We’re fascinated with billionaires. They make headlines every day. Forbes devotes an annual list that celebrates them and Bloomberg tracks their wealth in real-time.
Well, I have a confession to make. I am not a billionaire.
Truth be told, I don’t even have 100 million dollars. But for some reason, I always seem to be hanging with billionaires.
For example, while waiting in front of a restaurant for a friend, former ambassador to Spain, George Argyros, suddenly appeared next to me.
Billionaires are sneaky like that.
Contrary to popular belief, billionaires do not levitate, nor radiate an eerie Jesus-like glow. In reality, they look rather normal. George looks a lot like Mr. Ross, my high school Algebra teacher – but with a better suit.
I thought about approaching him to introduce myself, but just like in my 20’s when I spotted a beautiful girl at the bar, I couldn’t think of a good opening line.
I contemplated saying something like;
“Hello, Ambassador Argyros, my name is Brian Lund and I’m a big fan of your implementation of the Treaty of Talacaloco.”
But that just seemed forced. Instead, I stood there in awkward silence until my friend arrived.
Inside the restaurant, as fate would have it, George sat at the table next to us. I gave him that knowing look that only two people with a shared history can understand, but he pretended not to see me.
I think he was eating a ham sandwich. Possibly with mustard.
George is a nice guy but I don’t think I’ll hang out with him again. He is a little boring, and besides, he’s only worth $2 billion.
John Arnold, the wunderkind natural gas trader – formerly of Enron – is the youngest billionaire I’ve chilled with.
It was at a club in Houston. I was with my brother-in-law and his friends, all former Enron traders as well. John was in the VIP section but sent a bottle over to our table.
Later, while waiting in line for the restroom, he and his posse’ passed by me on their way to the exit. I was a bit lit by that point and yelled;
“Johnny Baaaaby! The Grey Goose was the BOMB! You the MAN!”
In retrospect, I probably should have asked where he thought natural gas prices were heading.
Some of the billionaires I’ve met are more interesting than others.
I once owned a company that coordinated projects for interior designers and was hired by the firm decorating their respective homes.
One day at Samueli’s house, while standing in the driveway, he drove right past me into the garage. I waved to him, and he waved back, although his windows were tinted so I can’t be 100% sure.
Nicholas and I used to chat a lot. Once, while I walked the house with his designer, he emerged from his workout room holding a couple bottles of water.
“Would you like one?” he asked as he went by me.
“No thanks”, I said.
“Okay, suit yourself”.
He was always saying crazy things like that.
Even though they were partners at the same company, Henri and Henry had slightly different personalities.
For example, Samueli built a multi-lot, modern style house right on the water, whereas Nicholas erected a massive Tudor style home high on a hill with a sex dungeon under it.
Samueli used to host parties where captains of industry would get together and raise money for charity. Nicolas used to host orgies where he furnished strippers and prostitutes for guests.
Samueli bought the Anaheim Ducks and Nicholas bought a warehouse and filled it with cocaine and ecstasy. Neither of them invited me to their parties, but my guess is that the ones at Nicholas’ house were more fun.
Donald Bren is the wealthiest billionaire nobody outside of Southern California knows. He made his money in real estate and could buy and sell Donald Trump four times over. We met at Bloomingdale’s one day about 10 years ago while I was looking for a scarf for my mother.
Donny (as I like to call him), was being waited on while his assistants busily conducted business on their cell phones. I was standing behind him and noticed that he was purchasing a very nice lady’s handbag, probably for his wife.
When the saleslady took it to be wrapped, there was a pause in the action, so I leaned over and said, “Nice choice”. He was about to engage me in deep conversation, but his associates were jealous and quickly formed a semi-circle between him and me.
No big deal. I really didn’t like the handbag anyway.
As you can probably tell, I too am fascinated by billionaires. When I was younger, teachers and parents told me I was very smart, so naturally, I assumed someday I would become a billionaire myself.
However, as I got older I began to realize that I was often doing things that were not conducive to becoming a billionaire.
Like spending Christmas vacation sitting on my couch, drinking beer, and playing Super Mario Bros with my roommates. Chances are not many billionaires have done that.
Or closing down a bar with my buddies on a Thursday night. Sometimes I wondered if any future billionaires were doing the same thing as me at that moment? I doubt it.
Sleeping in on the weekends is something I used to love to do, but as I lay there, wrapped in my comforter, it would occur to me that billionaires were already hard at work.
As time went on it became clear to me that I did not have what it takes to become a billionaire. I admitted this to myself and proceeded to get on with life. And for many years I didn’t think about billionaires or what their lives were like.
Instead, I settled down, got married, and started a family.
And then something funny happened. I began to think about them again.
When there was thunder and lightning outside and my frightened kids jumped in bed with my wife and me, I thought about being a billionaire. If I was a billionaire, would I have been there to experience that moment?
How many times would I have been on my private plane in route to a high-powered negotiation, or in a five-star hotel suite getting ready for a board meeting while a school play was going on?
That lazy summer vacation spent with the family, driving up the coast to see the redwoods, and camping out under that stars – would I have been there for that?
I then realized that those are the things most important to me, and although I am not a billionaire, I like my life because I have the life that fits who I am.
Looking in on a billionaire’s life, we imagine what it would be like to have their wealth. Then we rationalize killing ourselves in order to “make it”, with the promise that once we do, then we will focus on more important things and find time for our family.
But this idea is an oxymoron, which very rarely plays out in the real world. Few people have the single-minded, unrelenting, laser focused drive it takes to become a billionaire – yet once their goal is achieved, can just turn it off.
Perhaps this conflict is illustrated best by the follow apocryphal story;
A reporter is assigned to interview a very successful hedge fund manager. When he’s through, he decides to satisfy his curiosity about something.
“I don’t get it?” he says.
“Get what?” says the manager.
“You’ve been doing this for over 20 years and now you’re a billionaire?”
“Yes,” he says.
“Yet you still get up at 4:30am and put in a 16-hour work day. Your name and reputation are on the line. If you succeed, it’s expected, and if you fail, everyone wants your head – investors, lawyers, and government regulators.”
“What’s your point?” the manger asks.
“Why still do it? If I was a billionaire, I’d be retired, sitting on a beach somewhere enjoying my life.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, he looks the reporter square in the eyes and says, “That’s why you’ll never be a billionaire.”
I won’t be a billionaire either. Not even a 100-millionaire. But I’ve got the life I want, the one that’s right for me, and you can’t put a price on that.