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No Mercy No Malice

What We Leave Behind

June 4, 2021

While the fires of Covid-19 continue to rage around the world, here in the U.S. we’ve turned a corner. The intensity of an emergency doesn’t register until after it’s over, and many of us are still trying to wrap our heads around the events of the past year. Inevitably, our pause turns to curiosity … what happens next? What will be different, what will be the same?

I took some time this week to look back at where we were a year ago: reeling from the initial shock of the pandemic; facing the long grind of a summer in isolation; and dreading winter’s second wave. In the post we’re revisiting below, from May 22, 2020, I was in an optimistic mood, though with less justification than today. Many crises have birthed periods of exceptional progress — our strength gets buttressed and our vision broadens. First, we need to envision the self we hope to be coming out of this plague.

What We Leave Behind

An Etch A Sketch is a mechanical drawing toy invented by André Cassagnes of France. Two knobs move a stylus that displaces aluminum powder on the back of the screen, leaving a solid line. The genius of the toy is the aluminum powder. A child only needs to flip the toy and shake, redistributing it over the screen.

Covid has presented an opportunity to envision our lives turned upside down, powder redistributed. We can start over. We hoard relationships and the accoutrements of a life others have fashioned for us. We often don’t know any better, or don’t have the confidence to draw outside the lines until we’re older. My colleague, professor Adam Alter, has done research on the regrets of the dying. One of the biggest: not living the life they wanted to lead, but the life others chose for them.

In 2000 I left my marriage, my career in e-commerce, and San Francisco. I hit the restart button and left a lot behind. The period was lonely, rife with collateral damage — but it was the right decision. Covid presents society, and each of us, with the opportunity to design a better life with … less.

What do we leave behind? Some thoughts:

Emissions. I’m not an environmentalist, and mostly believe that after the last human draws her final breath the Earth will register a 20-year belch and feel fine again. To be clear, I do believe climate change is man-made, as I don’t have my head up my ass, but I also believe the move to renewables will be expensive. Just as trickle-down economics is a lie, so is the notion that the Green New Deal would pay for itself.

In Florida, like many places, the water has been so clear, the sky so blue, that I wonder if this is a time to move away from coal, cars, commutes … even if it is really expensive. The last several months have convinced me it’s worth it. A spectacular home is worth a ton of money. Why wouldn’t we decide that a spectacular backyard (sea, sky, land), for all of us and our children, is also worth a huge investment?

Essential workers. The term essential means we’re going to treat you like chumps but run commercials calling you heroes. Just stop it. We lean out our windows and applaud health-care workers, as we should. We don’t, however, lean out our windows to salute other front-line workers — the guy or gal delivering your groceries or dropping Indian food through the window in your back seat.

Why? Because, deep down, we’ve been taught to believe that we live in a meritocracy and that billionaires and minimum wage workers all deserve what they get. We’ve conflated luck and talent, and it’s had a disastrous outcome — a lack of empathy.

There is so much that’s jarring about American exceptionalism. An enduring American image of the pandemic is a makeshift morgue in a refrigerated tractor-trailer in Queens. Worse? We idolize the founder of Tesla, who’s added the GDP of Hungary to his wealth (all tax-free/deferred) during this crisis, even as we discover 25% of New Yorkers are at risk for becoming food insecure. This isn’t a United States, it’s The Hunger Games.

This country was built by titans of industry even wealthier than today’s billionaires — Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan. But 1 in 11 steel workers didn’t need to die for bridges and skyscrapers to happen. We are a country that rewards genius. Yet no one person needs to hold enough cash to end homelessness ($20 billion), eradicate malaria worldwide ($90 billion), and have enough left over to pay 700,000 teachers’ salaries. Bezos makes the average Amazon employee’s salary in 10 seconds. This paints us as a feudal state and not a democracy.

Our lack of empathy for fellow Americans is vulgar and un-American. We can and should replace the hollow tributes with a federally mandated $20/hour minimum wage. This “outrageous” lift in the hourly wage would vault us from the 1960s to the present. As of 2018 the federal minimum was worth 29% less than in 1968.

Howling in the Money Storm

Money is a vehicle for the transfer of time and work from one entity to another. If we spend less money on one thing, we can invest more time on another. Could we invest less in stuff, less in commuting, and more in relationships? I’ve been howling in the money storm for so long. Believing my worth to others was a function of the stuff I had, or didn’t have.

We proffer admiration, affection, and a sense of awe to people who aggregate wealth. But that affection is often misplaced, as wealth can lead to greed and a lack of empathy. This is an opportunity to spend less on stuff, spend less time commuting, and reallocate that capital and time to our partners and children.

