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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Jan 16, 2014
Your explanation doesn't make a lot of sense to me. You're assuming that "success" equals "money". I consider myself successful but not rich, so if becoming rich is what your book is intended to be about you've used the wrong terminology. I don't know anyone who doesn't want to be successful, but I know many people who are ambivalent about being rich.

Consider anyone in academia. Unless you are in a patentable research area you will never make a lot of money, but can be very successful nonetheless. There's not a lot of money in curing disease but I wouldn't categorize that life path as riddled with unsuccessful people.

[The content of the book doesn't focus on money. I define success as getting what you want out of life. But without some money and the free time that comes with having enough, you're out of luck chasing much else. But I hear what you said about the cover/title. -- Scott]
Jan 16, 2014
Narcissism cuts across all classes. A sense of entitlement among the poor is a problem. That same sense of entitlement among the rich is a recipe for disaster, as they have the power to bend the government and the economy to their will.
Jan 16, 2014
Hell must have just had a snowstorm, because for the first time in lo these many years, I agree with you completely.

I love this dichotomy, as you stated in your second paragraph. People tell you it's wrong to be successful because they'd be "picking the pockets" of their fellow men and women. Yet if you asked them, they'd have no problem picking the pockets of people who ARE successful in order to give it to them or to others.

This is what I call the illogic of emotional decisions. If it makes you feel good, then ignore the illogic of your position and go with your feelings. Ignore the fact that if everyone 'felt' the way you do about success, there'd be no successful people. There'd also be extreme poverty and an economy that couldn't support half the people in the country.

It reminds me of that statement reported in the LA Times about a woman who was shocked when she got her new Obamacare insurance premiums. She said words to the effect that she was all for Obamacare until she realized she had to pay for it. Did that wake her up? No. She was still a big supporter. She just wanted other people to pay for it. Who? The Chinese?

Look at the wussification of males in our society. Schools have been retooled to favor how women learn, and have left boys behind. There are now more women graduates from college than men. Why can't both sexes be taught and responded to in the way that best suits their needs? That would be evil, in today's education system. Boys have to be more like girls, regardless of how much that ends up stifling their growth and hurting their chances at success.

Whole cultures in our society now believe that it is more noble to take other people's money than it is to earn it themselves. Success has become a four-letter word.

The US has spent more than ten trillion dollars on liberal programs starting with President Johnson's "War on Poverty." That's enough money to buy every manufacturer in the US. And how are we doing? The gap between the rich and non-rich is growing. There are more than 45 million people on food stamps. There are as many poor now as when the War on Poverty started. Moreover, the economy is stagnant, the unemployment rate (if the 90 million people who have dropped out of the work force came back in) would be around 12%, and we have more than $17 trillion in debt and nearly $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities.

We all know Einstein's definition of insanity. How long do we have to keep doing things that don't work before we realize we must stop doing them? How far down do we have to go before we, like an alcoholic, go far enough down to stop hurting ourselves?

If success were truly a zero-sum game, then our economy would be the same size it was after World War II. Our population grows; our economy expands; people get a higher standard of living. We've already killed the goose that laid the golden egg; now we're trying to pretend it's still alive through running up our national credit card.

Enough soap box for today. Just know that there are hundreds of examples of what Scott is talking about out there. We need to turn this ship around. Use logic in making decisions, not emotions. You'll be better off for it.
Jan 16, 2014
Scott, you once blogged that you had a hard time seeing the wealth gap as a problem. Have you changed you mind since? Have any of the comments to this blog changed your mind? Some of the comments here seem to be saying the wealth gap (or something very much like it) is to blame here.

[I think the wealth gap is conflated with the shrinking of the middle class which is a big problem. In other words, if an entrepreneur someday makes a trillion dollars for himself, and creates jobs at the same time, everyone wins even though income disparity increased. But if his trillion comes at the same time middle class jobs go away, he'll need a big fence to keep out the cannibal armies. -- Scott]
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
Dooby: you just proved Scott's point.

To sum up your post:

-It's too hard.

Guess what? Life is hard. No one is going to spoon feed you for the rest of your life. You want to have your own business? Come up with a good idea and then work your ass off to make it a reality. If you show people that you are willing to do what is necessary and show them that you are competent, you'll get the money to start that business. People like to make money. They'll invest if you make them believe you can make money for them.

-It's the rich people's fault.

So what? Learn to play the game, and do your best. You are making an excuse to give up before you even try.

-You don't get me.

Get over it.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
Scott, you're too quick to blame the media for the way the people now view "the 1%". In an earlier era, people could afford college, or even get a good job right out of high school, without anything more than a reasonable work ethic and some persistence. Today, that's not enough. Even a basic level of success requires a lot more money to begin with (whether for college or starting that first business) and no small measure of luck. There's a natural inclination to envy the people who have those things that not so long ago, we all would have enjoyed.

