The Richest Man in Imphal


Discovering our passion and giving it our precious attention is more important than material wealth, status, success, and even health, for these can be taken away from us anytime. Since time is the greatest of all wealth, we need to find the priorities that really matter to us
Ranjan Yumnam
The above heading is a wordplay on the title of the book “The Richest Man in Babylon”. It is one of the famous books on wealth creation and has become a timeless classic in the business self-help genre alongside Dale Carnegie’s books. In The Richest Man in Babylon, author George S Clason tells us that creating wealth is a matter of cultivating a particular mindset and making longsighted moves. The mindset is one of self-control and discipline: not spending more than you earn, saving systematically, investing and making money work for you, and doing business with trusted people, among others. In his own words, this is expressed eloquently: “Gold cometh gladly and in increasing quantity to any man who will put by not less than one-tenth of his earnings to create an estate for his future and that of his family.” Another line from the book says, “Every gold piece you save is a slave to work for you. Every copper it earns is its child that also can earn for you.”
The book, published in 1926, still resonates with modern readers. But the point I am trying to make here is that the book might have overrated money and material wealth, ignoring what is actually the greatest wealth anyone could possess : time. Yes, time is the greatest king that lords over all forms of wealth.
If you consider it, life is just the time slot we occupy between birth and death. During these two milestones, we fill the days with work, play, hobbies, love, and drama because the alternative of not doing anything is not an option. We just can’t sit still and inhabit the void the whole day unless we go into a coma. This is both a tragedy and an opportunity that life offers.
It’s a tragedy because most people just go about doing anything mindlessly to kill time. Often, we are trapped in a monotonous routine that forces us to slog in the job defined by and based on priorities imposed by others and entities. In these circumstances, it is easy to become a cog in the wheel in which you know and perform only your assigned routine, an alienated role, within a puzzling engine of the economy. Most of us know our drill but can’t see the big picture of how it all pans out in the end. Adam Smith’s theory of division of labour in which many people make senseless bits of a needle to produce one whole is characteristic of our work.  
Luckily, our habit of going through the motions with time also presents an opportunity to create our own meaning of life and sculpt it like a craftsman with a vision. The existentialists truly know this. “We must create our own values and meaning in life because they are not given to us by God, religion, or nature,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote.
Life is more of a series of accidents and chances. We were thrown into a casino of life the moment we started breathing. The illusion of control is deceptive at best and hallucinatory at worst, yet we cling to it. Our destiny, whether we are famous, popular, or wealthy, is a result of random chances. Since luck plays a crucial part, it is prudent to view money only for its instrumental value and not impute moral and heroic value to money-making schemes. Money is useful, no doubt, and many people want to amass it more than anything else. However, positive psychologists have found that money ceases to make people happier after reaching a certain threshold. The more money you have, the less is its marginal utility. This has been borne out in many studies.
The famous and widely cited study relates to the experience of lottery winners. When people get extremely lucky in winning a huge jackpot, they become definitely happier, splurging on new houses, cars, clothes, travel, food and other luxuries. But the thrills and initial rush of adrenaline wear off with time. This can be attributed to hedonic adaptation, where people return to a baseline level of happiness despite major life events.
With too much exposure to a lifestyle of excesses, lottery winners reported getting the least enjoyment from “mundane pleasures” like eating breakfast or talking with a friend. There is a creeping realisation that more money means more expectations, leading to less satisfaction. Happily, the upside of this phenomenon is that it also reduces the agony of personal misfortunes one encounters in life, such as death in the family, illness, and failure in business, work, and relationships. The lesson to be drawn is here that time almost heals and normalises anything that strays off the ordinary experience. If you give enough time, you become used to your life’s circumstances and develop coping mechanisms. This applies not only to money but also to fame, success, status, and other aspirational goods. As actor Jim Carrey once said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do whatever they dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
If money is not the ultimate determinant of happiness, then what is ? For one, attention is more valuable than money, as our attention is a scarce resource inextricably tied to our limited time on earth. In fact, we become what we give our attention to. Malcolm Gladwell popularised the rule of 10,000 hours, by which any person could become an expert in any field after undergoing deliberate practice in the chosen field for 10,000 hours. This is easier said than done and the real challenge for us is finding an activity that commands our enduring attention and gives us a lifeline to fill our existential time on Earth.
