Die with Zero: A book review by Bob Morris

Die with Zero: Getting All You Can from Your Money and Your Life
Bill Perkins
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2020)

Practical advice on how to make your life grow wider and deeper than you may now think possible

Bill Perkins is convinced that almost anyone can live their life to the fullest, can make it wider and deeper and more meaningful than they may now think possible. I hope the title of his book does not deter people from obtaining a copy. With passion and conviction, Perkins urges his reader to think in terms of a legacy that results from the nature and extent of what they invest in others’ lives as well as in their own. Funds, yes of course, but also, and of much greater value, attention and commitment as well as empathy and compassion, full engagement rather than casual involvement.

Over the years, I have known several people who, when they died, left countless “IOUs” behind, including debts to themselves. They bore little resemblance to fictional misers and curmudgeons such as Silas Marner and Ebenezer Scrooge but they were certainly preoccupied with nourishing their net worth and prestige rather than their relationships with others, especially family members and a few friends.

Perkins suggests and discusses nine “Rules” that are best revealed within the narrative, in context, but I will say this about them: that they are reasonable, doable, and should be followed to the extent each reader deems appropriate. There is a set of questions at the conclusion of each chapter and they can be of substantial value IF (huge “if”) a reader answers them candidly and then acts upon what they suggest during what can become an ongoing process for both personal growth and professional development.

The most important function of the material that Perkins shares is to serve as both a mirror and a window. Two separate but related questions are implicit:

“What do you now value most in your life?”
“How much of your resources (especially time and attention) do you now commit to each?”

Those who read this book would be well-advised to start where they are, with a candid answer to each of these two questions. They should take a hard look at their priorities. Also, keep in mind that timing matters. “So to increase your overall lifetime fulfillment, it’s important to have each experience at the right age. And that’s true no matter how much money you have.”

It is important to realize that standard of living and quality of life are neither mutually exclusive nor interdependent. Perkins insists (and I agree) that “the business of life is the acquisition of happy memories” and that is a process that usually begins in one’s childhood, for better or worse.

Ebenezer Scrooge had a very happy youth but how he pursued wealth permitted him little (if any) joy. In dramatic contrast, Bob Cratchett is an admirable person in most respects but his poverty ensures the death of a much loved son. Perkins probably has no quarrel with Scrooge’s wealth but sees his life as an informative cautionary tale. My take on Perkins is that he is the kind of person who would do all he could to help Tiny Tim receive the medical care he so urgently needs.

Disclaimer: Perkins does not discuss A Christmas Carol in this book. I hope he does not resent my references to it.

My guess (only a guess) is that this book will be of greatest value to those least likely to read it. Change is difficult. Coping with what is unfamiliar is even more difficult. What I call the “Known Devil Syndrome” is widespread and durable. In Leading Change, James O’Toole suggests that most change initiatives fail because of resistance that is cultural in nature, what he characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

All people can increase the quality of their lives. Ultimately, whether or not they do so depends almost entirely on how committed they are. In this context, I am again reminded of what Henry Ford said long ago: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

In years past, many people challenged and encouraged Bill Perkins to live a life worth living, to explore new sources of nourishment, to embrace each new day as a precious gift, and to do as much as he could to challenge and encourage others. He accepted that challenge and recently wrote this book to expend and extend the impact of the wisdom he has gained.

For some people, this could well be one of the most valuable books they ever read.

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