Add to that the fact that Wall Street broke laws in order to tank the economy, and bought off regulators and politicians to avoid ever facing consequences for it. Not one banker went to jail for it for their role in the greatest wealth destruction event ever witnessed in this country, and at this point, the statute of limitations has expired. Lloyd Blankfein gets to keep his billions, when he doesn't even deserve to keep his freedom.

You don't understand the anger, apparently. But wages are at an all-time low as a percentage of the economy, while profits are at an all-time high. The rich do create jobs, but more and more, those jobs have been low-wage, zero-benefit arrangements where employees don't even know their own schedules a week in advance and can be fired for any reason. If you were stuck in one of those jobs, you might resent the wealthy as well, and it wouldn't have a thing to do with the media.

That said, I don't think that's why your book is selling poorly. I think you picked a bad title and cover, and most people will (like I did) not even associate it as being a success book. If I didn't read your blog, I'd assume it was your memoir.

[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]
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
I personally can't wait to be "the man", enslave the masses, and squash my competitors like the measly bugs they are.

Screw that narcissism noise. The generation of tweeters, facebookers, and snapchatters are the most narcissistic of them all.
Jan 16, 2014
I'm going to say one other thing and I doubt it will be popular: if you think you're a parasite !$%*!$% off a fixed pie in a zero sum game, you probably are. And there are people who aren't who deserve to be making much more money.

If the only thing you have to contribute is to take your slice of the pie ... I feel sorry for you.

The simple fact is the people who increase the size of the pie are the ones who should be getting the rewards.

I am reminded of a scene in "Breaking Bad" where Walter White talks about carbon and making diamonds and the reward the chemist was given for discovering the process. I don't know if it's true or not - but in the show the reward the chemist got was a $10 treasury bond. And the company took all the rewards.

There's a lot of unfairness in the world. My thought about that is everyone has a choice. You can be part of the unfairness problem ... or part of the solution. My guess about those who see the world as a zero sum game is they are the same people who would give the chemist who invented synthetic diamonds a $10 treasury bill. I.e. part of the problem.

My own feeling is that people who do expand the pie are worth more.
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
Ugh, I HATE when older people try to diagnose "what's wrong with the current generation." It's as if once you hit 40, you see the world changing and conclude that your generation was the last great generation on earth. Here's a fun fact: did you know, every generation of old people were also once young. And when you're young, your idealistic vision of a fair world collide with the sh*ttiness of real life, and that makes young people sad and angry.

Also, the 1% protestors aren't railing against doctors and small business owners and other "job creators." It's about financial executives who destroy the finance industry, lie to regulators and the public, then pay themselves huge bonuses while young people have 20% unemployment. It's about fracking companies that poison the water and are not fined, do not clean it up, and take no precautions to even prevent damage to the environment and water supplies because, hey, Capitalism!

In other words, young people feel like all their promises of "the future is yours" that was echoed in some valedictorian's speech at graduation is being crushed by forces much more powerful than them and without regard to them. This is something every generation of youth has faced, not just this one, so stop trying to pretend like you've identified the one thing young people need to be successful. Life's been sh*tty for a lot of people for a long time and your "insights" aren't going to change that.

"Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise." -Socrates, unwittingly describing every generation of youth ever.

[GET OFF OF MY LAWN!!!! That had to be said. For the record, I think my generation was total shit. I have more hope for the current batch. But I think it's fair to say that attitudes such as the pursuit of wealth do fluctuate by generation depending on what's going on. (You'd know that if you weren't so young. And by that I mean GET A HAIRCUT AND STOP SMOKING THAT FUNNY TOBACCO!!!

I get the fact that yesterday's hippies are today's old men complaining about your pants being too low. But attitudes do drift each generation, and I presented my data that is consistent with the hypothesis of an anti-success swing. So get some experience, learn a few things, and you can participate with the rest of the adults here and STOP PLAYING THAT RAP MUSIC WITH ALL THE CURSING!!! -- Scott
Jan 16, 2014
The most profound truths are not documented in instruction manuals. Rather, they are slowly revealed in the great works of fiction. You can point people toward the truth, but they have to arrive at it on their own two feet.

If you've reached that point in life where you're worrying about what your legacy to the world will be, then stop. You have very little control of it, and it won't be determined until long after you're dead anyway.
+13 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
The real issue is that difference between the people at the top and the bottom has expanded greatly in the last few decades (in the US at least). People at the top create jobs, goods, and services. Great, I have no problem with that.

