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Remembering what 'normal' is

Living in Silicon Valley, it's easy to lose track of what "normal" is.

There is so much wealth here that real-estate buyers compete in bidding wars, rush-hour traffic contains a high concentration of luxury cars, and some retired folks haven't yet seen their first gray hair.

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Lately I've caught myself feeling disappointed, defeated, even resentful, because it seems that such wealth has passed me by. But here's the odd thing. By any "normal" standard, my husband and I have been wildly successful.

We live in a not-so-modest home in a lovely, tree-shaded neighborhood. My husband's high-tech earnings have allowed me to take up freelance writing. We send our children to a fine private school.

So what do I have to complain about? Absolutely nothing. Except that I keep comparing my life to that of a Silicon Valley millionaire.

Although some of the new millionaires built their fortunes on extraordinary talent or vision, many - including a few we know well - are simply working professionals who hit the big time. For want of a few changes in our circumstances, we could have joined their ranks.

Recently, I was trying to explain this to my 10-year-old son. Creating an analogy made the issues crystal-clear.

Imagine, I told him, that you've just started kindergarten. You know that you will be attending school for the next 17 years, counting college. You don't resent that time, because it's the same for everyone. Besides, you're so excited about starting school, it would never occur to you to ask when you can stop.

But soon you discover something unique about your school: It has a lottery. At the end of every school year, one or two of your classmates win, which means that they can do whatever they want for the rest of their lives.

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They can play Nintendo all day long. They can even stay in school, if they prefer. But because they don't have to be there, they can quit whenever it gets too hard or too boring, or a more interesting opportunity comes along.

For the first couple of years, you pay no attention to the lottery winners who leave school each spring. You're having fun, and school is still where you want to be. But after three or four years, the homework starts. Your teachers aren't quite as interested in entertaining you. Some of the work is downright boring. You start to notice the lottery winners and wonder when your turn will come.

By the time you hit middle school, you feel a growing sense of mastery and self-confidence in yourself and your academic achievements. But it takes hard work, and there's a lot more to come. As you witness more and more of your friends leaving school, you begin to feel resentful. It just seems so unfair.

Yours is the only school in the world that has a lottery. Even so, most of your original classmates are still in school. The winners are a small minority. Yet, the existence of the lottery has skewed your perceptions. The possibility of winning the lottery has transformed a normal childhood experience - school - into an exercise in frustration.

Stock options are a remarkable part of the high-tech world. High-tech professionals are typically granted a bundle as part of the compensation package when they join a start-up company. If the company is successful and "goes public" or is sold to a publicly traded company, suddenly those stock options are worth money - sometimes millions.

Those dollars can translate into a lifetime of financial freedom.

Most of us work for years waiting for our turn. Sometimes we leave a failing company, exchanging a slew of worthless stock options for new hope at yet another start-up. Sometimes we settle into a mature company with fewer chances at instant wealth, driven by family obligations to choose a stable work environment with predictable work hours.

As the years go by, the pool of "retired" former colleagues who are available for long lunches continues to grow. On our bad days, it just seems so unfair.

The wealth-building opportunities in Silicon Valley are like few other places on the planet.

Even so, most of us here spend our entire adult lives working. The stock-option millionaires are a small minority. Yet, the chance at financial independence skews our perceptions. The possibility of sudden great wealth transforms a normal adulthood experience - professional employment - into a state of perceived failure.

After I created the school analogy for my son, I realized that the antidote to my dark feelings is a habit of gratitude. As I look around at my life, and at Silicon Valley, I can't believe my good fortune.

I love interesting people, and there is no shortage of them here. I enjoy the Mediterranean climate that was one of the attractions that fertilized the growth of Silicon Valley.

The wealth that I envy has flowed to local government, which has used it to preserve quality of life for all of us.

So these days, when I'm feeling envious, I remind myself of the analogy that I created for my son. And try to remember what "normal" is.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to home@csps.com, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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