Photo: Jagadeesh N.V./Mint
Photo: Jagadeesh N.V./Mint

What makes Azim Premji a happy man?

It is difficult to imagine that Wipro's Azim Premji, one of the richest men in India, living a frugal life. But all evidence indicates that it is the path to happiness

I have never interacted with Azim Premji, the chairman of Wipro Ltd, at close quarters—only asked questions of him at the occasional press conference or some such public event. What has always intrigued me about Premji, India’s third richest man, with a net worth in excess of $15 billion, is his frugality.

Reports have it he used to drive a Toyota Corolla. But because it was more than a decade old and acting up a bit, and on the back of much egging-on by senior advisers, he upgraded to a Mercedes—albeit a second-hand one purchased from an employee at Wipro. I have not authenticated the Corolla or Mercedes anecdotes first-hand from Premji or spokespersons at the company. Be that as it may, stories of frugality among billionaires are commonplace—including the world’s third richest man, Warren Buffett.

If nothing else were known of Premji, I would always have imagined him to be an Uncle Scrooge kind of character—counting every paisa at the end of every working day. But that is only one half of the story. The fact is, Premji has pledged half of his stake in Wipro to charity. Often, it compels me to wonder, what is it that goes through the minds of men like Premji when they think of money? The kind of lifestyles they live and the work ethic they maintain—it amounts to “voluntary poverty". Why would they do that?

This is a phrase I encountered very recently in a blog post by Charles Broadway around the theme that articulates the difference between minimalism and voluntary poverty. I am a minimalist, the reasons for which I had articulated in an earlier instalment in this series. Broadway doesn’t think much of minimalism. He rubbishes the idea.

“Voluntary poverty is not the same as minimalism," he writes. “In fact, the term voluntary poverty is scandalous to many ears. This is because voluntary poverty embraces the lifestyle of the minimalist and the work ethic of the maximalist. Voluntary poverty is pursued for the sake of god and fellow man. The goal is to have a surplus of wealth. If you work hard and live simply, you will have little trouble with money. You will end up amassing a nice little chunk of cash. Then, you have to decide if you want to be miserly like Ebenezer Scrooge or to be generous like St. Francis of Assisi, who gave away his possessions to help the poor."

To my mind, this sounds like a very Catholic or Jain virtue. That said, the more I think about what makes Premji what he is, the more I am compelled to question my position. I am not suggesting here that I will change. But it moves the ground beneath my feet and raises pertinent questions my mind needs to find answers to.

Let me take minimalism up first. I make no bones about the fact that I am a Apple fanboy. Which means I love all things built by the company. I understand technology and the specs that go into a device. Right now, for instance, I carry the top-end iPhone 6s Plus and a MacBook Air. And how can I forget the MacBook Pro—with all the works—that’s lying around as a backup computer?

Now, my friend Shashikant Shetty is an entrepreneur. He runs a restaurant and understands the value of every penny. By no stretch of imagination is he poor. And it is not that he cannot afford any of these devices. But each time I pull my phone out, he refuses to stop laughing. He carries a Xiaomi Mi 4i. He got it around the same time I got myself an iPhone 5. I’m not entirely sure how much I paid for my phone then. But I suspect it was in the region of Rs50,000, while he got his for Rs12,000.

He baulked at the price and we continue to get into frequent arguments on which device is better pound for pound, rupee for rupee. When he pushes me hard against the wall, I argue I am the kind willing to pay a premium for the minimalism and design ingenuity that goes into making Apple what it is. He understands technology as well and argues I am a sucker who’s paying a premium to be seen as “having arrived" because when stacked up spec to spec, there are few tangible differences between the two devices.

Hold the thought for a moment now and take a few moments out to look at this image (source: www.theminimalists.com).

I love this. I absolutely love this. This is the kind of table I would love to have next to my bed. It isn’t cluttered. It is minimal The design is perfect. What is there on the table is intended to serve a purpose. But Broadway raises a pertinent point I still haven’t come to terms with.

“The aim of the simple life should be attaining the material needs of life with a minimum of resources and effort," he writes. “This frees up time and energy which can be devoted to the care of the soul, being with our families, and serving our fellow man. Minimalism merely consumes the same resources in the vain pursuit of an abstract perfection."

He continues to argue, “This picture comes from this essay giving a tour of a minimalist apartment. When I first read the essay and looked at the pictures, I found it disturbing for a reason I could not articulate. It struck me as pathological, but I could not say why it was pathological. But it seemed like the opposite extreme of the same compulsive types you might see on an episode of Hoarders. The fact is that you can become just as obsessed over few things as you can over many things. Minimalism seeks for material perfection, but the simple life is devoted to spiritual perfection."

As opposed to that, consider this image (by Joel Kramer, licensed under Creative Commons, source here).

This is also minimal. It is also simple. There is nothing ostentatious. But it does not look obsessive. Everything in there is there to do what it is intended to do. When looked at for a while, I think there is an element of warmth as well as opposed to the pathological simplicity you witness in the earlier image.

I am imagining this in my head. But what if I were to ask Premji what would he prefer? The minimalism of the table above or the simplicity of the room below? I’m willing to hazard a guess and bet he will opt for the latter.

This started to fall into place for me after I was done with a compelling and short read on How to Worry Less About Money by John Armstrong, a British writer and philosopher. The sum and substance of his argument is a simple one. How much money do you really need to be happy? To understand that, he says, you got to figure out the philosophical difference between “money worries" and “money troubles".

Money worries, he argues, are all about meeting the exigencies of life. Money troubles, on the other hand, are about keeping up with everybody else. So, if your friends or peers drive around in fancy cars and you are bothered by the fact that you don’t have one yourself, getting a fancier car will only make you a little happier, and nobody can really help you.

As Bill Gates famously said, “I can understand wanting to have a million dollars... but once you get beyond that, I have to tell you, it’s the same hamburger."

I tried looking around for research in a very Indian context. I couldn’t find one. But I did come across a rigorously researched article on the relationship between money and happiness. It demonstrates conclusively that once the exigencies of life have been met, there is no evidence to prove people get any happier as their income rises.

In North America, for instance, economists have conclusively demonstrated that after a family’s average annual income crosses the $75,000 mark, there is no significant difference in their happiness in the long term by adding any more zeros to their paycheques. This hypothesis holds true across the world and the number varies depending on their standard of living.

The variance in North America begins to show at $40,000, when “health, relationships and a sense of purpose seem far more important than income (as factors that increase happiness)... however, you may gain more than that if: you have dependents, you care about money more than other people, or you live in an area with an unusually high cost of living".

This “sense of purpose" means you aren’t concerned about earning more just to keep up with your contemporaries. Instead, you focus on making the world a better place by giving in meaningful ways so that other lives may be bettered.

This seems to be the crucial thing that Premji seems to have cottoned on to and I guess this is what drives his simplicity. Unlike the most of us, he must be a deep thinker who has figured out that there is only so much a human being needs. What matters after that is how much of a difference can you make to the lives of those who aren’t as privileged as you are. Because when you make tangible differences, your happiness multiplies exponentially as opposed to hoarding more wealth.

Am I ready for it? Not yet, I guess. I still have money worries on hand. And I have a long, long way to go before I get to be a billionaire. Or a millionaire, for that matter. I aspire to a better life. I cannot deny that I love lazy Sunday brunches at my favourite hotel and exotic food. I like to live in comfort. But there is no taking away that men like Premji and the lives they live compel you to wonder whether or not the frugal life is a happier life and a life better lived than the ones we imagine is the better life.

Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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