Our ideas about success are twisted. We see this in douchebros who con blatantly flaunt their greed and cunning. At their worst, these individuals con ordinary people into giving up integrity and freedoms, for fantasies they’ll never possess. It’s time for us to call their bluff, rearrange our values, and collaborate to shape a more decent world.
“What the hell is water?” asks one fish to another, in a commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave to Kenyon College’s graduating class. This story illuminates a notion that can be difficult to recognize: that which surrounds us (good or bad) tends to become imperceptible. This leads me to my big question: If everything in your world were wrong, would you be able to tell?
I say you would—at least initially. You’d know that a reality TV figure shouldn’t be president. You’d know that your designer clothes shouldn’t be made by children in sweatshops. You’d know that we shouldn’t poison our waters just to own more, cheaper things. At the same time, you’d find such problems insurmountable. So, you’d shrug your shoulders and move on. “These problems are huge. What am I supposed to do about them?” I make the above statements with a degree of certainty, because I share them.
It’s not that you don’t know of these issues, or that you lack concern. However, with time they become “water.” These big problems get left alone, because they seem overwhelming, and the absence of action results in them becoming normal. This is a micro/macro issue. You wouldn’t support a deceitful person in your community. You wouldn’t willingly oppress kids in your city. And I bet you don’t pour toxic chemicals into the rivers around your home. On a larger scale, though, you accept that some of these things are just “the price of doing business,” and move on to sunnier matters.
Resistance is futile?
The easiest way to steal something big isn’t to take it with force; it’s to convince the other party to freely give it away. For example, most Americans wouldn’t readily allow an elected government to surveil citizens without due cause. However, in the light of a terror incident, many readily relinquish their freedoms. You see evidence of this in The Patriot Act, which some believe was made ready in advance of 9/11—with the tragic event making its introduction more palatable.
“Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
People often act against their best interests. This isn’t because they’re bad people or don’t care. Rather, objective thinking is hard in its own right—and even more so when others’ behaviours and beliefs present data to the contrary. Individually you recognize the environmental impact of driving a gas guzzling SUV. More than that, you know if you commuted by bike you’d save money, get in shape, and be more relaxed. Nevertheless, if everyone in your community drives an SUV, you probably won’t disrupt that standard.
This is the same phenomenon the world saw in Beatlemania: a social virus that led teenagers to scream, cry, and faint… for four guys with funny haircuts. It’s what we saw at the 2011 Stanley Cup riots, in which a number of otherwise decent people looted, vandalized, and seemingly lost their minds. Perhaps the most horrifying example is found in children, as young as 8 years old, who witness the slaughter of their families, are then kidnapped by militias, and then become child soldiers for those very same militias. Here, we see how paper thin the line between victim and oppressor can be.
People acting collectively isn’t a cause for concern—in fact, it’s often quite necessary. However, when such behaviors are destructive we ought to examine them and determine their root causes. In examining our bizarre/damaging choices as individuals, it’s reasonable to put part of the blame on our cultural environment—because this context affects us more than we might realize.
“I'm gonna tear his eyeballs out and I’m gonna suck his fucking skull.”
Tofu is interesting in that it takes on the flavor of that which surrounds it. Add some oyster and Hoisin sauce and it becomes rich and savoury; crumble and fry it in oil and Worcestershire sauce and it’s like chorizo (sort of); mix it with berries and fruit and it becomes dessert-like. I say you and I are like tofu. When surrounded by kind, supportive people, those characteristics rub off, and we flourish; put us in the middle of a bunch of rioting assholes and we too feel compelled to break shit. Our openness to suggestion is both a blessing and a curse.
Stories are powerful agents of suggestion. Sadly, many of our most compelling stories feature dubious heroes, or are told for the wrong reasons. The most interesting protagonists are flawed ones. Characters like Walter White, Tony Soprano, and Patrick Bateman are not representative of good people—but that makes them fun to watch. The problem is that there’s bleed-through. Our affection for flawed-protagonists seeps into our daily lives.
