Advice for Rich People Who Want to be More than Just Rich People

By Bradley Tusk  |  July 19, 2016

I spend a lot of time around a lot of rich people. I live in Manhattan, work in industries like tech, politics and venture capital and sit on non-profit boards. And even though I’m surrounded by it, I’m always surprised to see what money does and doesn’t achieve for them.

Typically, the first money earned goes to consumption. Initially, the basics — a nice place to live, good schools for the kids, childcare. Then to the less basic but still somewhat normal — a weekend home, a fancy car, nice vacations, season tickets, things like that. Then there’s an another level — flying private, maybe a third home, serious trust funds. But consumption has its limits. Sure, you can keep blowing money on more and more stuff, but the returns diminish rapidly.

The next ring is entry level influence — sitting on boards of respected institutions, giving money to institutions you’re affiliated with (your children’s schools, alma maters, religious institutions), maxing out to politicians. The next level is where you start to wield real influence — you own a local newspaper or sports team (or even above that, you become Mayor or major buildings start being named after you).

But you’re still just buying your way in. So the question then becomes, if you’re a run of the mill rich person (let’s say you’re worth a few hundred million) in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, how do you either make a name for yourself or, better yet, have an actual impact without just writing checks?

· Pick one thing you care about and really dive in. Choose a cause that matters to you and do more than give money and attend board meetings and galas. Do the actual work of the organization. Figure out their future and drive it. If it’s a charter school network, figure out where and how they expand. If it’s fighting a particular disease, tap into connections you have and the people working at the nonprofit never will to create relationships with institutions or startups working on new solutions to the problem. There are a lot of ways to add value beyond money. It doesn’t even matter if you’re working within the confines of the board. I sit on three boards and rarely even show up for the meetings. But I do work with the staffs of each organization on a regular basis to try to help them solve specific problems (usually, in my case, they’re related to government, politics and media).

· Pick a topic you’re passionate about and speak out about it. There are so many ways to have a voice these days — blogs, op-eds, social media, panels, TED talks. And while a lot of your colleagues are willing to write checks or go to society dinners, they’re afraid to be associated with anything controversial. That’s an opportunity. It’s an opening. Take advantage of it. For me, it’s helping elect a new, better Mayor in NYC. But it can be anything.

· Go deeper in your work. Rather than just focusing on profits, what if you come up with a new approach, a new method, a new idea that advances your field? It may not be the most efficient way to spend your time but if you succeed, you’ll have a lot more impact and be far better remembered than your ranking on some list for returns. For example, in our venture work, we help pre-IPO companies who are running into regulatory challenges. Our specific role is to solve their problem. But more broadly, if we do our jobs right, we’re both creating better laws and policies and, by only taking equity for our work, we’re creating both a new form of venture capital and a new form of political consulting.

· Create a legacy by spending more time developing your employees and less time hobnobbing with people you think are richer and more influential than you. You’ll feel better and ultimately create a better legacy for yourself if you spend time really developing your employees so they can go on to do great things. My first job out of college was for a guy named Henry Stern, who was the NYC Parks Commissioner for 15 years. Henry had his share of flaws but he really invested his time in hiring and training young people interested in public service. Dozens of them went on to do interesting things in government and politics and also business, and other fields. Henry isn’t that well remembered anymore but in many ways, we became his legacy.

There’s always going to be someone richer than you. And while new toys are fun, they’re only fun for so long. Anyone who says that money doesn’t matter probably isn’t struggling to pay the rent. But anyone who believes that money is the only thing that matters — and the only route to gain things like influence, respect, attention and status — is also wrong. Sure, money’s helpful. But if you really want to leave a mark, you’d be wise to add some new weapons to your arsenal. Because that check you write, in and of itself, is never going to be enough.