There are lists in which the bravest of warriors prove themselves singularly clumsy.
~Maurice Druon, The She Wolf
There are lists in which the bravest of warriors prove themselves singularly clumsy.
~Maurice Druon, The She Wolf
The formal study of the psychology of self-esteem is a modern development, while the concept itself is timeless, immemorial and universal to the nature of the human mind. That we only recently discovered it as an intellectual category and began to examine its principles and the practical applications thereof in concrete detail does not mean that self-esteem was not an operant condition of the human psyche throughout history.
The spirit of the ancient world and the pre-modern past is often thought to be one of tradition and imposed order. Every person was born into a certain station in life which they would inhabit, without change or any particular effort, until their death. Another way to consider this set of circumstances is that the past was a place of entitlement. Entitlement often carries a pejorative connotation indicating undue privilege, but in its broadest sense it applies to any situation in which people deem what they have and what they are due to be a function of “who they are” rather than “what they have done” and it applies to high and low alike.
The emergence of markets, of dynamic technologies and of new thinking about meritocratic social orders heralded the arrival of the age of personal responsibility trodding over the threshold of the age of entitlement. In this new world, the modern world, people had new opportunities to change their station and position in life through strategic ideas and the will to carry it out. Life outcomes began to shift from what role or relationship they were born into, to being due more and more to individual thinking and decisions people made over the course of their lives.
This age of responsibility, unlike the age of entitlement that preceded it, demands active engagement with the psychology of self-esteem to maximize the opportunities presented. Rather than finding oneself resentful, frustrated and confused by an ever-changing society, business and technological landscape, the individual who has mastered the psychology of self-esteem is enabled to continue to change their own ideas and with them, their actions, in relation to this kaleidoscopic shifting of external reality and continually stand to benefit from whatever arrangement it takes. In contrast, the individual living with entitlement feels threatened by change, discouraged by having to think and come up with new plans and ultimately concludes that personal transformation is hopeless and if they can not benefit from progress, they ought to stand in its way and at least enjoy the satisfaction of gumming it up for their historical antagonists and enemies.
The parenting of the past, founded on authority and parental license and the diminution of the individual identity of the child to prepare him or her for their “entitled” adult future, is a severe liability in the modern world and one which few have come to terms with or even understand as a problem. An ever-changing future demands a growth, rather than a fixed, mindset, and a growth mindset stems from confidence in the self’s ability to remain flexible and adapt to new conditions. In other words, a growth mindset is directly tied to the psychology of self-esteem.
Self-esteem being at root a relationship that one has with oneself — feelings of personal worthiness and the capability to seize the good in life — it is incumbent upon parents who wish to “future-proof” their children in a world of hyperactive change to start in infancy with a parenting approach based upon respect. The respect shown for the infant becomes a model for the later child and future adult in how they should relate to themselves.
In other words, parents who wish to benefit from the modern knowledge of the psychology of self-esteem so as to arm their children with a growth mindset in a continuously developing world that demands the greatest creativity and flexibility of thinking to seize the numerous advantages presented on an almost daily basis, should start by grounding their parenting approach in respect for the individual child before them.
by David Burns, published 1980, 2008
This post is less a review of the book and more an exploration of its major philosophical principles and techniques.
All your moods are created by your cognitions, or thoughts, including:
When you are feeling depressed, your thoughts are dominated by pervasive negativity which infect all of your experiences, including:
Negative thoughts at the heart of emotional turmoil almost always contain gross distortions, therefore:
Diagnosing Your Moods
You can use the Burns Depression Checklist (the author’s proprietary list of indicators of depressive thinking) weekly to chart the progress of your depression’s severity. This is important because it introduces objective data into your self-experience. By seeing the change in data over time as a result of specific action, you can break the allure common to all depressive episodes that the present experience is likely to continue on indefinitely, or only get worse.
Understanding Your Moods
Depression is not an emotional disorder, it is a disorder of thoughts.
