Life is a song – sing it. Life is a game – play it. Life is a challenge – meet it. Life is a dream – realize it. Life is a sacrifice – offer it. Life is love – enjoy it. – Sai Baba
Sri Sathya Sai Baba was, among other things, an Indian guru, poet and philanthropist who died in 2011. There are a number of super-natural events attributed to him, such as miraculous healings, clairvoyance and even a resurrection or two. But this isn’t a post about an Indian mystic. This is a post about the nature of life in the western, work-a-day world.
You see, as much as I love the little poem quoted above, life for the average working stiff in North America, much of Europe and increasingly even in Latin America, Africa and Mr. Baba’s home in South-West Asia is none of those things. Life instead has become a tournament.
Let me explain.
Traditionally, we have been taught that in order to be happy and “get ahead” we need to work hard, so that we can play hard and be content. I’m over simplifying of course but that in a nutshell is the core of the so called Protestant Work Ethic. In other words, you get what you deserve. But increasingly the amount of benefit you can expect to receive as a result of your hard work is disproportionate to the amount of effort you put in.
A few years ago I read a book called “The Winner-Take-All Society” by Robert H Frank and Phillip J Cook. In it they detailed the fact that a disproportionate amount of the spoils from any endeavor always filters to the top of its field. They use the example of sports stars, musical entertainers, movie stars and Wall Street tycoons to illustrate their point but the principle can been seen in many more mundane areas of life as well. The phenomenon, in and of itself, is not all that surprising and not necessarily a bad thing until you consider that the promise of riches, that most people will never enjoy, continues to draw mediocre talent, away from more productive uses of their time and energy. Why do high-school students wile away the hours playing basketball on the street when they should be inside studying for their math test? Because Michael Jordan is one of the wealthiest men in America, that’s why. But there can only be one Michel Jordan and he already took all the money – hence the title of their book.
I was reminded of this idea again this past week when I started reading “Freakonomics” by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner. They are the ones who identified life as more of tournament than a game by examining a gang of Crack Dealers on Chicago’s Southside. It used to be that street gangs were made up exclusively of young teen-aged boys. They existed as a form of family for each other and got their kicks off of petty theft and extortion but once the boys got to be a certain age the need to make a living and support a family trumped all else and the members would filter out to get a “real” job in a factory or some other low skilled profession. All that changed in the early 90s when the economy slowed and a couple of Columbian chemists figured out how to make Crack-Cocaine.
Suddenly, and I am again over simplifying here, the economics of the street gang changed. Now it was possible to make a decent living selling drugs on a street corner, better money in most cases than you could make at the local factory but when you really dig down into the economics of it, not that much better. In fact, the average foot soldier, the person who actually sells the drugs and is the most exposed to law enforcement actually makes less than minimum wage and some aren’t even paid at all. So why do it? Why risk arrest or worse at the hands of a rival gang for what according to Levitt and Dubner amounts to an average of $3.50 an hour?
It’s the same reason why a kid will spend hundreds of hours working on his jump shot in the driveway when the same amount of effort studying the quadratic equation would ensure him a better chance at a decent job in the future; the lure of riches.
The leader of a crack-dealing street gang makes, on average $100,000 a year working from an office in his home, rarely exposed to police or rival gang activity. That leader pays a franchise fee to a higher up who lives in the suburbs and oversees a number of different gangs, some of whom are rivals on the street, making an average of $500,000 to $1 million dollars a year. And the overseer? He pays his franchise fees directly to the drug lords in Columbia who are extimated to worth billions and live far removed from the long arm of the American legal system.
It’s a tournament mentality. Win or go home. Keep winning and move up in the rankings.
When you get right down to it, it’s not unlike the seating system in international Tennis, Golf or Auto Racing. And not unlike the way the whole world works. The places where you make the most at the top; sports, entertainment, drug-dealing and high finance are also the places where you make the least, and take the most risks at the bottom.
So what tournament are you playing? What are the odds you can move up in the rankings? Is it worth it?
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