Spiritual Insights From A Rich Idiot

Photo: Julie Rains

The last person I thought would impart valuable spiritual wisdom is self-proclaimed rich idiot and wealth guru Robert Shemin, author of “How Come That Idiot’s Rich and I’m Not?" (release date of March 4, 2008). I spoke to him by telephone during a break from his charity work with street children in Medellín, Colombia. The question I posed to him, “Of the four spiritual concepts from your book: abundance, forgiveness, commitment, and gratitude, which is most essential to being wealthy?” His answer surprised me.


After some deliberation to absorb my question (I had taken 4 of the concepts most intriguing to me though there were others), Robert decisively stated “gratitude.” He tells me that (North) Americans don’t seem to be grateful for what they do have but rather focused on what they don’t have.

Compared to the poverty of Brazilian street children that he works with through Brazos Abiertos (Open Arms), even those on welfare in the USA have a standard of living that seems wealthy, according to my informed source. Robert recommends volunteering at a homeless shelter or with another charitable agency to put your life and financial status into perspective.

Independent of my discussion with Robert, I have been considering gratitude and its value, not necessarily for building wealth but for enjoying life and coping with difficult circumstances. Recently, I discovered a new meaning in the New Testament miracle story of a few loaves and fish feeding several thousand people. Just in case you’ve never heard the story (an account is found in the book of Matthew, Chapter 15, verses 32-39), Jesus is talking to a large crowd for a few days and someone realizes that it’s time to eat. They’re in the wilderness with no grocery stores or restaurants nearby. Jesus wants to feed everyone (4,000 men plus women and children) before they go home so he figures out what is available food-wise and it is seven loaves and a few small fish.

Normally, what would happen? 

  • Economists would declare a scarcity
  • Financial planners would blame poor planning or lack of food insurance
  • Blogosphere residents would proclaim poor life choices or lousy decision-making skills on the part of Jesus and his disciples or the crowd

What did Jesus do? He gave thanks. Clearly, there was not enough but he gives thanks for the small amount that he has.

This morning, I checked some friends’ blog as mom, dad, and 20-something daughter chronicle the daughter’s battle with leukemia. She has had a bone marrow transplant and recently developed pneumonia as a result of her still growing strong but less than perfect immune system. Their updates (while in the hospital) are peppered with mentions of gratitude and thankfulness. Meanwhile, the illness has created a financial hardship, despite all working and having health insurance.

Will being grateful mean that everything will turn out rosy? Does being grateful make you wealthy? No. In his book, Robert proposes gratitude as a preparation to becoming wealthy. Why? Because no matter what your net worth, if you aren’t grateful, then your riches won’t bring you contentment, happiness, or freedom.


Though gratitude was #1 in Robert’s mind, I also want to mention some of his other spiritual ideas, beginning with part of the Rich Idiot quiz (designed to determine readiness for rich idiocy):

“The Universe is an abundant place and there’s more than enough for everyone.
a) I believe we live in a world of scarcity and that if one person gets a big slice of the pie another winds up in need.
b) I agree that the Universe is an abundant place and that there’s more than enough for everyone.
c) I believe that the Universe favors some people over others and distributes wealth unevenly.”

According to Robert, (b) is correct and if you want to be rich, then you need to think that there is plenty for all.

This idea reminded me of a book by Henri Nouwen called "The Life of the Beloved." He contrasted the worldly notion of being chosen with a Christian perspective. Typically the act of being chosen means that one has been selected for the basketball team, a college scholarship, a management training position, etc. and that someone else has been rejected. Christians, presumably, believe that all can be chosen or beloved, and one person's chosenness does not automatically exclude another from being selected.

Consider how having the idea that we can all be wealthy vs. thinking that one person’s wealth always takes away from another person’s wealth manifests itself in day-to-day interactions.

As a career-services professional, I provide writing services for business clients. Those who believe in positive outcomes for all tend to be pleasant and successful; they engage me, willingly pay what I consider reasonable rates, and receive services that allow them to land new positions or earn promotions, often with pay increases 10-30x (or more) the amount they paid me.