Practice noticing the negative thought you had just prior to your negative feeling. This will help you generate awareness about the specific “triggers” that instigate a depressive mood. You will begin to notice that right before you feel downcast, you have made a critical or despairing assumption about yourself or other people.
One argument depressed people make is that their depressive mood is an accurate reflection of a depressing reality. However, emotions do not happen automatically based upon experiences, but rather experiences are processed in the mind and filtered through pre-existing thoughts before being translated into an emotional state. Therefore, if your understanding of reality is normal, your resulting mood will be normal; if your understanding of reality is distorted, your mood will be distorted as well.
Thinking you are the one “hopeless”, truly flawed person in the world is a sign of distorted thinking. This is a belief based upon fallacious logical thinking rather than an objective, existent fact about reality knowable to all.
In its essence, depression is a highly credible form of faulty faith in a reality that doesn’t exist. Truly, the cure for long-lasting depression is a “scientific mind” determined to observe and examine reality using sound logical principles.
The 10 Major Cognitive Distortions
Depressive episodes are triggered by one of ten common cognitive distortions, or fundamental logical fallacies embedded in the assumptions and thinking of the depressed individual:
Sometimes people experiencing depression worry that if they do not experience the grief and upset feelings of depression, they will not be living authentically. Getting in touch with and expressing valid emotions based upon valid thinking, is a form of emotional maturity; expressing invalid emotions based on invalid thinking is a personal and sometimes social problem that is not at all desirable. Emotional growth and development involves ridding yourself of invalid thinking and the harmful, deluded and invalid emotions that come with it.
In a depressive state of mind, it can be difficult to summon the determination, motivation and interest in moving one’s goals and life plans forward. Using the major principle mentioned earlier, it is important to consider what kind of self-critical triggering thoughts precede this unwillingness to act. When you are suffering “do-nothingism”, consider the following as a new mental habit:
When I think about an undone task, what thoughts immediately come to mind?
You are likely to find that these thoughts are filled with the logic of futility, hopelessness and general nihilism and discouragement.
Common Mindsets that Yield Action to Inaction
Here are some common cognitive distortions that precede do-nothingism:
You may notice that many of these cognitive distortions are simply “inaction-specific” versions of the earlier list from above.
Dealing With Anger
Anger is a common aspect of many depressive episodes. As depressed people tend not to carry out the values of their lives into action, they often experience frustration, resentment and anger about the seeming futility and malaise of their life, particularly when they are in touch with or aware of their latent talents and abilities. Anger is often directed outward at others as an expression of the pain within.
When you label someone, you tend to apply a mental filter that results in disqualifying the positive as you emphasize their poor traits and ignore their good ones. Labeling gives way to blame, blame leads to vengeance. Ironically, you can not enhance your self-esteem by attacking someone else’s, so this act of labeling and attacking the character of others in anger proves doubly harmful.
Mind-reading also leads to anger as you will tend to attribute false ideas and motivations to the other person’s behavior.
Magnification of the original negative event will cause greater than necessary pain and cause the pain to linger longer than it must.
Should/should not statements generate entitled beliefs and entitled thinking leads to resentment and frustration with other people as well as the self.
The perception of unfairness or injustice is the ultimate cause of anger. It is the emotion that corresponds 1:1 to your belief that you are being treated unfairly. Significantly, there is no universal standard for fairness or justice, only different ethical systems based upon tradition, circumstances and logical rationalization of self-interest and specific harmony.
Arguments over who is “right” are fruitless and unresolvable.
Some anger is healthy in motivating change. But to determine if your anger is motivational or de-motivational and depressive, consider these two criteria for anger:
Techniques for managing anger:
Examing Depressive Thinking
Some people are so depressed, all they can do is carry their whining and complaining with them everywhere they go. How do you deal with a whiner? Try the Anti-Whiner Technique– when someone complains, agree and compliment, don’t try to help. People who whine never want help solving their problems, they are looking for validation and security from others that their pain is real. By offering solutions, you unwittingly end up sending the message to the whiner that they’re incapable of helping themselves, are being victimized by reality and thus should continue whining!
