by Gary North
If someone asked you this question, what would your immediate mental response be? "What is it like, being a success?"
Would your first thought be this? "Why are you asking me?" Would you actually say this?
It would probably depend on who is asking. If the questioner were one of the following, you might take the question seriously:
- A recently released inmate
- A visitor from rural China
- A recently divorced woman with four children
- A 19-year-old unemployed high school drop-out
But what if it were one of the following?
- Bill Clinton
- Donald Trump
- William Bennett
- Michael Jackson
- Ted Turner
- Newt Gingrich
If it was anyone on the second list, I would probably think, "This man has finally come to his senses. He now knows that he has truly made a mess of things."
The economic difference between the two lists is obvious. By the standards of H & R Block, the people on the second list are big winners. They are models of success. The people on the first list are losers.
The people on both lists need help. Compared to them, you are probably a winner. Your success has been greater.
Why do I say this? Because of a principle that most people figure out late in life, but which everyone ought to be taught from an early age.
For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more (Luke 12:48b).
The more wealth that you possess, the more responsibility you have. There is no escape from this responsibility. It's not enough to know how to make a bundle of money. You also need to know what to do with it. This is the reason why there is so much regret in the lives of the rich and famous. This is why it rarely pays to become either rich or famous.
RAGS TO RICHES (AND MISERY)
Most of the people on the second list came out of nowhere. Donald Trump's father was rich, but not on his son's scale. The others came from middle class backgrounds or lower. They possessed some positive factor in their lives that let them achieve wealth and fame. They also had some negative factor that let them achieve notoriety that the rest of us would prefer to avoid.
The great rags to riches story in American life is the story of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the son of a wayward drunkard. Yet he was hated all his adult life. The great irony of his life was this: he was hated for what he did to make his money, which benefited the lives of millions of people, and he then sought respect by giving his money away, where his money eventually produced a great deal of evil. Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie did much the same.
When I look at Bill Clinton on TV, I think, "What a waste." Given his politics, I also think, "Praise the Lord." The most lasting institutional legacy of his presidency was a reduced percentage of Federal money going to the traditional welfare system. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats like to admit this, because it embarrasses both parties. Where Clinton could have created a disaster, such as ramming through his wife's socialized medicine scheme, he did not get the votes in Congress. His attempt to push through the medical funding program cost his party the loss of both houses of Congress. That was a decade ago. He left office with plenty of money and opportunities to make a lot more.
Clinton was only the second president to be impeached, though not convicted. He will be remembered in the textbooks mainly for the Lewinsky scandal. That is what he has to show for eight years as the most powerful man on earth.
For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.
There has never been any doubt in my mind that Bill Clinton loves his daughter. How can he think about her and not feel a terrible sense of regret for what he did? What level of success could possibly compensate him?
Newt Gingrich was the winner of Clinton's medical care battle. What did it get him? The Republicans' 1994 "Contract With America" was a dead letter from day one, beginning in 1995. Gingrich later divorced his sick wife. Then he got caught in a sexual scandal. Then there was his book deal — a variation of the sweetheart book deal with which he had beat up Democratic Party House Speaker Jim Wright. He lost his position as Speaker of the House. He left office a beaten man. But he left with plenty of money and opportunities to make a lot more.
The men on my second list were driven internally by a desire to succeed, yet their success led to front-page scandals or at least great embarrassments that nobody, under any circumstances, would want to suffer. When anyone thinks of Trump, he thinks "Ivana, Marla, and what's her name? — another blonde." Ted Turner's marital life has been a disaster, and then he got in bed with AOL. Billions of dollars in H & R Block wealth then went "poof." He could not pay off his promise of a billion dollars to the United Nations. ("Let's hear it for AOL!")
Nobody wants to live in rags. Nobody wants to go through front-page scandals, either. Nobody wants tens of millions of people laughing at his follies, thinking, "he's not so smart after all."
THE SENSE OF REGRET
I have known my share of successful people. I have read biographies about many more. A sense of regret is a common thread in most of their lives. The sense of regret is summarized in the phrase, "would-a, could-a, should-a."
The more opportunities you have, whether they are handed to you on the proverbial silver platter or you stumble on in your work, the more responsibility you have. Men say, "I do the best I can with what I've got." What if they've got a lot? The more they have, the more they feel that they must accomplish. They are on a treadmill of success. They don't see any legitimate way to get off. If they stay on, they think: "I should have accomplished so much more. It was right in my hand!" If they get off, they think the same thing.
Mobsters are the classic treadmill people. They can't get off. They may have lots of money and almost all of the things that money can buy, but they live in fear of those around them. They live in fear of exposure. They have chosen a way of life, and they are stuck with it, or think they are. It would take something like a religious conversion to get them to break with their past. The conclusion of "Godfather III" really did end the series. Al Pacino's character lives with the regret of his daughter's death as a result of that one "last" big-time operation, which we know would not have been the last. He dies, with only a dog as his visible companion.
