Are You A Failure If You’re Not Rich?

Noah Brand explores an industry that capitalizes on men’s need to feel successful, even when they can’t afford it.

This post was previously published at No Seriously What About Teh Menz.

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We can, at this point, take it as well-established that men are too often considered “success objects” by society, yes? I don’t need to once again explain how, just as women are judged by their perceived adherence to a largely arbitrary standard of sexual attractiveness, men are judged by their material and financial “success”? Good.

Now, being “successful” financially has never been easy, and has only gotten harder in recent decades. Thing is, the narrative that anyone can get rich is built very deeply into American culture. You might even call it one of our founding myths. And while it’s theoretically true, it’s functionally irrelevant, because the real problems are caused by an unspoken corollary to that myth, one that’s murderously false. If anyone can get rich, this assumption runs, then everyone can get rich, and therefore any person who’s not rich has, in some way, failed.

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Nobody ever quite phrases it that bluntly, but that basic model informs a great deal of the way Americans think about wealth and class.

The effect of this pernicious myth is that the majority of the population, those of us who live paycheck to paycheck and bite our lips when the utility bills arrive, are considered losers. Sometimes we’re called that to our face, sometimes we just feel it inside, but that’s the result of that model. If you’re not rich, it’s your own fault, because you’re a loser. Our society is, therefore, made up of an overwhelming majority of losers, though naturally nobody likes to say that out loud.

If you’re not rich, it’s your own fault, because you’re a loser. Our society is, therefore, made up of an overwhelming majority of losers.

Now, this myth doesn’t stand up to even five seconds of examination. It is mathematically impossible, in a hierarchical economy, for everyone to be on top. The unspoken promise that everyone can get rich remains unspoken because if you say it out loud, it sounds as stupid as making everyone in the navy an admiral. (It would function about as well, too. Someone’s got to actually do some work.) Nor do fanciful notions of economic meritocracy survive so much as a cursory look at the real world. No, the fact is that if you’re struggling to get by, it’s because you’re in a system designed to keep you that way, and you didn’t win any of the various lotteries available.

The genius of it, though, is that the struggling 90% of the population feel like it’s their own fault they’re struggling. As though all those millions of people could have somehow gotten rich if they were better human beings. That’s internalized victim-blaming on a breathtaking scale, and as works of sociological bastardry go, it’s genuinely impressive.

Now, tie that fact in with the “success object” notion, the idea that financial success is the only source of worth for a man. If you don’t win this rigged game, you are a failure and a loser and an entirely unworthy human being. That takes this problem from a normal level of horrible to hideously toxic.

This isn’t to say that women don’t get the short end of the economic stick just as much, but… I think it’s a bit different, emotionally. Women can more easily feel valued for their looks (if they happened to win that particular lottery) or their family and emotional connections. “She’s struggling, but she’s so good to her family” is a narrative that applies more easily to a woman than a man. A man’s contribution to his family is expected to be as breadwinner, and when they’ve changed the odds in the bread game so you can’t win as much… well, that puts you in a bad position, doesn’t it? Combine that with the widely-accepted lie that “normal” women only like men with a thick, swollen… wallet, and you’ve got a way to make almost every man in the country feel, on some level, inadequate and worthless.

There’s something even creepier, though. Just as the women-as-sex-objects narrative has created the fucked-up mess that is the beauty industry, so has the men-as-success-objects routine gotten together with the rigged game of the American economy to create the success industry. And hot damn, are they both ineffably awful.

Feminists have done a pretty good job breaking down how the essential message of the beauty industry is “You are ugly, and therefore worthless. We can fix you if you give us more money.” It’s a pretty solid business model, and supports an enormous industry of (among others) makeup, spas, fashion, diets, gyms, “corrective” clothing, and even self-esteem counselling. Ka-ching. Not to say men are immune to this industry; I’ve bought my share of diet books and paid my share of gym fees. I think we can agree, however, that the core market of the beauty industry is women who’ve been made to feel worthless if they’re not pretty enough.

…what they’re selling isn’t actually success. They’re selling a reinforcement of the fundamental lie, that it’s your own fault you’re not rich.