There is no such thing as a “realistic” depression, although there are realistic reasons for temporarily feeling sad. Consider these two ideas about “realistic” depression:
Preventing future depressions:
Downward Arrow Technique, used to mine automatic thoughts for “logical consequences” of silent assumptions, the residue of recurring depressive episodes; then “talk-back” is used the challenge these beliefs.
Taking Action Against Depression
What problems do you face? How are you solving them? This is where the action is, not “worth” or “true self”.
People can spend their whole lives trying to get beneath their depression to an authentic understanding of self when really the difference between a depressed person and a non-depressed person, ultimately, is a willingness to take action to solve one’s own problems.
Why treat yourself in ways it would be rude or uncomfortable to treat others? Encourage yourself to identify your problems and create strategies for resolving them. In taking action, you’ll find your own capability and begin to let the depression go.
When the house is finished, death follows.
What is success? A mysterious, indescribable power– a vigilance, a readiness, the awareness that simply by my presence I can exert pressure on the movements of life around me, the belief that life can be molded to my advantage. Happiness and success are inside us. We have to reach deep and hold tight. And the moment something begins to subside, to relax, to grow weary, then everything around us is turned loose, resists us, rebels, moved beyond our influence. And then it’s just one thing after another, one setback after another, and you’re finished.
~Thomas Buddenbrooks, in Buddenbrooks
by Alan Weiss, published 2019
Estimate costs to reasonably support yourself and your family for 1 full year and set this money aside as initial startup costs for consulting
10 Key Traits of Successful Consultants
Necessary specialist help with professional staff, entrepreneurial bent, accessible, resourceful, same risk-profile:
Marketing, develop market gravity through:
Key principles of consulting sales
Gaining conceptual agreement
Focus on developing “small yeses”
7 Elements of Great Proposals
One of the benefits of long-distance and international travel that I’ve enjoyed most is the way it helps me access a reflective, thoughtful part of my mind. When I travel, I find myself thinking different thoughts than I do at home, noticing details I otherwise miss and considering problems and experiences from back home from new angles.
Also, I get tired. Something about the time change, walking around 3-5x more in a given day than I normally do — and I am not exactly sedentary at home — and the general shock to the system of suddenly being six thousand miles away from home in less than 12 hours when a healthy human being is equipped with mobility technology meant to allow him to travel at most about 25 miles in a day.
Recently, the Wolf, the Little Lion and I took another trip. This time to Florence for a week and Milan for a couple days.
We departed the West Coast on an Air France A380, stopping at Paris’s CDG before continuing on to Florence. I specifically chose the A380 route and itinerary because I had flown the A380 on Emirates coming back from Dubai a few years ago and found the plane to have a stable feel even in turbulence. I also had had a negative experience on an Air France B-777 that seemed quite old and out of date and I hoped that the “flagship” appeal of a European-made aircraft would lead to a slightly better level of comfort and service.
We flew economy and it was pedestrian. This is not a travel guru website and I am not The Points Guy, though, so what I really want to talk about is the food. My god, it was atrocious. I think one of the problems was that our flight originated in the US and so that means the catering originated there as well. But the even bigger problem seems to be that Air France just offers uninspired eats in general.
It was bad enough that it left me wondering about how airline catering works. There’s an answer to this that I can find if I do some digging and research but for now I am just pondering about it. I am not a gourmand of French cuisine. I own a copy of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” that I bought almost ten years ago after someone made me the most incredible braised chicken in a wine and pepper sauce for lunch and told me it’s a standard French recipe. I never opened the cookbook. Also, I used to eat frequently at a cafeteria-style French lunch spot named, what else, Moulin, owned by a man who is undoubtedly French and I very much liked what they served there but if any of it wasn’t French or wasn’t authentic you would certainly be able to put it past me.
