A customer contacted me last year to recommend a book called Me, Myself, and Bob. It is a memoir written by Phil Vischer, the founder of the kids’ Christian (hence, the religious overtones) TV series Veggie Tales.
I’ve read a lot of memoirs- and I’ve read a lot of business books. This was a nice blend- the story of a businessman who had a wild ride navigating his way from start-up to bankruptcy.
There is a chapter called “Lessons Learned”. #2 spoke to me and has had an unexpected impact. His message of “you don’t deserve it” and helping others is profound. An excerpt…
Thing I Learned #2: Ignore the voice that says, “You deserve it.” Whenever I travel, I now rent compact cars and stay at the Hampton Inn. Always. I don’t care how successful my new business might become, I have learned that once I start upgrading my travel accommodations, I’ll start upgrading everything else too. Everything will become more expensive.
It all starts, I think, when a voice shows up inside your head one day and whispers, “You deserve it.” I remember the first time I heard that voice. Big Idea was booming, and I was beginning to hire real “executives.” Coming from companies like Kraft and GE, they were used to being paid like executives and living like executives. They drove executive cars, lived in executive houses, and ate executive meals. Up until this point, I had always lived modestly, though more out of necessity than deep philosophical conviction. But now I was hanging out with executives, and their lives looked like fun. And then that little voice showed up in my head and said, “You’re an executive, too, you know. After all, they all work for you.” Good heavens. The voice was right. I was more than just an “executive”- I was the CEO of a successful company! I was the executive of the executives! “Look at all the hard work you’ve done,” the voice continued. “Look what you’ve built. Don’t you deserve it?” And suddenly my cars started getting nicer and my meals fancier. I started eying nicer houses in nicer neighborhoods- “executive” neighborhoods. And suddenly everything at Big Idea started costing more. Meals, travel, equipment, everything- because we were successful, and we deserved it.
The little whisper- “You deserve it”- comes, I believe, from the worst part of our sinful natures, the part that always wants another cookie, a bigger house, a nicer TV. I’m pretty sure it’s the same voice that told Hitler he “deserved” Poland. Advertisers know the power of that voice, and they use it relentlessly. The new car, the ridiculously high-fat dessert, the fantastically overpriced watch- do you need it? Of course not. But you deserve it. I have come to hate that voice. I will avoid any product that tries to influence my purchase decision by telling me I deserve it. Why? First of all, the appeal is insanely selfish. If I deserve it, it must follow that someone else does not. I have achieved more. I am special. As a Christian, of course, it’s horrifically bad theology, throwing the whole “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” thing right out the window along with a hundred other verses about self-denial and putting others first. What do I really deserve? Death. That’s what I deserve. Death apart from God. I am a selfish dweeb standing before a holy, righteous God. Imagine me trying to explain to God why I “deserve” a nicer car than they guy next to me, “Well, I’ve worked so hard, and- as I’m sure you can see- I’m very successful.” Ha. Good one. Seeking our own comfort over the comfort of others is a pretty good definition of the word sin. And yet there I was, Mr. Bible College, allowing myself to be coaxed down that path by the fact that my business card now sported the letters “CEO.”
In addition to bad theology, though, thinking I deserve more than others is bad business. Concluding that I deserve a more lavish lifestyle than the people around me fails to consider the fact that the people around me are, more than likely, the people I’m supposed to be serving. And yet here I am, looking down on them, judging them “less deserving” than myself. I’ve worked so hard to get where I am. I travel, sacrifice, slave away night after night. Not like these other folks.
Tell me, how easy is it to serve someone you consider less deserving than yourself? Nearly impossible. Want to kill a company quickly? Decide you are “better”. Executive pride kills companies. Christian selflessness, on the other hand, is not just biblically sound, it is also good business.
I had an experience years ago that I think of often when I find myself tempted with “executive pride.” I was riding home on the subway after putting in one of my killer marathons in postproduction. It was probably 4:00 a.m., and I was half-dead. I felt proud, though- proud of being such a “hard worker.” When I got off my train, a thirty-something Hispanic man got on, headed downtown. From the way he was dressed and the guys just like him I saw in our neighborhood every day, I knew his story almost immediately. He was a family man, married with two or three kids. He was headed downtown at 4:00 a.m. for a menial job in the kitchen of a restaurant or hotel. It was probably one of two or even three jobs he held, all menial, barely above minimum wage. All to feed his family. I watched him sit quietly on the train and felt the air leak out of my puffed-up ego. Who was the “hard worker” on the subway that night? Who “deserved” a nicer car? A nicer house? Yeah, I pulled all-nighters every now and then, but it was work I loved, for which I was well paid. Give me sixteen hour days filled with thankless, unfulfilling menial labor and see how long I’d last. Who “deserved” a better life? It sure wasn’t me.
From now on, I will do whatever I can to eradicate the presumption within any organization I lead that executives “deserve” more than regular people around them. For me, from here on out, it starts with a Dodge Neon from Dollar Rent-a-Car and a room at the Hampton Inn.