“Wealth inequality” has become a buzz term in the United States recently, and as we head into an election year, it seems that each candidate whose ambition is pushing him or her toward the White House has something to say on the matter. I appreciate that for many people this is a very sensitive topic, and I begin by saying that I respect all of the opinions I have heard. No, I don’t agree with many of them. But that’s not important. Whenever a large group of people come together to form a society, whether in a geopolitical sense, a social sense, a professional pursuit, shared spiritual or religious convictions, perhaps even love or loyalty to a sport or a particular sports team or athlete, there will be disagreements. This can be, if managed well, very healthy, and lead to the kind of diversity that increases our society of survival. It’s been said before: If all of us were the same, we would not all be necessary.
As someone who believes in the potential we all have within us, and wants very much to see what our species, our planet, can achieve if we only learned to leverage each of our strengths rather than fighting over them, I believe that we should all strive for Excellence in whatever form that appeals to us. My own notion of Excellence is not at all compartmentalized. It’s a holistic notion of greatness that includes being a great thinker, friend, spouse, student, problem-solver, parent, mentor, professional, creative force, et al. I don’t see any reason to limit this, and please keep in mind, this is my own notion of Excellence. Yours may differ, and yes, that’s okay.
Within my own belief, and my own definition of Excellence, we are charitable and loving, though we also teach, we inspire. To paraphrase the old parable, we can just give fish away…but to teach each person to fish is far more useful. And in my view of Excellence, much more so. Albert Bandura, the phenomenal psychologist, showed us that humans, as some other animals, can learn observationally. We don’t merely learn from books, though I love that method. Nor do we learn exclusively from classes, though I’ve loved and been grateful for my education. Bandura noted that we can observe someone performing a task, then mimic it. A belief that, it seems, would support us in such an endeavor might be, “If anyone else can do it, so too can I!” Then as we observe someone else performing a task, we can mimic it, learn what they did to make it possible, what skill they had to teach themselves, which we then can, through duplicating their actions and practicing, we in turn can teach ourselves. NLP calls this “role-modeling” or often simply “modeling” for short.
All that said, what would you wager I would say about “wealth inequality”? I respect that many living things are suffering from a lack right now, and I urge everyone reading this to search their hearts to find some way they can help others. Yet I feel that the phrase “wealth inequality” misses something, loses sight of the very meaning it’s trying to convey. “Wealth inequality” doesn’t mean that different people earn different amounts. That would be “income inequality”. Therefore higher income taxes, and increasing restrictions on capital gains taxes, two frequent weapons bitter people often reach for when seeking to “punish the rich”, don’t solve anything. We are, rather, talking about how some of us have more than others right now. And a larger implied question – Is that fair?
Can you think of, in a capitalist society, why you might have more than I? Or we both might have more than someone else? Or that there’s someone in New York right now who has more than all three of us, times ten? Here are a few explanations that came to mind, and I’m sure you can think of several more:
- Specialized skills and/or training that makes one professional in demand more than others – Doctors are good examples of this. Someone must work very hard and endure very high stress to eventually become a physician. Then the fear of malpractice lawsuits is so great, many physicians pay more for their malpractice insurance coverage than many of us earn in a year.
- Willingness to work longer, more challenging hours, to earn more, when others would give up – Nearly every field has examples of this one. She’s the woman in your department who always offers to pick up extra hours of work during holidays, the man who takes on a second (or third) job to earn more.
- Strategic thinker who decides he or she wants to create wealth, focuses on what is needed and does that, with commitment and drive. While I’ve seen examples of this in many fields. this type of person tends to be drawn to fields with a high return and often high risk, such as investment banking or stock/bond trading.
- Somewhat related to numbers 1 and 2, some people decide what it is that others will pay them to do, or to teach them to do. Seminar leaders, trainers, authors, and the like are all examples of this. If one person determines how to make his marriage successful, he and his spouse get to enjoy that happy marriage. But if he realizes that there is an epidemic of weak relationship skills in our world today, he might decide to take his strategy and communicate it, teach it, through books, instructional videos, and seminars.