The biggest political drop-out in Western history is probably Charles V, the last Holy Roman Emperor of any consequence, who squandered a fortune of Spanish gold and silver trying to put down the Protestant Reformation and trying to control a series of popes. He failed. He abdicated late in his career, in 1555, turning power over to his two sons in a divided empire. He was a bloated glutton by this stage. He was a consummate loser despite all of his temporary victories. His son, Philip II, carried on the family tradition. He launched the Spanish Armada against England in 1588. It sank.
In the twentieth century, the most famous drop-out was King Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry Mrs. Simpson. They spent their lives in a round of meaningless travels and formal occasions. He got no credit for having quit for love. He was seen as a quitter. No one missed him.
How can a successful person leave gracefully? John Templeton, the investor, made the transition to world philanthropist, but he surrendered his American citizenship as part of a low-tax escape route. He lives in the Bahamas, a tax haven. There is always a price to pay. He doesn't impress me as a man suffering from regret, but he is also a rarity. He got off of the success treadmill with his reputation intact and most of his money.
Of all the highly successful people I have known, Murray Rothbard was the one who seemed to have the fewest regrets. He was not worth a lot of money, but he wrote a lot of books, some of them classics. He wrote more thought-provoking articles on more topics than anyone I can think of. He carried a bibliography in his head that was immense. He was the single most important person in putting together the ideological foundations of an entire movement, libertarianism. He overcame many phobias, such as the not being able to leave New York City. (I suffer from the opposite phobia.) He was always laughing. That is what I remember most about him personally. He had a lot of fun. So did those around him. If you did not enjoy having fun, you had to avoid Murray Rothbard.
AN EXIT PLAN
A wise man has an exit plan, early. The more success he wants to achieve, the more carefully he should plan his pathway off the money treadmill. He should define early in his career what he regards as success, and then design a way to move to the next phase of his life, should he achieve his plan.
The people who are bound to fail, no matter what level of success they achieve, are the ones who define success as "more." The great god more — mammon — consumes its worshippers. If you must always gain more, then you are mentally tied to the treadmill. Worse: you are a hamster inside an exercise wheel. The wheel is attached to a generator that consumers enjoy using, but it is still a wheel, and you are still a hamster. "Amusing, isn't he?" the viewers say. "Toss him an extra treat, and he'll run for another ten minutes." The viewers keep tossing in treats.
Donald Trump is a hamster. In 2000, he briefly ran for President. (Had you forgotten?) Now he gets to be on TV in one of those imbecilic "reality" shows, "The Apprentice." What is the point? He was interviewed in the December 2003 issue of Esquire. He told the interviewer that his philosophy in life is to squeeze every dime out of a deal. The great god more has this man in the whirling cage. "Run, Donald, run." Donald runs.
Over 200,000 people applied to become his apprentice. "I want to be like Donald!" I hope you're not one of them.
"The fact is that these people are looking to become very, very, very rich, and you usually become very rich when you work for yourself, not when you're working for somebody else," Trump said. "In theory the person who wins should want to leave me at the end of a year and go on and become a billionaire or whatever he wants to become, or whatever she wants to become."
If someone is paying you a salary, you had better have a business on the side.
YOU ARE A SUCCESS
By the standards of the people on the first list, you are a tremendous success. They really do want to find out how you did it. If you can volunteer to help people who really are on that list, you should.
You have what most of the world today wants, and 98% of the world in 1900 did not have: leisure (TV, movies), hot and cold running water, power tools, wonder drugs, cheap reading material, 50,000 items for sale at Wal-Mart, air conditioning in summer, heat without having to chop wood in winter, a bank account, and anesthetics if you ever need an operation. You are not, in short, Scarlett O'Hara in the hospital scene.
If your attitude is, "I'm not a success," then you owe it to yourself to spend some time thinking about these things:
- What constitutes success?
- What would constitute success in my life?
- What do I have to do to get it?
- How long will it take?
- What is my exit strategy after I do get it?
I honestly believe that #5 is more important than #1—#4. No matter how you define success, you must have a plan to get off the treadmill in a graceful manner. A plan for success must recognize and deal with your own mortality.
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36).
The third spirit to visit Scrooge took him to a graveyard. Scrooge had ignored it for too long. He had seen Marley die. He did not get the message. It did not register. "A Christmas Carol" is a redemption tale, though without God, heaven, hell, or the other theological tenets that were fading from people's minds as they grew richer in Victorian England, when Dickens wrote the story. The first spirit shows Scrooge how much he has paid for his economic success. The second shows him how much his employee enjoys without much economic success. The third shows him what lies ahead for him and for Tiny Tim. It is the mark of his redemption that he asks the spirit about the inevitability of the near-term fate of Tiny Tim. (Tim's long-term earthly fate is the same as Scrooge's.)
The reason we still enjoy that old story, and so will our grandchildren, is that we recognize the benefits of an exit strategy from the treadmill of success. Scrooge doesn't need to impoverish himself. He doesn't need to sell his goods and join a monastery. He goes to his nephew's party on Christmas day. He plans to share a bowl of punch with Crachit the next day. But he keeps open the doors of his business.
