What is Wealth? From Silk Road to Silicon Valley

To follow the Silk Road is to follow a ghost. It flows through the heart of Asia, but it has officially vanished leaving behind the pattern of its restlessness: counterfeit boarders, unmapped peoples. The road forks and wanders wherever you are. It is not a single way, but many: a web of choices.

Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road

What is wealth? The answer to this question is neither obvious nor simple.

If you ask the ancient Egyptians, they would answer the River Nile. If you quiz the Mongols of yesteryear, they would say horses. If you ask the colonisers of Western Europe, they would claim foreign territories. And if you were to ask the founders of the tech startups of Silicon Valley, they would say technological innovation.

We humans have lusted after wealth for much of our known history. But as to what ‘wealth’ actually is–there is neither a dollar figure, an asset, a commodity or even a technological innovation that has consistently symbolised wealth since the concept first came into human consciousness.

Wealth moves up and down in cycles, taking the wealth creator and everyone else onboard that ship on a wild wavy passage through the cyclical dance of the cosmos.

Even the concept of wealth itself is highly subjective. Is it good health? An abundance of offspring–in particular sons who will carry on the family line and follow in their fathers’ footsteps? Holdings in real estate? Access to resources that can be exploited to make money? Liquid cash that can be easily converted to purchase goods and services? Or is it about holding an exclusive patent for an innovative technology or vaccine that will bring in profits for decades to come?

If you were an entrepreneur who wanted to create wealth, what would you choose to do? With the abundance of choices available to you on the path of wealth creation, which journey would you choose to embark upon?

Some paths are risky, others traditional. Some roads are straightforward, while others wind into unknown crevices with many twists and turns and countless detours. Some paths ask us to work ridiculously hard to create material abundance, while others merely require us to marry or form a partnership with someone of means–and piggy back on their hard work.

These are all possibilities and probabilities. The real question is–what is your path going to look like based on the choices that you make?

For that, you need to embrace the journey. Each entrepreneur’s journey will be his or her own. We inevitably have a lot to learn from other entrepreneurs such as ourselves, but we can neither replicate nor relive their journey for with each age comes a different concept of what wealth is as well as how to create, preserve and distribute it.

The Cocoa Bean

Our relationship with wealth begins where many things begin–in our childhood. As a child, I very innocently thought that wealth is chocolate and it can be bought at the confectionary shop that’s down the road. On the surface, it may seem to be an innocent answer, but cocoa beans do not grow in my home country and the story of the modern chocolate bar is some five and a half thousand years old. The cacao tree, which is native to Mexico, was first domesticated in Central America by the Olmecs.

The Olmec first appeared around 1600 BCE and their culture influenced many later civilisations, including the Maya. There are no written records of Olmec commerce, beliefs, or customs, but from the archaeological evidence, scholars have deduced that there existed extensive interregional trade routes due to the presence of artefacts made from jade, obsidian and other stones. The jade came from Oaxaca and Guatemala; and the obsidian came from the Mexican highlands.

Image Credit: DFAT photo library

So now, coming back to the concept of wealth–what is it, how is it created and lastly, can we actually hold onto it? And in case there’s any ambiguity, I am talking about tangible economic wealth and not your inner riches–as beautiful as you might be on the inside. There are many amongst us who will tell you that wealth is a state of mind. People can ‘have’ much more than you and be very unhappy; people can also ‘have’ a lot less than you and be equally unhappy.

Happiness, much like wealth, is difficult to define because it is wholly and entirely subjective. We, of course, have tools to measure the economic health of a nation; for instance–GDP, GNP and so on and so forth–but even these tools are limited in their use as an accurate measure of economic value.

If there is a relationship between happiness and wealth, I still haven’t found it. In either case, I am of the opinion that happiness, much like wealth, has been hankered after in human history–and it has been equally elusive. We seem to be unable to hold onto neither our happiness nor our wealth; neither our physical resources nor our emotional memories.

It all rises and falls; ebbs and flows–like a happy alliance between the Sea and the Sun where different lifeforms have the chance to enjoy momentary pleasures… before it all simply drifts away.

The Principles of Creation, Preservation, Destruction and Resurrection (1770) Guler, India.

The Journey of Wealth Creation

Regardless of which age we’re talking about or referring to, one timeless truth is clear to me. Wealth can be created in a multitude of different ways.

In the modern world, an entrepreneur can set up shop in his garage (or Zoom waiting room) to create a profitable business. Hardworking professionals can accumulate wealth by working hard and investing their surplus income. Employees can accrue bonuses by taking part in a company stock plan. Good old Lady Luck obviously plays a role as does social capital.

For the seemingly ‘lucky’ few, the road to wealth is painless; whereas for others, the journey to wealth creation brings strife, conflict and misery. For some, money comes in easily whereas for others, every cent is hard-earned. Before we continue with this discussion, take a second and think about how money first came into your life. Was it a tough journey or was it easy peasy? Or was it something in between? Perhaps there were periods where it was indeed easy peasy and other periods where it was tough, painstaking and near impossible to earn your daily bread.

The very nature of how wealth enters one’s life has a resounding impact on the mindset of the wealth creator and how the wealth will be grown, protected and distributed. On the flip side, the way in which wealth exits one’s life also reverberates through the consciousness of the wealth creator.

What did my successors do with the wealth I created? Did they pay it forward or did they lose it all at the casino–gambling it all away as though it were to be treated as flippantly as a deck of cards?

In the case of a startup or a family business, the starting point of wealth is the entrepreneur: a hardworking, industrious person who started with nothing but a big dream. While modern folklore chooses to tell and repeatedly retell the proverbial rags-to-riches story; in my experience, the entrepreneur was, more often than not, not born or raised in abject poverty, but rather, was born in less-privileged circumstances than their peers. There was a feeling of lack, of deep scarcity, that he or she felt relative to others in their own community.

