He owned a villa in Tuscany, a private island in New Zealand, and a penthouse in San Francisco. He drove around in a red Ferrari. James had built a net worth of $75 million. A financial success story by any measure. But even more so for James considering he was raised in a poor home with an alcoholic and abusive father. He credited the “monkey” on his back—the internal demons of a rough upbringing—as his motivation for wealth. He chased the rich life to feel like he had worth.
He was searching for something. He didn’t know quite what:
“Happiness, maybe. Or control. You keep waiting for the magical event that will make you feel that you’re OK”.
Part of Doty’s fortune was stock in a medical device company he’d run years before called Accuray. Prior to taking over the company, it was on the verge of bankruptcy. He saved it and helped it become profitable. When he finally moved on, James took with him a sizable amount of company stock. Later, he committed that stock to a trust for charitable donations to programs for AIDS, family, and global health.
Then came the dot com crash of 2000. James lost everything. And I mean everything. The villa. The private island. The penthouse. All gone. In fact, he found himself in a three million dollar hole. The only card Doty had left to play was the stock he had committed to the trust. He could have taken back the donation that was still worth $30 million in Accuray stock. Friends and family urged him to do it. It was his stock in the first place—stock in a company he had saved and built as CEO. Surely nobody would blame him.
Instead, he kept his commitment. He went from penthouse to welfare in weeks. And yet he still gave away his financial lifeline. Accuray went public years later valued at $1.3 billion.
James said later,
“Giving it away has had to be the most personally fulfilling experience I’ve had in my life. That released me from that monkey. I gave away the thing that I wanted the most. And then I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I have no regrets.”
He became fixated on the idea of altruism and compassion. He decided to give as much effort to these ideas and behaviors as he had to the pathologies of the human brain. He formed The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), which is now part of Stanford’s School of Medicine.
Yes, James’s story is a cautionary tale of being over-leveraged and over-exposed to risk. It also highlights how building wealth and keeping it are two different things. Maybe he could have avoided the choice in the first place. But what’s so compelling to me is that James actually did it. He handed over $30 million when he was—one can only guess—at a low point in his life. This was not a man waxing philosophical on his deathbed about how money is meaningless in the end (it is). James Doty was in the prime of his career—the top of the money mountain. It came crashing down around him and he decided to give away his $30 million lifeline. He then goes on to say it was the most fulfilling experience of his life. He doubles down by dedicating his life to spreading compassion all over the world.
The Dalai Lama would describe what James Doty did as “selfish altruism”. Simply put, we feel good by giving to others. We gain by giving. This goes beyond an ethereal or philosophical idea. There is science behind the feeling of fulfillment James talked about. The National Institute of Health uncovered that the reward centers in our brain react the same when we watch someone give money to charity and when we receive money ourselves. When we give or help others the mesolimbic system—activated by stimuli like sex, food, or money—provides positive emotional feedback. Our brain kicks off endorphins giving us what some call a “helper’s high”. Displaying compassion has been shown to reduce blood pressure, anxiety, and stress. Compassion literally makes us healthier. It can also help us recognize our shared humanity—strengthening our social ties and our sense of belonging in the world.
Be a Little Bit More Like James Doty
I find myself pondering the question, “Could I do what James Doty did?” I honestly don’t know. More importantly, I find myself reflecting on how often I seek out the goodness of helping others—not often enough. I’ll be the first to admit that I too frequently find myself lost in the stresses and challenges of daily life. My mind is occupied with kids and work. I’ve battled bouts of depression and anxiety since my mom passed away last year. Needless to say, there is a lot to juggle. It’s been easy to get lost in my own world. I often rationalize my position with thoughts like, “I have enough to worry about. I don’t have time to think about anyone else right now.” Sometimes that’s true. At the end of most days, I feel like I have nothing left.
Then I learned about James Doty. A story that shifted my perspective and pushed me outside my emotional comfort zone. It makes me think about how I spend my time and money. I’m not claiming we should be giving away everything we have. That’s not the answer. Most of our attention should be in our own homes. That’s normal. I simply look at this story as a reminder to look for more opportunities outside myself—to take more chances to be “selfishly altruistic”. As counter-intuitive as it seems on the surface, there is a lot to gain by giving.
Here’s to making money matter!