There are others, fortunately few, who seem to feel pressed upon to hire me, as if my free time were spent concocting ways of extracting more money from them. Though I endorse skepticism when appropriate, I do wonder if such a win-lose approach saturates their thinking, shades conversations, and prevents them from cultivating collaborative, profitable relationships.

Are there times that one person wins (market share, a new account, a college scholarship, the race) and another loses? Yes. Still, thinking abundantly can help you approach opportunities and make moves that will benefit you and your customers, employees, shareholders, etc.


Robert proposes that forgiveness is part of spiritual preparation to become wealthy: “The first thing you have to do is to forgive. ‘But I’m not holding any grudges,’ you protest. Give me a break. Let’s do a quick checklist of possible forgiveness targets.” He lists many who may have wronged or angered others:

  • Parents
  • Siblings
  • Spouse
  • Kids 
  • Friends
  • Coworkers
  • Neighbors

“But our list isn’t complete. One of the most important acts of forgiveness is forgiving yourself.”

Forgive yourself for (my list):

  • real estate you sold too early
  • real estate you should have bought but didn’t
  • investment you didn’t make
  • investment you did make and shouldn’t have
  • credit card debt you ran up

This idea may not have resonated with me if I had not read Philip’s post on letting things go about a couple who still mourned the perceived loss of wealth when they sold real estate that later became extremely valuable. “Move on,” we want to shout to the couple and others like them, who are so focused on the past that they likely miss the opportunities of the present.


Robert proposes that instead of focusing on not being broke or not having debt you should commit to pursuing a healthy income and wealth; that is, be bold and take positive actions that will lead to new and better results. Commitment itself doesn’t lead directly to riches but achieving a goal requires commitment.

I’m not saying that you should get all your spiritual guidance from a book entitled “How Come That Idiot Is Rich and I’m Not?” but the book may help you (as it did me) change your mindset and remove some mental blocks about pursuing wealth. And, I found his idea that true wealth = time to do what you want to do with no money worries refreshing.

I’ll explore his practical advice on becoming rich in an upcoming post.

Robert Shemin, JD/MBA, made his fortune in real estate, and has diversified into other businesses and equity investments. He has written several books on real estate investing and is a motivational speaker. I received a preview copy of “How Come That Idiot’s Rich and I’m Not?” in exchange for a book review. 

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Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

I liked this article.  "Time to do what you want to do with no money worries" is what I am working towards.  I think that is priceless because it is freedom. 

Guest's picture
Minimum Wage

So I should be grateful that I have $3.87 in the bank and about $2 in nickels and pennies (I previously raided the change jar of the dimes and quarters), and that I am living on pasta, potatoes, and rice? I suppose a crack baby should be grateful too?

Guest's picture
Minimum Wage

Didn't this guy write some real estate books? I vaguely remember having read one of his books some years ago (when I was inhaling real estate books) and having a negative reaction to it.

Guest's picture

@MinimumWage - Absolutely buddy, you better be grateful. 4 years ago, I had $2.18 in the bank, no change, AND $250,000 (Thats a quarter of a million dollars) in debt to the tax man. Be grateful that THEY are not on your back.

I am not here to fight a 'holier than thou' war with anyone here, but I think you need some perspective.

Talking of war, a few years ago my uncle walked across mountains and jungle for 200km with his 3 young children in tow, with absolutely no money, in order to flee a civil war that was tearing his country apart.

Be grateful that you can wake up in your comfy bed everyday, and not have to look out the windows for approaching tanks or gunships!

Guest's picture

Wow, thats amazing that you know where we wake up everyday....and trust me it ain't comfy. Thanks for assuming everyone else's life is as cushy as yours.

Julie Rains's picture

@Xin Lu - I liked this definition also, as it broadened who could be wealthy. Very often, it seems that only those with millions could be considered wealthy but I like to include those who have regular jobs but time to enjoy their lives, families, friends etc. as Kate mentioned in her recent post.  

@Minimum Wage - I am not saying you should naturally feel grateful but that practicing gratitude for whatever you have can change your outlook. And yes, Robert wrote real estate books -- that is not my area of expertise or interest; his latest book mentions real estate but that will not be the emphasis of my upcoming post.   