On the Prof G Pod, when I interviewed philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris, I asked him for one piece of advice on how to be a better man. He offered that rather than trying to parent, cajole, discipline, or guide your children, your real purpose is just … to love them. My 10-year-old has struggled, as many kids have, with corona. I need to spend less time correcting, explaining, arguing, and more just loving. We got through the first five seasons of The Simpsons. There’s 31.

And … we’ll get there.

We need a generation to emerge from this crisis with a commitment to being better fathers and mothers, spouses, and citizens. The fastest path to a better life is regularly assessing what we leave behind. The fastest blue-line path to a better world is more engaged parents, not a better fucking phone.

Life is so rich,

P.S. Registration is now open for my next Strategy Sprint with Section4. During this two-week intensive course, I’ll go deep on the frameworks that make today’s corporate giants successful and how to apply them to your own company, no matter the size. The Sprint runs July 6 – 20. Join us.

42 comments

  1. Varun Khanna says:

    Just fucking love the last line!!

  2. robert smalley says:

    I am certain that the emerging generation will be the ones that slide us back to the stone age. They are predominantly a brainless group with little commonsense and thus apt to seize on any viewpoint to be noticed. Surely the decline in intellect since the early 90’s is common knowledge.

  3. InvestorAl says:

    Fantastic post ProfG. Thank you.

  4. RetiredinSoBe says:

    Excellent column. My only critique is that you buried the lead:
    “Our lack of empathy for fellow Americans is vulgar and un-American.”
    Spot on!

  5. Greg Feneis says:

    C’mon, Prof G., you’re not an environmentalist? Shouldn’t we all be? I’m not an environmentalist is the same cop-out, not-my-problem code that let racism and classism continue to exist. 200 years of unchecked industrial progress has got us here, just like hundreds of years of people just shrugging and saying not my problem got us all the other problems we’re facing. Not all of us need to be environmental activists, but everyone should be an environmentalist. Kind regards.

    • Jason says:

      And don’t forget to go vegan – this is probably single most needle moving change that individuals can make to help the environment.

      Plus, it’s 2021 and there is really no ethical excuse to be paying for animals to be needlessly tortured to death.

  6. John Azevedo says:

    Nice piece Scott. One of the good things about the pandemic is that it got us to question values and beliefs that were driving us. The pain that we experienced helped us to feel the pain of war crimes that Gazans feel every day. That’s just one example.

  7. Antony says:

    ProfG -Of course they can start over, if I can do it so can anyone. And I’m 6 years older, broken open tm, but I’m still here- trauma and all that’s left to go on; never give up. I learned to survive.
    I’m an NYU alum with law, not a family lawyer. Law schools should mandate lawyers practice mediation only. But that’s another system that needs reform. There are too many broken systems there.
    Divorce in America is tantamount to having a heart attack- the men- the lost middle-class men and even some celebrities lose it all.
    How can a family sustain the loss of natural fathers? Moreover, how can a society sustain itself with the loss of so many families?
    I lost my beautiful daughters to a broken system- reform against a money-making extortion scheme is a hard thing to do.
    To start over? Well, live alone in shithole apartments, walk every day,
    and then start over with nothing but loss. When you lose things then you can start over. Most Americans don’t know enough about loss- they live in some distorted reality called celebrity culture; in a government that’s not really democratic; and in an economy that’s become surveillance capitalism.
    It takes empathy of course, but further- it will take compassion and courage – these are particularly un-American. The American way is one of quantity and velocity: achievement based on what I have not what I have contributed. Meritocracy? You’re spot on. That’s another myth put out to justify the elites.
    I left behind an America I didn’t recognize anymore. Now, as an ex-pat living in Asia, I observed the rapid decline of a country I still love and pray for – a race to the bottom – to the abyss.
    I had to replace what I lost what was stolen- I remarried an Asian woman, have 3 beautiful children who I cherish every day. And they know I love them, I show them every day. I hug them, tell them I love you…
    Props to you Prof- this is by far your best-you’ve grown and big props on S. Harris- a quote “pretending to know things one doesn’t know is a betrayal of science and yet it is the lifeblood of religion”
    I would add– it’s quite American to pretend to know things one doesn’t know.
    You can still have a daughter – they are uniquely special as children and they are the future of America. Men fail to be their best too many times there.

  8. Clifford says:

    I applaud you Scott for your honesty and insight, two traits that seem to be further away in most. I discovered your work during the early parts of the pandemic and have followed it consistently. I found your observations and insight enlightening which gave us a peak into your soul. A standing ovation for you, especially for allowing us in and sharing your knowledge. Your platform has become a form of therapy which not only enlightens us but really gives us a perspective, one that can be flawed but also so redeeming as well. Please keep up the great work, and allowing us to peak into your soul and hear you roar! You have the ability to awake the lion in us all, now let’s put actions of change into those great observations. Cheers!

  9. Thomas Padin says:

    Great read as always.

