Life as a Thrillionaire

“Fiction is the great lie that tells the truth,” says novelist Dorothy Allison. For years writing novels has been my vehicle for exploring complex issues, taking my own pulse on how I feel about intense experiences or the stories of others, particularly the vulnerable and courageous immigrant women who populate my medical practice. So it is with trepidation and awkwardness that I write an autobiographical essay about what it means to be a thrillionaire. By sharing my story, I hope to make some of you realize that you, too, are thrillionaires.


When people come across the term in my biography, they often assume it means that I am an adrenaline junkie who gets high from life’s adventures. I must admit that this meaning resonates with my personal history.  I’ve been the target of a Molotov cocktail and a shower of bullets in Afghanistan, was followed by police while tracing the footsteps of British explorer Freya Stark in Southern Syria, recorded a CD in an underground music studio in Havana, decided on a whim to meditate in a cave for a 10-days after a week of hiking in the Tibetan Himalayas, hitchhiked to Samarkhand in the freezing cold one New Year’s Eve, and once did a stealth medical exam of Fidel Castro. However, in labeling myself as a thrillionaire, I do not mean to draw attention to my thrill seeking side.


I first encountered the term “thrillionaire” upon meeting Ruth Ann Harnisch--journalist, life coach, and philanthropist--at a TED Conference. “Everybody has gifts to give -- gifts of money, talent, time, ideas. Thrillionaires know that the thrill is in the giving, not the gift,” she wrote on her blog,


I was not raised with a religious call to service or a tradition of volunteerism. However, I came to realize early in adulthood that I had won the lottery of birth–in North America to educated and supportive parents, at a time in history when women in the US have the potential to thrive in all ways—and this perspective has fueled my deep desire to give back. While at Wellesley College, I nominally engaged with its motto non ministrari, sed ministare (or its modern adaptation adopted by many educational institutions: “Enter to learn, Exit to serve.”), but it took some time before I figured out my unique thrillionaire path, and I continue to hone my professional calling.  That discovery required a degree of self-knowledge that I was only just beginning to acquire at Wellesley, one that further developed by doing women’s health fieldwork in the Middle East.   


The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has transformed my home-town and current home-base of Seattle in large part due to the core value: “To whom much has been given, much is expected.''  The idea that it is a moral obligation of the more fortunate to assist the less fortunate is one that is normative in all major world religions, not just the Wellesley College motto.  Many—from President John F. Kennedy, founder of the Peace Corps, to the Harvard doctor and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes—have preached some version of this.  What I find often missing in this dutiful call to service is the joyful reward that the giver receives from helping others and the marvelous consequences of freely sharing their gifts. The poet and cultural scholar Lewis Hyde hints at this in his book The Gift, which explores the non-commercial benefits of making art: "When a part of the self is given away, community appears."


“The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose,” wrote 17th century British playwright Hada Bejar, but that doesn’t mean that thrillionaires don’t burn out, develop compassion fatigue, or shift focus. We should be clear-eyed about what and how much we can give, and we need to be vigilant about giving back to ourselves.  As flight attendants say, “Put on your oxygen mask first before assisting others.”  To stay healthy, I take good care of myself—exercise, eat right, indulge my passions, take a sabbatical every four years, do retreats in solitude, and distance myself from energy vampires.  One must feel replenished on the inside to be able to give in a happy, effective, and sustainable manner. 


For those who believe that it is only the lucky, wealthy, or privileged who can be thrillionaires, I leave you with the example of Oseola McCarty.  This humble African-American woman was forced to drop out of school in the sixth grade due to family circumstances, started a washing and ironing business, and donated $150,000 of her savings to the University of Southern Mississippi so that others could be educated. 


Former Wellesley College President, Diana Chapman Walsh, beautifully described what thrillionaires do when she handed out the UN Declaration of Human Rights to each graduating senior from the class of 2000: “With rights come responsibilities to preserve the institutions of freedom; with privileges come duties to others less fortunate than you; with wisdom comes an obligation to use your knowledge in the cause of justice; with power comes the opportunity to remove that which subverts love.”


The only missing piece in her call to thrillionaire action is just how fun and deeply rewarding it can be. I, for one, am full of gratitude for all I have received and for the gifts I can offer to others. As Shakespeare said, "The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite."