The other day I asked aloud in this blog if there might be some sort of anti-success trend emerging in society. I think I found it.

Some folks emailed me directly (dilbertcartoonist@gmail.com) to say they believe it is a waste of time to pursue success because it is a zero-sum game. In other words, they believe they can only be successful by making someone else less successful, on the theory that there isn't enough success in the universe for everyone to get a meaningful slice. They tell me it would be "wrong" on some level to pick the pockets of strangers for self-enrichment.

And there it is.

I doubt that sort of thinking would have existed before the massive media campaign against the "top 1%." The power of the top 1% story is in the false impression that rich people stole the money from the poor and middle class, and therefore it would only be fair to give most of it back.

Clearly some of the financial titans are doing little more than picking pockets. But those are the exceptions. Most one-percenters are growing the economy and creating jobs. That's obvious to people who were born in the "rising tide lifts all boats" era. And it's obvious to anyone with a bit of economics education.

But if you are in your twenties, with no deep understanding of economics, wouldn't you believe success is evil? That's the dominant story of their generation.

Making matters worse, success, money, and abuse of power are all conflated in our minds because that's how the news lumps that stuff.

So while the benefits of success are entrenched in the minds of my generation, the young might be learning that it's something to be avoided.

I can't back this hypothesis with data. We're in anecdotal territory. But it's something to keep an eye on.

Update 1:

Another reason success might have lost its luster is that successful people are considered narcissists, and narcissism seems to be more condemned lately than at any time I can recall. (Or maybe that's just me.) But it turns out that, according to one study, a little bit of narcissism actually helps people succeed as leaders. That's a problem because what 20-something wants to be seen as a narcissist? Narcissism is the new racism.

Update 2:

Here's more evidence that success is being demonized by the young. The University of Georgia's Student Government Association is demanding fewer success stories because it makes those who are less successful look bad.

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0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 28, 2014
I see someone else that wrote something similar but I will say it anyway. The problem I see here is we are equating success purely with money. I see plenty of people that I would like to emulate (or wish I had) that are not filthy rich. I do see a danger in teaching students that being in the 1% means you are a success. Heck, lately there have been people getting there by winning the lottery. Do we consider them a success? And defining it as the 1%? Really? Heck, I would be more than happy being in the top 10%!

I'll take prestige over money any day (but maybe I say that because I don't have money). It sickens me to see what people do with all the money they have (look at my fleet of cars!). And I am not going to say because there are starving people in Africa; it's more because we keep glorifying it with reality shows and what not and talk about how great these people are when they make a $1,000 charity contribution which equates to 1 penny as a percent of my income. We are equating really cool material possessions with success: boys with toys. With that said, there are plenty of great people with money, but most of the people I most admire are the ones who don't flaunt it.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 23, 2014
Does the "Evil Rich" include Steve Jobs who is revered by the 20-30 crowd? What about Elon Musk? People who had vision and the drive to make their dream work and become part of the 1%? No? What about the people who worked hard, got to the top of their class, got accepted to the top business schools, worked hard again to the top of their class and land executive jobs straight out of school? Are they evil too? Those same people must also be classified as narcissists for working so hard and stepping on the backs of their fellow generations to get to the top.

The current generation (Millennials) seems quite silly.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 20, 2014
I question your idea that the 1% creates a meaningful amount of jobs, in fact some have even created their wealth by actively destroying jobs. I have nothing against the 1%, I just think that it has been proven that this "trickle-down" economics theory doesn't work. Meaning, if somebody has hundreds of times more income than the average worker, the amount of jobs created due to this excess wealth is not in relation to the size of the capital. You also fail to explain how 100 business owners having 1/100th of the excess capital wouldn't actually create more jobs than just the 1 guy.

I am with you that criticism on the 1% is no excuse for underachieving yourself, yet your own economics are made-up if you don't back them up, so please do educate us.
Jan 18, 2014
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

Also note that this is the basis for both the economic policies and campaign methods of the Democrat party and other similarly left-leaning statist political parties around the world.

There is no proper economics education in this country anymore and pop culture, which is in large part the domain of leftists, only reinforces misinformation about economics in our young people and other low-information voters. Scott, if How To Fail is the most important book you've ever written, something that would educate people about economics and be entertaining and cool enough to make them read it would be the second most important.
Jan 18, 2014
"anti-success"? Sounds like weaselly way of saying "anti-rich". :)

Given the recent fiascoes in the financial industry, the power wielded by them, and the damage done to this economy, population would be dumb NOT to be a little suspicious of some of them.
Jan 18, 2014
I used to think 20s was the age to be enamored by Ayn Rand and 30s to be neutral about her. Only in your 40s were you allowed to be disillusioned by her.
Well, we learn.
Jan 17, 2014
> Hollywood is make-believe, and we need to stop letting the people
> who live in that environment have so much influence over the
> direction of our country. My advice to the young - STOP listening
> to the idiots who are pop-culture icons

Do you see the irony of delivering this advice in the comments section of a popular cartoonist's blog?