You know this from phrases like “Coffee is for closers only,” “Greed is good,” and “Anybody who tells you money is the root of all evil doesn’t fucking have any.” Some people quote these terms like they’re the words of real businesspeople. This is perverse. You’d might as well quote The Cookie Monster, as he’s no less imaginary than Glengarry Glen Ross’ Blake, Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, or Boiler Room’s Jim Young. What’s notable here, is the real-world adoration of characters that represent immoral jerks. These aren’t people any of us would want to be around; yet, a certain number of people want to be them.
The question that plagues me relates to how these flawed archetypes twist us as a people. The allure of what happens on the silver screen doesn’t end when we walk out of the movie theater. Instead, its residue dusts our psyches in ideas of what it is to be successful. These notions creep into our sense of self-worth and the ways in which we measure ourselves.
Compassion for the douchebro
What’s particularly strange is how forgiving we are of the douchbro’s bad behaviour. You can’t help but root for Leonardo Dicaprio’s character while watching The Wolf of Wall Street—even though we know the real Jordan Belfort conned many decent people out of their savings. This just shows the power of cinema. I suspect that those who Belfort robbed don’t feel such conflict when they think of him.
If a homeless drug addict steals your car stereo, you probably won’t show much compassion. Nevertheless, such crimes have limited fallout. On the other hand, the actions of people like Bernie Madoff, Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, and Bernard Ebbers impacted many. In spite of this, we often perceive these crimes as less severe—almost as though these guys were just a little overzealous.
Many find these icons of greed (real and fictional alike) seductive models. One could even argue that they represent a sort of accelerated version of the American Dream. In this, the opportunity for prosperity and success needn’t be restrained by the confines of decency—so long as the prize is sufficiently grand.
Alexis and others in Bowling Green Park witnessed this douchebro make humping motions to a statue of a little girl. Photo: Alexis Kaloyanides
We afford the douchebro a surprising amount of attention, in spite of his reprehensible behaviour. In fact, this behaviour seems to make such individuals even more notorious. Serial fraudster Martin Shkreli (who famously raised Daraprim prices from $13.50 to $750 a tablet, overnight) is almost a household name. Steve Jobs is looked upon as a semi-spiritual figure, in spite of claiming impotence to avoid child-support, cutting Apple’s philanthropic efforts, and even parking in the company’s handicapped spot.
Meanwhile, there’s the reigning champion of business douchery. One might even consider him the proto-douche. A misogynistic, hate-mongering, multi-bankrupt, rich kid who’s known for not paying his bills. By all conventional standards, a cardboard cutout villain, he now masquerades as a freedom fighter of sorts. In actuality, he’s a billionaire who conned working Americans into believing he has their interests at heart. (He’s now the president of the United States.)
The church of self
Conventional wisdom states that we’d all rise up against such figures. We’d label their actions despicable, and penalize them for their misdeeds. We’d recognize their sociopathic tendencies and distances ourselves from them. In abusing their power to trample the vulnerable, we’d consider them pariahs, and banish them from the tribe. As the proto-douche illustrates, though, this is far from the case.
We shelter these douchebros out of the faint hope that their fortunes might also be ours. The great mirage of western culture is one of the overnight sensation: the app creator who builds the next Minecraft; the waitress who hurtles to fame on The Voice; or, the lottery winner who wins the jackpot. Although the statistical probability of any such good fortune befalling you is infinitesimally small, there’s a little voice in the back of your head that says, “you never know…”
If you consider your current state your “before” story, why not model yourself in the “after” state? You too can spout the nonsense rhetoric of “take no prisoners,” “sleep is for pussies,” and ”get rich or die trying.” In a way, this thinking is a sort of ideological means of dressing for success. You take on the colloquialisms and mindset of these so-called winners, as doing so helps you distance yourself from all us common losers.
This mechanism serves as a great failsafe for the rich. The reason the rest of us don’t organize and demand more even wealth distribution? The reason average voters fight against universal healthcare? The reason the working poor vote for those whose mandates run counter to their own best interests? It all comes down to this figment of hope that they too are destined for greatness.
