As I get older, I find myself valuing material things a lot less. Conversations, walks, and other experiences have started to matter to me a lot more than things.
I also think about my role as a father, agreeing with the actor Dana Carvey on when he felt most loved: He said, “When humans started to call me dad. That is the word that gets me. You are famous to a billion people but only three people call you dad!”
That’s understandable. While I was writing this article I kept asking myself, “Am I a good father?” I’m not sure of the answer. But I am paying careful attention to the story of a client’s husband — a second-generation American, Yale University-educated lawyer, who worked in the family business started by his father, a Russian immigrant. Four years ago the husband was diagnosed with cancer. He put up a great fight, but cancer won and he was gone, at 65.
He left $100 million, which went to his wife, son, and daughter (the kids are in their late 20s). I had a meeting with the family recently. The son’s wife was a few days away from giving birth to a baby girl. The son and I talked about his upcoming fatherhood, and I asked him what kind of father he wants to be. He said, “I don’t want to be like my father.” I was a bit surprised and asked why.
He said: “After my father passed away, his friends would tell me how he was this larger-than-life, gregarious man. I never saw that man. My father worked 16-hour days, seven days a week. He worked in the basement — he’d come up for dinner and go back down. He never spent time with me or my sister. My mom did everything, from driving us to school to taking me to football practice. I always felt like I was raised by my mother. I don’t want to be like that. I want to be there for my kids.”
He went on: “My father thought until the last moment that he’d beat the cancer, and so he never expressed his true feelings to me or my sister. A year later my father’s friend told me that my father confided in him that he wished he’d spent more time with us kids.”
This young man would probably trade all his money for a father who had been there for him.
Listening to him, I felt a sudden urge to run home and hug my children. I also felt enormous sadness. I was thinking, what if his father had worked eight- or even 10 hours a day instead of 16 and had left his kids a $10-million pile rather than $100 million? Would it really have made a difference for his kids’ lives? Now, they are wonderful, thoughtful young adults who don’t have pretentious lifestyles (they live in $200,000 houses and drive modest cars). This young man would probably trade all his money for a father who had been there for him.
I was deeply impacted by this story because, as a father who runs a small business, I was asking myself, am I doing the same to my kids? I shared my worry with a good friend. He has a struggling website design business that has not moved out of the start-up phase, 10 years on. He is anything but wealthy. But his bills are paid and his family doesn’t go hungry. He works eight hours a day and spends all of his free time with his three young kids.
It’s not about the money you leave your children; it’s the memories.
As I was mentally comparing these two dads, my definition of what success means got completely redefined. It’s not about the money you leave your children; it’s the memories.
Our appreciation of material things has a short shelf life. We value the experiences and memories they create exponentially more. My friend’s kids may not have the fancy toys and big houses that some of their friends do. But to them those things probably won’t matter much; they’ll have the warm glow of love their father gave them.
As an entrepreneur you always want to grow your business larger. Your current revenue and profit are never enough; they just set the bar higher for next year. We always want more. But “more” has a cost: time with family. It’s my core responsibility to provide for my family, but at some point, more is simply not worth it.
Sometimes work for us is a game, a real-life version of “Candy Crush,” where money is not a currency that buys us material stuff but chips that we never intend to spend but are there to keep count of our successes. Just as we can spend mindless hours playing Candy Crush, our work can turn into an addiction. I keep thinking that on one hand I’ve been incredibly fortunate to discover my love for investing when I was in my early 20s, but there’s a danger here that at times can conflict with my love for my family. My own father often quoted from “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
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Vitaliy Katsenelson is chief investment officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. He is the author of “Active Value Investing” (Wiley) and “The Little Book of Sideways Markets” (Wiley). Read more on Katsenelson’s Contrarian Edge blog. And get email alerts about new columns by Vitaliy Katsenelson here(Requires sign-in.)
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