Dr. Jed Diamond asks: What part of the wolf lives in you?
My wife, Carlin, and I saw the movie The Wolf of Wall Street last night. We both enjoyed it, though at three hours it reflected the theme of the movie, “too much is never enough.” The movie is a dark comedy directed by Martin Scorsese, based on Jordan Belfort‘s memoir of the same name. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfort, a New York stockbroker who runs a firm that engages in securities fraud and corruption on Wall Street in the 1990s.
The film opens in 1987, as Jordan Belfort becomes a stockbroker at an established Wall Street firm. His boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), advises him to adopt a lifestyle of sex and cocaine in order to succeed. There’s a wonderful scene of manly bonding between the older mentor Mark Hanna and the younger novice, Belfort, with Hanna humming a tune of joyful engagement and triumph while he pounds his chest along with the music.
Beyond being a fun movie, there are some lessons we can learn that can be important in our lives.
1. Sex matters.
When we’re talking about males and females (whether they are male and female monkeys, zebras, or human beings) sex matters. There’s a lot of sex in the movie, most of it raw, addictive, and not very pretty. But there is a primal vitality to desire for sex and more sex.
But sex matters in another way. Most of the young stock brokers, and hence the players, in this movie are males. In the “fun and games” that play out repeatedly these are clearly male fun and games. We all know that males and females are different (as well as similar in many ways), but the difference goes right down to our DNA.
According to David Page, M.D., one of the world’s leading experts on male and female genetic differences and professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):
“There are 10 trillion cells in human body and every one of them is sex specific. We need to build a better tool kit that is XX and XY informed rather than our current gender neutral stance. We need a tool kit that recognizes the fundamental difference on a cellular, organ, system, and person level between XY and XX.”
In Marianne Legato’s book, Eve’s Rib: The New Science of Gender-Specific Medicine, she says,
“Everywhere we look, the two sexes are startlingly and unexpectedly different not only in their internal function but in the way they experience illness.”
In all aspects of our lives, it’s good to ask, “what does sex have to do with it?”
2. Sex can be as addicting as cocaine.
In the movie it’s clear that in their quest for power, pleasure, and plenty, the guys become addicted to drugs. They get hooked on alcohol, cocaine, and Quaaludes. But sex also becomes addictive as they party with prostitutes and have sex wherever and whenever possible. In my book, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions, I say “When our desire for ‘more sex’ interferes with our family or professional lives, we are looking for love in all the wrong places.”
3. Many of us settle for sex when we’re really looking for love.
All the guys in the film are driven. They’re clearly looking for love, but they’re looking in all the wrong places. Their relationships are a mess. They have trouble relating to women with warmth and intimacy. And they end up alone, but still hoping for the next big score that will make them feel like real men.
In my younger years, like many of these guys, I was driven to try and mate with as many young, attractive females as possible. From a biological perspective mating with as many females as possible fulfills our genetic propensity to make more babies. This is part of being XY (male) creatures. But we all want love and more sex won’t get us there.
4. There is a strong drive to be part of a male tribe.
One of the most compelling aspects of the movie was the passion, pride, and solidarity that the brokers had as they worked together to make more money. DeCaprio was an inspiring leader who people wanted to follow. The feeling of being “one of the gang” and being part of something bigger than ourselves, is one we all share.
In his book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Joshua Green describes the strong attraction we have to being part of a tribe and working out ways that we can become successful as individuals and also support the success of the tribe as a whole. In modern society we are often successful at being able to deal with the inherent dilemma between taking care of myself (me first) and taking care of my tribe (we first). We learn that being for myself-only isn’t the best way to be successful.
5. The same forces that bring us together within a tribe often pit us against other tribes.
There is a strong sense of camaraderie that the guys have in working together as a team—doing deals, making money, having fun. But as they turn their attention outwards they see other groups as suckers to be used. They have little care or compassion for the people who make it possible for them to become rich. As DiCaprio says, “Our job is to take their money and transfer it to our pockets.”
Joshua Green describes the problem this way:
“For humans there is always a selfishness at the group level. Humans nearly always put Us ahead of Them.”
Thus, it’s easy for the tribe of Stratton Oakmont (DiCaprio’s mythic trading firm) to take advantage of all those who aren’t part of their in-group.
6. The way we treat “them” is the way we ultimately treat ourselves.
There’s an old saying: When we point our finger at others, three fingers are pointed back at ourselves. Ultimately the deceit and dishonesty that are directed at the people they swindle comes back to destroy their lives. Everyone’s problems get worse as they begin to suffer from erectile dysfunction, anger and rage, depression, and the destruction of their marriages. Truly, what goes around, comes around.
The Wolf of Wall Street may be just a movie, but I suggest there is a little bit of “the wolf” in each of us. I long for that passion and that commitment to succeed at all cost. I want the joy of being part of the tribe, leading others into battle. I too can often get caught up in the desire for more, bigger, better, younger, prettier. What part of the wolf lives in you?
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