The only reason anyone cares what Scott has to say about the demonization of success is because he is successful. If he was an artistic genius working in obscurity no one would care what he had to say. It's the halo effect. We humans assume that because someone is successful in one area (cartooning) he is knowledgeable in another (say, investment advice). We know it's nonsense, but we can't help ourselves.

I think we humans are hard wired to admire success, and I'm sure there were evolutionary advantages to doing so. That is probably why the rare examples of criticizing success in general seem so ridiculous.
Jan 17, 2014
<blockquote>[N]arcissism seems to be more condemned lately than at any time I can recall. (Or maybe that's just me.)</blockquote>

I see what you did there.
Jan 17, 2014
It's simply fear of taking the bait.
As in "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is" so run away.

I bought the book because, in the past, I have enjoyed almost everything your fevered brain has published. (The exceptions are all in your blog, but you get a well earned pass.) My thought process was something like the following: It's another book from my favorite cartoonist. Oh, it's not a cartoon book. Guess my investment in "Dilbert 2.0" is still secure. Hmmm... It's not a pseudo religion book. Too bad. NOBODY else writes pseudo religion books that are self contained - in every way. It appears to be a self-help book? Oh dear. Well... If Scott wrote it, then at the very least it has to be severely and wonderfully twisted... so, I must have it.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
I am a highly successful person. I also happen to have practically no income and have been austerely living off my meager investments for twenty years. I can do this because I don't NEED all of the crap that our mono-cultural capitalist society manufactures. All I need is a small home, a few good meals a day, clean water, heat in the winter, a few art supplies, and a computer with a cheap internet connection. Yet I am highly successful, because years ago I decided that that was the way I wanted to live, and I saved what little money I had and invested it conservatively. I established my purpose and my goals, and I met them. Success. It's not about money, it's about definition.
Jan 17, 2014
Much in the same way banks have gone from being a place you tell them your name and they watch your money for you to a place where you give up your first born and are given and encyclopedia of rules concerning your money...

big business has ratcheted down all of the loose ends (because they own all the loose ends) that cause it to lose money, and one they have an excellent grasp on is worker wages.

To say there are relatively few fat cats profiting from this is a joke, it is no secret that wage growth has been stagnating for the last three decades, at least.

Watch the wealth inequality video explaining how ridiculously money is distributed in the USA- https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=QPKKQnijnsM

Try finding success in a world where the people at the top think that they deserve it all, and are actively attempting to deny you the means to achieve it. No, they are not the ONLY reason people fail.
Jan 17, 2014
I don't mean to come off one-sided. There are evil rich and they should be punished, but I personally don't believe they are 1% of the population, probably more like .001%. There may need to be some reform. But I can't take anybody seriously when they talk about this unless they agree that the other end of the spectrum needs to be reformed as well. Hollywood is make-believe, and we need to stop letting the people who live in that environment have so much influence over the direction of our country. My advice to the young - STOP listening to the idiots who are pop-culture icons and so far removed from reality that they couldn't function in your world; understand that if something seems REALLY simple but it hasn't been done, then you probably don't really understand it, and admit that it's not just one end of the system that's broken, and both ends need to be fixed. I remember one thing from economics class, and that's the "TANSTAAFL Principle". That has helped me to understand and overcome many problems in my life and most of them have had nothing to do with money.
Jan 17, 2014
I don't think success is being demonized by the young, I think it's being demonized by the liberal left and the media. The young, who have no deep reference and can only see these things on the surface level and in the simplest of terms, are the most easily swayed by the propaganda. Want to win a race? Trick the competition into thinking that training for the race is wrong, or uncool, while you train your butt off. Want to become powerful? Trick an entire class of society into thinking that success is evil and you love them so much that you will take that burden for them. It's not just working on the young, but on the "welfare class" as well. Throw in a little science (Learned Helplessness) and you have a powerful machine on your hands, and YOU look like the good guy when you are actually keeping everybody else down.
Jan 17, 2014
> more evidence that success is being demonized by the young.

Well, maybe, but only in the same way that someone wishing me "Happy Holidays" is more evidence of the secular left's ongoing War on Christmas and demonization of Christians.

A student group suggests that success stories are bad and is roundly criticized for it. I personally think their view is silly, but they are not demonizing anyone, and their opinions hardly seems representative of Americans (or American youth) in general.

