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Billionaires Need Meaning Too


The New Space Race

Apparently, Jeff Bezos has a space exploration company called “Blue Origin”, a company that – much to Bezos’ chagrin – gets far less attention than Elon Musk’s “SpaceX.” Soon, in a blatant attempt to draw more attention to his company, Bezos is planning to go on a quick joy ride on one of his rockets to the edge of space. Sure, Musk may have gotten more attention and contracts than Bezos so far, but at least Bezos has the balls to put his life on the line first.

It seems insane that a guy worth about $200 billion (even after his divorce) would risk his life to show that he has the better rocket. Given that he has more money than he could ever spend, this space travel thing and competition against a couple other insanely rich guys – Richard Branson being the third – is not about money. Just as in the early days of space travel, sending people into space is not a profitable enterprise. Bezos and Musk both say that sending people (or stuff) off to the moon or Mars someday can help save us from environmental destruction, but I can’t help thinking that this is an impractical pipe dream. If this is about saving humanity from itself, then it would make more sense to invest all those billions into coming up with cleaner and more efficient ways of producing energy. Because even if space travel technology makes tremendous advancements and there is someday a space colony on Mars, it will always be more cost effective to clean up this place than to find a new world to fuck up.

So if it’s not about money or making the world a better place, then this contest between billionaires seems to be about two simple things. First, for guys like Bezos, Musk, and Branson, the money and achievements will never be enough. While many of us might dream of a life of leisure, luxury, and pleasures that unlimited wealth could provide, these types of guys need to keep pushing for more. They apparently need to have some sense of purpose and meaning in order to keep waking up in the morning. And second, what could be a cooler way of finding meaning than shooting rockets up into space and trying to live out those science fiction fantasies that our culture has such a talent for producing. While it is easy to laugh at these overgrown teenagers shooting penis-shaped objects into outer space, you must admit that one of the few things Americans can agree upon these days is that space travel is cool. And if we got super rich and bored eventually with all the partying and sex and stuff, we might end up trying to do the same thing as these three guys.

I can’t relate to billionaires (or even millionaires). Getting rich and buying fancy crap was never much of a priority for me, although there is some appeal to the idea of not having to worry about money. So I’m not sure what I would do if my little history book became a best-seller or I won the lottery or something. It is possible that I would get a house with a backyard big enough for a few pickleball courts, buy every good strategy game known to man, and pay some people to play with me all day. But I suspect that doing nothing but enjoying myself would get old after a while.

At the moment, while I am nowhere close to being rich, I have more leisure time now than probably ever before. We are comfortable financially, the kids are much more independent, and teaching online has eliminated all that time lecturing and commuting to three different schools. But while this period of relative leisure has been great in many ways, I have been noticing recently a growing sense of emptiness, the feeling that something is missing. Now that my day-to-day parenting duties have largely faded and I am not lecturing 18 hours a week, where am I getting any sense of achievement? Where does my sense of identity come from? Do I need to find something to fill that void or learn to be content enjoying the fruits of my past labor? What is more foolish, buying into the notion that we must accomplish things in order to find meaning or believing that we can be content living a life of leisure?

As with most things, it’s probably about finding balance, and the fact that I wrote this little blog today – the first I’ve written in a couple months – indicates that I’ve been a bit out of balance. I’ve been feeling the need to exercise the brain muscles again and produce something that will hopefully have some kind of positive effect on the world. Sure, I’m not shooting rockets into outer space, but it’s a start.

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