I’m hopeful that after reading the Open Letter To My Teenage Sons, the two of you realize that you’re not rich. Hopeful, although perhaps not confident. But before we move on to more important things — like health and happiness — I thought it might be time to pass on some wisdom given to me by your grandfather when I was even younger than you are today. Pay attention.
Before I get to the point, I need to tell you that your grandfather is a great man. I feel the need to tell you that, because the man you know so well is a shadow of his former self. So understand that before he was visited frequently by the ravages of time — and before Alzheimers altered his being forever — your grandfather had a number of extraordinary chapters to his life.
You never really got to know the man who raised me. A man whose drive and passion allowed him to accomplish great things. So I have to tell you that for most of his life Jim Hawkes was a big deal.
I suppose it started with him helping to support his mom and three younger brothers at age 16 after his dad died suddenly in a work accident. From true poverty he went on to earn his doctorate — despite being the first person in our family to even attend university.
Dad was also an all Canadian university basketball star, started a couple of successful businesses, became a full tenured University Professor, ran a successful national Leadership Campaign, was the Program Coordinator for the Leader of the Opposition in Ottawa, got himself elected as a Member of Parliament, was Parliamentary Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister and spent 5 years as Chief Government Whip. And while he was doing all that, he was universally respected and well-liked by just about everyone that knew him.
But to me, he was just Dad. He taught me to swim. Taught me right from wrong. Coached my basketball team (I was horrible, but he put in the time nonetheless). Led by example. Worked his tail off. Loved us all. He wasn’t perfect, but he was a great dad.
From a young age he talked to me. He was a social scientist and had an enduring passion for learning and helping others develop their full potential. As a father, that meant he spoke to me and my sister like we were adults. He taught us how to think, knowing that that was the true life skill. The skill that would allow us to handle whatever life dealt up. It was an extraordinary gift.
So when I tell you your grandfather passed on some wisdom, please give it the weight that you should. What he told me has changed my life. It’s a lesson that most people never seem to learn. And I remember it clearly, even today.
When I was 7 or 8, we were living in Fort Collins, Colorado. I wasn’t doing well in school and putting in less than my best effort. Dad had left the University early one day to retrieve me from school, following some transgression which I thankfully can’t recall. We had stopped for ice cream, which seemed odd at the time as I knew he was ticked. And as we sat there each with our own thoughts, he turned to me, looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you know what money is?” Taken aback by such an odd question, I think all I could manage was something like, “It’s what you need to buy stuff?” I knew that answer was correct, in a technical sense, but I also knew that wasn’t what he was looking for.
“Money is freedom”, he continued, “That’s exactly what it is. It’s no more, or less, than that. But freedom is everything, and that’s why money is so valuable”.
Of course at the time I really didn’t understand what he was talking about. I do recall that I asked some questions and he explained further, but I was too young to appreciate what he was telling me.
As time went on I understood more and more what he was trying to teach me. Today, so many years later, I believe it is one of life’s simple truths.
If you have “enough” money, you can do whatever you want. That’s freedom. By “enough”, I don’t mean lots. I mean enough. If you don’t have enough, for rent, food, whatever, then you have to work. There is no other practical choice. My father went to work to support the family at age 16 because he had to. He didn’t question it, but he lost a lot of his freedom in those years because he (and my grandmother) didn’t have enough money.
“Enough” is the key. Enough that you get to choose how to spend your time. It means having the money you need to do what you want to do in life. Do you want to travel through Europe after high school? Go to university? Get married? Have kids? Join the Peace Corps and build low income housing in Central America? Whatever you want to do, you need a sum of money that will allow you to do it. You need enough. That amount is different in each case, but once you figure it out you then know what you have to do to earn the ability to spend your time the way you want to. Money is freedom.
A couple of equally important truths readily present themselves.
The first is that trading money for “stuff” is often a very bad idea. Some stuff can be used to enhance our lives (a reliable car, great books, a computer, music — all jump to mind, they can enhance your life and increase your freedom and abilities), but more often money spent on stuff is wasted. The initial thrill of ownership is short lived and more often than not possessions can drain our time and attention. At the very least they drain our resources, limiting our freedom to spend our time as we prefer each day.
The second is that “enough” means just that. If you have enough money (or have developed the opportunities and abilities to earn enough on a go forward basis), it may well be a mistake to seek more. At that point, investing more of your time to amass more than “enough” money, robs you of freedom. It takes from you the very thing you are working for in the first place. Your time and energy.
So when you buy a video game, or junk food, or Apps that “solve” a problem you don’t actually have, you are not trading money for those possessions. You are trading the freedom that money represents. To travel, to read, to spend time not working, to save for university (or the opportunity to attend the university of your choice), the list is endless.
But be clear, I’m not telling you to refrain from buying that game, those chips or the inventive App. I’m telling you to understand what it means when you spend your money. Understand the difference between spending for experiences, investing in opportunities, saving for future experiences/opportunities or spending to acquire stuff. Understand the choice you are making. And act on it.
Knowledge lets you make an informed decision, which will ultimately lead to better choices and allow you to build the life you really want.
If you make those choices and your dreams come true, make sure to give your grandfather a call every so often to say “thanks”.