America is success obsessed (and I'm not saying that's a bad thing), sure we go though "everybody gets a trophy" phases every few decades, but success is certainly not being "demonized". I think if you counted up the disparaging references to the successful rich and the unsuccessful poor on either mass media or blogs, you would find far more people critical of the poor than of the rich.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
I'm a Boomer and a college grad in the 60's when being anti-corporate, anti capitalist, anti-success was the mantra. I've seen all the excuses for being a slacker, and today's are the same !$%*!$%* as those in the 60's. Working and providing value to your customer, your coworkers, and your corporation is the height of humanity. Slacking-off is providing no value to anyone other than your lazy self. The height of narcissism is thinking that being an under-achieving douchebag has any value to society.
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
I would argue there are a couple other reasons people resent the rich which would logically make them less inspired to become wealthy. We seem to be talking success in terms of wealth on this post today so let's keep that going.

When Muslim extremists kill people, people say that moderate Muslims should be keeping their radicalized brethren on track since they will listen to them. When poor black people kill people, people say black community leaders should be keeping their dangerous elements in check since they will listen to them. When rich, generally white people game the system and corrupt democracy in order to concentrate all the wealth... Well, you see where I'm going with this.

And the fact is there has been little push back against the evil rich by everyone else and basically not at all by those with the potential power to do anything about it. The majority of the good rich still want the status quo maintained because they currently have a good thing going and have a niche in it. This puts them in direct opposition with the masses who are being exploited either directly or indirectly via the destruction of our ecosystem. Sweatshop labor, aboriginals, environmentalists, small farmers, actual free-market capitalists, anti-corruption activists, people who don't like the NSA knowing everything they do, etc.

The fact is that all rich benefit from evil policies pushed through by those rich people who are evil. Bush's tax cuts for the rich? Well, you didn't get a lot of complaints from the wealthy even though it put a disproportionate burden on everyone else. Trade deals that are anti-democratic and result in a race to the bottom in wages but are profitable for trans-national corporations and those with the cash to buy shares? Well, you don't get a lot of opposition from the rich who have the cash to invest.

The view that seems to be held by the masses now is that even if you aren't an evil rich person who pushes pro-rich, anti-poor legislation, you are still benefiting from it if you are rich. Like how all whites benefited from systematic racism in the US, even those who were not racists. People talk about neo-liberalism being the systematic attack of capital against labor and they are not wrong. Logically, those with capital won't be as opposed to this as those who only have their labor to sell. This means the wealthy are seen as inherently less trustworthy since their goals are different from those of the masses.

The rich get targeted when things go bad. Look at the French Revolution, the Soviet Revolution, the Chinese Great Leap Forward. People feel the pot brewing and the world is dividing into two classes, the haves and the have-nots. This includes the US with the hollowing out of the middle-class. It makes sense people would be less inclined to be part of the class that will be hated and likely targeted. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street will just have been early manifestations of that. It will probably get more extreme. And it's important to remember that during those revolutions, generally the decent rich die just like the scummy do.
+15 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
I read the book (from the library - sorry Scott). Thanks for writing it.

I do think the marketing is off. I wouldn't have read it if I didn't read this blog. Some of that is because Dilbert himself is anti-success character. He's a brilliant engineer trapped in an office subject to the whims of the pointy haired boss. That's not winning. I could see some people looking at the cover thinking Scott's version of success must mean either getting lucky with fancy doodles, a crappy Dilbert office job, or maybe how to become the pointy haired boss - yikes!

A better title might have been "How To Escape Cubical Hell".

My review - I found the book to be insightful though from reading the blog for years I'd heard a lot of it before. Some topics like hypnosis and the practical applications of psychology I would have liked more depth. I find the "systems" approach interesting. Most interesting to me is how he seems to be mindful of creating them to achieve "success". I don't believe most people are that mindful of what they do and how it impacts their lives. They just stumble about and fall into things. I would agree it would be good reading for a teenager or twenty something but I would give it 3.5/5 stars.

For reference: I read half got busy and then read the other half a week later (a casualty of my own success). I'm moderately successful. I pay for my own insurance without subsidy because I work for myself and have been for years. And I fully support Obamacare. The attack on the 1% isn't about earned wealth but an attack on the "nobility" class that uses their wealth to manipulate the market and laws.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
[Very few of the top 1% are to blame for dwindling opportunities elsewhere. Most of them create jobs. The fact that you conflate the .0001% of rich evildoers with the majority of the rich who are totally on your side means the media convinced you of the Bogey Man. -- Scott]

Scott, you just did what you accuse so many of your own detractors of doing. You displayed low reading comprehension of what I wrote. My only reference to "the 1%" was at the beginning when I explained why some people would be jealous of other people who have the things that once upon a time, most Americans would have been able to afford. I personally assume most of the 1% are just being regular people who have enough money not to worry about how much money they have, but that's still enough to inspire jealousy among those who have to worry about money all the time. I'm not actually jealous myself, but I understand why others would be.

