I watched The Wolf of Wall Street last night. I thought it was pretty entertaining, and I was thinking, “I sure am glad people like Jordan Belfort are completely bereft of any moral fiber so I can sit in the comfort of my living room and watch them consume huge quantities of drugs, float (and sink) huge boats, and cavort with naked bimbos.” It is satisfying somehow to participate vicariously in their decadence and spiritual bankruptcy without having to endure any consequences myself. The only troubling thing about Belfort's deal is that he didn't have to suffer any consequences either—not real ones at any rate.
If you listen to Belfort lament his life today you will hear him say that he lost everything, that he spent time in prison, that he is reformed to the extent that he is not committing any actual crimes anymore, and that he now gives as much as he receives. Really?
His brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, is said to have bilked investors out of $200 Million. Even though Belfort claims that 90% of what they did was legal, and likely it was, there is little doubt that their sales tactics were sleazy and reprehensible. Whatever he thinks he 'lost' was never really his in the first place. He took it from someone else. Just because the people he took it from should have been better informed or exercised more care in their investment strategies does not mean that Belfort earned or deserved the wealth he accumulated before he lost it.
He spent seven or eight years snorting cocaine, popping quaaludes, drinking to excess, and chasing strippers, hookers, and loose women of every ilk. He committed multiple financial crimes and tried to cover it up. He hid his money overseas. He accumulated something north of $100 Million, and yet was sentenced to only 4 years in jail of which he only served 22 months. So time in prison? Negligible and certainly not commensurate with his offenses. Of course Jordan Belfort was rich and white and married to a model when he got caught, so he got a pass. He ratted out his co-conspirators for a reduced sentence. If he'd been a person of color, he would probably still be rotting in a cell, and no one would have made a movie celebrating his immense good fortune.
Reformed? The extent of his rehabilitation is measured by the fact that he is still trading on his notoriety. He made another $100 Million last year teaching people his proven sales techniques—ostensibly the same ones he used to bilk his investors except now he claims that they are ethical. So there's nothing wrong in his mind with the techniques. His only problem was using the techniques to sell stuff that had no value. Now he's using his sales techniques to sell sales techniques. I would argue that these too have no value. Here's why.
In a couple of places in the film we see Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Belfort, hand someone a pen and tell them to sell it to him. “Sell me this pen,” he says, and they sputter and hem and haw until he takes the pen away and gives it to someone else. “Sell me this pen.”
I kept wondering what I would do if he handed me a pen to sell him. I'm not a natural sales person. I'm not a big talker. I'm not glib or persuasive. In fact I'm uncomfortable with the notion of talking someone into buying something that I know they don't need. I don't think sales people add value.
Order takers do. Order takers enable the flow of commerce. They provide a necessary link between makers and users, creation and desire, supply and demand. Sales people on the other hand try to create demand where there is none. They try to inflame desire when there is no real satisfaction. Because I believe this, I suck at sales. But . . . even though I suck at sales, I know how to sell you a pen. I know exactly what to say to Jordan Belfort if he ever hands me a pen and tells me to sell it to him.
I would say this: “I know what you're thinking. Not just that. I know what you think you're thinking as well as what you're really thinking. What you think you're thinking is this—you don't need this pen. This pen is too fancy. It costs too much. This beautiful pen has no more utility than a 19 cent Bic, but it costs 500 times as much. This pen—this particular beautiful, luxurious, expensive fine writing instrument—is a waste of money, and even if you were to buy it, you would probably just lose it.
“But, like I said, that's only what you think you're thinking. None of that has anything to do with the actual pen. All that stuff you think you're thinking has to do with you. What you're really thinking—the thing that really bothers you about buying this pen—is that you don't think you deserve it. You think this pen's too good for you. No, that's not it either, not exactly. You think that you're not good enough for this pen. The emphasis is on you.
“You need to change that way of thinking. You need to embrace the fact that you deserve this pen. You need to believe that you're good enough for it, and you know why? Because it's true. That's why. You are good enough. The only thing preventing you from buying this pen is you. Get out of your own way. Believe in yourself. Liberate your own potential. Be everything you can be. A good place to start would be to buy this pen. You know you want to. Come on. Just do it. Just be you. Just buy this pen.”
Now, I'm pretty sure that that little spiel would get Jordan Belfort's attention. It certainly beats the pants off false starts and hemming and hawing. What I don't know—the pudding where the proof is—would that spiel induce anyone to buy an expensive pen, or is it just a clever thing to say in a room full of people who think they want to excel at sales so they can drive Lamborghinis and sleep with models? You see, even knowing what to say doesn't mean you're not going to suck at sales.