When you increase your slice of the pie by expecting your employees to work more for less pay than they did decades ago, well... I have a problem with that. When you use your acquired wealth to stack the deck in your favor even more via pay for play politics, I have a problem with that.

Also consider the following studies.



There was also another study (I can't find the link for it now), where two people played Monopoly. One played by the standard rules and one got double money for passing go, collecting rent, and could buy properties and houses at half the price. Obviously, the players with the advantage won. The interesting thing is that when asked WHY they won, they attributed their win to their decision making and choices in the game and NOT to the HUGE advantage they were given. This was true whether the players in the game were rich or not.

Basically, those who are no rich will often underestimate any advantages they received and overestimate their personal contributions. It's human nature. Everyone does it.

Countries were the income gap between the haves and have not is smaller are far more successful in many ways (whether that gap is closed by a large welfare state or progressive taxes made no difference). Here is a nice TED talk about that topic in particular.


All this adds up to people no longer holding the very rich in high regard anymore. What is the saying, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Nothing inherently grants more power than being rich.
Jan 16, 2014
The mathematics needed to run modern 3D imaging scanners was developed nearly a century ago (in the late 1920's if my memory is right) but this didn't find an application until the late 1970's when cheap portable computers became possible.

There are two great advances in medicine in the 20th century: 1) Antibiotics 2) 3D imaging.

The man who developed the math behind 3D imaging never got a reward for it in his lifetime - but it is the basis of an enormous quantity of good later.

There is no such thing as a fixed pie. The amount of good you can do for the world is virtually unlimited. If you work in the area of knowledge and in many cases in industry you can expand the pie. This means that over time you can deliver superior value at a lower price point.

This is exactly what revolutionary advances in human knowledge do for the world - and the "value" of the pie can expand. The people who are most involved in this expansion of value are scientists and engineers: people doing research and developing new things and new methods for making things.

The number of people doing this is very small but it drives all human progress. I suppose it does not surprise many people think of the world as a zero sum game because because the number of people for whom it isn't is quite small and most people are not in that category.
Jan 16, 2014
So you are a subscribing to the trickle-down-philosophy? Now I understand why you endorsed Mitt Romney. One successful one-percenter who created plenty of jobs (by buying companies, !$%*!$% capital out of them, firing people and leaving them in an almost bankrupt state and hiding his money then in the Caribbean to avoid paying unfair taxes which would be used only for those entitled losers of society).

Bill Gates is another one of your heroes, a guy who's company is convicted of monopolistic behavior, i.e. shutting down the competition with illegal actions and then using the monopoly to extract unnecessary high product prices from customers forced to use the monopoly. What a shining example.

Amazon and Walmart are other examples of companies who are not necessarily breaking any laws and of course create jobs (Walmart has create more than a million jobs) but of course those jobs used to be high quality jobs in bookstores or mom-n-pop stores (and there where of course plenty of owners of those as well) and now they are low-cost jobs.

And at least you agreed that investment managers (or most managers in general, see the COO of Yahoo who just made 50million or so for 15 months of mostly unsuccessful work without any personal risk) are not really contributing.

And even in the good old times one can argue that we (western society as a whole) lived on the backs of the 3rd world. Prices for resources have not much increased in nominal prices (not too mention real prizes) for a lot of commodities (whether it was something like copper or something like bananas) in about 30 years. And before that we had of course colonization and before that slavery.

While I don't think it is a zero-sum game and it is possible to increase wealth on a global scale (though I would really like to study that further, since I am not convinced that my belief is right), for a long time the game was rigged that wealth was created only in the West. And now the game has changed, now wealth is created only for the top 1% on a global scale and workers everywhere are being pushed downwards since the global workforce is too large. And the middle class who actually do create jobs have problems to compete with the big corporations who have the inside track to governments.

I think there are very few examples in the Top 1% today of people who have created overall wealth, this is different in the Top 10%.
Jan 16, 2014
[There is no win-win when you buy an Apple product for instance, they installed suicide-nets on their factory so that their employees would stop ending their misery through death. Same goes for clothes made by children chained to sweatshops in Bangladesh, agriculture picked by Mexicans deathly afraid of reporting their overseers, and almost everything you consume.]

