Best of the Fool 2000
Do You Invest to Live or Live to Invest?

By Bill Mann (TMF Otter)
March 14, 2000

The following article originally ran as a Fool on the Hill article on November 19, 1999.

On most days we use this space to write about an investing concept, or an industry, or a specific company. Bill Barker, for example, has used the last two weeks to review the legal and market ramifications of the Microsoft antitrust case. This case promises to change how Microsoft conducts business, an eventuality defying even the most breathless descriptions.

But those things don't seem so important to me today. To be honest, my mind's been elsewhere.

I've been thinking about the accident at Texas A&M University, in which a 40-foot-high stack of wood that was to be used for a bonfire celebration suddenly collapsed upon the volunteer students who were erecting it. This bonfire is part of a fun tradition where the students would gather and hold a rally the night before their big game with the University of Texas. But early Thursday something went horribly wrong; as a result, 11 people have died and another 25 injured.

Killed for trying to bring joy to others, in a freak accident.

My heart absolutely bleeds for the families and friends of the students who died. This accident should serve as a reminder to all of us that life is fleeting and that we should get everything out of it we can, for there are no guarantees that we will be here tomorrow.

The Motley Fool spends a great deal of time focusing upon something that is quite important within the course of a life -- the proper management of money through savings, credit, cash management, and investing. But sometimes I believe we could all use a bit of perspective on the purpose of this activity. In essence: to what end are we working?

In life, there is no finish line. We don't get to 80 and then receive our ersatz gold watch for that many years of service to the world. Although this past generation has seen phenomenal advances in medicine that has given more and more people the gift of longer lives, at no point does anyone get to stop for a second and say, "Whew! I made it."

Thus the question: Why are you spending time here on The Motley Fool? Ostensibly, you're here to learn about money and investing. That's why I originally came here. But what do you need the money for? Are you building security? Sending a child (or five) to college? Saving up for a boat? Just accumulating wealth? Or maybe you just like the chase, the game of investing. Valid reasons all.

But perhaps we each need to step back at times and recognize that this activity, the hours we spend reviewing company reports, posting on message boards, buying, selling, and holding are all, in and of themselves, activities without value unless we grant them one. If I am a multimillionaire and have forsaken my life, my friends, and my family to get there, what benefit have I derived from that money or the accumulation thereof? We all are likely to know a person who has found financial success but has no clue what it would take to find happiness.

So what makes you happy? I mean really, deeply happy. Are you reading this when you could be spending a few extra minutes of quality time with your children? If you are investing for their security, maybe step back for a minute and recognize that there is nothing that makes children more secure than knowing that their parents love and want to spend time with them. Even as an adult, the happiness I feel when one of my parents calls me is almost without parallel.

In each person's life there is an optimal balance. There is an old sawhorse that almost no one on their deathbed voices regret over having not spent more time at the office. Thus it will be with most people and the concerns they have about money. These things, in the end, will seem worldly and of relative unimportance, where the opportunity to spend a few more minutes with those we love will loom large.

Would you rather your legacy to your children be material wealth or the fulfillment of being relevant? Personally, I'm aiming for both, but I'd rather my children inherit values and value from me than a few extra dollars.

About now you may be wondering if I am going to cover any specific investing topics today. No, I'm not. If that's what you're looking for, sorry to disappoint. But I doubt that there are too many people at Texas A&M today who got much joy out of Nokia going up 10 points yesterday. In fact I'd bet there are hundreds of people in Texas who would be willing to give everything they own to get those 11 precious lives back. And that resonates deeply inside of me.

I invest. I love the study of investing, and I view financial analysis as a hobby. But is there a point at which this pursuit and the search for ever higher returns comes at a detriment to my living life? My wife and I are expecting our first child, due next month. I'd like to think that I am looking out for this child's best interest by investing for the future. Unquestionably I am doing better by the child through investing and saving for the future than I would be by squandering resources on things we don't need. But when the child arrives and as it grows up, I don't want to be so caught up in providing for the future that I forget to provide for the NOW.

Most of all, I don't want to wait until I die before I provide real, tangible benefit to my child. Life should not just be about the accumulating, or even the having; it is and should be about being. And the state of being is something that may be taken away from any one of us at any moment, for any reason, or for no reason at all. The key is balance, for just as we should not mortgage our future for the sake of living above our means today, nor should we be so consumed by the task of accumulating wealth for the future that we forget to live our lives in the meantime. Tomorrow never comes. It is always today, and it will always BE today.

I hope that there is someone among you who began to read this and then stopped, in order to go spend time with someone you care about. I imagine that there are others who started to read, decided it was drivel and moved on. To the first group, I'd like to commend you for prudently investing your most valuable commodity: time. To the second group, if there is some reason that you dislike that I have spoken from the heart today as opposed to imparting some "wisdom" about the market, go tune in CNBC. They'll tell you all about the markets without much mention of the lives lost in College Station. And I think that's pretty sad.

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