Wealth and the Suffering of Others

Poor man by a rich car
Little India, Singapore – December 25, 2015: A man collects card board for recycling while a luxury car passes behind him in Little India, Singapore.

Wealth and suffering don’t seem to be put together often. When someone has wealth, we rarely think of them suffering. In fact, we often think that they can do a lot of good, which is true.

But do they cause suffering simply with their wealth?

The Dedication of Jeff
The richest man in the world has this quote on his refrigerator:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of the intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.

This is a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It speaks of goodness and wholeness and making the world better. It’s in the house of the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.

Jeff worked hard to arrive where he did. He spent long hours. He worked on desks made of old doors. He budgeted well. He exhibited a ton of patience through the first 24 quarters where all but 2 showed a loss. That’s six years! He accomplished a lot and worked hard to be successful.

The Suffering of Amazon
Unfortunately there’s more to the story. If Jeff Bezos lived in a vacuum, this would be an amazing story. This would be a pauper to prince story (although Bezos was by no means a pauper). This would be a story of someone who, through tenacity and perseverance became one of the most powerful men in the world.

Unfortunately, Bezos doesn’t live in a vacuum. His success was constructed with the help of millions of people and while he profited, many struggled. In a report of Amazon’s Ohio operations, Newsweek found that one in ten of Amazon’s employees are on food stamps.

A temp agency working for Amazon was sued because the required security checks for workers’ shifts took up to twenty five minutes because of the lack of screeners. The temp agency refused to pay for this time required from the employees. The employees lost and now can lose a half hour of their day with no pay simply because agencies like this won’t staff security well enough.

According to an undercover report in the UK, a reporter found employees at Amazon peeing in bottles to avoid missing their targets. That same report detailed a survey where employees were penalized for not turning up while they were sick or for taking breaks when they were sick or pregnant.

As Amazon used to be the tenth largest private/semi-private employer in the world (They were recently knocked off the list), Amazon has a lot of employees. There will be a lot of stories. There will be a lot of people they employ dealing with circumstances that a good job will help them alleviate. And with these reports It’s hard to say what of this is true or misconstrued or due to other factors or just outright fabrications.

But regardless of all that, this disparity at Amazon highlights a dangerous reality.

Enough Is Enough
I strive to learn and grow and become the best version of myself as I believe many people like Bezos do. One of the books I read highlighted that a lot of dissatisfaction comes from never being satisfied with what life gives. It offered a solution of creating a list of “enough” to know that, yes there are things I want to attain, but I know what it is and when I’ve attained it. I read that list every day and have the items I’ve already attained in green.

There needs to be a point for everyone where enough is enough. It seems we’ve forgotten that. The saying “the rich get richer” seems to hold true.

In the 90’s the richest 10% had about 20 times what the poorest 50% had. Now the richest 10% have about 50 times what the poorest 50% have. That’s not in a third world country. That’s in America. And the difference between those who have billions and the average person is staggering.

It would be all fine and good except for we know from the example of Amazon that Bezos is in that top tier and a lot of his workers are in the bottom tier. At what point do people like Bezos decide enough is enough and spend money even if just to find solutions to fix this gap?

No Man Is an Island
When people become so rich that they can’t even figure out how to spend all their money, perhaps it’s time to consider the people who helped them attain it.

After all they didn’t get rich on their own. A lot of well off people think that they worked hard to get where they are and that everyone has the same opportunity; if everyone worked this hard, they think, they could achieve the same thing.

Absolutely, they worked hard, but does it hold that other people didn’t? And does everyone actually have the same opportunity? No. The math simply doesn’t add up. Everyone could be multimillionaires? Really? No one has to scrub toilets? Are robots really ready to take over the 2.4 million janitorial jobs in the US?

Responsibility bias or self-serving bias is the “belief that individuals tend to ascribe success to their own ability and efforts. As much as Bezos risked, as much work as he did, as much as he sacrificed, there are still over half a million people who work at Amazon that he could not have done it without.

We don’t make it alone. No matter how much hard work we do and how many sacrifices we make, we can still only do so much. There needs to be a point we give back – and not just skimming off the top. There needs to be a point we give back in proportion to what we received.

Tip Included
When I go out to eat, I plan to spend about 30% more than what’s ordered. 10% is for taxes and 20% is for the tip. Many states let restaurants pay their tipped workers much less than minimum wage regardless if they get tips or not, and they often work hard for it. When it comes to eating out, the tip is part of the price of the experience. If you can’t afford to tip, that means you can’t afford to eat out.

I think we need to start thinking this way when it comes to success: if you can’t afford to pay the people who helped you succeed, then you can’t afford to succeed – at least not in that way. Becoming rich while the people who did the majority of the work* suffer should not be considered success. We need to come up with a better measurement.

Success should be defined in creating something where everyone involved finds their life improved or at least has the opportunity to have their life improved whether or not they take it. For a few people to have their life vasty improved where most people simply have a job should simply be unacceptable.

We can do better.

Fixing the Problem
If you have a chance to succeed, make it something where everyone involved has a chance to succeed as well. Make the measurement of success not what works for you, but what works for everyone.

Make wealth not what you put in your pocket, but what you put in the lives of everyone who helped you succeed. That makes true wealth fixing the suffering of others.

* As much leadership, vision, networking, hard work, etc. that Bezos did, he’s still only 1/500000 of Amazon. There is no way on earth he could have run that company all by himself.

David Bishop

David is CEO of Cedowin Productions, dedicated to helping you live your best life through positive habits. He has inspired tens of thousands to improve habits and communication through books, articles, workshops, and apps. He is the creator of AweVenture, helping families enjoy fantastic, active experiences and Zombie Goals, literally making building healthy habits a game. He’s authored several books including How to Create Amazing Presentations, 7 Steps to Better Relationships, and The Man in the Pit, which helps people who have loved ones struggling with depression.

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