Scott Hipsher

Choice as a source of wealth

Real "wealth" is not primarily about having material possessions or money

In writing my latest book, The Private Sector's Role in Poverty Reduction in Asia, I had the opportunity to examine and reevaluate what were the actual meanings of the terms poverty and wealth. Of course at a superficial level we can assume wealth means having a lot of money while poverty implies having little or no money. But how useful are these definitions? Why do people want money? How does having money actually improve people's lives?

A wealthy man might go to bed hungry due to fasting for religious or health reasons and a poor man could also go to bed hungry due to not being able to afford anything to eat. Although they are both experiencing hunger, are they in the same situation? If not, what makes the two experiences different?

The point I argued is the difference is not in the hunger, it is in having or not having a choice. The wealthy man chose hunger while the poor man had hunger thrust upon him. Wealth is having choices while poverty is primarily the result of a lack of options.

Real "wealth" is not primarily about owning material possessions or having money, it is about having choices in how to live one's life and spend one's time. A point made in the book is the primary reason the trillions of dollars given away in charities and development aid around the world has had almost no effect on reducing poverty is these types of programs generally assume poverty is the absence of money. And therefore supply specific items which outsiders assume are wanted and needed by those in poverty. But rarely do these programs allow for or create additional choices for the individuals being targeted. This top down approach has not proven to be a successful model.

On the other hand, the world has seen greater poverty reduction in recent years than ever before in the history of mankind with most of this reduction coming in East Asia (China and Vietnam) where there have been few charities operating but where foreign and local investments have created millions of job opportunities which individuals could choose to take, or not. This has proven to be a successful model.

While seeking greater material possessions is a common goal, it is rarely the sole purpose in life for most individuals. People want a variety of different things out of life, such as time to relax, travel, friends, and many other tangible and intangible "things" according to their cultures and personal preferences.

Increasing opportunities have proven the most effective method of decreasing rates of poverty and improving people's standards of living. Given opportunities and choices, individuals generally know how to improve their own lives better than do government officials or charity organizations.

Who knows the most about what you want out of life?

I suspect each of us would answer this question with the same answer, me.

Allowing people to decide for themselves what is important where options are available seems to be a better path to take than allowing one set of people to decide how another set should live and what they should have.

Thinking of wealth as an increase in the choices available can be a useful frame of mind in both our teaching and career development. Helping students gain mastery of the English language can create more choices for them in sources of information, entertainment and occupations. Friends and acquaintances enrich people's lives and having foreign language skills can increase the choices of friends and acquaintances for both the students and teachers.

For students, learning English opens up the possibility of engaging with people in both the real world and electronically from around the world as English is the most used second language. And while English is spoken fairly widely in Thailand and many other countries, it is not universally spoken and learning the local language of the country a teacher is working in increases opportunities to engage with people from various walks of life.

What do people primarily want from their professional career? Some people might primarily want high salaries. Some might want to engage in meaningful work while still others might be mostly looking for a stress-free lifestyle with a lot of free time. People might want different specific things from their jobs and careers, but one thing everyone wants is increased choices. The best solution to a bad job is having the opportunity to take a good one.

During the first year I was living here in Thailand many years ago, I recall having a conversation at a beach with a lady from France who was backpacking through Southeast Asia. At the time I was teaching English, and she reflected on how lucky I was. She astutely identified the incredible number of opportunities I had, which she didn't, to work across Asia due to little more than having the foresight to be born in a country where English was the native language. She was right; being a native speaker of the language people around the world use gives me wealth as it is an incredible source of international career opportunities.

However, as a person gets settled and wants to advance in one's career, it is a good idea to increase the level of skills and abilities which also increases one's career choices. If seeking further education, one might want to consider whether it is a good idea to pursue studies which would help only in increasing options in the field of English teaching or to study a subject which might open up many other possibilities.

In addition to education, there are many other ways to increase one's career choices, such as studying new languages, saving money which can be used in starting a business or learning computer programming or other skills. These days it is unlikely one can rely on a single employer for job security and advancement throughout an entire career.

Therefore the best method to ensure job security and advancement opportunities might be to be constantly upgrading one's skill set to ensure one will always have options for other work if a change becomes necessary or desired. In addition, our specific wants and desires change over time and what might have been a dream job in the past could become a trap one cannot escape from if new career options are not available

There has been some research which shows having more money, up to a certain point, can increase one's overall happiness. It is not necessarily the money or the material possessions which enrich one's life. A possession which one person enjoys can be useless to another. For example, having a large yacht won't do much to improve the life of someone who gets seasick easily. Instead, it is the increases in options available to the person which can significantly improve the quality of one's life.

Scott Hipsher is the author of a number of books, book chapters, academic journal articles, conference papers, magazine articles and newspaper pieces.

His books include

The Nature of Asian Firms: An evolutionary perspective
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking free from the colonial paradigm
Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries

And Scott's latest book The Private Sector's Role in Poverty Reduction in Asia


remember all prices are not set in stone, they will alwyas go lower, so if they say $10, by the time your about to walk away it is $6 LOL, and if you have a Thai friend, just tell them to walk up and ask about the shoes, but make sure the vendor did not see you with the Thai before hand, after the Thai gets the deal price, then you walk up and pay for it LOL, or give your friend the money to pay them, remember the price is alwyas high for you, the westerner, they think we are all super rich LOL

By Khenissi, 3vl8g1Hw (22nd September 2013)


Thanks for the comment.

While I would agree that most of “us” (myself included) spend most of our time worrying about the day-to-day realities we face on the job and thinking about “what is in it for me,” it might also be helpful to take a look at our careers and lives from a broader and deeper perspective.

By us I am mainly referring to individuals teaching English or teaching academic subjects in English in Thailand or other Asian countries, but I am willing to expand us to include anyone interested in the topic.

But once in awhile it makes sense to take a step back and reflect on the bigger picture of what service we provide our students and the host countries we work in (why are we getting paid to do what we do). I suspect upon reflecting a little on our small role in creating increased opportunities for our students and developing skills which can help in economic development and poverty reduction; we will feel pretty good about our chosen profession. I don’t think we should overemphasis our role in improving the lives of our students and communities we live and work in, but on the other hand we should not underestimate the value we provide society either.

Understanding the big picture of why we are “here” and how what we do fits into the overall society can help us to become better teachers, just as much as learning the daily techniques used in the classroom. At least that is my opinion, but you are free to disagree.



By Scott, Bangkok (4th February 2013)

Kelly, did you actually get as far as reading the second half? I don’t think you did did you? I thought it was totally relevant to being a teacher in Thailand. Not everything on the site needs to be either job ads or what paperwork you need in order to apply for a work permit you know..

By Philip, Bangkok (4th February 2013)

Don’t really know what this has to do with teaching or education in Thailand. I think these kind of posts should be elsewhere. Why anyone would want to read this anyway is beyond me, especially those that are interested in looking to teach in Asia. Let’s keep this site relevant to it’s purpose. Tired of seeing this kind of thing on here, it’s just not helpful at all.

By Kelly, Myanmar (4th February 2013)

Agreed, I think you make some wise points. Also good points about the success stories of Vietnam and China being due to economic activity rather than charities.

By Sam, Bangkok (4th February 2013)

Nice and to the point article!

By Noel Fernandes, Bangkok (4th February 2013)

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