Empty Middle Seat
Years ago I met a very rich person.
This very rich person had so much money that if he just invested it in a money market fund, he would earn more in one day than I earned in an entire year. His net worth was at least 10,000 times greater than mine.
We had to fly to meet with him. While on the plane I fantasized what it would be like to have so much money.
At first I thought of all the things I could buy. I was earning enough at my job at the time to support a U.S. upper-middle class lifestyle, so I already owned the things I needed. All I could buy with my newfound wealth were things I didn’t need. And while it would surely be neat to own a private jet, a beach house, a zeppelin, or a 100,000-book library, I wondered whether owning these things would be more trouble than they were worth. I feel guilty enough having 25 unread books on my shelves: how would I feel surrounded by 99,900 unread books?
I suppose I could hire people to deal with most of the hassles that would come with the new things, but then I’d have to deal with those people. It wouldn’t be hassle-avoidance as much as it was hassle-transference.
I would quit my job if I had all that money. My time would be all mine. That would be a benefit.
But then I got to thinking of all that money sitting in the bank not being spent on zeppelins. I would have to do something with it. Think of all the suffering I could alleviate with my wealth. The guilt of letting it sit there without me doing anything with it would be overwhelming. But giving money away isn’t easy. Charlatans would swarm. And even if I could avoid them, there was a danger that in trying to do good I could do bad. If I gave away fish, would people forget how to fish? (I suppose today I could give it all to Bill Gates, but at the time I wasn’t aware of his foundation.) So giving away so much money would take much of my time. I’d be leaving one full-time job for another.
I imagine a big attraction of being really rich is you get a huge bump in status and, I suppose, power. My personality is warped, though, so I avoid anything that would make other people pay attention to me, and I have no desire to make anyone do anything. I prefer to be left alone. With so much money, I could secrete myself in a mountain hideaway like a Bond villain, but then I’d need a small army of security guards to keep people away. Not quite the kind of anonymous solitude I seek.
With so much money, another concern is that nothing would ever be good enough for me. Every day I’d ask myself why my day wasn’t better. If anything went wrong, why wasn’t it right? If something tasted good, why didn’t it taste great? Today I am a very accepting person. I tend to make the best out of whatever I have. With unlimited funds available to satisfy my every need in the most satisfying way possible, would I be so willing to accept the less-than-perfect? I’d probably drive myself crazy. My life would devolve into a Twilight Zone episode.
Our meeting with the rich person went well. A little too well, in fact, as we got so immersed in the issues we were discussing that we lost track of time. Then one of us realized that if we didn’t leave soon, we’d miss the last flight back.
The very rich person looked perplexed, as if the idea of missing a flight had never occurred to him. It probably hadn’t. He offered to have his private jet take us back, but one of his people reminded him that the jet was in maintenance, so he apologized for keeping us so long and we scrambled back to the airport and just barely made our flight.
We were flying Southwest, my favorite airline. I love its no-nonsense approach. I snagged an aisle seat and waited for the rest of the passengers to board, hoping none took the middle seat next to me. No one did. An on-time flight with an empty middle seat: does it get any better than this?
And that’s when I realized how close I’d come to disaster.
If the very rich person’s jet had been ready, we would have flown back on it. That would have been my first trip on a private jet. And after flying once on a private jet, would a Southwest flight with an empty middle seat ever again be all I needed for a great flight?
It still is.