Life

What It's Like to Inherit Billions in Your Twenties

Tyler Huang is living what many would think of as a dream existence, but he feels like he's just sleepwalking through life.
August 31, 2021, 8:15am
tyler huang billionaire
Tyler Huang. Photo: Alexandria Neoh, Picspirations Photography

At an age when most teenagers are swapping trading cards, Tyler Huang was involved in his father’s bid to buy a British football club. If they wanted to, his family could make a Monopoly board of London, purchasing properties on the roll of a dice. Tyler himself has the means to dine on wagyu for every meal. He is, if it wasn’t already obvious, unbelievably rich.

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This kind of existence might sound like a dream, but Huang feels as though he’s merely sleepwalking through life. “It wasn’t as nice it sounds,” he tells me. “Wealth can fix many external problems, but it does nothing to tackle the internal ones.

“People say that I’m lucky to have the money – I am, I suppose; I know that I have a life most people dream of – but it’s wrong to value a person by how much money they have.”

Huang, who is now 23, inherited billions earlier this year when his parents died. But if you were to pass him on the street, you’d see a young man indistinguishable from any other, loafing around in his Crocs, head down, texting and tweeting as he walks.

Huang grew up in Knightsbridge, London, overlooking Hyde Park. “I was raised primarily by staff – maids, butlers, nannies,” he says. He spent most of his childhood in an isolated orbit, cushioned from the outside world by private jets, luxury homes and his family’s workforce. “As a kid, I never played with toys much,” he tells me. “Dad collected cars, so I used to spend a lot of my free time taking vintage cars out.” 

Huang grew up with not one but two AMEX Centurion cards – one of the most exclusive credit cards in the world: “My mother gave me one for emergencies, and my father gave me another for anything else.”

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Again, while that might sound like a privilege – and it absolutely is: you have to be massively privileged to even qualify for one – Huang believes that placing the power of unlimited spending in the hands of a teenager ultimately wasn’t the best idea.

“I wish I didn’t grow up with those cards, then I’d be able to understand how to appreciate money and others,” he says, before recalling a phone call he had with his father at the age of 16: “He called me up one morning when I was hungover and we laughed about the money I’d spent over the weekend – I didn’t remember much, but it turns out I got drunk and rented a yacht in Bangkok.” 

Huang doesn’t recall this with a smirk or a sense of satisfaction, but with shame. “You would think, as a kid, never having to look at a price tag would be great – but it’s actually quite scary,” he says. Even as a child, he noticed his homes were surrounded by CCTV and security teams. “I knew what they were for – my parents didn’t like to attract attention, but there was always a sense of danger.” 

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Tyler as a child.

For Huang, an attempted kidnapping or burglary was something to be prepared for. His drivers were trained to escape criminals and, if he wanted, his father could arrange an entourage for him to get ice cream. “As a child, it’s terrifying,” he says. “When your father runs background checks on your friends’ families, it’s a reminder of just how different you are.” 

Although Huang doesn’t feel it, to be part of the “three comma club” is of course remarkably rare. If you earned £100,000 a year, it would still take you 10,000 years to become a billionaire. Talking to Huang, it’s impossible to escape the question: is it ethical to have that much money when so many people around the world are struggling to simply survive? 

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“No, it isn’t,” Huang says, “but there are others in my family who would disagree. There is a sense of obligation to help more, but it’s also a crippling pressure. It isn’t, after all, my money – it was my parents’.”

Dr Stephen Goldbart, co-founder of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute, and author of Affluence Intelligence, says it is common for those who inherit vast sums to be encumbered by guilt: “People who are just given something, which virtually everyone wants, feel guilty. They think, ‘Why me?’ Because of that, a pile of money can feel like a ton of bricks.” 

Huang feels his mother measured the value of his life primarily by his academic performance. Concerned by her son’s half-hearted approach to his studies, she sent him to a psychiatrist, where he was diagnosed with clinical depression, autism and Asperger’s. Huang says his mother treated the diagnoses like a pick-and-mix, seeing his autism as an indication he was “gifted”, but rejecting the depression as him being “lazy and difficult”.

After his diagnosis, Huang’s mother sent him from London to Switzerland’s Insititut Le Rosey, the most expensive boarding school in the world. To give you an idea of what it’s like to be a student there, from January to March the school moves to a special winter campus nestled in the snowy mountains of Gstaad, where pupils have skiing lessons four times a week. 

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Despite the move, Huang once again failed to measure up to his parents’ behavioural expectations, and he was moved to an elite school in Singapore. Due to his family connections, Huang didn’t have to sit any entrance exams. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his behaviour didn’t improve – and each time he was made to feel he’d disappointed his parents, he says, he felt his depression’s grip squeeze tighter.

Psychologist Dr Suniya Luthar, co-founder and Chief Research Officer at Authentic Connections, and Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says that while many children from affluent families feel the need to hide their depression, so do the parents.

“There are a number of reasons, but one is it is dreadfully frightening for a parent to think of their child as being in that much pain,” she explains. “This is also the most charitable reason. The other is: ‘I don’t want to sully my child’s academic record with diagnoses that one can avoid putting there.’”

In other words, often parents don’t want a record of antipsychotic drugs and mental illness – anything that could hamper career prospects for a class of people where options like becoming a politician are within reach.

