Gordon Gekko on My Mind
A scene from the 1987 movie Wall Street has haunted me. I have only watched it once, when I was 21 and new in my career.
Blue-collar aircraft machinist Bud Fox (Martin Sheen) lies in the hospital, gravely ill. His son, dark-suited Wall Street broker Carl (Charlie Sheen) stands at his bedside clutching his father’s hand. Both shake with tears as the prodigal son returns to honor his father’s integrity and wisdom.
I wasn’t moved so much by the father-son sentimental moment. Rather, it was the hint of a darker conflict that had been resolved between the men that marked me.
My midlife crisis began at age 39, crested at 41, and was pretty much over by the time I hit 43. The estimated damages include four motorcycles, one FJ Cruiser, a decade of my wife’s life (thanks to the motorcycles, mostly), and one career change.
Overall, I think it worked out well.
But mortality has a way of bringing honest scales to any discussion. My life was half over, at least. What did it add up to? It occurred to me that while I was making lots of money, I couldn’t say much about the real worth of my job.
Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs, travels the country and stands shoulder to shoulder with people doing the dirtiest, nastiest jobs imaginable. It makes great reality TV, but Mike has a deeper purpose for the show: he wants America to see that there is worth and a certain nobility in dirty, hard work. It is the labor of those people he introduces each week that “makes it possible for the rest of us to live the way we do.”
The eighteenth century economist Adam Smith, in his book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, explains how wealth and worth are created. For Smith, wealth is defined as the worth of goods and services produced by a population’s labor. The relative amount of wealth a country produces is most dependent on the level of “skill, dexterity, and judgment” the workers apply in their work.
Now the key to understanding the importance of Smith’s message to me in my mid-life crisis is the distinction between creating wealth and accumulating wealth. Accumulating wealth is simply the transfer of one person’s wealth to another. For wealth to be created, however, something has to be made or improved, and this requires labor (skilled or not). The plumber makes the toilet work. The truck driver moves something from where it can’t be used to a place where it can. All this labor creates wealth by making something new or better.
Any labor that fails to make or improve something creates no wealth. Stock traders who labor to buy low and sell high successfully transfer wealth, but they create none.
Now, looking back, I understand why Wall Street was on my mind.
In a pair of scenes the polar opposites Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) attempt to persuade the young Carl Fox concerning the nature of wealth. Bud exhorts his son to “stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life. Create, instead of living off the buying and selling of others.”
Meanwhile, the evil Gordon Gekko whispers into Carl’s ear, “The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation…. I create nothing. I own.”
The work of Gordon Gekko may be morally acceptable in our society, but it lacks nobility and worth.
But what about the executive, the guy like me during my crisis? Do we create wealth? Are we Gordons or Buds? Adam Smith would say that to the extent that we enable laborers to use greater “skill, dexterity, and judgment,” we are creators of wealth. But I’m skeptical that this can be measured, at least in the same way I can measure the worth of the work of a motorcycle mechanic. I wasn’t satisfied with not knowing. I had to make sure.
So I stopped being merely an approver of the creative efforts of others and retooled myself. Now I create every day, and approach my labor with the eye of a craftsman, content with an application well-built, solid, with a little art thrown in there where, perhaps, only another craftsman might notice.
That’s what I needed to turn the corner into the second half of my life: certainty that my work had worth, that I was a creator of wealth, not merely an accumulator of it.