I actually agree with you that that's quite different from the people directly responsible for creating the economic mess we're in, but I did not conflate the 0.0001% of rich evildoers with the majority of the rich. I would have been leaving out an important part of my argument if I had not talked about both groups though. The "ordinary rich" in my first paragraph, for being the subjects (fairly or not) of envy, and the "evil rich" in my second paragraph, who have been actively oppressing the poor and getting away with it.

If you'd like to engage with what I actually said, rather than your hallucination of what I said, I'd be interested in your take on it. Especially my last point when I said your book's poor sales probably has more to do with how you picked a lousy title than any societal change in how we view success. You really shouldn't blame factors outside of your control. That's just giving up and saying you have no power over your own success. Accepting responsibility to change my own fortune is probably the best piece of advice I ever got from a self-help book.
Jan 16, 2014
That's an interesting idea. I think you have a good point. When success is always equated with cheating or stealing, that'll turn off a lot of people from being successful. I just wish we could equate 99 months of unemployment benefits and medicaid with cheating and stealing as well. Maybe more people would get a job. There is a bit of irony that the people who pay the most taxes and create the most jobs and innovations are the ones society is blaming for stealing.

Rush has a similar thought. Basically people have been trying to eliminate the idea of success because the other person looks like a loser. Because he is a loser. And being a loser makes people feel bad and in today's society, people who feel bad about their situation tend to blame others. Since the liberals want people to get along and want everyone to feel good, the easiest thing to do is get rid of winners so no one will be jealous.

That's Rush's thoughts on the matter.

I play LOL and I notice there that people in the lower ELOs (skill rankings) are less likely to take personal responsibility for losing. Let's say you lose a game to a FOTM champ. There are a lot of people who will blame teammates, demand that the developers weaken said champ, etc. No one wants to admit that they got outplayed or had no idea what to do in that situation they were in.

For most people, getting better is hard work. I've spend hours in the game trying to get one mechanic down right. I'm still not perfect at it. Sometimes I'll put in some hard practice and then go on a losing streak. It is demoralizing to say the least. It takes time, work, and personal accountability to get better.

You've got to deal with jerks who blame the game on you or complain about how bad you are when someone else (maybe them) is doing worse. You've got to find a good video recording software and go back and look at the bad games and see what mistakes you made. You've got to practice whatever part of your game needs work. You've got to learn more and more about the game, what to do, and when to do it.

Success in the long term isn't just handed to you, you've got to grab it and hold on tight.

So I think some of the anti success sentiment we are seeing is just plain laziness. Being successful can be very hard work.
Jan 16, 2014
Also, I don't buy this "demonization of success" thing. There's always jealousy of and a certain contempt for conspicuous consumers, but people who actually DO things (or at least appear to) are admired.

The social contributions of performers and athletes are usually less than minimal, but at least we derive some personal pleasure from their efforts and feel we get value for what we add to their wealth. Steve Jobs was perceived as a Santa Claus whose efforts enabled us to buy neat toys, and whose personal investment risk eventually gave us Pixar movies. We even look back on our robber barons with some affection. If nothing else, their wealth derived from building stuff we could see.

To some extent, public perception was not the reality -- it never is. Still, we like it when "nice guys" seem to win, and/or we can actually see something coming our way (a better product, a better price, a vicarious Super Bowl ring, etc.). But even those cases can push their luck.

It's not success people hate. It's individuals who handle it badly:
-- Those who seem to despise their customer base (Stars who blast the public for not supporting vanity projects; musicians who sleepwalk through arena shows; etc.).
-- Those who hold that their proven superiority in one field establishes equal superiority in other fields (Ill-informed celebrities holding forth on science, history and other subjects -- usually parroting some easily debunked but currently fashionable BS).
-- Those who exempt themselves from common standards of personal ethics and public behavior, and defend such exemption as right and proper.
-- Those whose success is largely attributable to !$%*!$%*!$%* of birth or other random fortune, yet loudly and harshly decry others whose whose failure is just as clearly unrelated to merit or effort. Like a lottery winner lecturing somebody who trusted his broker in 2008.
-- Those who hold that the economy and the public at large are somehow obliged to preserve and improve their fortunate status, far above and beyond what their own merit and industry can attain. The infantile threat to "go Galt" if the order that makes their existence possible declines to absorb the costs of enhancing that existence.
-- Those who'd still be jerks if they were broke.
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