There are two answers to this question and one might be far more valuable than the other.
Should we be as superficial as one can, we could claim that Elon Musk, in owning 20% of Tesla stock, has a total net worth of $92.3B as he moves up and down between being the 4th and the 7th richest person on earth, depending on changes in the stock’s value which are currently listed at ~$450. But is there anything more foolish than asking how much this rich person is worth or how much that rich person is worth?
When I was seven years old, a child from “the hood” down south, my family and I drove about a third of the country’s length to visit my uncle and aunt in Haifa, Israel’s biggest northern city. My uncle was not just this very respectable guy from the big city, with his equally respectable wife. He was also a professor—the only person I knew back then with such a scholarly title—and a heavy-duty one, too. He spent three years doing his Ph.D. at Yale University, worked in quite a few industries and academic positions in the US and Israel. He worked as a consultant for GE, a visiting professor to California State University, Carnegie – Mellon University, and more. He also co-wrote textbooks on fluid mechanics and thermodynamics (can it really get any heavier than that?). He became the head of the faculty for Mechanical Engineering and second to the Technion’s president deputy. The Technion was, and still is, Israel’s highest institute for technology and a fairly ranked academic institute globally. My uncle was also the first person I ever saw wearing suits and ties outside an Israeli wedding, back in the day when even the prime minister rarely bothered to wear a jacket.
There are quite a few lessons I learned from my uncle. Lessons ranging from eating with my mouth shut to the importance of education, modesty, and diligence. But the lesson I will remember above them all took place soon after I saw in his house the coolest speaker ever – something that looked like a picture or an exquisite piece of fabric hanging on a fine wooden frame.
“Wow!” I said. “How much does this cost?” For a moment, I felt like something was about to happen, but nothing did. It was only when I saw a circular piece of plastic, one of those things that we used to call a CD, and I asked again, “And how much does this one cost?” Then it happened.
For the first time in my life, my kind and patient uncle lost his temper. He explained with twice his typical energy that I better not ask how much stuff was worth as it was not very polite. But then the motivated educator added something else, something that seems far more valuable to me now than even my somewhat improved etiquette. He added that asking for the price of stuff might harm its true value. It was not uncommon, he told me, for stuff to have a value that is not well quantified in a price. He also added that such a question could divert us from the true value of things.
It is hard to explain how I could remember it all. It could be the fact that during our previous visit, Professor Gutfinger tried to teach me how to say, “integral and differential calculus.” He made a bet with me that I wouldn’t be able to remember it for our next Haifa visit in a couple of months. Perhaps practicing for 2.5 hours during the long drive back home in 1988 with no tablets or smartphones had helped, or perhaps it was just the fact that my kind uncle lost his temper and I had some extra adrenalin running in my veins.
Anyway, If we are not supposed to ask a close relative how much this is worth and how much that is worth, why can we ask how much Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffet are worth?
Interestingly enough, there is a simple answer to that (and it is not because we are not polite). Rather, it is because, in many ways, we all have that 7-year-old brain. A brain that is used to think in simplistic, flat terms. A brain that likes to ask which is the fastest car? Who is the most popular guy in the class? Who is the man or woman of the year? The beauty queen? The richest king? The oldest person who ever lived? And, also, who is currently the world’s richest person?
But how come we have almost 17 million results on Google regarding Musk’s worth, and very few of them—if any—deal with his real worth? How come the best answer Google has to offer comes with a dollar sign?
Many of us still think of Bill Gates as a ferocious corporate capitalist or the world’s second-richest person, when actually he is more the guy who keeps himself busy with third world country toilets, Malaria mosquitoes, meat substitutes, vaccinations, and safe nuclear energy. Plus, he might be one of some very few people who are about to be personally responsible for the complete annihilation of the Polio disease. How many more posts will he have to write until we can all see him and his wife Melinda as philanthropists and foundation managers fighting poverty, cultivating woman’s rights, and providing access to education and improved health?
Don’t such people deserve to appear in another list? A better list? And what ranking might each of them have in a list that truly respects them for what they are, and perhaps more importantly – a list that will better respect us, humans.
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