The success industry has essentially the same central business model. “You’re not rich enough, and therefore worthless. We can fix you if you give us more money.” Every investment scam, every fake sales position or multi-level marketing scheme, every motivational seminar, every phony trade school, every financial self-help book, every slick con-job that claims to offer a way out, a secret trick, a way to achieve your financial dreams, they’re all part of the success industry. They’re all based on that same lie, that everyone can get rich, but they use the blame as bait. You’re a loser, they agree, but you can stop being a loser. Just pay the admission, give us your student loans, buy the tapes, subscribe to the newsletter, buy ten more cases for Senior Distributor status, and you can get rich. You can succeed. You can be a worthwhile human being. You can be a Real Man. Indeed, an actual line “motivational” speakers like to quote is from Ayn Rand, that your monetary worth is a direct expression of how much value you contribute to society.

They’re all fundamentally scams, of course. If any of these things resulted in more money flowing to the people paying for them than to the people charging for them, that would constitute a broken business model. It would mean that the industry was panning for gold at the wrong point in the stream, if you see what I mean.

That doesn’t matter, though, because what they’re selling isn’t actually success. They’re selling a reinforcement of the fundamental lie, that it’s your own fault you’re not rich. Here you just paid $40 (book) or $400 (seminar) or $40,000 (tuition) for “the tools to succeed” and all it got you was two to five digits poorer. Well, that must be your own fault; they gave you the tools, didn’t they?

I think the purest example of these is the motivational speeches and seminars. Check your local listings; there are probably a bunch of these scheduled just today in your city. Speaking as someone who’s paid for both, they remind me a lot of lottery tickets. People joke about lottery tickets as a tax on people who are bad at math, but I don’t think that’s true. Lottery tickets are a carrying charge for hope. Between the time you buy the ticket and the time the drawing reconfirms that you’re a loser, there’s a window where you have this bare edge of hope, this idea that maybe, just maybe, in a few days you won’t have to be afraid or ashamed any more. Sure, rationally you know that one chance in a hundred million isn’t very good, but the sweet taste of that maybe is worth a dollar.

One of the worst things you can call a man, one of the words that men tend to write in their suicide notes, is “failure”. That word defines, cripples, and destroys untold numbers of men, and if you ask anyone for its antonym, you get the name of the industry that sells it.

Likewise, motivational speakers provide a dizzying high, the illusion of economic agency. You walk out of a good speech or seminar feeling energized, feeling like you can do anything, feeling like this time, this time, it’s all going to turn around and you’re going to really make it. I’m told that cocaine has much the same effect, but has legal complications and causes nosebleeds. Either way, you’re not paying for the beneficial effect it has on your life, you’re paying for the high. The high always comes with the crash, though, when everything doesn’t turn around, and you compare yourself with that confident world-conquering person who walked out of that hotel conference room and feel like scum. The only cure is another hit of the same stuff, and congratulations, loser, you have a job after all. Your job title is “revenue stream”.

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There’s no denying that women are also prey to the success industry, but I feel like men are, again, the core market. Just as the beauty myth damages both sexes but hits women harder, the success myth does the same to men. One of the worst things you can call a man, one of the words that men tend to write in their suicide notes, is “failure”. That word defines, cripples, and destroys untold numbers of men, and if you ask anyone for its antonym, you get the name of the industry that sells it.

Some folks will say that I’m against the free market here, but that’s not so. If anything, the existence of the success industry is a testament to the genius of the free market. Victim-blaming is about as old as victims, sure, but finding a way to charge the victims for the blaming? That’s pretty goddamned impressive.

photo: epsos / flickr

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About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, and possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.

Comments

  1. The notion of woman-as-sex-object has been rightly challenged. The expectation of man-as-provider, not so much.

    The answer to “Are you a failure if you’re not rich?” needs to be clearly understood: Only in the eyes of people whose opinions don’t matter.

    • If we are using the women-beauty-myth as a correlate to the men-success-myth, then yes, you are right, it is only in the eyes of people whose opinions don’t matter. It still hurts though. It still causes feelings of inadequacy. It’s a very insidious method of enculturation: the idea that your self-worth is defined by your body or your material possessions is reiterated in our culture and it is very difficult to shake. I had ingrained those notions by high school. It’s still hard for me to shake sometimes.