@Devo - thanks for your perspective.

Guest's picture

Sounds like an interesting book that I will try to read. No matter how low you get, there is something to be thankful for. The key is to focus on the positive (by no means should we ignore the negative) and help others in any way we can. Thanks for a thorough review of what appears to be an interesting read.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Good one, Julie.

We've been going through some challenging times here this year, and some days it takes more effort than others to focus on being thankful.

The reality is though, that as logistically tough as things are right now, we still have accomplished 80 percent of what we set out to do just a few short years ago, and still are able to live outside the traditional "work every day" economy. I try to remember that when I'm feeling overwhelmed by the remaining 20 percent, because they happen to be particularly large project goals.

@Devo - amen! Thanks for making me remember that while I might have to take a bath in a bucket for a few more months until things thaw, some people have to walk all day just to bring home one bucket full to do everything their household needs to do with that water. At least my kitchen plumbing is still functional. And my water is healthy. I remember those struggling river dwelling folks in Cambodia . . .

And Julie - cool lead picture! Taken from your neck of the woods?

Guest's picture

We went to Honduras over the holidays. We have a minimum wage that needs to be raised, but at least it's more than $300 a month. Which is what the Honduran minimum wage is. Even with a reduced cost of living, that is what most of the country makes. They have no regulations. The hospitals are HORRIBLE in the city. I was horrified by the level of care these people receive. We met a man who had his leg amputated because of diabetes related complications. Do you think he received disability? Absolutely not. He wasn't even employable on any level. And you know what? Honduras is wealthy compared to other even poorer countries. I am so so grateful for what I have.

Julie Rains's picture

@Sean -- it is an interesting, entertaining book as Robert shows how to be a Rich Idiot (rather than Right side Up and Broke, a RUB), making it an easy and fun read. For this post, I focused on the spiritual side (with my observations), which may or may not appeal to everyone and is not necessarily the main part of the book. There are some good practical tips that I will share soon.

@Myscha -- I am not sure I could conjure up gratefulness in the cold and odd bathing situations but this did make me realize that I can definitely be more grateful, and that does help me move forward and solve problems rather than just feeling bad about certain situations. I took the photo on a trip to the mountains about an hour or so away from me.

@Rebekah -- Thanks for sharing!




Guest's picture

@Minimum Wage--

I watched a documentary on a blind man who couldn't walk, his attitude was wonderful, better then most people I know who have all their abilities and good health, yet are miserable because they don't have what they think they deserve. In his own words: "I'm blind and can't walk. So what? You work with what you've got."

Yes, be grateful for what you have, even if it's not much. Your attitude makes a big difference in how you experience life.

Things could always be much worse.

Guest's picture

Sort of a tangent to what you've said. I remember my mom saying once, "we live like rich people only without money". What she meant was (because my dad was a sculptor) we had opportunities people had to pay for. My dad taught at summer arts camps and we went along for free, we went to spiffy exhibition openings, we knew other artists, we lived with art work all over our house, my dad did what he passionately loved to do. It's good for me to rethink our present situation in that light. To be grateful. To see the progress. To enjoy the present. Another thing that's helpful is to realize you don't actually have to own something to enjoy using it. Sculptures got sold, books returned. As long as you can fill your senses with it and remember, it's your's to enjoy.

Guest's picture

This reminds me of a short quote I read which caused me to think about my attitude toward life. I'm sorry I don't know who said it.

"Pessimists are more often right, but optimists
are more often happy."

Honestly, I don't even know if it's true that pessimists are correct in their assumptions more often than optimists, but for me, the point was well taken. Who cares about being right all the time if you are miserable? Who wants to hang out with, or be there for a gloom and doom prophet? Clearly I'm not advocating a "cheerful ostrich" kind of attitude towards life, we need to be realistic, but beyond that, we can choose what we focus our attention on and be grateful for what we have.

Julie Rains's picture

is my favorite pessimism quote -- from Wireless Catalog

From a practical standpoint, gratitude can help bring focus on what is important so that you can nurture those relationships, guard your health, maintain that home or car or boat, watch over those investments. 



