(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY People are very confused these days. The common mindset is that you need to have lots of things. That's the priority. So you spend first and figure out how to pay for it later.
People are also confused about how to obtain wealth. Capitalism is bad. The killer instinct to beat the pants off the competition and win is shameful. Everybody should be a winner. There are no losers. Everything should be fair and equitable.
Let me tell you something -- that combination is a recipe for disaster if there ever was one. No wonder we're in such bad shape. No wonder a third of Americans have their hands out. They can't afford what they bought and can't earn the money to pay for it.
And now everybody's pointing fingers. It's the 1 percent that did this to us. It's corporate America's fault. It's the government's fault. It's the left. It's the right. No. It's our fault. It's our country, and it's our fault.
Let me tell you a little story so we can make some sense of all this.
Growing up, we didn't have much. We lived in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn. We had an old mono "Hi-Fi" record player, a portable radio, and a pitifully small black and white TV. We had one phone in the kitchen. Our first color TV was a hand-me-down from my uncle. So was my first car. Yes, the same uncle.
I didn't feel like I needed a lot because I was a kid. I had other things on my mind. I mostly wanted to do well in school, be good at sports, make friends, and get girls (not necessarily in that order).
Fast forward to today. Now, I'm all about staying healthy, making more money than I spend, spending more time having fun, and being outdoors as much as possible. Why the last one? I guess growing up in that apartment made me a little claustrophobic.
Anyway, for the decades in between those two opposing sets of priorities, during my 20s, 30s, and 40s, I mostly wanted to do one thing: win. I guess you could say I had a killer instinct. Not that I'm a violent person. Not at all. It was results I was after. Accomplishing things. Achieving things. You know, winning.
And contrary to the everybody's a winner, capitalism is evil, everybody get together and sing Kumbaya culture we live in, there was absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Without that killer instinct, I wouldn't be where I am today because business is all about winning. There's always competition, markets are primarily a zero sum game, and like it or not business is a lot like war in many respects. So every equation has a winner and a bunch of losers. And the way I chose to get ahead is to be on the winning side of the equation when in mattered most.
Don't get me wrong. There are other ways to get ahead. Just take my old college roommate, for example. He's a pretty mellow, laid-back, middle of the road, and a little left-leaning sort of guy. He and his wife work hard, have great careers, have an awesome family, and are in very good shape for retirement, when the time comes.
No killer instinct there but, you know, we do have one very important thing in common. Neither of us have ever lived beyond our means, we've both always been fiscally responsible, and as a result we both have a lot to show for it. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about everyone I know.
So here's the thing. If you want to get ahead, you've got to work hard and not live beyond your means. You've got to be fiscally responsible. That's a given. That alone makes you part of an ever-shrinking minority, these days. It's sad, but it's also true.
Beyond that, you can have a killer instinct or not, it really doesn't matter. Some say slow and steady wins the race, but in my experience, either way will get you to the finish line.
There's just one more thing. The reason why I no longer have that killer instinct, the only downside of focusing on winning, is that you can lose sight of what you're doing it for. Luckily for me, I got off that treadmill in time. Balance was restored. Looking back, I can see that everything happened as it should have. And so I have no regrets.
And you know what? My college roommate feels exactly the same way.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Indywriter