  2. Tank Driver Mom says:

    Copyleft, you are so right…

    As one woman, let me just say, my list of valuables in a guy: a sense of humor, brains, the ability to feed yourself when I’m not around, to love and respect the kids, and me, and most important, the ability to be here when you are here, . The ability to buy me marble counter tops, not on my list at all. Having cash does not equate to having character, or even being someone I’d trust to hold a leash while I retie my shoe.

    Looks, wealth, even health disappear, a good man lasts long after all that evaporates.

  3. I concur with the majority of the article. I remember a time in my life when my entire self worth was tied to my money, material possessions and my professional titles. I was the guy who spent hundreds of dollars trying to figure out a way to “get rich” and ultimately I ended up losing everything. The good news is that during the darkest period of my life I asked myself a question that would change everything. The question was “What if I took all the energy and effort I have used in trying to get rich, and focused it all on simply being happy?” As a result of asking this question I refocused my life and can now say that I am happier right now today than I have ever been in my life. I may not be monetarily rich (yet, because that is still one of my goals) but I am rich beyond compare when it comes to my relationships, my health, my spirituality and my participation within my community.

    • your post was a wonderful read, best wishes to you dude

    • wet_suit_one says:

      Dude, I didn’t crash as hard as you did to figure this out, but I still crashed and burned a bit before learning that there’s more to it than money. Life grew immeasurably better afterward and I could see folly for what it was. Folly was all around me for quite awhile and folly was my life’s goal.

      I’ve since come to appreciate wisdom a whole lot more and put folly aside (though I’m still comfortable by any reasonable standard).

      The Wet One

  4. According to some of my wonderful relatives, if you don’t drive a Lexus, BMW or one of those luxury cars by the time you are 40 you are a failure, doesn’t matter your sex. I am a failure because I will still have my little Ford by the time I reach 40 and I am happier for it.

    • wet_suit_one says:

      For my part, I got close to the Lexus / BMW marker of success. I still have that success marker. Other than that though, I’ve pretty much given up on the “success markers” marketable goods. It’s just a waste.

      Fun cars to drive though!

    • If I drive a 1997 Lexus that sometimes doesn’t start, does that count? :)

  5. This article hits on a key political divide. To paraphrase John Steinbeck, the poor in America have been trained to think of themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. A lot of working people think they don’t need private pensions, unions, an American manufacturing base, Medicare, or Social Security, and that with a little hard work and gumption they’ll make that triumphant move from John Steinbeck Row to Ayn Rand Boulevard

    • >The effect of this pernicious myth is that the majority of the population, those of us who live paycheck to paycheck and bite our lips when the utility bills arrive, are considered losers. … The genius of it, though, is that the struggling 90% of the population feel like it’s their own fault they’re struggling.

      (a) You provide no source to prove the claim that 90% of the population is struggling.

      (b) Even if 90% of the population is struggling, I’d contend that it IS largely their fault.

      Why?

      According to a recent issue of Consumer Reports (with the cover story about bank fees), over 80% of Americans don’t balance their checkbooks.

      And according to any number of studies and surveys, somewhere north of 50% of Americans don’t use a budget to set financial goals and track their spending (see here http://www.bankrate.com/finance/consumer-index/do-not-have-household-budget.aspx or here http://www.usatoday.com/money/perfi/basics/financial-diet-digest-2005.htm or Google “Americans are stupid for not using budgets”)

      Point being, most Americans have no one to blame but themselves for living paycheck to paycheck. Most Americans are unwilling to sacrifice in the short term to win in the long-term. Everyone I know who is “struggling” — everyone, without exception — consistently takes stupid financial decisions. Eg, they don’t use a budget, they eat at expensive cafes and restaurants regularly; twice a year they buy a new @400 smartphone even though their old phone works just fine; they crank up the furnace in the cold winters so they can walk around the house comfortably in their underwear; they don’t balance checking accounts; they buy $100 worth of drinks each weekend; they spend $100/month on cable television; they lease cars rather than buying reliable and less expensive new cars; etc, etc, etc. It never ends. And then they expect me to have sympathy for them because they live “paycheck to paycheck.” I’m so tired of their bitching and moaning.

