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Monday, April 5, 2010

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Jim liked to play the lottery, and insisted he would eventually hold the winning numbers and become a millionaire. I always said I didn’t want to win.

“That doesn’t make sense. Of course, you want to win!” he insisted.

“No, I don’t. It would just mess up my life,” I said. I had read too many stories about people who won a million dollars and used their newfound wealth to spend themselves into bankruptcy. Too many people think a jackpot is an infinite amount and when they live a multi-millionaire lifestyle, a measly million didn’t go as far as they thought it would.

Well, Jim never hit that jackpot, and I simply don’t play, so there is no danger of me becoming wealthy overnight. Still I was surprised to read a story in the paper a few days ago about someone who wasn’t thrilled by winning $1 million.

Grigory Perelman, a 43-year-old unemployed Russian man, solved a mathematical problem that seemed to be unsolvable and was awarded $1 million for his wisdom. On the surface he seems to be one smart fellow, but he hasn’t accepted his prize money, and isn’t sure he will.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a mathematical genius, but it seems to me that if you had the choice of (a) being unemployed with little or no income or (b) being handed $1 million, odds are you wouldn’t have to be a genius to choose (b).

The International Mathematics Congress isn’t too surprised since Mr. Perelman previously snubbed the Fields Medal, considered to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in Mathematics. They are willing to give him time to think about the award and are hopeful he will accept it. I think Perelman should turn the problem into an algebraic equation that plots out his life if he accepts the million versus what happens if he declines.

This story made me stop and think about my long-term attitude that I didn’t want to win the lottery. I can’t see myself turning down $1 million if someone offered it to me. I can’t help but wonder, what is Grigory thinking?

In reality, Jim was the type of person who would turn down $1 million if he thought the money would compromise his principals. When Jim was in Vietnam, he turned down a purple heart because he didn’t consider his wounds to be severe enough to warrant the medal. He received an Army Commendation medal and never told anyone. I learned about it when I saw his discharge papers years later. By then, Jim had dementia and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell me why he received the award.

Yes, I could imagine Jim turning down $1 million, but not me—the person who didn’t want her life ruined. I’m much too practical to scoff at instant riches.

On the surface, Grigory Perelman might seem to be foolish to the nth degree, but we don’t know about his life, his expectations, his principals, or how much he wants to remain his own man, a private person.

Apparently, not everyone wants to be a millionaire. Geniuses among us realize riches aren’t measured by dollars, but you don’t have to be brilliant to figure that out.

Copyright (c) April 2010 L. S. Fisher
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