There is an ever present debate on whether people can lift themselves up by their bootstraps or if many can’t get ahead because they lack privilege. Or as I may colorfully put it – the fight between money assholes and money victims.
But how do you know whether to be Team Asshole or Team Victim? The pros of one side are the cons of the other. Therefore, I propose a third option – Team Empathy.
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The Battle Between Money Assholes and Money Victims
Part of me is team asshole. I made the right choices and so can everyone else. Also, there’s nothing wrong with working as if hard work can determine the outcome, even if you don’t actually have that kind of control.
But I also know the importance of environment. If everyone around you makes the right choices, it’s hard NOT to follow. Not everyone is that lucky. That leads me to team victim. Sometimes you can do everything right and still fall up short. For those times, it really sucks to have people second-guessing your choices, your discipline, and/or your competence.
How to Spot a Money Asshole
Money Assholes are self-described as successful and tout the hard decisions and hard work that brought them success.
If someone asks for advice about their struggles, assholes will list off resources on stoicism, bodybuilding, and mindset!.
The theme for Money Assholes is “Just try harder!”
How to Spot a Money Victim
Money Victims are the ones that point out all the privileges that the Money Asshole had that helped him/her succeed and the many obstacles that exist to prevent other people from succeeding.
If someone asks for advice about their struggles, victims will tell them that it’s the system that’s wrong.
The theme for Money Victims is “You didn’t earn that!”
Comparing Assholes and Victims
Here’s a quick chart comparing the two.
|Team Bootstraps||Team Victim|
The Benefits of the Money Asshole Ethos
It makes sense to focus on what you can control. Sure some succeed because they were born rich or well-connected but many more have excelled where no one expected them to.
As Chris Rock once said:
“You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese . . .
Some people think that team asshole means ignoring the inequalities in the world. Being Team Asshole doesn’t mean that the world is fair. It just means we focus on what is within our control.
Further, people are far more resilient than many people imagine. Though many people know about post-traumatic stress disorder, fewer people know that after a traumatic experience, many people actually experience tremendous growth. One expert estimates that 2/3 of people who suffer trauma actually come out better for it. So while others may think pity is the proper response, maybe that’s aiming too low.
Money assholes have higher expectations.
The Problems with Being a Money Asshole
In humankind’s more primitive days, the thinking was that if something bad happened, you must have done something to anger the gods. Even now we see a bad result and we ask what did you do wrong?
Annie Duke says in Thinking in Bets that when we look back at our decisions, we tend to judge whether they’re good or bad based on their outcomes. The problem is that you’re ignoring the presence of luck.
For example, Jill goes to college, gets a great job and easily pays off her loans. Jill did everything right. Jack goes to college, has trouble finding a job and struggles to pay off his loans. Jack made a mistake.
You can make the decision that is right 80% of the time, but you could be in that 20%. And sometimes being in the 20% on one bad choice can derail all other good decisions.
Unlike Assholes, Money Victims Understand Luck
There’s a scene in Sex and the City at a seminar with a self-help guru (bear with me and try not to roll your eyes too much). The guru is all about manifesting and mindset (I told you to stop rolling your eyes!).
A woman in the crowd said that she followed the plan and met a great new guy. Enthusiastic applause. Then, Charlotte stands up:
Charlotte: I’m just wondering how long that woman was doing her affirmations because I’ve been doing mine every day. And I want to believe but nothing is happening. I just don’t think it’s working. I just don’t think it will work for me.
Guru: I hear fear. I hear doubt. You have to believe love to receive love. Keep repeating your affirmations and eventually your heart will catch up with your head. . . .Perhaps you’re not really putting yourself out there.
Guru: …I mean emotionally and physically…. Maybe you’re not really trying.
And we, the viewers, know Charlotte is not only a true believer but also a diligent person. She just hadn’t been lucky.
The Value Added by Money Victims
Money Victims succeed exactly where Money Assholes don’t – they understand the importance of luck, they are aware of systemic obstacles that can cause different results. Money Victims also can provide a healthy dose of humility to those who think they have it all figured out – when other people choose the same decisions, their results can vary dramatically.
There are so many invisible barriers that confront women and minorities in advancing in corporate America. As many rags-to-riches stories as there are, there are millions of talented and hard-working people who never get to achieve their highest dreams. The difference between success and failure can be razor-thin.
The Problems with Money Victims
If Money Assholes veer a little too much toward “everyone can succeed!”, Money Victims can veer too close to suggesting success is impossible. It seems like you’re instilling a failure mentality and that can be extremely damaging.
As Amy Chua discusses in The Triple Package, to succeed in America, you need to have a really strong belief in yourself.
They say it takes more certainty than talent to be a star. I mean, look at John Stamos. – Emma (on Glee)
Great things can come from expecting more. True to her Tiger Mom title, Amy Chua, has a daughter with Down Syndrome who holds two International Special Olympic gold medals. I think it’s amazing that Chua didn’t put limits on what her daughter could do.
When you think someone has a privilege, you’re helping them be better because you expect more from them. When you think someone doesn’t have privilege, you expect less and they are likely to deliver less. It sometimes makes me a little upset when Money Victims proclaim the gospel of victimhood, as if people can just wait until all these barriers have come down before they can succeed. People need help now and once people succeed, they can help pave the way for others.
