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Piercing the Veil of Discomfort Re: Discussing Wealth – A Book Review

Over the weekend, I was fortunate to read Jennifer Risher wonderful new book, We Need to Talk: A Memoir Around Wealth (Amazon affiliate link). Risher, an excellent storyteller, is gracious to recount candidly the process by which she and her husband came into wealth (tech sector in Seattle) and their learning to deal with the new financial reality.  Refreshingly and to her credit, she spares herself no punches – referencing specific dollar figures, dollars well spent, alongside times and places where jealousy or materialism reared their ugly heads.

Risher’s broader point is that humans – regardless of the level of wealth are largely the same.  We deal with the same struggles and questions, even if the context looks different based on socio-economic status.  But in society, it is commonplace that “prejudice against the rich not only seem[s] acceptable, but it was also condoned, practically applauded.”  This instinct creates an us/them mentality that prevents both sides from seeing their common humanity and empathizing with each other.

The challenge is that the struggles of wealth are so different from the struggles of poverty that they do not feel as weighty as pressing reality of poverty.  Said differently, if you are struggling to cover needs at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, the pressure at the top feels like a less genuine set of struggles.  Of course, many of the wealthy have done themselves no favors by seeming to belittle the poor, or through their overall misbehavior which feels so disconnected from reality of the vast majority of humanity.  The recent college admissions scandals come to mind.

Risher offers a thoughtful examination of her own experience in the various aspects of life.  There were three main buckets of observations she made that stood out strongly to me.

First, the process of adaptation to wealth.  In describing the result of completing the design and redecoration of a vacation property, she and her husband realize that despite their best efforts, the house is not perfect.  Risher’s right conclusion then is that wealth cannot ‘engineer happiness.’  The temptation is that because with wealth so many closed doors can be opened, and much inconvenience removed to believe that everything is perfectible. 

An important nuance covered in the book as well is the challenge of double life transitions.  The wealth arrives for Risher during the time in which she becomes a mother.  The net result is that while each of those are sizable changes to navigate, their co-occurrence makes the lines between them quite blurry and interdependent.

Second, Risher talks about the relational complexities of wealth at length.  The most poignant observation she makes here is in her recounting an experience in a new mothers group spanning socio-economic levels.  While she works to remain guarded and quiet regarding her wealth, the chapter concludes with the realization that her silence spoke as loudly about her level of wealth, as much as a more ostentatious and openly conspicuous mom.    The natural affect Risher notes is for many to find places to be around others of similar economic circumstances – country clubs, etc. – to be themselves and free of judgement. 

An interesting paradox emerges though that even in places of ‘common ground’ – elite schools, clubs, vacation destinations, etc. – the rich can still exhibit exceptionally strong rivalry behaviors.   They have de facto traded the tension / judgement of cross-class interaction for likely higher levels of tension / judgement by their self-selected ‘peer’ group.  As the saying goes, you can’t win for trying.

Finally, there is a number of poignant insights about friendship. As Risher adapts to motherhood, she finds that by sharing childcare duties (apart from her nanny), driving carpool, and other common aspects of motherhood, she finds community with other mothers to share the burden of such a challenging time in life.  The implication being that sometimes the steps we take to get additional assistance can also bring about isolating side effects.

I was struck Risher and her husband’s generosity with friends and family throughout the book.  As she notes, “the more I embraced and appreciated my own privilege, the more I wanted to share it.”  Toward the end of the book is a favorite chapter of mine that talks about the emotional implications of wealth on friendship.  She shares about friends who are concerned that differences in standard of living may have prevented their families from sharing common experiences like travel or concerts.  She talks about generosity and the expectations that arise naturally regarding gratitude from a recipient.

The book is an enjoyable read and expressed many dynamics of wealth that I had not seen mentioned in print before.  Each chapter includes discussion questions, indicative of the broader message here, that as wealth goes undiscussed, we allow it to isolate, villainize, and divide.  As we wrestle with a period of high wealth inequality, the challenge for us all, regardless of our level of wealth is to empathize (even if we cannot fully understand) and see our common humanity.  As Risher’s story so well highlights, the natural fruit of that process is generosity, which done well brings great joy to both the giver and receiver.

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