Being More with Less (and Other Things I Learned from Mitt Romney and Linda McMahon)

John Philip Law and Marisa Mell in <em>Danger Diabolik</em> (1968)
A still from Danger Diabolik (1968). Sure, Marisa Mell loved John Philip Law’s money. But it wasn’t just the money. Law also happened to be handsome, funny, engaging, talented and dangerous. He was also one snappy dresser and probably really good in bed.

While President Obama’s campaign outspent Mitt Romney’s (Obama: $852.9 million; Romney: $752.3 million), American voters ultimately favored the middle class guy over the rich guy. In Connecticut, former WWE executive Linda E. McMahon spent forty million of her own dollars to win a Senate seat and lost. These are different circumstances and substantially different dollar amounts, but a notable point remains: money won’t help you if you’re not interesting to begin with.

It boils down to character and message. In my lifetime, I’ve been around enough wealthy people whose only interesting characteristic seemed to be their money. They weren’t particularly funny, challenging or engaging. While they may have had some exquisite and expensive clothes, beautiful homes and hot cars, they bored me to tears. It was as if they relied on their wealth and all it bought them as their primary laurel, like a dim young beauty with nothing much to say, relying solely on looks to get by.

Let me be clear… I have nothing against the wealthy, and I like money just as much as the next capitalist. I rely on it to pay my rent, buy affordable custom suits and feed my dog. My problem lies with people’s susceptibility to money’s intoxicating, misguiding and reality-altering effects. If I ever get to a lazy place where I rely on it to compensate for lack of more substantive characteristics (“I’m not particularly funny, but look at my Porsche.” “I’m obese, but I own a penthouse.” “I really don’t have a whole lot to say, but I’m wearing a $4,000 Dior suit.”), then I’m in trouble.

As men, it’s in our nature to use our strongest assets to win love and approval. We use what we got. Some of us are witty, good-looking, intelligent, well-spoken, creative, talented, engaging or even physically fit, which can also be a too-relied-upon one-trick bag. But when wealth or the desired perception of prestige is the big draw, without much else to back it up… yawn.

It’s not only a potentially big bore. It’s also a wall of disconnect that puts the average guy off. It’s out of touch. We can’t relate to it. Aspire to it? Sure. Envy it? Maybe. But relate to it? No. And yet one might argue that total lack of relation to common folk might actually be a goal of the wealthy. That “I have arrived” or “I’m here, you’re not” idea. Glossy, but hollow.

I’m no kind of expert, but I wonder if things would have been different for Mitt Romney if he had a real working class, came-up-from-nothing, “knows how hard it is” kind of backstory. But unfortunately for him, he has a knack for looking wealthy and out of touch in a pair of jeans. (Is it the hair?) He seemed to me like a guy who had spent so much time far, far away from anything remotely resembling a real struggle. The hardship of the average American is something he can only imagine. His opponent, on the other hand, possesses a quality so palpably colored by hardship, intellectual pursuits, hard work and first-hand experience with the real struggles of the rest of us. The result is a genuine character that cannot be bought.

This whole petty diatribe about money not being enough reminds me of the famous Steve Jobs quote about what made Apple a success. The folks at Microsoft have all the technology they need to win the hearts of technology consumers, but they miss the mark. They lack an intangible that the money guys missed… those classes that the guys in business school thought were so pointless. Let’s review:

“Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

I write this to remind you (and myself) that real character is an inside job. Externals like clothes, cars, and homes can make it look better and even feel better for a few minutes, but they’re merely tools best employed to complement something richer and more worthwhile underneath. Like the good looks of the pretty boy who outgrew his youth, they’re not enough on their own. Dorian Gray’s real portrait was telling the ugly truth the whole time up in the attic. If you’re trying to be more likable, lovable, funnier, more engaging, more popular, more attractive or just generally more interesting, money will not save you.


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