The Enlightened Caveman


Book Review: Something for Nothing
January 9, 2006, 4:44 am
Filed under: Books, Culture and Society, Parenting

Whilst poking around the blogosphere in my jammies (I’m between work gigs at the moment.), I came across this review of a new book by Brian Tracy called, Something for Nothing: The All-Consuming Desire That Turns The American Dream Into A Social Nightmare.  While the author, Rebecca Hagelin, provides a nice overview, I think there’s more to be said.

For those who don’t know, I believe the first priority in any review is to provide readers with a read or don’t read recommendation.  Hagelin’s recommendation was a very enthusiastic read!, and mine is no different.  This is an excellent book.  In fact, as I was reading the first hundred pages of the book, I kept thinking that Tracy had somehow surreptitiously gained access to a dozen or more ideas that have been floating in my head for some time and corralled them into an excellent treatise on human nature, one fit for the masses.  There’s nothing like some good confirmation bias to get you into a book.  Anyhow, by the end of the book, I concluded that there are good things and bad things to say about this work.  First the good.

Tracy’s underlying premise is that all humans are hardwired to be lazy, greedy, ambitious, selfish, vain, ignorant, and impatient.  I agree completely.  In fact, were I in a more theoretical mindset, I would probably take on the task of connecting the dots between these attributes and our caveman heritage.  (It’d be pretty easy.)  But I’m about practicality these days, so I’ll stick to clarifying what this means.

To say that we’re all naturally lazy is not a criticism of our species; it’s a value-neutral statement of fact. Indeed, Tracy’s larger point is that what matters is how we translate these natural proclivities into the way we think and act in the world.  I, for example, am one seriously lazy bastard.  I absolutely abhor wasting time on fruitless activities, but this is a good thing.  My disdain for waste drives me to innovate, to get every ounce of productivity out of the time I spend doing what’s necessary in life.  I am, therefore, using my laziness in a positive way.  But not everyone does, and this is where the concept of something for nothing comes in.

Tracy argues that an environment that allows people to get what they want/need without actually doing anything for it breeds the worst of all possible responses to inherent human laziness – the drive to get something for nothing.  And, just to keep the human generalizations ball rolling, Tracy provides a list of the basic wants/needs of all humans.

All of us are motivated by an intense desire to achieve safety, security, comfort, leisure, love, respect, and fulfillment – in that order.  The key is that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy – we pursue the first ones until they are satisfied, and then we pursue the next ones until they are satisfied.  This is why humans for most of history have had little time for contemplation – the activities associated with finding survival and security consumed all moments.  But we are now living in a time when survival and security are pretty much a given for most people in the US.  And given may just be the operative word there.

With the constant expansion of social entitlement programs, the possibility of getting something for nothing is less and less difficult.  If your choices are a painful minimum wage job or a free check at the beginning of every month, the human tendency for laziness says that you’ll choose the latter.  This is because of what Tracy calls the Expediency Factor (or E Factor) –

“People continually strive to get the things they want the fastest and easiest way possible, with little or no concern for the secondary consequences of their behaviors.”

Humans are expedient in their use of their natural tendencies to acquire the things they need and want.  But wait, wait, wait, you may be shouting.  This is all nonsense, you might say.  I’m not like that, you’ll bristle.  Okay, fine, you’re different, but not because you’re not wired this way.  You’re different because the tendency to ignore secondary consequences has been trained out of you at some point in your journey through life.   Maybe you had good parents who taught you that thinking short term is a recipe for disaster.  Or maybe you learned the hard way from making bad decisions.  Whatever the case, the fact is that had you not been taught otherwise, you would be a short-term thinker.  That’s the human animal.

And you might also take issue with Tracy’s list of human characteristics.  You might say, “I’m not lazy!!”  Bullshit, I’d say.  If I give you a choice between a handsaw and chainsaw to cut down abig tree, you’ll choose the chainsaw (unless you’re a luddite puss).  Same thing with greed.  As Tracy points out, when people are offered $100,000 or $95,000 to do the same job, all people choose $100,000.  The point is that our genes have been carefully crafted over the eons to make us into a species with these basic drives.  This does not mean that our behavior is always malevolent.