Your assumption that the majority of products on the market are from "slave labor". While slavery does exist in the world, it's existence is dwindling and has been for generations. The majority of what Americans call "sweat shops" are dream jobs in 3rd world countries. Sure, they suck... But so do the alternatives of subsistence agriculture or selling your organs. We rich in the 1st world countries, ALL OF US (The poorest person in America is better off than the majority in most other countries) are so self important that we consider us having a job more valuable than 100 people having a job that pays 1/100th of what we would make while being 75x more productive. The middle class is not disappearing, it's just moving closer to the global median income, which just happens to be well below the poverty line in 1st world countries. Income inequality may look like it's widening when looking at the US, but when looking at the world, the trend looks very different.
Jan 16, 2014
While there is nothing to disagree with in your post, you seem to have started with a question about why your book is languishing in the midst of the bestseller lists, ignored the multiple and consistent advice that it is badly titled, is poorly differentiated and has a poor jacket design, and instead decided to rationalize it as a societal aversion to success.

Or did we just wander off-topic?
Jan 16, 2014
[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.]

Am pretty sure that the 'self esteem' fad, which said more or less the same thing, predated the great recession.
Jan 16, 2014
I think the capitalists here have been a little too hard on those who disagree with those who feel the current economic model is biased.

You (danbert8 & checkm) state that "nearly all transactions are win-win;" which seems to be true in America for the most part, however you fail to note that nearly everything you have was made by slaves in foreign countries.

Some rich people like Scott are able to garner wealth through creativity or investing/speculating, however what irks the 99% is that capitalists have given good American middle-class jobs to foreign slavers and then reaped the profits of their misery. There is no win-win when you buy an Apple product for instance, they installed suicide-nets on their factory so that their employees would stop ending their misery through death. Same goes for clothes made by children chained to sweatshops in Bangladesh, agriculture picked by Mexicans deathly afraid of reporting their overseers, and almost everything you consume.

So yeah, we don't begrudge Scott but anyone involved in the above should be torched.

[No one is arguing that capitalism is unbiased, or that slave labor is a win-win. You're arguing with yourself and apparently losing. -- Scott]
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
My 2 cents.

1. It is not a zero-sum game. Technological innovation makes less do more.

2. Some people measure success differently. For them, health, art and good relationships with others, nature, and the cosmos will make them more happy than wealth. Of course, some base level of wealth is necessary to gain those things unless you are Jesus/Buddha.

3. The current Robber Barons have ruined being wealthy for everyone since it is assumed you spend your money on subverting democracy, enslaving the poor and ensuring the environment is destroyed. The most powerful actually do this but obviously the majority do not. However, since the most powerful do, having money be your primary goal in life means you are aligning yourself with the greedy and evil.

4. This has led to a move towards spirituality and environmentalism for many and towards blatant secular hedonism for the rest. The spiritual environmentalist-types prefer a minimalist Christ/Buddha style of living where working for GDP growth is seen as evilly supporting the corporate, world-eating machine. The hedonists, probably the majority of people, are able to be hedonists quite cheaply nowadays and thus don't care that much for additional work and the following success.

5. In the end, I think it depends how you get wealth. Buying shares of the largest banks would always be profitable because they are TBTF and have influence in government that legitimate free-market capitalism wouldn't allow. However, I see this as hugely unethical since they have become TBTF through corrupting democracy and breaking the system. Choosing to take advantage of that for monetary gain is essentially the same as saying "I'd rather side with the devil than be in his path."

I guess I'm saying that success is only really success if it is done in a way that improves the world and helps people. Otherwise it's just predation. In your case Scott, you didn't really create wealth except for yourself and associates since you make an entertainment product, not something that increases efficiency. Your new book might be different in this way but, essentially, money was just voluntarily given to you in exchange for your art in a zero-sum fashion. Entertainment may make people a little happier and increase efficiency but other entertainment they could have bought with that money would have done the same.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that at all, I hugely respect it, and your entertainment-style will not make the world a worse place, like say, Bum Fights or Faces of Death. Overall though, as a society, we need to start differentiating between good and evil success. Only one should be celebrated.

[You ignore the value of variety for entertainment. If every channel only had Seinfeld reruns, television would soon cease to be a thing. -- Scott]
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014
That was supposed to be VIII for any of you learning your history from Scott's Blog.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 16, 2014

I do not believe that success (and wealth) is zero-some.
The proof for me is that my personal wealth right now is greater than the entire world 100,000 years ago.

The existence of more success than before, is proof.

That success came from a larger pie, not by me somehow taking the success of everyone on the planet.

You live better and are more successful than King Henry VII, well except for the whole behead your wife to get a new one thing.

The fact I can plant a piece of a potato and get more potatoes, or raise chickens, is proof of a growing pot pie.

In 1900 you could not buy a computer at any price. Everyone's life is affected by computers now. That's proof of the larger pie. The industrial revolution dramatically grew the pie.

If we were all fighting over the one apple tree in the one garden, I'd think differently.

The thing to remember, if I am relying on the younger generation to succeed, (to pay for my social security retirement) I guess I'll start hoarding all the lentils.

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