School psychologists, counsellors and social workers have reported that parents who they considered “wealthy” often displayed defensive behaviour when it came to diagnosing their children’s vulnerabilities. The 2020 research paper “Challenges in high achieving schools” even found that these parents were more likely to threaten litigation to avoid certain mental health diagnoses.

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“Shame – it’s about an overall feeling of shame,” says Dr Luthar. Huang tells me he couldn’t have put it better himself. 

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At the Singapore school, “We work hard, we play hard” became a mantra. Bottles of Dom Pérignon were snuck into dorm rooms, chauffeurs would be called for shopping trips and parties cluttered the calendar. 

Many of Huang’s peers could walk the halls and climb backward through their family trees, admiring the plaques and awards presented to their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. But most of these boys, Huang says, began life with prescribed identities – derivative designs of their parents – which were forever being measured and scrutinised.

Although these institutions have their own unique pressures, Huang acknowledges that they offer opportunities inaccessible to most kids. The majority of schools don’t have huge concert halls, nautical centres and stables of horses. They rarely have fewer than ten children in a class, and seldom do they offer wine tasting sessions to their older students. Figures from the annual school census show the number of children on free school meals in England is more than 1.7 million, while every evening students at Le Rosey settle into a seat marked with a personal napkin, waiting to be served food from the institute’s chefs. 

When Huang finished school, he began serving in mandatory active duty as a full-time national serviceman in Singapore. However, at the age of 19, doctors found a glioblastoma – a grade 4 brain tumour – in his left frontal lobe, and he was discharged from the military. He was reluctant to tell his friends about his diagnosis, but in the space his silence made, speculation thrived and he was considered a “white horse” – someone who could escape military service through their family connections.

Following his discharge, Huang began showing real promise in the field of architecture. For a while, his mental and physical health problems sank to the bottom of his mind, but before long his depression would again break the surface.

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Huang lost his brother to a car accident in 2017, his mother to cancer in 2020 and his father to another car accident in February of this year. Today, his depression is the most violent it has ever been. He has stepped back from his career in architecture, after his health conditions left him unable to work. Huang’s cancer is terminal, but he continues to receive treatment and has outlived his doctor’s five-year estimation from when the tumour was first discovered.

He consumes three pills for breakfast, 12 for lunch and eight for dinner. His other routines are more or less the same every day: when he wakes up, Huang likes to spend as little time as possible at his Singapore apartment. When he’s outside, the hustle and bustle of the street scatters his dark thoughts. It’s for this reason that he likes to spend time in public places. A rooftop bar is one of his favourite daily pilgrimages, where he sits with his laptop, girdled by life and laughter.

One evening, he calls me while he’s there, surrounded by plates of oysters, scallops, champagne bottles and a thinly sliced beef dish that is woven so intricately around itself, it looks at first like a decorative centrepiece for the table. As we speak, the sun is setting over Singapore, and it seems to me like the perfect way to spend an evening.

“It isn’t,” Huang says. “I’m all alone – I always am.”

Loneliness can loom over wealth; Dr Goldbart says it is a key symptom of “sudden wealth syndrome” – a psychological ramification of becoming wealthy in a short period of time.

“Money is like rocket fuel,” says Dr Goldbart. “Where it’s going to take you is up to the navigational system and who’s in command. In the short-term, someone might say, ‘Wow, this money is great,’ but in the long run it tends to exacerbate or exaggerate the conditions which were there already.”

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Huang feels his spending is perceived by his friends as contradictory to his depression: how can someone who spends thousands on clothes a week be miserable? But Dr Goldbart says it’s common among those who suddenly inherit large sums to go on spending sprees: “They fly to the moon, but eventually fall back to Earth and realise they haven’t dealt with the psychological impacts of their money.”

“I like having nice things,” says Huang, “but you can’t form a meaningful relationship with a Givenchy shirt.”

When Huang talks about his parents, he uses the present tense. There are often moments when I can see him jerk, like he’s missing the bottom rung of a ladder, when he remembers that they are no longer with him.  

“It’s not that I’m cold,” he says, “but if I were to process their deaths, I would fall apart.” For this reason, Huang pretends that his parents are on holiday.

It’s not so much that he misses the people his parents were – often referring to his mother as a “tiger mum” and his father as a “chequebook parent” – but it breaks his heart to imagine what he missed out on. Despite his life being wrapped in luxury, all Huang really wanted – all he still really wants – is a hug from his parents, something to impart a sense of love and affection

Huang has managed to find comfort in his godparents, who are, in his words, the family he always wanted. To them, quality time is something worth more than a Rolex. However, he still struggles to open up and share how he is truly feeling. 

His parents entrenched the idea that his depression – or, in his mother’s words, his “emotional limitation” – was a weakness. A vulnerability that should be covered with armour. “Until recently, I’d been walking around with a façade,” says Huang. “Hiding my emotions. Hiding who I really was.” Over the years, this façade began to feel more like a permanent fixture, but when his father died the whole thing came crumbling down.  

“I decided to tell my friends and remaining family about my depression, but most of them didn’t believe me,” he says. “I suppose they thought I’d been hiding it for so long, how could I possibly be depressed all of a sudden?” 

Among the many questions I ask Huang, I can’t help but inquire about the car he drives. He says he used to have a Land Rover, but can’t drive anymore due to his health conditions. I ask if he ever owned any supercars – Ferraris, Lamborghinis?

He pauses, seemingly almost disappointed by the question, before saying: “No. You can’t fit many friends in a car like that.”