The bible of bullshit
Sure, only a small number of people actually aspire to be like Gordon Gekko. That said, these archetypes are inescapable in business. The Mercedes, Rolex, and Mont Blanc (alongside other equally silly things) are entrenched as symbols of mastery and achievement. Whether you wish to possess such things is immaterial; your recognition of them as markers of accomplishment is sufficient.
This same flawed perspective taints our values. We see rich people as somehow better than poor ones. We look upon compassion as weakness, and cruelty as strength. We frame situations as competitions, even when collaborative approaches would serve us better. We treat work as a ladder to climb, instead of a means of doing what matters. We assess those around us and categorize them as threats or allies. We “suit up” as though going into battle. Our cultural reverence for douchebro culture makes work a game, in which we position ourselves to win.
This mentality gives us salespeople who “go in for the kill” and leaders who’re willing to “bust heads.” Yet, little of this amounts to much lasting value. The salesperson who wants to quick sale fails to build a relationship, and rarely ever gets the next sale. The leader who instills fear probably won’t inspire much loyalty or greatness.
What’s important to note in all of this, is that neither the douchbro nor the behaviours I reference are the actual problem. Rather, they’re symptoms of a greater systemic failing. This might sound like a fanciful conspiracy theory. For the most part, though, I don’t believe in conspiracies. Instead, I believe in patterns and consequences. There’s no villain living in a volcano maniacally plotting to destroy you (in spite of what James Bond movies tell us). However, as individuals, we often collectively act in dumb ways, which have dire consequences.
Pulling ourselves out of the muck
Most of the big problems we face as a society could be solved, but we need to work together to make this happen. The cost of doing so is each one of us individually giving up the personal fantasy of becoming a gazillionaire, and instead working collectively—like a bunch of ants. (Those little fuckers get a lot of stuff done.)
This world is not a pie for an elite few to slice up. At the very least, it’s a resource (the common wealth) that should be shared among all its inhabitants. I say it’s even more than that: I think this world is a promise to future generations. We are just caretakers for a passage of time. The needs of any small subset of individuals should in no way diminish this responsibility, or compromise our role as stewards.
Let’s say you agree that our systems are broken; you acknowledge that our world view is backwards, at times; and, you agree that icons/symbols of success are entirely out-of-whack. What then? How do we start to fix this? I suggest there are three potential steps: 1) Reset our values. 2) Redefine broken symbols. 3) Focus on the opportunity. Here goes:
Reset our values
I shouldn’t need to point out what values are. That said, politicians have attempted to hijack this term to promote nationalistic agendas. Therefore, we need to continually remind ourselves that values aren’t a mechanism for controlling people; they’re grounding devices that help us remember what we stand for. Here are a few I consider valuable in a work context:
Aimless work is a deadening force that leaves people grappling for any small shred of meaning. We shouldn’t shape our work in this way, though. Instead, we ought to start by asking ourselves what we want to do, and identifying why we must take action. With this determined, we’re less likely to fall into materialistic and ego-serving desires. Knowing that our work matters is infinitely more important than looking like we’re important.
In my work with a number of organizations, I’ve been shocked by the surprising amount of time wasted on low-yield efforts. Meetings are perhaps the most familiar example of this. How many times have you zoned out during a meeting, and asked yourself, “Why am I even here?” If you know your purpose, you owe it to yourself to move as efficiently as possible. This means being action-oriented, instead of allowing common organizational structures to slow important work down.
Stop looking at your work as a zero-sum game, and try to avoid framing your work as a series of wins and losses. It isn’t a game. Additionally, if you wouldn’t act in a certain way to a friend, you probably shouldn’t do so to a work colleague, either. The purpose, responsibility, energy, profits, credit, and pain of purposeful work are not for any one person to shoulder. To do great things, we must work collaboratively.
Too many are willing to externalize costs for their own gain. This behaviour ignores the fact that all of us are connected and share in the consequences. (It’s also sociopathic.) This world is precious. No amount of quarterly profit will forgive the damage you do to the planet that hosts you. Walk lightly, leave no footprint, and carry out your waste.
