When I bring up the Number with a prominent media executive -- his job is to stay abreast of what's important in the world of politics and global business -- he tells me emphatically that it's his Number that he thinks about when he goes to bed, and it's his Number that pops into his mind when the alarm goes off. An influential PR man in Chicago, a man who is adept at thinking actions through to their consequences, informs me he has decided to do a U-turn and go back to work exactly three weeks after he announced to clients that he was retiring for good. The turnabout goes unexplained.
Why is the Number so hard to talk about?
One reason is that most of us were told at an early age that it isn't nice to talk about money, period. It isn't nice to brag about having money, and it's wrong to envy those who have more than we do. The Number is also hard to talk about because it holds a different value for each of us. What's a big Number to me is not to you, and vice versa. The Number can be a hundred thousand. A million. Ten million. Or infinity, if you're an investment banker.
The Number means different things to different people, which is another reason it's hard to talk about. The Number is about net worth, and most people think of it that way. But the Number is also about self-worth, which many people don't like to admit. Because I have so little money, I'm a failure. Or, because my house is small, even if it's on the preferred shore of Long Island, I'm a failure.
The Number offers assurance that we won't starve. The Number signifies that loved ones will be taken care of, more or less, after the Numbered passes on. The Number is a validation of career success, the ultimate performance bonus for all those years of dragging tired bones to and from the office. The Number can be the ticket to flashy toys and a bounty of goodies: cruises, spa treatments, tummy tucks. The Number can also be the ticket to a spiritual journey, but those who so invest in it will tell you it has no intrinsic meaning unto itself.
Seeking answers to why so many people are reluctant to talk Numbers, I start hanging out with financial planners. Some of them have clients with stratospheric Numbers, while others minister to average Joes. Most people think financial planners and accountants are the most boring people on earth, but they're not. They hold backstage passes to our psyches. Some of what planners hear is heartbreakingly sad, some of it is ridiculous and delusive. If you ever think it would be fun to be a shrink but you can't hack medical school, let alone being awakened in the middle of the night by a frantic patient, you might consider a career in financial planning.
Financial planners will tell you that their clients
are terrified of Lifestyle Relapse: the universal
nightmare that one day you'll find yourself penniless,
a geriatric ward of the state imprisoned in a
nursing home, nobody to swab your drool, your
bodily functions in disarray. One would think
that fear of Lifestyle Relapse would provide a
powerful incentive for people in their 40s and
50s to plan for the future. Incredibly, it doesn't
work that way.
I sit down with an investment adviser
in Chicago's Loop to shoot the breeze about Lifestyle
Relapse. We are 57 stories up, in an office with
breathtaking views of the city's skyline. He is
chairman of a management firm with over $3 billion
under its wing, including the investment portfolios
of major foundations, corporations and extremely
wealthy individuals. He notes that although people
are acutely concerned about Lifestyle Relapse,
they almost always underestimate what it takes
to escape its clammy grip.