A few weeks ago, it was tough to avoid stories in the news media that glorified Jeff Bezos’s ascent to the richest person on earth. And then, just a day later, in a stunning fall from grace, “Bezos dropped to the second richest person as Bill Gates reclaimed the #1 spot!“.
This annoyingly petty play-by-play commentary and glamorization of those with obscene levels of wealth has been around for ages. Steve Forbes grew his media empire, in part, due to the draw of rank lists of the top 500 wealthiest individuals. And who could forget the jealousy-inducing allure of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” (age qualifying) or “MTV Cribs”?
“But don’t wait – you too can be just like them!”. An entire segment of luxury goods in just about every consumer market – vehicles, homes, travel, clothing, jewelry, restaurants, education – is dedicated to giving you the opportunity to showcase or at least create the illusion of wealth.
Would Donald Trump have been elected if millions of Americans weren’t swayed or impressed by his (unverified) self-professed billions?
Who can forget this photo? (the toy limousines and joy-less expressions got an under-rated amount of play compared to the “working man’s” gold-plated everything and Barron riding a giant and awkwardly stiff stuffed lion, in my opinion)
In a further display of an unhealthy fascination with wealth, Trump then went on to hand-pick 17 cabinet members that had more combined wealth than 100 million Americans put together – over a third of the country – famously stating,
“In those particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person.”
But this is not a “bash Trump” editorial. He’s merely a symptom of a much bigger disturbing trend. Generally speaking, our country has an unhealthy obsession with wealth and wealthy people. They get more respect, admiration, and idolization than they truly deserve. And unfortunately, this represents a lack of character and moral compass in who we are.
Obscenely wealthy people aren’t bad, by default. A few of them may actually fully deserve the billions they’ve amassed. But a clever or lucky business idea (most of the time luck plays a huge role in finances) and the subsequent equity downpour that typically leads to obscene wealth these days should not – on its own – make anyone an idol, role model, or hero.
I don’t quote the Bible often, but one of my favorite verses that has stuck with me through the years is Mathew 19:24:
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
The heroes I believe in have earned my respect and admiration for what they did – not the wealth they might have amassed.
- Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and other civil rights leaders are heroes because they risked their lives to fight for racial, voting, and economic justice, rights, and freedoms.
- Our nation’s service men and women are heroes because they selflessly risk their lives for our country.
- Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and John F. Kennedy are heroes because they took bold stances against injustice and led our country through splintered and perilous times.
- Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are heroes because they boldly went where no person had gone before.
- Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Jesse Owens are heroes because they used their talents to fight racial discrimination and hatred and they changed the game.
- Ghandi, Jesus Christ, the Dali Lama, and Mother Theresa are heroes because they fought tirelessly and risked their lives for peace and humanitarian causes.
And sometimes heroes have amassed wealth, but it’s not their wealth that makes them heroes – it’s the use of that wealth to make the world a better place:
- Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are heroes not because of their wealth or business acumen, but because they have pledged to give away at least 50% of their wealth for philanthropic causes, and have encouraged many more to follow the same wealth-giving pledge.
- Elon Musk is a hero, not because of his wealth or business acumen, but because instead of sitting on his wealth, he has put it at risk to solve some of humankind’s biggest challenges like global warming and space exploration.
In fact, when I think about the every day people I most admire, there is often an inverse correlation between my respect and admiration for the work they do and what they get paid. I have an immense amount of respect and admiration for school teachers, emergency responders, nurses, activists, social workers, and firefighters – all of which are dramatically underpaid for the work they do. My admiration for overpaid hedge fund managers, TV and movie stars, corporate executives, and pop music icons is… lagging (at best).
What are the takeaways from this soap box?
- Idolizing the wealthy is a joyless and empty pursuit that is likely to make you miserable. You’d be much better off to focus on what you truly need in life and not keeping up with the rich and famous (or the faux rich down the street). Nobody is going to remember you for the stuff you owned, how many hours/years you worked, or how much you accrued in your bank and investment accounts.
- If you are lucky enough to fall in to the category of the extremely wealthy, understand that the real work on your legacy is just starting and has nothing to do with how much money you’ll die with.
- When we idolize people for the wrong reasons (appearance, ego, wealth, bravado), it tears at the moral fiber of who we are and it severely limits what we can become. Let’s make a pact to emulate, elect, reward, and recognize real heroes and not waste the mental space, time, or energy on things or people that don’t deserve our admiration.
Update: I added a 2nd part to this series, by covering the anti-heroism of the spoiled and greedy class.