On the morning of August 25, 1997, the big story on the morning news shows was the Powerball lottery drawing happening that evening. For the first time ever, a lottery jackpot had reached the $300,000,000 mark. Lines were forming outside convenience stores, people were planning a lavish future. A mathematician assured the Today Show interviewer that someone would absolutely win based on the finite combination of numbers..
Although I’m not a lottery player most of the time, I decided that if I didn’t buy a ticket or two I’d miss the excitement when the drawing rolled around that evening. I purchased five tickets, I recall, and didn’t give it further thought until the big moment.
Sitting in front of my television, I laid out the tickets and began checking them as the numbers were called. One of my tickets matched the first number drawn. Then the second, the third, the fourth, and the fifth. Then the Powerball number was called and it wasn’t a match for me. I thought I was going to throw up.
Several minutes later, I called my friend John, a regular lottery player, to share my trauma. He commiserated with me and then cheerfully pointed out that I had won $5000. Moments earlier, I had lost $300,000,000. Now $5000 felt like a huge windfall.
The next day I drove to the Minnesota Lottery office and claimed my prize. I was giddy.
I had my picture taken holding a gigantic check with my name on it. I promptly deposited the actual check into my sabbatical account. Less than two years later, I was enjoying eight months of travel and discovery. Traveling first class would not have enriched the experience one bit.
I hadn’t thought about this little episode until a month or so ago when someone reminded me of it. “Do you ever think about how your life would be different if you had won all that money?” he asked. I told him that I hadn’t ever done that and couldn’t imagine that I’d be doing anything other than what I do now. He seemed skeptical.
Honestly, I hadn’t told him the truth. I had considered what winning that money meant and realized that had I become the recipient of this huge fortune, my time would have shifted to being a full-time money manager. But that wasn’t the worst part of it. How could I have maintained any credibility in helping folks become self-reliant and self-employed? I would have forfeited my platform.
One of my all-time favorite episodes of the Actor’s Studio is the one with Dustin Hoffman. At the end of the show, a student asks him what he would be doing if he wasn’t a movie actor. Hoffman teared up and gives a passionate answer (which I’m paraphrasing here.) He points out that his movie career, while bringing him fame and fortune, was a bit of a fluke. If that hadn’t happened, he says, he’d be teaching theater in a college in the northwest or acting in community theater somewhere in the country. “I cannot not do this.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Elizabeth Gilbert who points out that while the success of Eat, Pray, Love was thrilling, she would be equally devoted to writing had it not happened.
Could it be that it’s not about size, scale or success? Could it be–at least in the well-lived life–simply about the doing? You don’t need $300,000,000 for that.