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How much do we really need? A lesson from the Mayo brothers

I just read an inspiring article about the Mayo brothers, founders of the internationally recognized and renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, NY. While I certainly knew the name and the clinic, I was unaware of the brothers’ unique outlook on life—and money.

Considering the amount of wealth the two accumulated over the course of their lifetimes, it would be easy to assume they were focused on gaining assets. In fact, the opposite is true. Instead, William Mayo posed an intriguing question in a speech when he and his brother Charles presented a sizeable endowment to the University of Minnesota in 1913. That question wasn’t “how can we drive greater profits” or “how can we create a stronger brand.” Instead, his speech was rooted in a simple question: “How much do we really need?”

Here’s a quote from his speech that Mitch Anthony included in his wonderful article Drawing A Line On ‘Enough’:

“Contented industry is the mainspring of human happiness. Money is so likely to encourage waste of time, changing of objectives in life, living under circumstances which put one out of touch with those who have been lifelong friends, who perhaps have been less fortunate. How many families have we seen ruined by money, which has taken away from the younger members the desire to labor and achieve and has introduced elements into their lives whereby, instead of being useful citizens, they have become wasteful and sometimes profligate.”

Like the author, I’m struck by the parallel between what the Mayo brothers were seeing more than 100 years ago and the attitudes of many of today’s pre- and post-retirees who “have arrived” into wealth. When our society is so focused on saving money to support lives of leisure, is it any wonder that so many people find it difficult to be truly happy, regardless of their level of wealth? I wonder how much happier we would all be if we put the same level of energy and focus on finding our own “contented industry” and living a life of purpose—both before and after retirement—as we do on counting the dollars we have to support our leisure time.

It may sound like a lofty idea, but as a financial advisor, I see how much this shift in perspective can affect our happiness every day.

  • Maria called me in crisis. Her husband quit his job—again—and she’s in a panic. “We need his income, but every time he decides a company isn’t right for him, he’s out of work for months. How can we pay our bills?” Clearly, Maria isn’t going to change her husband’s behavior. She has a high-paying job as a marketing executive, and she’s been with the company for years. Do they have enough to be financially secure and support their family? As their advisor, I believe they do—even without a second paycheck. It may be time for Maria and her husband to discuss what they can do to “right size” their lifestyle to match their financial reality.

  • Chris just turned 66, but she can’t even conceive of retirement. She loves what she does, and she’s a great example of someone who is really living a life of purpose. She doesn’t work to make money. Instead, she does something that makes her happy, and the money she needs flows from that work. When we discuss future planning, she’s happy to know she has the freedom to slow down and only accept jobs with people she likes—and jobs that aren’t a traffic-jam away. Does Chris have what she really needs? I’m certain the answer is yes. She’s one of the lucky ones.
  • Sandy has just weeks to live. Diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer less than a year ago, she recently learned she is one of the few patients whose cancer does not respond to chemo. She has just transitioned to palliative care, and she and her husband Dennis are planning a quick trip from their home in Tennessee to Florida where, as her husband says, “she is always happiest in the sunshine and warm breezes.” I spoke to Sandy and Dennis yesterday, and they are facing this reality with grace. They laughingly said to me “we saved too much…we didn’t take enough vacations!” Of course, no one plans on an early death, so saving was important, but in my eyes they’ve both always had what they really needed: they focused on living life with purpose—even when their bank accounts were overflowing.

When it comes to having what we really need, perspective is everything. Every time I’m feeling stressed or down I find joy by driving down the highway, walking at the beach, or dining at a restaurant with a view of the gorgeous Laguna Beach coast. Of course, it would be easy to see the abundance of wealth surrounding me when I’m there with a sense of envy, but I choose to focus on how lucky I am to be where I am in the moment and appreciate what I have. And while I’m not living in one of the mansions on the beach, I love that I get to spend every day helping others. I love that doing something so fulfilling allows me to enjoy a modest lifestyle. And I love that I have “enough” time and money to spoil my grandkids just a little.

Do I have what I really need? When I’m sitting looking out at that beautiful California sunset on a perfect winter evening, I’m pretty certain I do.