One way to determine a worthwhile project is to discover a passion. Find your flow, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it. The concept of flow posits that there is always a pursuit which you value in and of itself, and when you’re doing it, time flies, and you feel alive. It’s the sweet spot of engagement with any activity where you find the level of challenge, interests and skills just right for you. If an activity poses too much difficulty, then you become demotivated. If it is too easy as in playing the entry level of a videogame, you lose your interest. There is no universally correct answer for what we should devote our life to, for it is based on subjective assessment. Some people will find their flow in music, some in the exploration of science, some in politics, some people in their factory work, and the list is endless depending on one’s talent, personality and opportunities.
What can we make of life’s purposes, then ? Nobody has solved the riddle of life’s purpose and meaning. All we have are religious answers about the afterlife, heaven and hell, and philosophical musings that are the quality of the ants’ minds, which are too small to know their place in the mysterious universe.
Having said that, one must fill the time chasm between birth and death. There is no escaping this dilemma, whether you like it or not, as long as you are breathing. Inquisitive people fill the gap with scientific quests; journalists fill the pages with words; politicians fill the emptiness with promises of a bright future; bureaucrats fill their days with pen-pushing; professors fill the students’ minds with figments of knowledge; farmers till the land to fill it with crops and so on. All these vocations that people pursue and our day jobs are a way of occupying the vast amount of careless time we have on our hands and passing it off as respectable occupations to fashion our self-identity and worth. The alternative is to live in fear and trembling with suicidal thoughts. “The only question worth contemplating is whether or not to commit suicide” is famously attributed to the French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus in the context of evaluating the temporal existence of mankind and its absurdity.  
The key takeaway is that one must find an appealing activity to indulge in for the practical reasons of whiling away the time and earning the means to keep life running. This necessity is a good thing and a productive distraction from the thankless attempts to make sense of one’s place in the world. And when you put your heart and mind into some personal project, time dissolves and shields you from the bitter truth that time has been hatching a plot to snuff your life at the end.
In the probability theory, there is a concept called Ergodicity, which states that a dynamic system will explore all possible states to find equilibrium given sufficient passage of time. By this theory, even the inequalities among the members of society will vanish eventually over a long enough period. (Marxists are right, but their mistake is in foreseeing an equal society in a mere generation too hastily.) For example, in a coin toss, heads and tails are equally likely to occur in the long run, even if one side dominates in the short term. Philosophically speaking, all distinctions in life, such as those between man and man, between woman and woman, between genders and between classes, will be extinguished in the funeral pyres.
Life is thus a matter of enduring the ravages of time, and all the great people who ever lived appreciated this one way or the other and didn’t let society dictate what success means to them. Steve Jobs carved his own life story despite his cantankerous personality, who thought nothing of belittling people working for him to get what he wanted. He did that in pursuance of his passion, unaltered by external influences.
Life is a bet, given how random chances and luck play an outsized role in the canvas of time. The self-help books are missing the point when they hook you up to the myth of hard work and determination to achieve greatness in life.  They perpetuate what is called the Survivor Bias, the belief that grit and superhuman perseverance are the only ingredients that guarantee success. We often think that hard work is the key to success, but there are thousands of others who worked just as hard but failed. For every celebrated artiste, writer, scientist, and entertainer who survives their ordeals and struggles, there are thousands of others who worked as hard or more, who are as intelligent and smart, but who nonetheless fell by the wayside and lie in gutters. Simply, luck was not on their side. The Aha moment of Archimedes doesn’t happen in real life; it belongs to romantic tales that belong to idolatry.
That brings us back to the primacy of time and its finality. The ancient wisdom of mindfully living in the present without going either back in the past or peering forward at the future is considered the best way to live. The Stoics considered fame, material wealth, health, and even our relationships to be loans borrowed from time at her mercy. Fame is temporary; things have an expiration date; health decides its own fate despite all precautions, and our relationships fade. Either we will perish, or these will leave us at some point. The Buddhists also chip in with a pearl of similar wisdom by emphasising non-attachment to all desires.  
Time tells us: don’t look back, you can’t change it. Don’t expect too much; you will be wrong to predict it – and stop mind wandering. It means taking actions now that align with our abilities and strengths. The results often take care of themselves. This approach to life is not about abandoning ambition but about finding a harmonious balance between striving for the future and appreciating the present.
Since time is the most valuable thing in life, our priorities matter. Our precious attention matters, and what matters to us—matters. Discover what you are passionate about, and find that flow. As Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, aptly stated, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” Filling up time is enjoyable if you know what to do with it. It is not for nothing that a fulfilling life is described as one in which one has figured out what one actually wants from it. A person is rich not necessarily because she has all the money in the world but because she has insight into her core potential.
As for the question of who the richest man in Imphal is, posed in this article’s title, many possibilities are there. If the above condition is any yardstick, it could as well be you.