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Not too long ago, a man moved to my Malibu neighborhood from New York and suddenly became very popular. He held himself out as someone who was in “private equity”, leased a home for $40,000 a month and started going around touring various properties that were for sale for $30,000,000+ and acting extremely wealthy. He drove around my neighborhood in a series of different Ferraris at all times of the day and did not seem to work.
He made friends with many of the most important people in the community and started associating with movies stars and others. Everyone liked him a great deal. He regularly went out for dinners where he ordered $1,000 bottles of wine and mesmerized people with his conspicuous consumption. He got on the guest list of the best clubs in town and spent $10,000 or more on “bottle service” at these clubs. He also allegedly owned hundreds of thousands of dollars in watches.
In addition, his wife had things like $30,000 Hermes purses and an extremely expensive wardrobe and jewelry. She was probably adorned with $100,000+ in clothes, jewels and a purse every time she left the house. Women I knew started looking up to her and considered her to be a real social presence.
I went out to dinner with the guy one night and concluded he might be a gangster.
He told me he was in private equity. When I started mentioning various terms and major firms in this field, he did not seem to know what I was talking about. During dinner, he seemed overly concerned with other people, pecking orders, who owned what house, had a given title, owned a given business, how much money one person had compared to another, and who had a lesser model of a car than another person. He was obsessed with what other people were doing, and I found it off-putting because I knew he was most certainly going to do the same thing with me. It also made me uncomfortable: Was the only thing that matters the various “surface” achievements of others? Who cared if someone was rich and another not?
“What kind of watch are you wearing?” he asked me.
I showed him my $800 watch I had bought a decade ago—one of my more expensive jewelry purchases of all time. He shrugged, “oh.”
When I asked him what type of watch he was wearing, it turned into a 10-minute conversation about his $75,000 gold Patek Philippe watch that he had flown to another city to buy used from a dealer and its various functions – one of which was following the moon (a good feature I guess). He then spoke about several other watches he owned, but I do not remember all the details.
A few weeks after our dinner, the man started calling me on the phone asking me for legal advice since he knew I was an attorney. He asked questions related to buying the rights to films (with “no money down”) and going after various businesses for frivolous claims. I very quickly realized that most of his legal objectives were negative in nature and did not want to be involved. I was also very curious how he was affording all of these cars, real estate, fancy dinners and clothing.
At some point, he started talking to me about his expertise in the stock market and how he could watch various financial news shows, read peoples’ body language and suddenly have an understanding of which way a stock—or the financial markets were moving. I found his analysis fascinating, and it was hypnotic. He talked about how he had made millions of dollars with this sort of insight and timing the market, and he could help me too. I did not believe him—but it was very clear to me how someone without a lot of financial experience could believe him. “How else do people on Wall Street make hundreds of millions of dollars?” the typical person might think to themselves. “It must involve these sorts of secrets, and now I have access to them too! I need to invest now!”
I have a small law firm and, eventually after hours of speaking with him, told him I was not interested in helping him because I did not think anything he was doing had any merit. Once I told him that, he called a few more times telling me I would “get a piece of the action” after I had shaken down people for money, or done various deals with him. I still told him I was not interested and eventually the calls stopped.
I have seen this go on a few times over the past several years: Con men who move in my area and carry out a pattern of making friends with people, stealing from them and then folding up and going to prison. For the life of me, I cannot understand it. These are generally likeable people: Why do they feel the need to hurt people and cause destruction?
I have seen this with law firms as well. One of my friends went to work for a law firm called Dreier, LLP that one man, Marc Dreier, built by running a Ponzi scheme. For whatever reason, he wanted to build a large law firm with a huge client list and committed crimes to gather the money to pay the lawyers to help him do it. He stole hundreds of millions of dollars to do this and got caught. The law firm closed, and he was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
None of these things make people happy. The only thing that makes you happy is the meaning you give to whatever is happening to you in your life. Your beliefs and values are what shape your life. Your mind is like a filter and gives meaning to everything.
Many depressed and unhappy people have everything to be happy about and yet are still unhappy. They give a negative meaning to everything around them that is happening – despite the fact that there are plenty of things around them to be happy about. Whatever happens to these people, regardless of what it is, will make them unhappy. They are seeing things through negative filters, and these filters are creating negative lives for them.
One of the biggest mistakes that people make is comparing themselves to others and basing their self-worth on how they measure up compared to others: This never ending process is sure to end in unhappiness and disappointment. There are always going to be people who are better than you at something.
Some of the unhappiest people in the world – in my opinion—are those people who have the most wealth and are very successful people. Some places I have encountered with an extremely high proportion of unhappy and depressed people are New York City and Aspen, Colorado. These are places with a stunning number of extremely successful people. Nevertheless, many of these same people look around them, and all they see are people who are far, far better than them:
They live in a world where they are constantly comparing themselves to others and seeing themselves as “less than” and coming up short. In contrast, if these people did not judge themselves based on others’ standards – or against people who were better than them—they would most likely be far happier. Their filters see others and feel inferior. Whereas in some environments they would be big fish in a small pond, they have become average fish in a large pond and base their self-worth on this.
When I think of people like the crooks in my neighborhood, or Dreier, the only thing I can think of is that they must feel a tremendous drive that makes them feel incredibly inadequate without a huge house, law firm, or great wealth (or nice watch or a Ferrari).
Some part of them has decided to filter the world in such a way that the only way they can be happy is by achieving something at all costs—even if it means losing their freedom. They must feel tremendously unhappy inside to feel this way. They must feel that they are someone inferior and not worth anything without reaching some level of success. They must believe that when they reach a certain level they will be happy.
Where do people get messages like this?
I am all for achievement—and high achievement at that! But more important than achievement is happiness. If you are not happy, then this is a huge problem. Your drive for success should never be so great that the only way you feel you can succeed is by doing something wrong. You are never going to fill your emptiness inside by getting somewhere. Your power needs to come from within, and you need to choose filters that allow you to be happy despite what others are up to.
The happiness these people experience is all related to the meaning they are giving everything around them.
See the following articles for more information: