The Best Investment You Can Make
It's the burning question many of you have been hurling at me recently: "So instead of idly waiting around for the so-called mysteriously reluctant non-recovering recovery, what should we do to survive this never-ending raging crisis?"
Here's a tiny suggestion. The "best" investment you can make isn't gold. It's the people you love, the dreams you have, and living a life that matters.
Now, some among you will probably roll your eyes and snicker: "Hey, bro, want fries with that hopelessly naive idealism?"
But you're probably willing to entertain the idea that maybe the great systems of human organization, whether political, social, or economic, aren't creating a meaningful prosperity as well as they could. And cynicism's the surest path to mediocrity.
So allow me to explain.
If we all invest in gold, the price of gold skyrockets. If we all invest in stocks, managers tend to get rewarded (whether or not they've performed). But if you were to have the impertinence to invest in what (really) moved you — let's say you wanted to be a musician, an artist, or a chef — and you kept investing in those ambitions, towards the lofty goal of being the best in the world at your dream, and if a few other people also invested in their dreams, and then several more followed their lead — well, eventually the economy's gears might begin to move with a different rhythm. And multiplied, your pattern of investments in your dreams — acting classes, music lessons, lectures, books, seminars, travel, and so on — would begin to set incentives for people doing useful stuff, who were able to help you meaningfully accomplish those dreams. And we'd probably begin to devalue the microbubbles in socially useless stuff (like gold) and dilute oversized managerial rewards.
The same's doubly true for investing in the people you love: spending your resources to spark their talents or to create meaningful life experiences with them — instead of just buying stuff for them. And the same's triply true for living a life that matters: if you were to invest in, for example, social businesses, instead of the equity of orthodox corporations, or to choose where to work not just based on the immediate paycheck, but on whether or not the boardroom valued making a difference a tiny bit more than which hedge-fund bots it was enriching this nanosecond, well, the economy's gears wouldn't just find a new rhythm — you'd be rebuilding the engine.
In fact, if enough of us made these smarter investments, we might just take a leap past opulence — the furious, desperate, never-ending hyperconsumption of more, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier — and towards eudaimonia: living meaningfully well, by investing in endlessly powerful, infinitely delicate human potential, instead of mass-made junk, whether paper chits or designer diapers.
Here's what I'm not suggesting: that you impoverish yourself financially to enrich yourself spiritually, intellectually, relationally, and emotionally. Rather, I'm suggesting that the economy as we've built it — and as we choose to live it — might just be doing something like the reverse. Authentic prosperity's probably more about achieving a balance. Hence, it's time for us — each and every one — to recognize that real prosperity doesn't just mean hitting the strip mall, watching Jersey Shore, and living la vida Sheen. Rather, here's how I'd describe it.
While investing in gold, stocks, and bonds might be a recipe for hedonic wealth — riches that can be used to buy the dismal, mass-produced, rapidly depreciating, worthless-by-next-month commodities that line the sagging exurban shelves of every crammed-to-the-brim, beige big box store from here to Pluto — my little suggestion's a set of ingredients to craft your own recipe for eudaimonic wealth — riches that are made up of the stuff you probably can't buy, but have to earn: the stuff that people usually don't (and probably won't) sell, but can choose to freely bestow upon you, give to you, and keep in trust for you.
I'd argue seeding the stuff we can't buy, not just the stuff we can buy, is exactly the quantum leap that our economy has to make, and probably should have made decades ago (but didn't). What's this never-ending crisis really about? Both Tyler Cowen and I have called it a Great Stagnation — so what's stagnating? I'd say: human potential itself. Hence, a megacrisis that never ends: at root, it's a crisis of underinvesting in human potential, and overinvesting in lowest-common-denominator junk; a crisis of too many plastic widgets chasing too little imagination, wisdom, connection, and purpose.
Hence, my tiny suggestion might be not just a motivational nugget, but a challenge: that it's beyond time to make an economic paradigm shift. As the never-ending global economic crisis has intensified, we've had plenty of what economists call "capital flight" to "safer" financial assets, whether gold, bonds, or blue chip stocks. But perhaps the safest investments of all are the human, social, and emotional ones. They're what give human life texture, depth, resonance, and meaning.
Authentic prosperity isn't about stockpiling chits and bits that you can — if you're lucky — sell to the next guy before the house of cards collapses in on itself. It's watching the people you love grow and flourish, making the dreams you've dared to nurture and safeguard come roaring to life, and, above all, living a life that matters long after you're gone. That's the stuff not merely of shareholder "value" — but of authentic, enduring, human worth. Hence, I'd gently suggest: the economic sparkplug missing from our so-called prosperity won't be invented in Silicon Valley, manufactured in Shenzhen, hawked by Madison Avenue or Wall Street, or ordained by Washington. It will be found in the pursuit of wisdom, grace, humility, courage, and great achievement. It's the hard work of investing in the people you love, the dreams you have, and living a life that matters.