The title sounds a bit like a shady law firm, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s meant to convey the emotions of this post’s topic. A topic I’ve thought a lot about recently, and one that another blogger covered in a recent post, The Guilt of Wealth. It deals with the emotions of money – from the shame of being poor, to the shame of being rich, and the greed and envy we feel in between those emotions.
Photo by ItzaFineDay
Are the rich really wrecking the planet? Or are we all guilty? Or is it just a select group who have taken advantage of our financial system to maximize personal gain? First of all, I don’t hate the rich. Wealthy people open businesses that create new jobs. They invest in new technologies that keep our economy humming along (or at least sputtering along, as it’s been here lately). Wealthy people are also often the greatest philanthropists. Bill Gates comes to mind. Think of the good that he and his wife, Melinda, have done for others through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
I recognize that some wealthy people are not quite as giving. They often stomp on the little guy on their way to the top. They are shrewd. They take no prisoners. They lay off employees to save the company’s bottom line, and fatten their wallets. It’s safe to say there are plenty of examples on both sides of the argument.
The Evolution of Shame
Just a decade or so ago being poor was a great source of shame for many families. Most subscribed to the upward mobility theory that all of us should be striving to improve our economic lot in life. Those who didn’t were deemed lazy, unintelligent, or simply not properly motivated.
Slowly but surely things began to shift. A number of corporate scandals from Enron to Bernie Madoff left a permanent black eye on corporate America. No longer was it cool to be a member of the executive level. And then the government started bailing out many of these same corporate types who bailed out with their own golden parachutes, leaving behind a mess for someone else to clean up. The American public became fed up with the corner office. But has the pendulum swung too far?
With the help of the current administration and their unprecedented use of a pay czar responsible for oversight of executive compensation, we now have much more to say about the workings of corporate America than ever before. Is that a good thing? Well, that remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, it has definitely put a freeze on the spread of capitalism.
Jealousy vs. Envy
We have all felt that little twinge when a friend brags about their new home, or their recent promotion. But I believe there are two fundamental types of jealous people. The first group of people is happy for their friend, and even if they are a little jealous, they recognize their friend has worked hard and with the same hard work they can aspire to similar accomplishments.
The second group of people are green with envy. They can’t be happy for their friend because they are not happy with themselves. If they can’t have something, then no one should have it. There have always been members of both groups, but in the last several years it seems the population of the latter group is growing.
How Does this Affect the Act of Building Personal Wealth?
There are many people out there dealing with shame because of their success. How can they be happy with the wealth they’ve accumulated when there are so many others out there in poverty? How can they be happy living in a beautiful new home when there are others out there homeless? It’s an interesting dilemma. But what’s lost in the worry over perception is the two factors that led to your success: hard work and luck. Yes, both are required for success.
Sherry left a comment on the post I mentioned in the opening that provided a pretty good analogy for this very dilemma:
Unless you amassed your wealth by stealing it from others, I do not understand why anyone would feel guilty. Don’t accept guilt you don’t earn. If you value something (like a charity) then give to support it. I am not wealthy (yet), but am certainly doing better than some of my siblings. However, I don’t feel guilty because of that. Why would I? It’s like feeling guilty that you [make] an A on a test because you studied, but your best friend only got a C.
Some work hard all their lives, but never get that break that separates those living paycheck to paycheck from those with a seven-figure nest egg. Some acquire wealth through inheritance, through lottery winnings, or some other windfall that didn’t require a great deal of hard work.
For every Paris Hilton in the world there are fifty entrepreneurs working 14-hour days for years to become an overnight success. They invest their life savings, give up their social life, and pour 100% of their energy into building a business month after month. Occasionally, someone hits it big and they can finally breathe. They are finally able to enjoy some of their wealth – buy a new home, a newer car, take a vacation or two, etc. Should we resent them for this success? Or should we hold these people in high regard and say to ourselves, “One day I’d like to be just like that guy!”