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  • Jan Flynn

I Have the Solution! But Not the Problem.

The problem I don’t have is: what to do with a billion dollars?

This was the head-scratcher posed by the delightful Joelle and Vickie on their Two on a Rant blog. On the first Thursday of each month, they offer their Tell Me A Tale in 120 Words (TMAT120) challenge, in which they post a prompt and, if you decide to play, you come up with an answering story in 120 words or less. Just the 120, please, without previous explanation or qualifying or throat-clearing. What writer couldn’t benefit from an exercise in brevity? The prompt for June: what would you do if you had a billion dollars?

I offered my 120 words:

Here’s the thing with having a billion dollars: that amount of money is self-replicating. Interest will accrue because there is no mattress in the world big enough for me to shove that much currency underneath it. So in this fantasy, the question is not how I’d spend a billion, but how I’d behave if I were suddenly stinking rich. Here’s where I expect my priorities would lie:

  1. Worthy pursuits: charities, promoting world peace, securing my family’s future, etc.

  2. Shoes

  3. Travel (wearing new shoes)

  4. Shoe storage (requiring more houses)

  5. More travel (to my houses)

  6. Furniture (for the houses)

  7. Therapy (how did my shoes get so out of control?)

  8. Creating nonprofit to donate shoes


I had fun with that, although I’m only half-kidding about the shoes. And the therapy, for that matter. Despite its staggering unlikeliness, the question did get me thinking. What if I suddenly had unlimited resources? How would that change me? Would I be happier? Would I be better? Or worse?

Let’s say I won Power Ball or found a genie in a bottle, and didn’t have to do something soul-crushing and immoral to get to the point where I was rolling in dough. Maybe I inherited my wealth.

If that’s the case, a lot of the fun goes away right off the bat, because being wealthy is an assumption I’ve had since birth. It’s my life’s normal setting, the wallpaper of my experience.  The eighty-room cottage in the Hamptons is where I had to spend my summers as a kid. Everybody I hang out with is rich. There are bound to be people even richer than me, people whose social circle I might aspire to, and to whom I might compare both my self and my possessions and find them wanting. Maybe I have a private yacht, but the family in the neighboring estate has their own island.  Perhaps my paltry billion doesn’t feel like enough after all.

Yuck. Let’s go with the Power Ball/genie option. There’s me, galumphing along as usual, shopping at Marshall’s and saving Costco coupons, certainly not going without but not exactly dwelling in the lap of luxury. Until one day, when, BAM! I am rich beyond my mathematical capacity to accurately register the amount, because I have an embarrassing issue with place value.

What do I do?

Once I recover from the shock, I celebrate. You bet I march right into my favorite aspirational shoe store and buy anything I want. If they have it in my size. Wait, what am I talking about? I’m a billionaire, I can have my shoes custom-made!

How exactly do I do that? Are there rich people’s cobblers? Do I need a shoe stylist now? Is that going to take a lot of time?

Certainly I intend to do good, to leave the world a better place. How do I distribute my wealth so that it has maximum beneficial impact? Even if I give every penny away, it’s not enough to relieve all the suffering and want. So do I concentrate my efforts in a few strategic areas and disappoint everybody else? How much do I bestow upon friends and relatives, and to what degree of relation and friendship? In which case, do I even have friends anymore, or only beneficiaries?

Is nothing simple?

Well, yes. I’m simple, it turns out. At least simple in the sense that I might just not be complex enough to handle complex wealth.

Yes, it would be lovely to be able to travel anywhere I want, and to bring along the people I love and enjoy, just as it would be lovely to be able to make a real difference to at least one or two causes about which I care deeply. And for the first couple of months, probably, it would be a blast to buy the shoes and the clothes and the car and have my ugly master bathroom remodeled (but why do that when I can buy another house? In fact, several houses?). Pretty soon, I suspect the lack of limits would make it all seem, if not meaningless, then burdensome.

Perhaps I’m just rationalizing here, or partaking in what Dan Gilbert calls synthetic happiness.

But I’ve spent enough decades here on Earth to get to know myself fairly well, and I’m pretty sure that in the long run, I wouldn’t be made happier simply by virtue of being rich beyond my wildest dreams. I might even be considerably less happy.

Besides, in the global scheme of things, there is the stark reality that I am already rich beyond someone’s wildest dreams.

And that is a problem to which I do not have an answer.

How about you? What would you do with a billion dollars?

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