  10. Steven says:

    Love all your stuff, and this one is great. I have 28 and 26-year-old kids living at home because of the pandemic and this has been a great time to love them and be with them.

    That said, the conflation of Jeff Bezos’s net worth increasing vs. an average Amazon worker’s pay is just misleading. He earns $1.6mm in salary. The increase in net worth is not due to only his personal efforts in being probably one of the most successful CEOs ever but of the hard work over many years of all Amazonians as they call themselves and some rational and irrational exuberance in the stock market that has driven up the stock price. I wonder out loud how many of Amazon’s ~1.2 million employees have Robinhood accounts and own fractional shares of AMZN? They have benefitted from the same market forces as Jeff, but he just happens to be the founder who owns a shit-ton of shares.

    I’ve been an active customer since June 1998 and have worked with them as a business selling $6m of product to them annually and they are good, but not always…they overpaid some invoices by $700K in 2016 and have never discovered the error or asked for the funds back after we told them about the error. But that isn’t even a rounding error.

    Anyway, keep up the good work but beware of conflation.

  11. Neil says:

    I found your essay very thought provoking. As a Brit living in Asia, I do see both the “western” take on the world and the alternative eastern view where family/relationships are everything and wealth and possessions are secondary to that. I wish this was more true in the West. I do sense that you are trying to open our minds to a different way forward and fully embrace that line of thought

  12. Anonymosa says:

    Dude. After a mildly shitty day, reading your thoughts (as well as interacting with other voices in my life that help me orient) I have to say that I hope someday to have the opportunity to buy you a beer (or the beverage or your choice), shake your hand (or whatever we’re doing in the post-covid world as a token of greeting and respect), and shoot the shit with fewer cares and concerns weighing down the world because we’ve all collectively handed off responsibilities to a more capable, energized generation of wizened young people.

    Viva la Retirement.

  13. Linda says:

    Like so many others who have commented here, this is indeed a remarkable and important message. I love the interplay of sarcasm and straight on truth telling. Don’t stop doing this. Important things need to be said over and over until it begins to penetrate the consciousness of the majority of Americans. Only then do we see change, slowly, ever so slowly, begin to happen.

  14. Dan says:

    Jeezum Scott, you’re just getting around to worrying about cars and emission based on a recent Florida post-card view of the world? Hate to wake you from your restful slumber (when do they generally wake up in Florida?), but egads. Don’t save people, the earth, any of that. Save my views of the clear water ocean and blue sky. I would expect nothing less from a marketer: Appeal to selfishness of people. Brilliant! The head up the ass thing, that was a self-survey?

  15. Stan Konwiser says:

    I applaud your comments and particularly your advice on being better parents. There is an old Jewish expression: ‘We owe our children only three things… example, example, example.”

    As good as your advice that is, there needs to be parents to do it. I am distressed how many institutions in the US are actively advocating the the dismemberment of the nuclear family which throughout human history has demonstrated itself as the most ideal child rearing environment. That is not to say single parenting cannot be successfully done, but the nuclear family produces consistently better results. That so many are assigning equivalency to single parenthood is an abandonment of sociological history in the name of political correctness and expediency. It is a simple truth that not all child-producing marriages can succeed, but a society that promotes the destruction of the family is shooting itself in the foot.

  16. Julz Isaksen says:

    I think your and Sam’s advice on loving our children more should apply to everyone we encounter.

  17. robert i kaufelt says:

    Good one. Now what?

  18. Candace Hineman says:

    You are brilliant at explaining what is happening to the average American in terms of money and social issues. I wish more people could hear you. Thanks.

    • Nik Rokop says:

      Well said Scott!

      A country that has both billionaires and homeless doesn’t deserve to exist!

      We have created a system that works well for several thousand and poorly for many millions.

      We need to change that system!

  19. Richard Warden says:

    As usual, your post is thought provoking. One question. Will our leaders perform a post-mortem on how it handled Covid-19? Was the lockdown worth it? Did it actually really save lives? Or did the emotional toll and economic upheaval outweigh and “cost” lives and livelihoods? What will we do in a future pandemic? Can we actually have the conversation and discuss what level of death is “acceptable” in return for the greater good or is that just not PC? I do empathize with those that have lost loved ones during the pandemic yet I can’t help but wonder if next time, we shouldn’t be quarantining those most at risk rather than the entire world.

  20. Renee says:

    I love the last line. Truly an evaluation of what we truly need.

  21. Lisa Riachi says:

    Amen and love this!

  22. Whitney Fishburn, Washington, DC says:

    You write, “Our lack of empathy for fellow Americans is vulgar and un-American.” Actually, they’re both highly American because we refuse to acknowledge what the late Mark Fisher said is true, namely, that it’s harder to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of Capitalism.

    But, Capitalism is only as good as the hierarchy that supports it. If we didn’t insist on hierarchical systems where the only way to assure you remain higher than everyone else is to NOT have empathy for them, then we wouldn’t be rewarded for hoarding resources, including the billions that would end material poverty.