However, I know terrible food and I also know that it’s inexplicable when terrible food is dressed up as try-hard elegance. The Air France food had the most complicated-sounding descriptions and I assume the ambition was to recreate for passengers some staples of excellent French cooking but it came out each and every time as a pile of unidentifiable, flavorless and unfilling slop. Worse, it was accompanied by bad rolls (just… bad. You know what makes a bad roll bad, I don’t need to garnish this description), food coloringed-cheese and preservative-laden DOLE fruit cups. It was almost like a Piss Christ of nourishment, a wildly inappropriate centerpiece surrounded by offensive accompaniments.
What I was thinking about was this: why not just give every passenger a really good croissant or baguette-based sandwich? Some slices of jambon, little fromage, some beurre and a dab of mustard (whole grain, please) and deck it out with some cornichons. Doesn’t have to be huge, just has to be good. Sandwiches, even high quality sandwiches, have to be cheaper than microwaveable “entree” portions. And yes, they’re very casual, but wouldn’t it be better to serve something casual and satisfying than something stuffy and regrettable?
There must be a reason why they’d avoid doing something so practical and obvious and instead go to great effort to provide a botch job like the abortion on my plate but my logical intuition and basic knowledge of catering economics hasn’t figured it out yet.
The second thought I had was: why aren’t more airlines offering truly outstanding food for purchase for a premium (ie, high margin) price? Like, serve the slop to the unassuming but for anyone with a wallet or an impressive impulse-buy capability you can get something you’d actually talk about positively to others after you got off your flight and make the airlines’ shareholders a bit richer in the process, too. The obvious answer to this one seems to be, “Well, that won’t work because people will play around it by going to McDonald’s before they board or packing a bag lunch.” That seems imminently reasonable because that’s exactly what my family and I did before we boarded (packed a delicious bagged lunch, that is) but I think it’s safe to say we’re in the 1%, maybe even the 1% of the 1%, when it comes to air travel preparedness.
Most human beings I come across in airports and airplanes seem mostly bewildered by the experience. There is a squid pack of people who have figured out the greasy neck pillow trick but they typically get stuck here and don’t realize there’s a whole set of levels of travel preparation ahead of that one. Most never make it this far and come across as First Time-Fliers, which based upon their age, the destination and the general economic and technological trends of the past fifty or so odd years in the West is about as likely as finding an aboriginal tribesman in the jungle who has never heard of an iPad. Everyone’s been on a plane before, for some reason or another, but that doesn’t stop people from predictable acts of stupidity like the woman on my Southwest flight a few months back who spent the first ten minutes of the 90 minute flight flipping through the seatback pocket magazine and then, either realizing she was illiterate or it wasn’t that interesting, proceeded to stare at the back of the seat in front of her for the remaining duration of the flight. (Note: Southwest has not and will not adopt the TV screens on their airplanes, so she was just staring at smelly blue vinyl pleather for a good 75 minutes.)
The point of that digression is to say, I don’t think many people can think around this high margin tactic and come prepared to avoid the temptation of making a high margin impulse purchase like the one I am imagining. But I am not a major airline marketing executive, I’m just a guy who flies on their planes and is surprised to find airline food still sucks. So maybe I am stupid.
Speaking of food
The cost of travel
the most expensive beer in the world
But how do you set a budget?
by Paul Strathern, published 2017
The history of the Medici family might best be summarized with the phrase “from dust to dust.” As if to emphasize how they were destined for greatness and nobility, the family started out as a bunch of Tuscan hillbillies who could trace their lineage to a legendary knight of the Holy Roman Empire who settled near Florence in the 8th or 9th Century. From there and then, no one heard much of these people until some of the clan moved into Florence proper in the early 1300s and formed a small money-changing business.
Using conservative business practices and investing in roles of civic responsibility, eventually a Medici was elected to the position of gonfaloniere, the primus inter pares of the Florentine Republic. From this position the dice were carefully loaded in the favor of subsequent Medici generations by artfully forming governing coalitions that cemented their public position while creating leverage across their business and investment portfolio through the tactical use of subsidy, official privilege, insider information and regulatory capture wielded against competitors and opponents.