It is possible to channel these human tendencies into positive behaviors that are beneficial to ourselves and others.  Indeed, this appears to be Tracy’s mission – to help us recalibrate the way we approach life so as to take full advantage of our nature while simultaneously helping ourselves and the world around us.  This is why I really like this book.  He’s singing my tune, and I’m loving his rendition.  But all is not roses and sunshine in Something for Nothing.

Brian Tracy is a guru in the personal and business self-improvement world.  He’s been around for a long time doing seminars and writing books.  He’s traveled the world, and his insights are evidence of a very centered and humanitarian kind of guy.  Alas, even though he gets the big picture completely right, his solutions for the masses are a bit too idealistic for my taste.

The first four chapters of the book lay down the basics that I’ve described above.  He explains his claims as to human tendencies and human needs, and he goes into how character is the key to meeting our needs in positive ways.  All good stuff.  But then Tracy turns to the current situation in America.  He talks about the role of useless politicians in ushering in the era of something for nothing and the damage that mentality does to people who hold it and to society at large.  Again, all good stuff.  But then, our esteemed author strays into fantasy land.

First Tracy offers advice on how to avoid falling victim to the something for nothing disease.  He provides a pledge that you can take that entails promising to never take something for nothing and to never abide people or organizations that do.  I’m on board with committing to do never taking something for nothing, but the idea that we can simply turn our noses up to those who do is a mistake.

Yes, I get just as disgusted as the next guy when I see some welfare queen in line with food stamps buying prime rib as she chats on her cell phone.  I’m not looking to buddy up to her anyway.  But what about the workplace?  Tracy devotes a whole chapter to how to fix the workplace.  Were I to buy into the whole pledge, I’d have very few options in terms of employment.  (Assuming I were employed, of course.)   The fact is that most companies have plenty of folks who do almost nothing and collect paychecks.  This fact seems to elude Mr. Tracy.

Well, actually, he mentions it, but his solution is just to get rid of these people.  Oh yeah.  Sure.  And his solutions for government are much the same.  How do we stop the entitlement mentality?  Do away with programs that give something for nothing.  Genius.  How do we get rid of politicians who foment resentment of the rich to garner cash for their consituents?  You got it – replace them with statesmen who have a longer term and less selfish view of public policy.  Yes, that’s it!!  We’ll just get rid of the assholes, and when we do, all the people who are currently afflicted with the something for nothing disease will slowly begin to be productive.  Wow.  I found myself wondering how a guy who clearly has such a good feel for human nature could come up with so asinine a solution.

Let me just say that I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of Tracy’s arguments.  There’s no question that eliminating the possibility of getting something for nothing will spur the vast majority of humans to start taking steps to meet their needs productively.  But I’m afraid we’re at a point where we simply can’t get there from here.  Ironically, Tracy explains why this is so.

The author says that studies have been done showing that fear of losing met needs is 2.5 times more powerful than the desire to meet them.  (I should point out that the book has no footnotes, so we believe at our peril.  However, my experience shows this to be basically true.)   If this is true, then we should expect it to be nearly impossible to do what Tracy wants done, especially in our sound-bite driven, biased-media world.

So what are we to make of this book?  It’s good because it explains in very clear terms what we’re about as human beings.  It’s also good because it reminds us that we are responsible for our lives, and that our success depends upon the decisions we make and the actions we take.  And it’s even good that it provides a lot of basic historical and economic information that lends credence to the overall thesis.  That’s enough to justify the cost of admission – by a long shot.  But I think we have to be wary of pie-in-the-sky solutions to problems like this.

If we’re really going to make progress – for ourselves and the world around us – we have to take the situation as it is and find ways to navigate through it.  Sure, there are changes we can make that can be very beneficial.  For example, if we all get serious about making the Fair Tax a reality, many of the problems in our society will dissolve before our eyes.  (He doesn’t mention it.)  But the larger point is that we have cards in our hand, cards that we have to play.  Tracy would have us discard until the cards come up all aces.  Unfortunately, the deck’s not that big.  In the end, there’s useful information in this book, but it’s up to us to figure out how to use it to get what we want out of life.  Tracy has given us a clear picture of the stage upon which we act.  We now have the task of writing the script.

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