The entrepreneur who decides to create wealth on his or her own terms is quite often someone who was not afforded the opportunity to do so through conventional means. This person was probably perfectly capable, but some due to some structural or societal reason, was either shunned or simply not afforded the same opportunities to function at his or her full potential.

This individual then decided to shun convention. He had to drive to do more and be more so he said, “To hell with it all.” He left it all behind and ventured forth. A few centuries ago, he would have boarded a ship or got on a caravan as he decided to embark on an adventure of a lifetime.

Once again, wealth is a relative concept. You could live in a comfortable home with all your material needs taken care of, but if you were surrounded by people who live in palaces; you may not feel rich at all.

In either case, I’m entirely and utterly convinced that a vast majority of entrepreneurs do not get into it for the money. Profitability is a goal that rears its head later down the line when they realise that getting the numbers right will differentiate whether the ship they are on swims or sinks.

I think the journey of entrepreneurship may have changed from the heyday of the Silk Road to the modern days of Silicon Valley; but the driving force behind the decision hasn’t changed at all.

Soldier with a centaur in the Sampul tapestry, 3rd–2nd century BCE, Xinjiang Museum, Urumqi, Xinjiang, China.

Fear

When I was a university student, I was introduced to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It lists out, in a pyramid structure, the ascending stages of growth in a hierarchal structure where the fulfilment of one ‘need’ leads us up a path to fulfil ‘higher’ needs.

The same hierarchy can be applied to our fears. At a base level, we’re afraid we won’t be able to meet our daily survival needs. Once we’re past day-to-day survival, new fears surface–the fear of not belonging as well as the fear of not being good enough. It finally ends with the greatest fear of all–the fear of meaninglessness.

Spiritual traditions from both the East and the West encourage the believer to renounce the pursuit of wealth for a better life in the hereafter. There are many contradictions surrounding this belief, as places of worship the world over have amassed a significant sum of wealth vis-a-vis the donations of believers and benefactors.

I’m not here to debate the sanctity and validity of our religious institutions. We need our Faith to shine a guiding light and to remind us that there is more to existence than survival on the material plane.

The question I wish to ask is: is the pursuit of wealth driven by the ego? And if we renounce wealth, does that necessarily lead us to overcoming our ego?

A person’s sense of self-esteem is not merely derived from wealth, but from many intangibles that cannot be measured. Perhaps we need attention, adoration and even accolades from those around us. These are all human needs that can arguably never be eradicated as they are programmed into the human experience.

I have heard (and personally know) of entrepreneurs who get attached to every cent, investment and infant under their care. Overcoming this sense of unhealthy attachment requires emotional care and help–something that most of them will never admit to needing. Even when they have generated more money than they will ever need, that feeling of safety eludes them.

When there was no money, there was fear. Even when the money came in, that feeling of fear lingered like a bad aftertaste. Now there was no longer a fear of scarcity, but rather a fear of loss. The memory of the difficulties of the past linger like a ghost that cannot be exorcised. As wealth grows, so do the intricacies that underpin the relationship to that wealth.

Many entrepreneurs remain frugal to the very end–either finding luxuries unnecessary or perhaps refusing to see or find any value in anything they consider excessive. Then there are others, who enjoy and exploit the wealth that they have been blessed with to the fullest.

And then there is a third category–the ones who are born with that silver spoon in their mouth. They are the children (and spouses) of frugal entrepreneurs who grew up with an entirely different set of values to the the wealth creator. Someone who inherits a large sum of money, someone who receives considerable help from a parent or an in-law will inevitably view wealth in a very different way to the people who started out with very little.

The person who starts with the all powerful zero may have big dreams, but the reality is that it may take a long time till this actualises in a tangible way. As the entrepreneur makes the journey from ‘nobody’ to ‘somebody’, a change occurs within the ego. Even if the entrepreneur’s soul remains unchanged by the exponential influx of wealth, the entrepreneur is now worth more in economic terms. The creation of never-before-seen sources of wealth comes with its own set of challenges that the entrepreneur may or may not be equipped to deal with when the status quo shifts from scarcity to abundance.

The word fear, which has its origins in Old English, Dutch and German, has a dual meaning. It can refer to a state where one senses ‘calamity and danger’ and is thus frightened. It can also refer to a state of reverence. To revere something or someone is to feel deep respect and admiration.

Perhaps we fear and revere wealth like we do nothing else on the planet. If you really think deep about it, the deep-seated emotions of fear and reverence characterised and underpinned the relationship our ancient ancestors had with Mother Nature.

Between fear and reverence, it is wiser to choose reverence. Most of us operate from a basis of fear when it comes to money and it is the root cause of all our anxiety, depression and downright irrational feelings when it comes to wealth. Reverence may be a better option, but I don’t believe it is the best one. Is it actually wise to revere and worship wealth? I think not.

Perhaps there is a third choice. In my heart of hearts, I think the true answer to this age-old question is faith.

Faith that we will have enough. Faith that we are enough. Faith that life’s darkest days will not break our spirit. And faith that when a large sum of wealth flows into our life, we will know how to preserve it, sustain it… and eventually distribute it.

12 thoughts on “What is Wealth? From Silk Road to Silicon Valley

  1. Wealth, much like life and the seasons, is a cyclical concept. This is not a topic for just one generation to contend with but something that ripples through time–from the Silk Road all the way to Silicon Valley. The universe is always allocating, reallocating and restructuring itself. The Earth, as a small part of the universe, is part of a greater cycle. Actually, we are very small. A microcosm within a macrocosm. My wish is to see more conscious measures of materialism in the near future.

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  2. I think one of the reasons why heart-centred businesses last so much longer, even if they are not as profitable as corporate giants, is because they care.

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