      And this article is yet another example of the bitching and moaning. Lots of talk about gender and social class and blah blah blah. But at no point does the author suggest that men budget their spending or set financial goals. At no point does the author advise men to read books, magazines or articles on personal finance or investing. At no point does the author urge men to save x-percent of their income or build up an emergency fund of x-dollars.

      • Ok CC I’m going to give you a slightly hesitant and reluctant “yeah you’re right” but I’m not going to beat myself up over it. Did high school teach you how to balance that checkbook or were you one of the fortunate few who came by it naturally or was taught with great patience by a diligent parent or teacher? Is there a school that teaches CHILDREN about finance or do we all quietly study at the desk labeled hard knocks? I’ve come close several times only to find myself raped by “the economy”. The first time interest went from prime plus two at 13% to prime plus two at 26% over six months. The two hundred feet of waterfront, the restaurant and the apartment building are now worth over 2 million. Kiss that goodbye right? My mommy and daddy didn’t have the ability to back me up like some of my now wealthy friends. Does that sound like whining or just a statement of fact? The second time I got tagged watching 20 acres of development land lose 70% of its value in less than a year. Yup we made the payments anyway but gee, the bank refused to renew the loans without having the difference between the amount of the loan and current appraised value in cash. Does that sound like I’m whining or does that sound like we got screwed? So have a hearty Fuck you pal. Doing all the right things is no guarantee of success. More folks get the timing wrong than get it right and those who take full credit for having the good fortune to actually get it right turn out to have had a little help from Mom, Dad, Grandparents, or just got lucky with timing. If you can find me ten people on the planet who predicted either of the situations that made us “failures” and made their choices based on that knowledge, you can have the rest of what I still have. Arrogant jerk…..

    • >To paraphrase John Steinbeck, the poor in America have been trained to think of themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

      Steinbeck never said this. Look at his wikiquote page and you’ll see how somewhere along the line, his original comment (an insult against Communists) was distorted into its current pro-socialist propaganda.

      >A lot of working people think they don’t need private pensions, unions, an American manufacturing base, Medicare, or Social Security, and that with a little hard work and gumption they’ll make that triumphant move from John Steinbeck Row to Ayn Rand Boulevard

      If you invest only $200/month ($6/day) at an average annual rate of return of 10%, you’ll be a millionaire if less than 40 years. The 10% growth rate is very realistic over the long-term. From 1980-2000 (which includes Black Monday, one of the largest one-day drops in market history), the Dow Jones averaged about 13% growth annually, while NASDAQ has averaged about 16%. Since the 1920s, the S&P 500 has averaged about 12%/year (though originally it was the S&P 90)

      But it’s easier to complain than to know the facts. And the fact is that for $6/day, you can retire independently wealthy.

  6. It sounds as though Steinbeck thought the lefties of the day weren’t radical ENOUGH.

    How old are you, CC? I used to do the frugality/saving thing quite well, but I found that it got a lot harder after marriage and children. I could have put parsimony down as one of my top three drop-dead requirements in a mate, but you know the old engineering maxim: choose two.

    Why are there so many people out there who played by the rules (worked, saved, invested) that have very unhappy propects for retirement?

  7. It used to be easier to make it; but in these current times, with so many unemployed; its clear the system is rigged against the majority — interesting article — only the 1 percent would respond like CC. The rich corporatepowers that be will have some reality checks fairly soon I think.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] probably going to have about one post a week up at GMP; this week it’s a reprint of my NSWATM piece “The Success Industry”. Still one of my personal favorites; go check [...]

  2. [...] kingdom come. Please come back to Asian before u turn into white ghostPowered by Yahoo! AnswersHelen asks…why men are stereotyping women to be gentle ,loving and caring ?well probably with thei…ing women to be gentle ,loving and caring ?well probably with their kids but when it comes to men ,i [...]

  3. [...] probably going to have about one post a week up at GMP; this week it’s a reprint of my NSWATM piece “The Success Industry”. Still one of my personal favorites; go check [...]

  4. [...] Noah brand explores an industry that capitalizes on men's need to feel successful, even when they can't afford it.  [...]

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