The story of the “overnight success” of the Medici begins here. The first great head of the Medici family and Medici bank, Giovanni de Medici, had jockeyed for favor with the newly appointed (anti-)Pope John XXIII in order to secure a role as the personal banker to the Papal Curia upon his ascendancy, which was then granted. For much of the 14th Century and Renaissance period in general, the papal revenues and banking needs were equivalent to managing the treasury function for the modern era’s most wealthy and complex multi-national corporations. To gain this trust was not only a measure of unique esteem valuable in and of itself, but a responsibility that carried with it priceless information and irreplaceable business franchises throughout European Christendom and even the Levant.
However, Pope John XXIII soon became embroiled in the Great Schism in which he and 2 other rival popes were called before the Holy Roman Emperor and summarily dismissed, to be replaced with his appointment, Pope Martin V. At his son Cosimo’s urging (whom he had sent to be his representative at the delegation attending the papal conference) the Medici’s continued to support the defrocked pope, even helping to pay his ransom for his release from imprisonment. Rather than being a financial disaster, this loyal support of the former pope led to a new lucrative banking relationship under Martin V, because in return for bartering his release the former Pope John XXIII agreed to support the nomination of Martin V and participate in the reconciliation of the Schism, leading to greater legitimacy for the new pope.
As a major political player on top of his business responsibilities, Giovanni left three apocryphal warnings for his descendants:
It seems as if it should be unnecessary to say that in time this advice was forgotten and eventually, so, too, were the Medici.
But the dissolution of the Medici was a ways away yet. After Giovanni came Cosimo as head of the family and the Medici bank. He faced a disastrous and unpopular war between Florence and Lucca (backed by Milan) which threatened to ruin the Florentine treasury and which had pitted the various leading families against one another. Subscribing to Rule #3, Cosimo opposed the conduct of the war and worked to hide the bank’s assets outside of Florence to avoid expropriation in the war’s aftermath.
For these maneuvers and others, Cosimo was recalled to Florence and imprisoned in the bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio by a faction led by the rival Albizzi who had plans to execute him for treachery. However, Cosimo’s far flung banking business and participation in the geopolitics of Western Europe had led him to a series of alliances and power relationships with foreign entities such as the Venetian Republic and the Papal States which he utilized to create a kind of diplomatic protection for himself, pressuring his enemies to choose exile over execution as his fate.
In the meantime, he used bribes and the threat of invasion of the city by his own mercenary forces outside its walls to add to the diplomatic pressure and engineer a favorable outcome for himself, all while behind bars.
Shaken but not stirred, Cosimo came to rule Florence through the intervention of the Pope and Venice, but vowed that “he would rule, but he would not be seen to rule” going forward. He had learned his lesson about bearing personal responsibility when it came to matters of state. Further, he was coming to understand that it was easier to wield power when others weren’t watching.
According to one supporter, “Whenever he wished to achieve something, he saw to it, in order to escape envy as much as possible, that the initiative appeared to come from others and not from him.” One policy he pushed for through his crony network was the use of the “catasto”, which had originally been levied to pay for the war, as a punitive tool to crush his political and business opponents through ruinous taxation. While he was forcing his enemies into exile to avoid financial ruin, purchasing and redistributing their former property to his supporters on a bargain basis, he simultaneously used inflated personal balance sheets to hide his income and appear to be bearing the heaviest personal tax burden on a relative basis.
But Cosimo was far from poor:
Between 1434 and 1471, Cosimo spent 663,755 gold florins supporting public works, by comparison, total assets of the Peruzzi bank at its height were 103,000 florins from Western Europe to Cyprus and Beirut.
