A long time ago in a land far away, an elderly merchant was making out his will. As he did so, he struggled with a dilemma. Though he was blessed with both wealth and children, he had too little of one and too many of the other.
If he split his wealth equitably, none of his children would have enough to live on and if he split it inequitably, he would have to suffer his remaining days with their squabbling.
So what to do?
He put it to his children.
“Kids,” he told his heirs, “I don’t have enough for all of you and I can’t chose between you.”
“So what does that mean?” they asked.
“It means you will have to support yourselves.”
“OMG,” they wailed, “he’s going to turn us into beggars.”
Snap! The solution popped into his head.
“That is precisely what I am going to do,” he cried, “I am going to apprentice you to my old friend Scruff.”
“Scruff!” they cried, “isn’t he the dirty little beggar who lives down by the gravel quarry?”
“He is,” their father said, “and he is the second wisest man in the world.”
“OMG,” they cried again, “he is turning us into beggars for real!”
They wailed all through the night and well into the next morning but by that time, their father had dropped them off near the gravel pit where Scruff begged for his living.
“Teach them how to take care of themselves,” he instructed his old friend, “and if you could help them make their fortunes, that would be good too.”
Scruff scowled at his new charges. His old friend had spoiled them with kindness and now it was up to him to do what should have been done long ago.
“What do you want?” Scruff growled.
“Our father abandoned us here to become beggars,” they wailed.
“That was not the question,” Scruff said. “The question was, what do you want?”
“We don’t want to be here,” the oldest girl snapped.
She thought about it.
“I want to be attractive,” she finally said, “it is all I have ever wanted.”
“And nothing else?”
“Once you are attractive,” she confessed, “everything else follows.”
“You will go far,” Scruff told her before turning to the next oldest.
“Health,” he wheezed (being a bit of a hypochondriac).
“Security,” the third child chimed.
“Generosity,” the last said.
That one caught Scruff by surprise.
“You want generosity?”
“Do you want to give generously or receive generously?”
“Are they not two sides of the same coin?”
Scruff thought about it.
This kid was going to be trouble.
As the days and weeks went by, Scruff taught the elderly merchant’s children how to be beggars. He taught them how to grovel, how to plead and how to annoy the passers-by until they coughed up a coin. But since there were so few travelers on the road, there wasn’t much profit to be had.
The truth is, Scruff was not much of a beggar either, nor was he much of a teacher. As a result the kids grew thinner by the day and their incessant wailing soon got on Scruff’s nerves.
“OMG!” the eldest girl wailed, “look how skinny and pale I have become.”
Scruff tried to console her, “You can never be too thin.”
“True,” she said, “but pale is so last year.”
“Here,” he said, grinding his thumb into the soft red clay of the road, “Let me touch you up.”
He rubbed the clay into her cheeks and reddened her lips.
“OMG!” she shrieked when she saw her reflection in a puddle. “My girlfriends would pay a bundle for this stuff.”
She then rushed into the city to make her fortune in the cosmetics trade.
One down, three to go, Scruff told himself.
“I’m getting skinny too!” the second child complained.
“You can never be to thin…” Scruff began.
“Bull,” the kid said, “count my ribs. I’m dying.”
“I have just the thing,” Scruff said.
He stepped off the road and stripped a branch of its leaves. He then ground the leaves into a paste and tossed them into a pot of boiling water.
“Drink this,” he said, “it’s herbal.”
“Herbal anything is good for you. This tea will not only quench hunger, but cure the common cold and enhance male sexual performance.”
“I can feel it working!” the kid cried and dashed off to make his fortune in the nutritional supplement business.
“So when am I going to make my fortune?” the third child whined.
“Be patient,” Scruff told him. “Everything comes with time.”
While that was good advice, it was less than satisfying.
“There might be profit in begging but the margins are abysmal,” the kid complained. “Where is the money in pleading for pennies?”
“Then demand dollars,” Scruff told him.
So when the next passer-by came by, the third child shouted, “Gimme a buck.”
“Why should I do that?” the passer-by shouted back.
“Because I have fallen on hard times.”
In a stroke of brilliance, the third child answered, “If you fell on hard times, I would give you ten dollars.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“I would, and I would be willing to sign a contract to that effect.”
Contracts were very serious business back then.
The passer-by rubbed his chin and said, “Sounds kind of fishy to me.”
“It’s called insurance,” the third child said, plucking a word out of the air. “We just need enough people to buy into the scheme to cover our losses.”
And that was that.
The third child, whose name was Loyd, went off to London to found a company named after himself.
Only the youngest child remained and she was a worse beggar than Scruff. Not because she couldn’t beg, she was actually rather good at it, but whenever anyone needed a coin, she gave it to them.
Scruff was right about this kid. As sweet as she was, she was trouble because her generosity was cutting into Scruff’s begging franchise.
Finally, he had enough.
“Every day you get better at begging,” he told her, “yet you give it all away and at this rate we will both starve within a month.”
“Then what can I do?” the last child wailed.
“You have to scale up,” Scruff told her.
“What do you mean?”
“You must become a world class beggar and a world-class philanthropist.”
“Start a charitable foundation,” he told her.
And she did. A rather large one.
That Christmas, the children got together with their father for a sumptuous feast to celebrate their good fortunes. All of the neighborhood was invited, and everyone ate and drank throughout the night and well into the next day.
When the eldest child raised her glass for the final toast, she proclaimed,” Father, you have done us a great service, but I can’t help thinking how much more attractive, healthy, secure and generous we would have been had you lined us up with the wisest man in the world rather than the second wisest.”
“But you did benefit from the wisest man in the world,” he said.
“We thought Scruff was the second wisest, not the wisest.”
“He is the second wisest,” the elderly merchant said, “I am the wisest.”
His children laughed.
“If you were so wise, why did you not know what Scruff knows?”
“Don’t confuse knowledge with wisdom,” the elderly merchant told his children. “Knowledge is what you know, wisdom is knowing what you do not know and knowing whom to ask.”