    It’s so obvious we need to call bullshit on our systems of lies, and so clear why we won’t: we’d need a whole new myth of meaning. You even point to it yourself when you say we’ve convinced ourselves we live in a meritocracy where luck is conflated with talent. So, if you can so eloquently delineate the problem, as you often do (I am a fan), why can’t you go the distance and say that the meritocracy lie is in service to the bigger lie, the one that pretends hierarchy is sustainable, and that Capitalism is nothing but a fair exchange of resources.

    The real resource is our mind, and it’s too busy being distracted, and then aggregated and sold by people like Bezos and the dark arts whizkids at Google and Facebook.

    I think you know this, so why not actually say so?

  23. Melanie says:

    Probably one of your best pieces. Unusual for me to agree with most of what you state. Thank you.

  24. Dewey says:

    Thank you so much for the inspiration. Great post sir!

  25. Patrick Nagle says:

    Thanks Scott, best one yet.

  26. Susan says:

    So well put to the point and thought provoking. On that note, I say THANK YOU!!!

  27. Allen says:

    Ah, the Big Dawg at it again.

  28. Paula says:

    Beautiful. You should rule the world.

  29. Jordan Brady says:

    It’s refreshing to see fatherhood as priority numero uno. We’re the same age (I have two sons) and our dad’s High Karate generation of detached fatherhood & stoic masculinity didn’t (for me anyway) embrace the L word (love) as much as we do. Guess what dads? Love works. Bravo.

  30. Mirelle V says:

    Gets my vote for your best post ever.

  31. Tracey G Riese says:

    I’m so confused. You moved to Florida from New York, a city you claim to love, because… the taxes were lower, they are fighting the minimum wage and you don’t have to wear a mask in public? Is this “let’s let the other guy shoulder the expense of our values?”

  32. Steve says:

    You mentioned “Bezos makes the average Amazon employee’s salary in 10 seconds”. Not to be picky, but as a Stern alumni, can I gently suggest the professor shouldn’t use balances and flows interchangeably. It dumbs down the reader. Bezos does not make >100 billion dollars a year.

  33. John Kratz says:

    I don’t always agree with you Mr. Galloway but your ” etch a sketch” metaphor, personal story, and neuroscientist friend quote really connected with me. This might have been your finest post to date. Thank you

  34. Jay says:

    About your climate change comment that it’s caused by humans. I suggest that human existence has a measurable impact on climate. However, humans in their current shape have been around 1-3 million years. Earth 4.5 billion, measurable life (exoskeletons) 890 m.y. Don’t you think climate changed and dramatically prior to humans on the scene? It did and to think otherwise is to have your head, shoulders and abdomen completely up your ass.
    jaybee756@hotmail.com

    • Mike says:

      Jay, what do you mean “humans in their current shape”? That we stand up on two legs like our ancestors? The human population has exploded exponentially in the last ~150 years. (From ~2 billion in 1928 to ~7.9 billion today.) We’re consuming significantly more resources per capita and pumping a helluva lot more pollution into our climate/atmosphere than our ancestors did a million years ago. Sure, climate has always changed on our planet. But our effect on climate is dramatically greater than it was even a short 50 years ago. Why not pull our heads out of our asses and use our brain power to create solutions to minimize that negative impact as much as possible?

    • Steve says:

      Jay, when you mention “humans in their current shape”, the only reasonable definition of “current shape”, as it pertains to climate change, is since the Industrial Age. Comparing the amount of greenhouse gases humans created now to that of any time prior to the I.A. is apples to — well, airplanes.

      Nobody is doubting that the earth’s climate changed prior to I.A., or even prior to humanity. Follow the science, please. There is no evidence AT ALL that the current climate transformation is due to any natural events, like those prior to the I.A.

      The first symptom of Headassery is the refusal to believe anything that doesn’t fit your political agenda.

    • Nick says:

      Jay – It’s certainly true that there have been many dramatic climate changes over the eons of Earth’s history. Some have been driven by geological changes, others by different flora or fauna. Many of them also led to widespread extinctions of different species, or classes of species.

      But none of that is relevant to the current situation. We were not around to experience them, or to suffer from them. It’s only now, with the current changing climate, that hundreds of millions, if not billions, of our own kind are at risk of forced relocation, starvation, natural disasters, or at least (in the case of those in wealthier nations) significant inconvenience and increased costs.

      I suppose if your such a fatalist as to say “well, climate changes, and we’ll just have to live (or die) with it like our single-celled ancestors did” then I suppose you have a point. But from where I sit, it seems to make a lot more sense to actually do something about it – since we know we can, and we know doing so will reduce much suffering and expense (and, to make Scott happy, also lead to cleaner air and water and a better backyard for all).