All the Money in the World

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels



Say a universal income was instituted, or you won the lottery, or were lucky enough to find a job that paid you to do what you enjoyed. What would you do if all your basic financial needs were met?

My mom used to say, “If I had all the money in the world….” She meant something modest—no crippling debts, adequate housing and food, a reliable car, personal time, freedom from fatigue—but their consequences would be huge. I wish I remembered better what she said she would do. Travel, I think, and find a way to help others.

It is interesting that the categories of options seem limited. What is there to do on this rock?

One of my professors talked about retiring into his jammies to watch Bergman for the rest of his life. Consumption, then. At its most benign it means admiring and enjoying. In the level above that, being lost to social media, maybe, or collecting things your grown children find in moldy boxes in your basement. At its upper limits it means seizing, taking, stripping—power; the Peninsula; lives.

You could learn—the Russian language, or how trees fix carbon through photosynthesis and sequester it as biomass. (I assume real education is not consumption but process.)

Make something—a better shoe, a reputation. My friend Larry said he would close his online business and make films. I asked, What if no one watched them? I pointed to Werner Herzog, who seems like a true artist if only because he makes films at a rapid rate whether anyone pays attention or not. Larry said he fears he might go back to running his business, but that shows the creativity common to both pursuits. The difference is in his “fear” of a need for validation.

Serve others or bear witness.

Destroy something, like injustice.

Nullify—drink, drugs, constant sleep.

The most difficult—and the most rewarding?—might be just to be. The poet Ryōkan (Japanese, 1758–1831), from “Playing with the Children”:


First we duel with blades of grass
Then we play ball
While I bounce the ball, they sing the song
Then I sing the song and they bounce the ball
Caught up in the excitement of the game
We forget completely about the time
Passersby turn and question me:
“Why are you carrying on like this?”
I just shake my head without answering
Even if I were able to say something
how could I explain?
Do you really want to know the meaning of it all?
This is it! This is it!
(Tr. Abé and Haskel)


My own plan would be like Jules Winnfield’s—to “walk the earth”: “You know, like Caine in Kung Fu. Walk from place to place, meet people, get in adventures.” To “just be [me].”

(“Like a bum,” Vincent Vega says.)

You might call this thought experiment a hypothesis of freedom, but it says something about our goals and interests in our current lives.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.