How People Respond to Money Victims and Assholes
Isn’t it funny when you tell someone an absolute, they rebel against it? Like if you say, don’t do this, they’re more likely to try it, even if they didn’t want to before you made the prohibition. If you said, do something, you may resent doing it, even if you wanted to do it anyway.
I think a lot of people may respond to Money Victims and Assholes in the exact opposite way you would expect. At least I do. I look at Money Victims and think, hey people have autonomy [see anecdotes]! I see Money Assholes and exclaim, it’s really hard [see anecdotes]!
This is the problem with absolutes. No one likes being told what they can or cannot do. So the results of each side’s scolding can be exactly the opposite of what was intended.
There Are No Bad Guys
I think it’s important to note that both sides of this “debate” are really trying to help. The Money Assholes want to share the knowledge of how they succeeded in life to help others. Money Victims want to highlight the obstacles that many people face in order to knock them down. I’ve listed pros and cons of both because they both have value. And as you can see the benefits of one approach are the cons of the other.
I think of Team Victim as being like a mom and Team Responsibility as being like a dad. Men often give advice as their way of helping. Women are wired for community and protecting the weak. But people might not be strong enough for Asshole advice while also not being weak enough for Victim advice. There must be some approach in the middle.
A Third Approach – Team Empathy
Money Assholes misinterpret some people’s failures as a sign that they’re not trying or that they’re giving up. But everyone who’s failing is at least trying. Failure needs to be embraced. If Money Assholes embraced their vulnerability and acknowledged their failures, that would build a bridge between them and others.
Money Victims sometimes misinterpret failures as intractable problems. But just because someone hasn’t made it yet, doesn’t mean they can’t. Someone might be just on the other side of success. And just because it’s very difficult for people to get to the CEO position, it doesn’t mean they can’t improve their lots in life. Incremental improvement is so important and so needed; it should not be discounted that anyone can improve their life a little bit.
Both approaches lack emotional intelligence. They put agendas ahead of helping someone. But how do you help someone without putting yourself in the forefront? You ask questions.
Why Money Empathy Is So Important
I think there’s a third perspective where we don’t have to approach someone with toxic optimism or with toxic negativity. The choice isn’t between promoting endless hope or undying pessimism. In fact, we don’t have to come in with our own agendas at all.
In the Sex and the City clip, Charlotte clearly wanted someone to affirm her. It’s the common trope that women often communicate for a sense of community, not to be given advice. I think that’s really beautiful. Hammering the same defective advice, like the guru did, short circuits that connection. You’re not solving anything and you’re breaking a relationship. But then again, lecturing Charlotte about all the problems that make dating hard for women isn’t getting her closer to the family life she wants. She eventually finds success in dating, and it’s because she had the empathy of her friends.
When people are struggling, I want to be the person who seeks to understand, not to promote my own agenda. I shouldn’t put my personal experiences or my feelings about the system at the forefront of the conversation – I should put the individual there.
I’m a Money Asshole overall, but I know that when I’m struggling, I want someone to just hear me out. I know people who give advice are trying to help, but it comes off as condescending. I get defensive and I can’t hear anything from them until I feel heard. Empathy is the trick toward getting your advice heard and strengthening your bond while you’re at it.
The Current Moment
I think all-or-nothing thinking is omnipresent at this time when we talk about issues of inequality. For instance, I see many money victims asserting that the “unprivileged” are helpless until the system is changed. That might be true for the big things, but it will take decades to change – and that seems to mean people can’t improve their lot in life at all at the moment. On the other side I see money assholes scolding people who are really suffering. Neither side is helping.
When I think about this moment in life, I think about uncertainty. There is still so much we don’t know about the pandemic. Some people have gotten ill while being meticulously careful while millions are fine while taking far greater risks. I’ve seen so many people shaming those for getting COVID no matter how many precautions they took, and shaming those for going out even if they didn’t get COVID. But luck is having its way with us.
Real Life – Outcomes Do Not Follow Results
We don’t have as much control as we think we do. It doesn’t mean we don’t try as hard as possible to be safe (wear masks and avoid large groups y’all!!), but we have very little control over the results. This pandemic hit at the wrong time for some people and at the right time for others. I would be at a loss if I was in law school right now, or even working. But it’s not like I’m smarter or planned better – it’s total luck.
And because we are all just walking blindly through this current moment, and we don’t know what the ending will be, being kind to each other is the only way we can make this time bearable.
Conclusion – Are You a Money Asshole or a Money Victim?
I will always be a proponent of living as optimistically as possible. Focus on what you can control, and sometimes even just lie to yourself so that you believe, so that you can have hope.
Act as if the world was rigged in your favor. – Rumi
And that makes it seem like I’m more team Asshole, but team Victim is optimistic as well. It assumes people are working hard.
Team Asshole and Team Victim are both great teams. We need both perspectives in our lives. But when someone comes to us beaten by life, as so many of us are these days, let’s treat him or her like an individual and focus on the individual. Let’s sit with them in their sorrow, and acknowledge their struggles. Let’s hold this pose for as long as possible. Only then should we even begin to think to give advice, if requested, rail against the system, and, in due time, encourage us all to get back out there.