Commentary: Forget about 'the number,' focus on making good things happen
This article was written by CHUCK JAFFE a columnist for MarketWatch. Originally published 6/24/10, Chuck's compassionate wisdom remains very relevant.
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The doctors were meeting with my brother Rob when I arrived at Stanford Medical Center last week to visit him. They let me in on the conversation. The prognosis was not good.
"I am not asking, 'Why me?'" my brother said, a little later. "I have had so many blessings and so many great things that I won't complain or waste time trying to figure out why this is what fate has picked for me." And then he paused for a moment. "I will wonder, 'Why not Bernie Madoff?'"
My big brother has been diagnosed with primary amyloidosis, a disease so nefarious and rare that many medical diagnostic specialists will go a lifetime without seeing it. There are just three medical centers in the U.S. that specialize in treating it. He is blessed to be at one of those facilities; it has already extended his life.
His mind is sharp as ever, his sense of humor obviously intact, but his body is failing him. While he believes his fate might be a fitting punishment for the likes of Madoff, he wouldn't wish this on anyone.
There is nothing Rob did to catch primary amyloidosis; there is nothing genetic that caused it. There also is no known way to beat it. You merely put it off for a time, until it eventually overwhelms you. He turned 57 in May. The odds of being diagnosed with primary amyloidosis are only a bit better than winning the Powerball jackpot; as Rob said, his condition is like "winning the evil sweepstakes."
Rob's decline was swift and severe. He didn't feel so well at my father's 85th birthday party last December, but generally seemed fine. Soon thereafter, doctors diagnosed a gall bladder issue, but he didn't improve for long when that was removed in March. Soon it was thought to be his kidneys, then his central nervous system, and then a failing heart; he couldn't stand up without feeling faint, then ultimately he couldn't sit or stand without his blood pressure falling so low that he'd trigger cardiac arrhythmia.
Because amyloidosis can affect so many internal organs and because the symptoms look like so many other things, doctors believe that many patients go undiagnosed; someone might suffer from, say, congestive heart failure with no one knowing that there was an amyloid problem that caused the decline and, ultimately, death. While Rob is prepared to fight it with everything he has left -- and his condition has improved thanks to the efforts of Dr. Ronald Witteles and the team at Stanford -- he knows there might not be much left. Patients diagnosed early seem to be able to go for anywhere from 12 to 56 months in treatment; he was not diagnosed early.
Not counting the days, but living them
His goal now is not to count the days, but to live them. He's not looking for a measure of months, but rather the things he can live to see. It's not about ticking off days on a calendar, it's about checking off events in a life. There's a 30th wedding anniversary, his daughter's completion of graduate school, his son's graduation from college, his 60th birthday; he'd like to experience those events, and he knows the chances are not all that good. That knowledge is what drove that first conversation we had when the doctors left after giving him such a short time. It's why he pushed me to write about something I would have otherwise kept to myself.
Rob knows that the one thing he can control in this situation is his attitude; we believe, as the late basketball coach Jim Valvano put it, that you can have a full day if you laugh, think, and are moved to tears, so every last day he gets will be a full one.
When your doctor delivers the news that you are financially set for life -- because you will not outlive your assets no matter what you do -- it puts things into focus. Rob wanted me to tell you some of the thoughts he has been focused on, because everyone's days are numbered -- you just live a little differently when God puts the time remaining in your game up on the clock.
If you can achieve your dreams, don't wait to make them happen
One of Rob's few regrets is the trip to New Zealand his wife always wanted to make. Eileen never asks for anything, yet this was one thing she really wanted. Two years ago, he picked a different family destination spot "because it was cheaper, and a better fit for the schedule." The dollars he saved will never allow him to make the journey with his wife.
The term "bucket list" has become cliché, and too often those lists are populated with the trivial. His point was different. "I wanted that trip for 30 years," he told me. "Cheaper shouldn't have made the difference. Having that experience we always dreamed of -- doing something that might have been once-in-a-lifetime -- that's why you work, and why you save, and why you ultimately spend something when you can afford to get the things you have always wanted."
Forget about 'the number'
This is connected to pursuing your goals. Financial-services companies manage money, so they want you to believe -- as one company shows in a series of wretched television ads -- that "your number" is what matters.
Your number is poppycock. It's how people set goals for themselves, work a lifetime to achieve them and then live like misers, because spending or losing any money would drop them below the goal and leave them short of their life's ambition. Make your ambition the lifestyle you want, the things you hope to do. That doesn't just apply to trips or travel, it applies to work and job choices, to the timing of your retirement and much more. Let your spirit -- not the number -- drive your actions. It's a lot easier to save when you have a goal that is more concrete and real than seeing digits on an account statement.
Pick your causes, and support them to the fullest
Giving money away is a sign of money maturity. Give until it hurts, because the pain is exquisite, and because someone else is hurting or in need. When your time is up, knowing you helped to make a difference is a true comfort. My current charity of choice is the Stanford Amyloid Center.
Take care of yourself
Like most middle-aged guys who work too hard, Rob was busy and he let some health concerns linger. Put off an appointment here, ignored an ache or pain there; nothing would have prevented him from having the disease, but catching it earlier might have improved his prognosis.
No one gets to the end of their life and says, "Man, I really wish I had worked more." Find the time to get yourself checked out, to recognize the signs your body is sending. There is no other appointment or task at work that is more important.
Make good things happen, rather than waiting for them to happen
I got some Chinese food on my trip and brought my brother the fortune cookies. Bad call. "Do you realize how much time people waste on horoscopes and fortune tellers and lottery tickets, hoping to have something magical happen that will change their lives?" he told me.
"If they want something to happen, they need to change their lives themselves; otherwise, you might still be waiting when something like [amyloidosis] happens, with nothing to show for your time and effort."
Focus on what's important, not on what's others think is important
It's much less about the dollars than about what you do with them. You won't come to the end of your life and wonder what the Dow is doing at that instant, or whether your portfolio is "optimized" or if it's worth a slightly above-average expense ratio for that mutual fund you like.
Money is a tool, not your scorecard or your ambition. In the end, if you ever have to reflect and judge your life and take stock of your life's work, you'll feel much richer if the focus is on something besides how big you could grow your bank accounts.