The reason we love the story is because we understand the truth that it rests on. We like to see a man trapped on the treadmill, consumed with the lust for more, get off. How does he get off? By giving away some of his wealth and by celebrating. Scrooge finally figures it out: "There's more where that came from." On the day after Christmas, he goes back to work. He does not drop out. He remains productive. He has become Fezziwig, but retains superior business sense.
This outlook is what made the West rich. It has been a legacy of the Mosaic law. In the Book of Deuteronomy, there is a law that commanded the Israelites to journey to the nation's central city once every three years for a huge party. They were required to attend. They were to eat, drink, and be merry (Deuteronomy 14:22—27).
Christmas is an application of this law. Dickens understood this, and he used it to create a story that has become part of Anglo-American culture. Here is its underlying assumption:
"THERE'S MORE WHERE THAT CAME FROM"
If you stick to your knitting, you will succeed. You will become more productive. Consumers will pay you for services rendered.
You would be wise to find out additional information:
- What will consumers want in a year?
- What will they be willing and able to pay?
- Can you find a way to sell this at a profit?
This is the rule of economic success: "Find out what people want to buy, and sell it to them."
There are so few reliable suppliers out there, that if you can become one, you will succeed economically.
There are so few potential competitors out there who are willing to put their money at risk that you and a couple of others will have the local field to yourself.
If you do exactly what you say you will do, if you show up on time, and if you stay below budget, you will prosper.
If you find out why people spend their money, you can develop sales skills.
If you develop sales skills, you will not go hungry.
There is so much wealth in the West that anyone who is consumer-oriented can make a good living, assuming no bureaucrat decides to make life difficult for him. And if some bureaucrat does, you can always move. (I did this in 1976, when regulators in California started making life difficult for me. "Out of sight, out of mind." I never regretted moving out of the golden state, with its high taxes and traffic.)
BECOMING A GREATER SUCCESS
Let us return to my original question: "What is it like, being a success?"
Do you see yourself as a success? If not, why not?
By most people's standards, you are a success.
What are you lacking that separates you from your view of success? Maybe it's only your poor definition of success.
Is it education? Then read more. Pick up a yellow highlighter and mark up your books. They're yours, after all. Re-read old books that you learned from but have forgotten.
Is it money? Then pay closer attention to your job. Improve your job skills. Figure out what it is that you supply that final consumers are willing to pay for. Concentrate on increasing your efficiency in producing these items.
Is it lack of time? Then read a book on time-management. Buy a Day-Timer or low-cost equivalent. Start budgeting your time. It's your only irreplaceable resource.
Is it your confusion about priorities? This is probably the toughest nut to crack. This, you must spend some quality time to overcome. The lack of a "game plan," which is no game, is probably the number-one hindrance to personal success.
Is it a lack of capital? Which kind of capital? Find out how to get more. Even better, find out how to convert forms of capital that you already possess into marketable output. Wasted time is usually the first place to start looking.
Capital is a tool. The day it becomes your final goal, you have climbed onto the treadmill.
Let me give an example from my life. For decades, I saw my capital — my tools — as my library. I built a large library. My father-in-law had a library approaching 30,000 books. Mine is maybe half that large. It takes an expensive building to house it.
Then came the World Wide Web. Ha, ha: the joke's on me! There are of course lots of books in my library that are not on-line. But what is on-line takes so much time for me to discover, print out, and read, that my book-reading time has collapsed. So, I'm not quite ready to give away my library, but I'm close.
Technology made a leap that no one could have foreseen in 1990. That leap has now reduced the value of what I spent decades collecting. I am happy that the Web exists. I am happy not to be nearly so dependent on my library. But the fact is this: I could have saved a lot of time and trouble if I had foreseen the Internet. The one thing that consoles me is that I have always regarded books, especially old books, and above all old books in discount racks, as legitimate expenditures. I don't like to spend money on much — I'm a bit of a Scrooge — but books were my exception. "Spending money on books is OK." Why? Because they were my tools.
Spend money on your tools. Just be sure that you are ready to use them. Don't get seduced by technology. Don't buy an expensive guitar before you can play a cheap guitar. But when your work is suffering from the lack of some tool, buy the tool, and don't look back on the money. But if you can buy it used at half price from someone who got seduced by technology and has now wised up, do so.
"To be a success, work half a day. It doesn't matter which half."
He who refuses to budget 12 hours a day, six days a week, to an overall production plan is not going to be a success. By "production," I mean anything on your list of priorities.
He who refuses to set production limits, either in terms of a deadline or output/income, is not going to know when to quit.
He who doesn't know when to quit is on the treadmill.
My recommendation: find out a way to get off the full-time output treadmill — maybe not permanently, as Templeton did, but at intervals, as Scrooge did. You need an exit strategy.
Why? Because if you tell yourself, "If I get off, I'll fail," you are worshipping at the shrine of the great god more. He will consume you like a candle. He will burn you at both ends.
Finally, contrary to Donald Trump, leave something on the table for the other guy in every deal. Repeat business is where the money is. Every deal should produce this response in both parties' minds: "Let's do this again."
January 10, 2004
Copyright © 2004 LewRockwell.com