If he was able to spend 6X the total assets of a well-known competitor at the height of its powers on public works, his total assets and wealth must have been a multiple of that amount. Normal banking and family secrecy aside, the Medici wealth at this time seems to have been nearly incalculable. It is no wonder, then, that one of Cosimo’s key strategies in building and wielding power was to always return favors with favors.
Following Cosimo, who was once to have said that “Trade brings mankind together, and casts glory on those who venture into it” his son Piero and Piero’s son, Lorenzo began to venture the family increasingly beyond the scope of banking and business and into the realm of politics and social standing via nobility. Depending upon how you interpret the events that followed, Piero and Lorenzo were either some of the most “magnificent” leaders of the Medici banking and political enterprises or they were equivalent to the decadent dissipators of the true talent and generational thrift of their greater ancestors.
Either way, the local power of the Medici in and around Florence was successively traded for inter-regional power and influence within the royal families of Europe. As the Medici gained a queen mothership in France, they lost their rule over the Florentine Republic to foreign invasion and intervention and increasingly squandered the capital of their banking and related enterprises. By the early 18th Century the Medici had failed to produce a male heir and had ceded their Grand Duchy of Florence to the Holy Roman Emperor and ceased to be a meaningful business or political entity forever.
by Ross King, published 2013
In the late 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, to complete a large bronze equestrian statue to honor himself and his late father and cement his authority over the people of Milan and northern Italy. It was to be one of the greatest equestrian statues of the era and one of the most technically challenging, single biggest pieces of cast bronze in the history of sculpture which would also fix Da Vinci’s reputation as a craftsman, artist and virtuoso.
But like many of Da Vinci’s projects and ambitions, it was not to be. After a series of unfortunate events that cascaded from Sforza’s unpredictable realpolitik, the duke was forced to melt down the bronze assigned to the project to form cannon to defend Milan from the invading forces of France’s Charles VIII.
Although Leonardo Da Vinci is known to history as an artist and mechanical genius (or at least, a philosopher of theoretical mechanical devices) his great personal ambition was to create outstanding weapons of war. He hoped the equestrian statue would be his entree into a world of defense industries assignments for the notoriously pugnacious Sforza clan. Instead, he spent most of his time in their employ designing parties, feasts and pageants and lamenting himself at age 42 as some one who could not positively reply to his own request, “Tell me if I ever did a thing.” He had struggled unsuccessfully in his 30s to learn Latin, a standard achievement of the scholarly and intellectual in his era, and as a result ended up a uomo senza lettere or “man without letters”, almost like a person today who failed to go to college. However, it was not the external standards of brilliance or achievement he failed against but rather the “extremely high standard he set for himself in his quest for a new visual language” that brought him the most self-doubt and personal pain.
And so it seems fittingly ironic then that his pinnacle achievement and the work of art he would come to be most famous for beyond even the mysterious Mona Lisa was not a weapon of war on a field of conquest or a bold statue in a central plaza but a fresco-style painting of a commonly depicted scene throughout Italy, found in many a dining hall of a local convent– The Last Supper.
There are many details of the painting that ended up making it remarkable and that have to do with the finished output, such as we know of it today in its highly degenerated and damaged form from the original. But it is what went into the painting that are the details most worthy of consideration.
First, this being a common subject matter in a humble, dingy room in a less-than-spectacular Dominican church, Da Vinci considered the work beneath him and like many of his projects he had trouble bringing himself to complete it. One of the art world’s masterpieces almost never happened out of simple spite and disinterest.
Second, Da Vinci combined the urban with the urbane in painting the portraits of the individual saints. To capture interesting “grotesque” expressions, he spent weeks hanging around the lower class parts of town studying the bodies, stances and gestures of various commoners. But for the visages of the saints themselves who are, along with the face of Jesus, lost to history in terms of any factual depictions, he selected from well-known friends and courtiers of the Ducal Palace in Milan. Thus these characters are both realistic, ahistorical and anachronistic simultaneously.
