It seems wherever we turn in Kenya these days, we find someone discussing their net worth. On frothy television shows, in newspaper spreads, in glossy magazines: invariably someone is on about their material achievements.
Said person will be posing for the camera, expensive watch carefully placed to catch the best angle. And the discussion, usually with some fawning interviewer, will be about the first million, the “palatial” home, the “sleek” car, the “exclusive” schools for the children.
What is it for, this self-conscious display of possessions? When did we start thinking it is a good thing to brag about what you have bought in a shop, as though that’s an achievement?
It’s starting young, too. We now seem obsessed with who’s become rich at a tender age, and who became wealthy and bought their first BMW before they turned thirty. While the crowd looks on with naked envy.
As I have written on this page many times before, I don’t really have a problem with people being wealthy. There’s nothing wrong with wealth in itself. Mansions and limos and designer jeans, however, are boring in the extreme. What is of interest is how wealth is generated, and what is done with it.
It is not a good sign in society when people want to line up to parade their possessions. It is cheap and and betrays a basic insecurity about riches: that we must display them to others for them to have any meaning. The joy such people get from wealth is not intrinsic; it only has value when others know they have it. So they must show off the wealth, and lie about how much they have if necessary.
Too many youngsters are now obsessed not with doing the things that generate wealth, but with the desired end-result: to be noticeably wealthy. Wealth created in the right way comes from many things: hard work, dedication, innovation, meeting the needs of others. But is that what we are studying, discussing, analyzing? Nope. Just the baubles and trinkets that result.
My advice to anyone young and ambitious would be this: focus wholeheartedly on the process that leads to wealth, not the result. If your only aim in life is to join the list of cheap braggarts who want you to count their possessions with them, then go ahead and join the assorted pimps and drug-dealers and poachers who are also on stage with you. You’ll win the rat race, but still die a rat (to paraphrase Lily Tomlin). And it doesn’t ever end: the more you show off, the more you need to show off even more.
On the other hand, you could try to lead a life that actually matters: a life that solves problems, that grows other people, that generates deep thinking, that makes other lives more fulfilling. People who lead lives like those also have riches, interestingly enough, but they have them as a by-product, a happenstance of success. Their aim is have meaning, not to have mammon.
When did you ever hear about Steve Jobs’ car, or Bill Gates’ shoes? Both those gentlemen made enough money to outshine any of our local contenders for generations, but they worked on a far bigger deal than mere ornaments and chattels. They will be remembered not for their show-off lifestyles, but for their achievements in inventing and delivering things that improve lives.
What defines us is what is inside us, not what is procured. What we are truly measured by is what we do for the world, not what sits in our safes. We will mature as a society when we learn to look for quiet role models, those who have no wish to be envied, and who are judged by what is in their hearts and minds, not their wallets.