This is just four of the examples that came to mind. Notice how, other than a degree of overlap, most of these are quite different from one another. Though what they do have in common is drive and a desire, what I jokingly refer to (please forgive me) as the Double D’s. Each of these people really wanted it, and was determined to achieve it. They likely will go about acquiring wealth very differently, but with enough desire and drive, many will receive their goal, their intended outcome, wealth.
There isn’t really as much opportunity inequality as once plagued our world. Between grants, loans, endowments, any among us can get the information we need, the funding, the chance to succeed. Face it, with the emerging ubiquity of information, it’s just no longer true that you must afford an Ivy league education and two to four years of Graduate school in order to be successful. Inner city youth can visit a public library, use the Internet there, and find the “how” to match their “why”. What do I mean? Consider the four examples I listed above. Each has a reason, a purpose beneath the action. Perhaps it’s as simple as wanting to acquire wealth for themselves and their families. Generally, we don’t work really hard just to get crisp paper or shiny precious metals in hand. These things mean something to us. That’s the reason we do it, our “why”. For instance, a gentleman falls into the first category, he wants to become wealthy so he studies to become a heart surgeon. These are the “what” – what he wants. But if you press him for why this is so, it may reveal that he was gripped by poverty as a child, and suffered greatly that he could do nothing to help his ailing father and mother, swearing that one day he would change the situation. Even if it would be too late for his parents, he can make sure that his wife and children never suffer under the crippling yoke of poverty. Now that, my friends, is a why. The next piece to his puzzle is how he is going to go about gaining this wealth. He might choose medicine, then specifically surgery, as he learns that these professionals tend to be paid very well. He may even lack the aptitude or head for such medicine, but if the why is compelling enough to drive him, it will sustain him through the challenging steps in the process. So he now has his how as well.
So too can any of us answer these questions. A kid notices, for instance, that professional athletes tend to earn the kind of money he would like. He may work hard, finding his what and why until realizing that, regardless of how hard he practices, he still doesn’t seem to be developing the necessary skills quickly enough. If his why is strong enough, this will not stop him. He’ll simply look for a new how. He may notice that he is good at persuading others, and looks into how that might prove useful. He may find that he is a gifted salesperson and by practicing the skill, he over time begins to develop the wealth he seeks. Or perhaps he also decides that medicine is the field for him. Perhaps he doesn’t have any money at first. Perhaps his parents, assuming he has both of them also have no money. Does he need to give up on his dream, his desire? Of course not. If the why is compelling enough, he won’t be able to let it go! He may begin researching scholarships, grants, and student loans to fund his education.
It has become popular to suggest that the promise of opportunity in America is gone, but it’s the same nihilistic nonsense that longs for “the good old days” as the modern era is somehow not what it’s supposed to be. It’s as great as we choose to make it. It’s in our hands. If we really wish to be wealthy, if we really, really want it, we will find a way. This is still a land of endless opportunity, regardless of what the naysayers want us to believe.
That raises a more interesting question…what if those complaining about income inequality don’t want wealth for themselves and everyone else…? I’ve read some interesting editorials from people who not only are outraged that others, the notorious “one-percent” (cue the old-time, scary horror-movie sound effects), but they don’t actually even want it themselves. They want everyone to have the same amount – and for it to not be enough. That’s a creepy thought to me. I believe that the universe is overflowing with possibility, with abundance just looking for a home. So to me, the thought that we should all shun such abundance, fully embrace a sense of lack, is troubling.