Third, the work of fresco is time and labor intensive and large scale murals are very much a team sport. Many materials such as certain paint colors and sealants had to be developed in a proprietary fashion by each workshop through a method of experimentation similar to laboratory chemistry. Most great art works were made by the master and his apprentices, but contracts at times specified certain portions which must be completed by the master himself. And the work itself was not necessarily quiet and contemplative but perhaps closer to today’s modern construction sites replete with boombox jamming. Although, Da Vinci is reputed to have worked to the sound of musicians or readers speaking from philosophical books, a Renaissance-era Spotify/podcast listening approach to productivity.
While the Last Supper is an act of inspired genius, it did not simply leap out of the head of Da Vinci through his paintbrush fully-formed. It was a team effort and followed a thorough process in which the final “draft” was first broken into constituent parts, practiced and rehearsed (“studies”, “carbons”) before being recomposed piece-by-piece as a fresco. The process is similar to writing a long history or novel (see Paris Review Interview No. 5 w/ Robert Caro) and has parallels in sports and investment analysis– from the parts to the whole.
While Leonardo Da Vinci found himself disappointed in his inability to produce a volume of highly anticipated works, his ability to nonetheless achieve global notoriety for just two works of art over the course of a longer, fully life perhaps gives double-meaning to his quip that “men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least.”
by Tom Wolfe, published 1987
During a these days rare dinner with friends our conversation turned to the time men spend away from home and their families, working their jobs. In this era it has become fashionable for women to work jobs and make money as men do, but save for a few standouts who are either childless outliers or work from pure necessity due to a failed relationship and mounting obligations, women do not “work as men do.” They don’t spend as much time at it and they certainly are not existentially defined by it. You may fall on either side of this line in your suppositions and beliefs, but where I fall is that this is the nature of man and woman.
In this role of provider, of striver, it becomes difficult if not impossible for a man to dissociate himself from his work such that he can stand independently apart from it without falling down on top of himself. He can always find a way to justify spending just a little bit more time at the office, or networking on the golf course, or catching up on emails after hours and so on, rather than reading to his kids or helping with household chores or kissing his wife on the forehead. Not because he’s trying to shirk his “duties” — far from it, for a man’s duty is to work! — but because in so prioritizing his time he is more fully expressing and embodying himself and defining who he is through his productive ambition.
There are two terrifying prospects then for men– to have no productive work to throw oneself into, or worse, to have work that doesn’t matter, to the man, to his family and to the world.
“Bonfire” is a story of the undoing of many characters. Great and small, main characters and side acts alike, each person is ultimately undone in this story in various dreadful ways, like the cuckolded Arthur Ruskin who succumbs in a plate of his fancy food at a French-dining scene. But the most terrible undoing of all, at least as far as a man is concerned, is the undoing of Sherman McCoy.
The major drama of the story follows McCoy in the criminal aftermath of his hit-and-run in the Bronx. But this drama serves only to distract the unobservant reader from the more existential moment when McCoy tries to explain to his six year-old daughter what he does for a living. In that moment, he learns that his work is inexplicable and meaningless.
Though touted by himself and others as a “Master of the Universe” at a major bond trading firm, Sherman McCoy comes to the understanding that he is at best a lowly salesman and at worst a janitor. He makes his money by trying to convince other people to buy and sell things and the residual value of these transactions, though large in absolute terms to an individual, are nonetheless like so many “golden crumbs” to be swept up from the table or floor of even more gluttonous organizations and actors.
Although seemingly talented, good at what he does and maybe even in a sense born to do it, it is essentially menial work and McCoy is replaceable, not strategic. He experiences this fact tangibly when, as his personal drama percolates, he witnesses the ways in which his former world goes on happily without him. This is the truly crushing blow for him, when he begins to have trouble sleeping and contemplates an existential way out of his misery.
Though cast as a social satire and an attack on financial hotshots and others of privilege, the book is perhaps better understood as a warning to men in general. That warning might be to anchor your work in your self and not to anchor your self in your work; as long as you are alive you will have your self, but you may not always have your work, at least in the way you’ve always understood it.