An Untitled Post About Having Money, Not Having Money and The Number

$19 billion. That’s a lot of money, right? A week ago if you mentioned that figure in Silicon Valley without context you might get a variety of responses. “Is that the public market cap of LinkedIn?” [No, that would be $23 billion] “Jeff Bezos’ net worth?” [Nope, that was $33 billion, at least last November] “Iceland’s GDP?” [Maybe, but 2012 was ~$14b] But this week if you mention $19b in the 415, 650 or 408 area codes you have a very good chance of someone offering an opinion of Facebook’s Whatsapp acquisition.

Nick Bilton, writing for the New York Times, uses the purchase and its unfathomable sums to discuss The Number. As in, how much money do you need? The Number is nothing new. Wall St Bankers frequently gossip about their numbers. And there was even a book on retirement savings a while back which helped you calculate The Number you needed to live comfortably in your golden years. It feels like Nick, running with a very high class crowd (he alludes to dining with folks who already are worth over $100m), wants to discuss the impact of seeing so much created around us, but he never quite gets there in this column. The result is something, well, flat and a bit trope-y around tech entrepreneurs and VCs having silly high Numbers (especially compared to Nick’s own which he suggests is laughed at by peers). Nick’s one of my favorite columnists but this Disruptions just didn’t land for me (most are very insightful and provocative).

Why did I have such a strong “blah” reaction? Probably from my own conflicted motivations with regards to having a Number. Growing up middle class in an upper middle class/upper class town simultaneously desensitized me to money while also making me quite attuned to the fact it can accrue randomly and not always to good people. Money also didn’t stop divorces, cancer or estrangement from visiting any of the big houses down the road. Afterschool and summer jobs gave me some financial flexibility beyond my allowance and the only time I really felt ashamed for not “having” was in college when, one particular semester, I stole food from the cash cafe on campus rather than tell my friends I could only do the prepaid dining plan at the meal hall. First World Problems but shame none-the-less.

When it comes to The Number you can be a floor person or a ceiling person. Focusing on floor means understanding what’s the minimum you need to earn/save to be happy. Anything over that is gravy and your job is to keep the floor at a reasonable level. Ceiling means you’re always imagining what you could do with more money and working to get there. I try hard to be a floor person and through luck + pluck, we’ve been able to save a solid nut. American Dream achievement unlocked: I did better than my parents did.

But instead of talking about The Number, I wish we spoke more openly about wealth disparity. Between tech and other sectors sure but even within tech. You have a group of friends. Then some get rich. I mean really rich. And you get married, buy houses, start families. All of a sudden the splurge of spending $200 for a dinner turns into $20,000 for a vacation and not everyone can do that. I’ve seen friendships start and end simply because of what money allows or prevents people from doing. If we want to insist tech is a meritocracy then are the people with more money better than me? Did they work harder? Take more risks? Deserve their money?

For me these questions make more provocative and real brunch chats than the one Nick experienced. I hope we can have them and not perpetuate a culture that pushes these topics to Secret.