Guest's picture

Bob Emmons is also a wonderful Gratitude Guru... he has been in the field of Psychology for many years and has written everything from journal articles on gratitude to "down to earth" books about it. It's extremely fascinating what he has discovered in his research but more importantly how the art of practicing gratitude can actually make you happier. Check out his book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier for more info.

Guest's picture

Yes, be grateful for the $3 in the bank and minimum wage. The most stirring example I've seen of someone with the right attitude was the marine who was just on Extreme Makeover (the show with Ty Pennington).

That man lost his leg in combat, but he did not focus on what he lost. He was grateful that he was still alive so he could see his children every day.

It sucks that he lost his leg and needs an artifical limb and wheelchair, especially when he was used to being a very healthy and active man. But he never once coomplains about it, he just lets everyone know how happy he is to still be alive.

Don't think about the money you don't have, or the things you want - be happy for the things you do have. If you can't find anything it's your attitude that needs to change, not your financial situatiuon.

Guest's picture

It's hard to imagine, but no matter your material circumstances, you can be as blind and spoiled as Paris Hilton and not be aware of it. What Gratitude (and Humility) does is make you aware of your level of entitlement - even if you supposedly don't have much. There are no guarantees that any of us will live beyond our next breath. If one considers this often, a different perspective towards life and the value of what one HAS (inside and out) might be found.

I've made great money and I've also lived on other people's couches. I can tell you that when things have gotten scary I always found something to be Grateful about - especially that I was not on the street and that I was safe. And even to this day – no matter how much I have or don’t have, I am Grateful always for at least one or all of: being able to put gas in my car, having a car, feed myself and my pets, finding work, having a place to keep me safe and warm at night, and decent physical health. Anything beyond that is wonder!

It takes a while to really see this however, and at first you might have to work on it. The reason it can be so hard is because it requires using the heart and finding Humility; which differentiates the base survival mechanism in us all against our potential for evolution, beauty, nobility, and refinement – that can be found under any circumstance.

It is a choice. And it's not limited to physical things. I am Grateful that I have a good mind. I am Grateful that I love. I am Grateful that while I make millions of mistakes that I strive to be better. I don't have tons of friends but I'm kind. Does it matter if anyone else in the world appreciates these things? No, not as long as I value them. What we have or can have is greater than the sum of $3 - unless that is the value that you are now placing on your life. If this is the case, sit down and do an inventory. It might surprise you to find out what you really do have in total assets as a human being, and what you can do with it.

From a practical and perhaps superficial standpoint, Gratitude will at least make you likeable to other people who might be able to help and even hire you; for few want to offer a hand to someone who is angry, ungrateful, or wears a banner of victimization. It might be a mean-spirited and entitled attitude that got one into a less than desirable circumstance to begin with.

True humility is a very refined state that one can cultivate; and it has little to do with deprication of the self or others. It has to do with seeing what really is.

Guest's picture
Minimum Wage

Be grateful that you can wake up in your comfy bed everyday, and not have to look out the windows for approaching tanks or gunships!

Actually, I can wake up in my comfy bed for the next three days, but I'm not so sure about the days after that. I'm scrambling to find a place to live but on my income it's very hard.

I suppose if I end up in a fleabag flophouse (the leading prospect so far) I should be grateful for that?

If the Universe is an abundant place and there is more than enough for everyone, how does Robert explain the contimued existence of the working poor, and why aren't his tenants homeowners by now?

Julie Rains's picture

I think the idea is that abundance is a possibility not that it exists everywhere on planet Earth (because it doesn't). Hope you are able to find something that is safe and/or can move in with a friend sometime soon.

Guest's picture

Thanks for this post (and thanks for keeping it up for a couple of years so that I can find it!)

This post is very poignant for me on a few points:
1. For many years I worked with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society raising money for research and assistance to patients with blood diseases. I too know people that are survivors as well as others who were not as fortunate!
2. Last week, I donated my bone marrow to an individual that I will never know, never come in contact, and will never meet.
3. Gratitude for what we have, regardless of how much or how little, will always improve our lives! It is a skill that just needs to be practices and reinforced.
4. Life is full of choices.

Thank you for sharing.
Be Well.