When I’ve called people on that notion, the frequent reaction is that I misunderstand, that they don’t want everyone to have too little, they’re merely upset that others might have too much. Too much, according to whom? If you aspire to be successful in every area of your life, and at the moment, have what you perceive to be too little, what does a billionaire in Seattle or Hong Kong have to do with it? If you follow Jung to the letter, you might believe that the only way those people have their billion is by taking it from you. But that doesn’t even make sense. I myself have contributed to Bill Gates’ wealth in an indirect way. I’ve purchased many copies of Windows and Office for various computers I’ve used through the years. But did purchasing that software take away my ability to keep the lights on? No. It was not a direct correlation. As a consumer, I made an informed decision to buy software that helped me do my job. This in no way prevented me from reaching my financial goals – on the contrary, because I used these things for work, this may have helped me to reach those goals.
All that notwithstanding, there is a more serious point we should consider. Anything we aspire to do or have must be ecological with our beliefs and the way we live. Otherwise, achieving it might jeopardize our comfort, stability, any number of things. For example, if you choose to believe that wealth is an evil thing, the mark of a dishonest or bad person, how likely are you to commit fully to becoming successful and building your own wealth? That incongruity can easily lead one to sabotage our own success. It happens all the time, so my larger concern is that if we say we want success, ourselves, we should be admiring of those, eager to learn from those, who have already achieved our goal for themselves. We should treat them as role models, at least in the dimension that concerns us. I’m not claiming that anyone is perfect, and therefore an exemplar of every dimension of human behavior. But indisputably, some of us do more with what we have than others. Sure, there is genetics inequality and blessings inequality. Some of us are given more by our parents or our creator (I’ll never preach to you what if anything you should believe about your own spirituality, but since many of us acknowledge divine “blessings”, let’s be honest – we’re not all similarly blessed. So opportunity inequality is still worth arguing. Not all of us receive the same opportunities in life. However I would argue, as above, that this playing field has leveled quite a lot in our own country. Money for education, for launching start-ups, for launching a career, is available to each of us, despite our perhaps not having it from the onset. What this leaves, to my mind, is one that incenses many people, and another that many of us don’t consider. The first is effort inequality. Some of us want “it” more than others, and so we put more effort into whatever that is. Though the other form of inequality is referenced in my list of four items above: strategy inequality. Some of us put a great deal of effort into succeeding, perhaps working twice as hard as someone else. Much like trying to move an enormous boulder blocking our path, however, we might overexert ourselves, straining our backs in an effort to pick the rock up. Though some other fellow sizes up the problem, places a small rock as a fulcrum beside the boulder, then brings a stout tree branch to use as a lever, and with minimal effort, certainly not as much as we invested, and boom! The boulder is moved. That illustrates the contrast between two strategies, and I see that all the time. Someone simply looks at the same problem in a new way and they forge success where many others have failed. And often like in the example of the boulder – with much less actual effort.
So one last question on that – is the person who strained to pick up the boulder and failed somehow more noble or deserving of a clear path than the second person? Should the second person be forced to clear the path for everyone else just because he or she has figured out a successful strategy? These questions might seem trivial or silly, but structurally they face us increasingly in this age where it’s become fashionable to resent the wealthy. I cry foul on the logic and fairness, but there is a larger issue for those of us concerned with personal excellence. Ignore the aforementioned point about the ecology of our beliefs at your own peril. Self-sabotage is easy to do when you hold mixed beliefs, or when your beliefs are at odds with your goals. Take the time to evaluate them both. Verify that one supports the other, there is no conflict, and if there is, any conflict, find a professional who can help you choose which path is ultimately best for you. Life is precious and amazing. There is no excuse to limit your capabilities, your achievement, unless you’re certain that’s what you want to do. But if you do, after careful consideration, choose to fail, please respect that not everyone agrees with that for themselves. We are all allowed to think differently and to choose differently. We have the right to select an entirely different strategy for ourselves and to become magnificent successes. In every dimension, not only financial wealth! We have the right to create great marriages, great careers, great spirituality, great everything, and to not feel as though we should apologize for that. If you embrace this, and the right to become as great as you wish to be, stop hating others who’ve already achieved those goals in their own lives. There’s plenty for everyone – those people are your role models, not your competition.