On being rich, letters from 3rd graders, values, and Jack’s first birthday

Yesterday, I (Jon) received a letter at work from a third grader in my sister Christina’s class. A picture of that letter is below:Image


I wrote a response:

Dear Mohamed,

Thanks for your handwritten letter. I enjoyed receiving it very much. As your handwriting is better than mine and you are only in the 3rd grade, I thought I would write you a letter on the computer. I hope you do not mind and hopefully this will be easier to read.

 To respond to your statement “I want to know how to get rich” I have a few thoughts. First, you live in the right country to do so. In the USA anyone has the ability to become rich or wealthy: you do not have to be a specific race or gender you do not have to be in a certain social class or family and you do not have to be in a certain location. The secret to making money is not really a secret: work hard, persevere through tough times, never let a problem or challenge stop you, keep a positive attitude, and always look for opportunities. These values have proven themselves over and over again in people like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, or Jay-Z (Shawn Carter). I would encourage you to read about them!

 At your age, working hard looks like: doing your homework on time and giving your best effort every time. It means reading books and articles that are interesting to you and asking questions.

Perseverance means working at something like math or science or getting along with someone even when it is not easy and it seems like it would be more fun to watch TV. Sometimes it also means being patient. Good things do not always happen immediately.

Never letting a problem stop you means that if someone tells you that you cannot do something because you are not smart enough, fast enough, strong enough, or because it cannot be done then you figure out a way to do it anyway.

Keeping a positive attitude means that even when your life or school or friendships seem like they are going poorly, you keep your head up, you trust that things will get better, and you do not let it get you down. Do not complain. If something bothers you, fix it.

Always looking for opportunities means seeing things differently from other people. For example when it’s hot outside during the summer and everyone is sweating a lot, most people just want to sit on the couch. Instead, set up a lemonade stand or sell ice cream bars. Because it is hot, people will want to cool off and if you offer them a way to cool off they will pay you.

A lot of people want money for the stuff it can buy them. You mentioned limos and watches in your letter; I like those as well. Something you may want to think about, however, is that being rich and having stuff does not necessarily mean you will be happy. Things like family, friends, shared experiences, good meals, good laughs, fun games, and doing a job well done are more likely to make you happy than just having money. Money can sometimes help you see your family or friends if they live far away because you can buy a plane ticket with money. Money can help when you throw a party because you need money to buy food, decorations and games. Money can help you go to college and be more qualified for a job that you really want to do. But remember: money is not the point. If you have a lot of money and stuff, but no friends, no family, coworkers who do not like you, and a job you hate, then what has that gained you?

Thanks again for the letter and keep asking questions!

Best regards, 

Jonathan Keller 

Mohamed’s main inquiry (although no actual question exists in the letter) is that he “wants to know how to get rich”. He immediately then gave his reasons “seeing people in limos” (and thus implying that he thinks that is cool) and he “wants watches”. Also, earlier in the letter he indicates that he likes economics (which makes me wonder, what does a 3rd grader know about economics/what does he think it is?). My response simply went down the track of rich=having a lot of money. I talked about how becoming wealthy or gaining that money is largely based on the values and work ethic he has and encouraged him to build those values, build his character. In turn, I told him that having a lot of money, is not the source of happiness, but is rather something which can help facilitate happiness, but that other things should be more important.

After writing my response, but before posting it, I wanted to see what other people thought. What was interesting was that on Facebook there were several people who thought “rich” should be open to multiple, richer definitions. Rich could mean having great kids, family, work, experience, knowledge, or a life of leisure. Thus, if there are multiple definitions of being rich, there could be multiple ways of becoming rich. I think this is a good way to think about the concept. For the remainder of this post, however, I will keep with my original definition.

Growing up, I never thought I was rich. I suspect Mohamed does not think he is either. He associates being “rich” with having nice stuff. I was the same. I remember being in 5th grade and wishing I could have a hooded, Nike sweatshirt that the “cool” kids had at school. I remember in middle school wishing that my family took spring break vacations. I remember in high school wishing I could have a car. Rich kids had all of those things. I wanted to be rich then just like Mohamed does now. 

My son, Jack, turned a year old today. Jack is on the verge of talking and within a year or two I imagine he will start asking me questions, wanting things, and wanting to learn how he can get them. As I wrote my letter to Mohamed, I imagined what I would want to say to Jack if/when he had asked me a similar question. I think the path to becoming rich, or the “how” is pretty straightforward in the US and I laid that out for Mohamed. The more important question is the “why”. Why would you want to be rich? 

When I went to college I realized that was not a dumb question. At Princeton I was friends with people who really came from the bottom 1% worldwide and the top 1% worldwide and more accurately people from the bottom 0.1% and the top 0.00001%. As I saw the results of what money, or lack thereof, were in the 18-22 year-olds who were my peers at the time, I realized maybe having money growing up was not such a good thing. There seemed to be a high correlation between “rich” kids and absentee parents, divorced parents, drug problems, taking care of stuff (or stewardship) problems, respect problems, happiness problems, joy problems, and friendliness problems. This is not to say all “rich” kids turned out poorly, in fact some were and are great friends (and people). Really it was from those friends I learned something. Money is not the point. Piling up hoards of cash, building a number in a bank account or brokerage account, collecting titles for property and cars, buying new clothes or wines, or walking around with $100 bills was not the point and could not be the point. 

When I put this thinking in context of my faith, it starts to make more sense. God is rich. He made everything, controls everything, owns everything. How did he choose to reveal himself to humanity? By becoming a relatively poor, working class human, and dying a criminal’s death. God considered relationships and redemption substantially more important than accumulating more things. It makes sense, He already has everything, if He does not have it, He makes it. God wants to love us. He lets us be stewards of His stuff. He helps us create and flourish. He helps us to avoid hoarding and stocking up. 

I do not know if I will be “rich” exactly. I suspect I have the ability to make a lot of money, but for me that is not the point. Nor is the point what money can do for me. I do not want it to be the point for Jack either. I believe worshipping God through becoming what God created me to be, loving Him, and loving my neighbor is the point. I think having values such as the ones I recommended to Mohamed may have the side affect of making one “rich” but that ultimately they help someone have a character more like God’s. Who is more perseverant, hard working, challenge-overcoming, opportunity-seeking, and hopeful than Christ? 

I am not sure how we will do it, but I hope that Jack (and Grace who is on the way) will not care whether we are rich or poor. Instead, I hope and pray that they will love God and follow His purpose for their lives. That would be rich.


One thought on “On being rich, letters from 3rd graders, values, and Jack’s first birthday

  1. Thanks for writing this, Jonathan! I think this will be really beneficial for him to read because it’s about exact opposite of my opinion (not in terms of what it means to be rich, but in terms of how “easy” it is in this country to become rich or succeed, especially as a black man). I think it will be a good experience for him to hear multiple opinions, even if I myself may not agree with your own. Love, Christina

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