem with wealth.
I didn’t expect black capes or railroad tracks, of course, but it surprised me how much I liked these gentlemen. This told me that, without thinking about it consciously, I’d had a negative attitude about rich people. I’d spent years defending capitalism, but I had negative expectations of capitalists and had dismissed the importance of wealth.
I’d been taught in countless ways that pursuit of wealth itself was a grubby thing—beneath me—and I’d never questioned that attitude.
Then I had a second epiphany: there wasn’t anything about the way my libertarian millionaire friends had made their fortunes that I couldn’t do. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that all the great ideas and hard work that had gone into making my friends fortunes were things I had not done—but was capable of doing. I was poor… but not because I didn’t have what it takes to get rich. I had made different choices.
I was poor because I hadn’t even tried to get rich.
I realized one more thing as these thoughts crystallized in my mind. The wealthy people I knew didn’t “work for money; their money worked for them.” They didn’t obsess over money, but they were serious about it. They invested it and understood finance in ways I had never bothered with.
On the flip side, people like me who said they didn’t need to get rich—just so long as they had enough money to take care of their families—seemed to always be struggling to make ends meet. Shooting for “just enough” meant never having enough.
Ironically, not caring about money resulted in obsessing over money—or its lack—in the face of never-ending bills and obligations.
All of this came to me in a brief moment in the spring of 2004. It wasn’t like some visionary flash in the movies. It was more like a final key to a puzzle that rearranged everything else. In that instant, I saw the world and myself in a new way.
I don’t remember deciding to learn about wealth creation and management. It was just obvious that I needed to get serious about making serious money. So I did.
It was just a couple months after this that Doug Casey and David Galland offered me a job at Casey Research. They needed a writer to help them publish Doug’s letter on speculation. These wealthy men were offering to teach me everything they know about making money—and they were going to pay me to learn it.
Stroke of luck? Sure. But if they had made this offer a few months earlier, before I ditched my bad attitude about wealth, I think I’d have turned them down.
It was as the old Zen saying goes: when the student is ready, the master will appear.
And boy was I ready. David once told me he’d never seen anyone with such a sharp learning curve. Within a few months, I’d taken over writing the flagship newsletter. Within a few years, it was my name on the letter.
But what about saving the world: wasn’t that a noble enough career? Sure—but who did more good: me writing proposals or the men and women writing the checks?
In 2008, the financial crisis dried up donations to a non-profit I’d worked with. They desperately needed funds to continue a summer educational program in Eastern Europe that had been running since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Instead of offering to help them write a grant proposal, I just wrote a check. Doug even joined me in flying to Lithuania to teach economics and entrepreneurship at the summer camp. (I’ve been helping with that ever since, and I encourage you to have a look if you know any young people who might be interested.)
The lesson could not be clearer: the achievement of wealth and the pursuit of the greater good are not mutually exclusive.
This makes sense, given that in a free, un-coerced market, people give us money because they value what we’re giving them more than the money they pay. That makes the wealth we accumulate the measure of our service to mankind.
That was the theory, anyway. I now know that it’s true. I’ve lived it.
But I’ll go one further: the pursuit of wealth does not require philanthropy for justification.
By the same free-market logic, the accumulation of vast wealth itself implies vast amounts of value delivered to a large chunk of the human race. This is not true when wealth is acquired dishonestly or through force (often with government help). But when transactions are voluntary and fully informed, greater value must be delivered, or people will not hand over their cash.
It’s nice for someone like Bill Gates to use some of the money he’s made to wipe malaria out in Africa. But it’s not necessary that he do such things to justify his wealth. As much as I’ve disliked the Windows system since it came out (and despised some of Microsoft’s business practices), I admit that the company boosted productivity for millions of people around the world. Gates made the world a richer place as he made himself rich.
Steve Jobs might be an even better example. I never met him, but apparently he was a jerk in many ways. And yet, thanks in large part to him, even poor people today have more knowledge, tools, and even music at their fingertips than the kings and queens of centuries past would ever have in a lifetime.
The myth of the robber barons is part of why so many of us are bought up to have bad attitudes about wealth. And it’s just not true.
But how does any of this help you?
Well, let me ask you: if you aren’t as wealthy as you’d like, could your own attitudes be getting in the way?
Could it be that there’s some part of you—even a small or subconscious part—that thinks there’s something dirty, uncouth, or sinful about actually wanting to get rich? If so, this attitude is likely the biggest obstacle to your pursuit of wealth.
Let me put it this way: if wealth is dirty, why would you want any? And what would the part of you that thinks this way do to sabotage your efforts to bring this dirty thing into your life?
To the degree that any negative attitudes about wealth are lurking about the darker corners of your mind, they will undermine you.
The good news is that attitudes can be changed.
Simply realizing that I had a bad attitude about money, inconsistent with my beliefs and other attitudes, was enough for me to dump it. For some of my former students in Eastern Europe, meeting me and hearing my story was enough to change their attitudes.
I can’t say what it will take for you if you have an attitude problem. But I do suggest that you do some serious introspection on these things. In my experience, simply dragging a bad attitude out of the dark and into the light of your conscious attention is often enough. If an attitude is inconsistent with what you know and what you really want, that awareness alone is like a light that dispels a shadow.
At the very least, I hope I’ve motivated you to work on your attitudes if any of them are holding you back.
Because you don’t need anyone’s permission to get rich—except your own.