MEMBERS ONLY: The Shell Game Of Success

There are some days when I think American style capitalism is the greatest economic system to have ever been created. When we’ve had a good week at the Banter, or my (admittedly rather small) stocks and shares portfolio gets a boost, I tell myself that the success I am experiencing is all down to me and the smart decisions I have made. I tell myself that those who aren’t doing so well didn’t make the right decisions and should have worked harder or been smarter

The downside to this is theory is rather obvious, and simultaneously rather terrifying. When things are not going my way, it must, by default, mean that it is my fault and that I should have worked harder or been smarter. 

When I have put in an insanely long week and worked as diligently as my mind is capable of, this leaves me with the another horrible byproduct of the free market philosophy I, and everyone else in America lives by: I am a failure and not worthy of respect.

I have played this little mental game for about as long as I can remember in my adult life, and although I intellectually understand it is nonsense, the crushing feeling of failure is often so overwhelming that I am almost paralyzed by it. I have learned over the years to manage these feelings better by telling myself that one bad week or month does is not a reflection of a) my worth as a human being, or b) my success as an entrepreneur. But it is difficult and something I imagine always will be.

This cycle of extreme ups and downs is common for not just entrepreneurs, but pretty much everyone working in Western capitalist societies. I know many rich people in high level corporate positions who are miserable because they are not earning as much as other people they work with, watch on television, or follow on social media. They are always on the look out to make more money, hang out with more successful people, drive better cars, and live in bigger houses. Success is a relative term it seems, a bar set by the individual that can almost never be achieved. It is rare to find a content successful person, mostly because their restlessness was what made them successful in the first place.

There is a lesson to be learned here though — an obvious one that unfortunately most people tend not to learn until it is too late. While it is not a lesson I have mastered, I have made strides in recent times and feel much better for it. Because success is an illusion — an unquantifiable goal that will forever elude you. A cursory study of corporate America should tell you everything you need to know about financial success and what it really means. We have been sold a bill of false goods for decades, a shell game that appears to be about one thing, but is actually about another.

Most big industries have been bailed out or protected by taxpayers — from the banks to automobiles, we have provided corporate America with enough of our money to ensure they never fail. We saw this in 2008 as the Banking industry collapsed, and the public came to the rescue for unthinkable sums of money. CEOs routinely fail upwards in America, moving from one loss making venture to another, waiting until the Venture Capitalists and banks decide the big money can be made elsewhere. They take hundred of times the salary the average worker gets, then bail when the company fails with a huge severance check and a new job lined up. Of course this isn’t every CEO of every major company, but I’ve met enough of them myself to know how common it is. Someone I knew personally took over a famous production company in LA, drove the business into the ground, fired half the staff so he could make his bonus, then left with a giant check and more options for employment that any Harvard graduate could ever dream of. This happens routinely on Wall Street, for bigger players with much bigger paychecks, all ultimately at the expense of the taxpayer.

This isn’t to say that failure is bad — the CEOs who wreck their companies are not bad people or valueless as human beings. They, like everyone else, are probably doing their best and working to provide for their families. And they, like everyone else, screw up, make bad decisions, and don’t get everything right. But it is the perception that matters, and the perception that increases our collective misery. Success is mythologized in America, and everyone is successful other than you. This isn’t just your perception, it is everyone’s perception — a nasty little trick built into the system by design. The entrepreneurs and business people we idolize on television are often not as successful as they seem. They deal with bankruptcies, cash flow issues, and huge amounts of debt. L’Wren Scott, for example, committed suicide after her revered fashion empire failed to produce a profit. Or take Donald Trump, a serial fraudster who went bankrupt almost as many times as he has lied on television. The success of these “idols” was largely a construction of clever television executives who created an impression of wealth and power so that advertisers could sell you on lifestyle products associated with it. Watch “Shark Tank” enough times, and you’ll likely buy that new aspirational BMW (and go into debt doing so).

At some point, it would be nice if we could stop living out this collective nightmare and accept the reality of what most of our lives are like. We are up sometimes, and down others. Success is relative, fleeting, and impossible to properly define. We are not what we do, and our financial success has nothing to do with our value as human beings. If we could accept this as a cultural norm, then the pressure to succeed and drive the same cars our idols do would subside. If we valued compassion, helping others, and our basic instinct to share with others less fortunate than ourselves, then perhaps we would fund social security and Medicare rather than slashing taxes for the ultra wealthy. In a society where everyone believes they are a millionaire in the making, this task may seem impossible. But like every major societal change in history, the magic happens when one by one, we all start to dream a different dream and forge a vision for a new society that we all might want our children to grow up in.

And that would be one where financial success and material possession is seen for what it really is: a shell game designed to make you sad.

Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.