During the last years of the 20th century-the time of the tech bubble-we were bombarded with their stories. They were the Zeitgeist icons, and they were unavoidable. We'd read about them on the flat-screen monitor in the elevator lifting us to work; they spilled out of photo spreads in magazines. Often they stood before some newly purchased artifact of wealth: a yacht whose name cleverly alluded to technology, or a luxury SUV with a personalized licence plate.
They were the tech millionaires, and for most of us, their stories were aspirational pornography. A lot of people lost a lot of money when the bubble burst, of course, but these folks had exquisite timing. They're the ones who got out in time. Now, on the other side of the boom, they are-of all things-melancholic about the results. Possibly, this is thanks to the trauma that psychologists associate with the onset of wealth. One of the key pieces in the literature is a 1978 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study. It compares the happiness of lottery winners and that of victims of serious accidents, several years after their life-changing events. The accident survivors are happier.
Tech millionaires are not the same as lottery winners, but still, they've learned that the experience they long ago dreamed of-getting rich-can be as harrowing as anything they've lived through. "Selling a business and getting $100 million is wonderful," says Eileen Gallo, a Los Angeles psychotherapist who specializes in wealth-related issues. "It's also very stressful." As Gallo points out, the changes wrought by a fortune-the new homes, the moves, the early retirements-rank high on the Holmes-Rahe scale, a checklist of stressful events used by psychologists. Here, then, are some lessons learned by those who have lived through the trauma we all wish would be wrought on us.
(1) You can go wherever you want
As Dave Boswell prepares for our helicopter flight, he reminds me of something I've been trying to forget. It is almost exactly one year since Boswell left his job. But it is only one month since the instructor at his Northern California flight school awarded him his helicopter pilot's licence. I've met Boswell at an airfield about 30 minutes northeast of San Francisco. Our transportation today is a Schweizer 300, which seems about as stable as the mosquito it vaguely resembles. As I climb in, he asks whether I'm nervous.
"No," I lie.
Boswell is a bit of a gearhead: He calls helicopters the coolest machines around, besides computers, and I'm glad to see he's meticulous when it comes to the flight check. After ticking his way through columns of instrument verifications, he tips open an insubstantial plastic door, peeks his head out and sweeps his gaze around the aircraft. He shouts, "Clear!" Another flip of a switch and the rotors sputter into a slow spin. When the blades have accelerated to invisibility, we're hovering a metre above the runway. Soon we're speeding northwest from Concord airfield, velocity 70 knots, altimeter 1,700 feet. And that's when Boswell reminds me of the thing I'm trying to forget: I'm the first passenger he's ever taken for a ride.
This moment has been something Boswell has dreamed about since he was a computer science undergraduate
at the University of Waterloo, where his favourite pro-
fessor, Wes Graham, was an IBM alumnus. Professor
Graham suggested Boswell read the autobiography of Thomas Watson, IBM's founder and long-time CEO. Boswell did, and found himself entranced by the passage that opens the book, which recounts Watson's dream of becoming a helicopter pilot. Yep, the young Boswell thought. That's pretty neat. I'd like to do that.
Boswell was able to enact that dream in the autumn of 2002, heading to chopper school soon after he retired at the age of 47. Prior to that, he'd never actually been in a helicopter. He'd had a successful career in software development; the last of many buyouts came in the fall of 2001, when California-based Siebel Systems Inc. paid $1.5 billion in stock and cash for Toronto's Janna Systems Inc., where Boswell was executive vice-president of marketing.
As he banks his bird south toward San Francisco, Boswell's expression is serene. With your eyes at Godzilla's level, civilization is miniaturized-a trick of perspective that can instill in pilots an illusion of omnipotence. You look down and see office buildings nestled between your shoes. Extend an arm and you obscure a zip code. "It's therapeutic up here," says Boswell. "You take a helicopter into a hover, it's the closest sensation to a ride on a magic carpet. You have total control."