(1985) is a comedy classic starring Richard Pryor as a struggling minor league baseball player who is given an unusual inheritance from an eccentric rich uncle. If he can spend $30 million in 30 days without accumulating any assets, he will receive a whopping $300-million inheritance. This intriguing proposition has helped make this movie a perennial favorite that turns up frequently on cable TV channels. Brewster's rich uncle has him do the exact opposite of what all the great financial advisors tell us to do with our money.
They say that we should concentrate our efforts on saving as much money as possible early in our earning careers. Then, when we have a surplus above and beyond our needs, we can think about giving it away, keeping a close eye to maximize tax advantages, of course. All the famous wealthy people seem to do it this way: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, George Soros, Bill Gates, etc. Brewster instead receives the money upfront and is expected to spend it all, before he can sit back and enjoy "retirement." The audience has a hilarious time watching him try to get rid of $30 million and not have anything to show for it. But it is more than just funny; it introduces an interesting idea with a surprise ending, and this is what makes it a classic.
Learning a Lesson
It turns out that the idea is not so outrageous after all. In his efforts to get rid of $30 million, Brewster discovers that he has to "invest" in people. He pays his personal staff exceptionally well, he funds projects that benefit his associates, he writes checks constantlyâ€”always on the lookout to make sure he doesn't accumulate any assets. This turns out to be quite difficult. He must be very creative. In effect, he becomes an exceptionally generous person. In the end, his investments in people result in intangible assets, which enrich his own life and change him into a different person. The relationships that he develops through his generosity enrich him far more than the $30 million, or even the $300 million, would have. The rich, eccentric uncle wasn't so crazy after all. In fact, Brewster realizes one of the great truths about money: It is used best when it is used to benefit those around usâ€”our families, friends, neighbors, and communities. Brewster's uncle was a genius in devising a plan to teach him this important lesson before he made his nephew a wealthy man with the $300 million.
There may be a parallel here that applies to physicians. Like Brewster, many of us start out our lives rather poor. Then, we graduate from residency and we are presented with the opportunity to make a large sum of money almost immediately. For the moment, I'm setting aside the issue of student loan repayment. I'm looking at the fact that we go from making mediocre salaries to making salaries far above the average for new employees. Both of my children, who worked many years attaining advanced degrees in difficult disciplines (physics and medical illustration), were quite happy to receive starting salaries in the $40,000 range. They found this sum adequate for their needs, and they adjusted their lifestyles so that they could pay their bills with this salary. A new physician, on the other hand, can expect a starting salary 3 to 4 times what my children, and quite probably your children, make.
Spreading the Wealth
What if someone turned the current system on its head, as was done in this movie, and told us that we could only receive those several-times-the-norm incomes if we agreed to spend all that money without accumulating any assets? That we had to invest it solely for the benefit of those around us? If someone did that to me, what would I do? And would I find that, along the way, I did in fact receive a great personal boon because I invested in people rather than things?
â€¢ I could fully invest in my children's education. The conventional wisdom is to make the children work for their money so that they will appreciate the value of hard work. But Brewster's wisdom says that if my children could be motivated by the love of learning, and could become as excited about learning new things as I am, they might advance their careers by using their spare time learning and studying, rather than flipping burgers. When given open-ended educational opportunities, they might embrace them fully, becoming very successful both academically and vocationally.
â€¢ I could invest in education for my office staff. The conventional wisdom is to pay them just a little more than average, so that you can attract and retain "good" staff. But Brewster's wisdom says to go beyond that. Help them pay for activities that would improve them as people, such as travel, classes, and family activities. That extra help might just win me their undying loyalty, giving them an enthusiasm for their work that would give benefits to me by making my office a more enjoyable place to work, and a more therapeutic place for my patients.
â€¢ I could get involved in my staff's health issues. Conventional wisdom is to pay their medical insurance, and they're responsible for anything else. But several of my staff members have weight problems. Brewster's wisdom would have me pay their dues at Weight Watchers. Then their sense of well-being as they lose weight will help them keep up with their work, more than offsetting the cost of the Weight Watchers classes. And their successful weight loss will be an inspiration to my patients, giving me a healthier practice.
â€¢ I could contribute to the building fund at my church. Conventional wisdom is to only give "my share." Brewster's wisdom is to have me give whatever it takes to make the building program a success. The positive result is that I receive a better worship experience, and my church is better able to serve our community, resulting in a Saginaw that is a better place to live and practice medicine.
â€¢ I could give a contribution to the homeless shelter and the soup kitchen. Conventional wisdom is to avoid messy social issues like this. Why aren't these people working? Why aren't their families helping? Brewster's wisdom is to jump at the chance to help. The upside for me personally is that I live in a community that has fewer homeless people on the streets and dignity for everyone.
â€¢ I could give to the local symphony, zoo, community theater group, and art museum. Conventional wisdom is to let the artistic aficionados support the programs that interest them. Brewster's wisdom is that anything that contributes to the betterment of the community is fair game for a big check. Besides, maybe I'd enjoy a night or two at the theater, enriching myself.
â€¢ I could give bigger tips at restaurants. Conventional wisdom is to use a calculator to make the tip exactly 17%. Brewster's wisdom is that these foot-sore servers are doing me a service that makes my dinner more enjoyable. By giving a bigger tip than expected, these folks just may give better service next time. Yes, I could do all that, and along the way, I just might become a better person.
Louis L. Constan, a family practice physician in Saginaw, Mich, is the editor of the Saginaw County Medical Society Bulletin and Michigan Family Practice. He welcomes questions or comments at 3350 Shattuck Road, Saginaw, MI 48603; 989-792-1899; or firstname.lastname@example.org.