In spite of popular lore to the contrary, you are not a machine. You impress no one with your race to the top. Nor do you gain any points for sacrificing yourself at the altar of work. Treat your body and your mind with care. Take time to enjoy what’s around you; this opportunity is fleeting.
Survival is one thing, but a great many of us don’t truly grapple with that matter. Instead, we choose to work. That choice is shaped by our desires, curiosity, and sense of wonder. I say the latter two points are the most important as they’ll last long after your material needs are fulfilled. And beware of “the grind.” We all too easily allow work to become routine, and lose our joy. This is a path to complacency. To do your best, you must find beauty in it.
Redefine broken symbols
I’d like to believe that resetting our values would eliminate the broken ideas, characters, and symbols we’ve afforded so much undue attention. Given their cultural weight, though, I think they require more deliberate acknowledgement and attention. (To use an analogy: if you want to quit drinking, you might need to pour your booze down the drain.)
To truly break the bad habits we’ve fallen so hard for, we must smash them into unrecognizable bits. We can’t be sentimental about this. We need to take a hard line against the ideas, people, and things that cause harm, and excise them from our collective future. Some thoughts on how to do so:
Build ideological immunity
There are many common beliefs that are simply broken—especially in the world of business and work. It falls on us to challenge such ideas and strengthen our immunity to them. What if the company’s quest to win is misguided? What if the collection of wealth isn’t in itself virtuous? What if the rate of growth is not in fact a measure of the organization’s health? What if the environmental/social costs of the operation are incongruous with the value it affords? By challenging the ideas others see as absolute, you wrestle away their power over you—and gain needed objectivity.
Starve them of sunlight
We’ve all worked with people who exhibit douchebro behaviours. Given that few of us behave in such ways, we’re unlikely to challenge these people. In fact, we sometimes marvel at their actions, purely due to the amount guile they exhibit. When we do this, we feed them. Such people thrive on our attention. However, we can rob them of this, and stunt their progress. Stop giving douchebros retweets, follows, or even outrage. You can also identify the manipulator in your workplace, and collectively ostracize him.
Devalue the symbols
Advertising is powerful, but localized pressure is even more compelling. If enough people in your community call something out as ridiculous, you’ll likely capitulate. In most cases, this represents a misuse of collective power; however, it can be used for good. People don’t litter, toss recyclables in the trash, or say hateful things, because we’ve collectively said that such actions are gross. We can do the same with markers of success. We can rebrand mansions, luxury cars, and garish objects as emblematic of those with grotesquely misplaced values. Owning a $300k car isn’t a mark of success; it’s illness. Meanwhile, one $2,500 Gucci bag can feed 5 people for a year. No one should struggle with this value proposition—not even for a moment.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Focus on the opportunity
I’m of the mind that most individuals are decent. However, when value systems are undermined, people often find themselves vulnerable to destructive ideas. Meanwhile, I argue that our collective inaction around systemic injustices creates a psychological dichotomy that upends most of us. Put differently: knowing that bad shit is happening, and doing nothing about it, fucks you up deeply.
I think there’s another way of looking at the douchebro. Perhaps the reason we allow this character linger in our headspace, is that we’re just plain beat. I wonder if the existence of the douchebro is actually a sort of cultural “fuck it.” I compare this to giving up your workout regimen and diving head first into a bowl of Funyuns. When we regain clarity, though, we recognize that such occurrences are temporary slips.
Back in the 1900’s Buckminster Fuller talked about the notion of Spaceship Earth: a closed system carrying a group of passengers (forgive my incomplete paraphrasing). I find this idea powerful as a means of bringing us together. Our fates are intertwined. So long as we glamourize hoarding, greed, and the cult of self, we all lose.
You can make a difference in this world. I’m not saying you can save it. (I don’t even know what that means.) Instead, I’m saying that you have more in common with your fellow passengers than you probably realize. So long as each of us is serving corporate needs due to our own frail egos, we’re bound to fail. However, if we come together to do important work, we all benefit.