There was a time in the ancient past when I was certain I'd be wealthy one day. Well, that one day has arrived and I now possess just as many Italian villas and NFL franchises as I did back then -- here's a hint: I'm thinking of a whole number less than 1.
There are a handful of reasons I'm not rich, most of which reflect poorly on my smarts, skills and determination. So, we'll just ignore those.
But there is one reason I rather fancy:
I am not a psychopath.
Oh, I took an online test, so I know I'm not a psychopath. Don't you know that there is no mystery of the human soul that can't be cracked with 15 multiple-choice questions on the Internet?
And what does that have to do with the lack of Lamborghinis in my garage? See, if you were a psychopath, you wouldn't ask that question.
In recent years, there has been a boom in books about psychopaths and sociopaths -- there is a technical difference in the two terms but not in behavior, so they're functionally interchangeable. And those books all come from a perspective that it's not you that's the psychopath, but it might be all those people more successful than you.
The most recent of those books is called "The Wisdom of Psychopaths" by Kevin Dutton, but there's also "How to Spot a Psychopath," "The Sociopath Next Door," "Women Who Love Psychopaths," "The Psychopath Test," "Red Flags of Love Fraud -- 10 Signs You're Dating a Sociopath"
The first message behind this cascade of titles is that psychopaths are not always murderous nut jobs and serial killers, that violence need not be part of the personality profile. And that leads to the second message: Once you take out a tendency toward violence, the universe of potential psychopaths expands dramatically. And then comes the ultimate epiphany behind the whole psychopaths-are-everywhere movement: Psychopathic behavior is not only often tolerated in our social and economic systems, it's many times rewarded, and quite handsomely.
Clinically, a true psychopath/sociopath exhibits the following traits: a lack of empathy and/or conscience and thus no feelings of shame or guilt, ruthlessness, narcissism, obsessive behavior, a talent for and a willingness to use social charm and/or deceit and a calm and/or coolness under pressure.
Sound like somebody you know?
Once you understand that not all psychopaths are like Ted Bundy, then they seem to be everywhere, at least in the media. A lot of the online news organizations that have filled the breach left by the retreat of old-school media -- sites such as the Huffington Post, Salon, Daily Beast, etc. -- traffic in trumpeting the outrageous comments and actions of high-profile psychopaths from professional offenders like Ted Nugent and his ilk to Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and his Wall Street brethren. In this regard, the news media have become bounty hunters for celebrity psychopaths. And readers love it.
Knowing what we now know about Lance Armstrong -- to take this week's example of unfathomable bad behavior -- is there a more plausible way to explain him other than identifying him as a psychopath?
"The Wisdom of Psychopaths" makes the point that people often succeed in modern American society not is spite of their psychopathic tendencies, but because of them. In fact, it goes on to suggest that developing more of your inner psychopath might help give a boost to your career. A lack of empathy can come in handy if you're a trial lawyer. Ruthlessness is a very useful tool if you want to climb the corporate ladder or compete in the open market. You'd be surprised how far you can go in this world untethered from that emotional sack of cement known as a conscience.
No one is claiming that anyone who is rich is a psychopath, or that you can't become rich without resorting to the psychopath mindset. But the free market clearly loves high-functioning psychopaths, provided they stay on the right side of the law. Every time we praise some mogul or politician for their "killer instinct," we're glorifying psychopaths. What are these popular reality-TV competition shows but a showcase for psychopathic behavior and not-so-subtle propaganda for the win-at-all-costs mentality that is the oxygen that psychopaths breathe? We see it in Washington, on Wall Street, in the realm of sports and entertainment.
But where is that line between a society that exalts psychopaths and a system that is itself psychopathic? We're still capable of censure against cheaters and liars such as Armstrong and the steroid users in baseball, so there's a sign of cultural antibodies at work.
I'm not ready to give up on the cherished idea that hard work, talent and pluck are all that's needed to get ahead in this world. But as so many middle-class people who work hard and play by the rules find themselves not only failing to get ahead, but often are slipping behind, it's a comfort to think that good people struggle in a system that rewards bad people.
So, I choose to believe that's why I'm not rich.
Of course, I could just be a lazy, hypocritical slob without either talent or guts. There's a compelling case to be made there too.
Contact Wallace Baine at firstname.lastname@example.org.