The Tragedy of Greed

He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have. —Socrates

F or as long as we’ve had stuff, greed has been on the scene. The consequences of greed appear throughout history and we’ve been warned of its dangers time and again. One of the seven deadly sins, greed is tightly bound to pride and symptomatically comparable to envy, gluttony, and lust. All of which have proven to be terribly challenging for humans to manage given what appear to be our natural proclivities.

Greed, or avarice, has been on my mind recently as personal experience and shared stories have demonstrated that it is still alive and well in our world. If we take a moment and think about it, we see it everywhere: in our business dealings, in our personal transactions…among families, friends, partners, and strangers. Our capitalist system does foster it as we often see or feel that someone else’s gain is our loss and wealth is a yardstick of success. Of course, it goes much deeper than that as we tie our sense of self to possessions or wealth – particularly when we compare what we have to what others have. Here, dangers appear very quickly.

The insidious thing about greed is that it often starts as a motivation to excel. Seeking to excel is certainly an admirable trait, right? Like many human traits, motivation and ambition are positive until taken to the extreme. The noble pursuit to improve one’s self or position is admirable…until it isn’t. At the extreme, ambition flips to something darker. At the heart of it is our need for more. Feeding those ambitions fuels a hunger and more becomes a way of life.

Look at your business dealings. When negotiating a transaction with another, we learn that the more we get, the less the other party gets. We’re rewarded with more if we are effective negotiators. Wanting to get the best deal possible is admirable. When does it tip over into greed? We see it all of the time and it’s usually tied to “winning.” In this case, winning is getting what you want, typically at the expense of the other party. The desire for a favorable result tips to greed when we press beyond reasonable and into taking. I win, you lose. Greed is taking advantage. Greed is hurting. Greed is on the scene when one party to the transaction feels like they’ve lost. We know it when we see it.

One might ask: when does improving your position tip over into being greedy? Though I am unaware of any subjective measure of greed, I like to use the “right thing” test. Whenever I feel that I may be walking on the slippery slope of avarice, I ask myself: “Is this the right thing to do?” Though many people will have  differing views of the the “right thing,” I think that most will land in the same ball park. Our laws give us legal rightness but there is plenty of room for our moral compass to fill in the gaps. Here are some examples of situations in which improving one’s position might be tipping toward greed:

  • One company purchases another and refuses to honor commitments made by the acquired company. Things always change. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle it. Refusing to pay travel expenses of an employee post-closing because you deem them unnecessary puts you on the slippery slope of greed. Refusing to pay agreed-upon prices for orders previously placed is another example. Depending on the approach, canceling contracts might also tip toward greed.
  • Refusing to honor an agreement made by a former employee because you say there is no documentation and that employee is gone. This example shows how gray the “right thing” zone might be. People often hide behind the “no documentation” excuse to avoid doing things they said they would do. Of course, if you find yourself lying to avoid a commitment like this, you should take a long, hard look inside. One might say that it is the person’s fault for not getting it in writing. Really? I suppose that might be technically true, but is that the right thing?
  • A customer desperately needs a product and you are their only supplier with it in stock. You raise the price because you can. Is it supply and demand or greed? Perhaps a price increase is reasonable. At what point does it tip toward greed? The pharmaceutical industry is notorious for “shortages” that cause price increases. Are these market-driven or something darker?
  • An executive directs an accounts payable clerk to hold invoices past the end of the quarter to inflate company totals and increase his bonus. Is he legitimately improving his position or showing signs of greed?

The examples above are real and, unfortunately, I could list many more. Often, the situations above have their own consequences as people tend to react negatively to being treated in these ways. However, what is happening to us in the process?

Like many of our darker inclinations, greed starts relatively harmlessly and escalates as we reward ourselves with things. As we continue to seek more: more stuff, more wins, more glory – we feed our pride. From there our vanity gets the best of us and becomes insatiable. Ultimately, greed spills over into all areas of our life. Not only do we want more money and more stuff; we want more “likes,” more followers, more recognition, more. The tragedy of greed is that in our efforts to feel good, we end up hurting ourself. Those compromises of integrity in the service of our greed tear small and then larger holes in our soul. Our needs only grow and that black hole becomes impossible to fill. The gains aren’t big enough so we escalate our takes. Most embezzlers didn’t begin their job with the intention to steal.

Greed begins subtly and grows insidiously. The moral compromise wreaks havoc on our sense of self and only feeds our rationalizations. What is the price of your integrity? $10? $100? $100,000? Is the small number easy to rationalize because its small? Is the big number easy to rationalize because it’s large? As our greed increases, we decrease. As it grows, we diminish. Even we don’t walk greed’s path directly into the illegal, it still affects us and those around us. Our children see it. Our employees see it. Greed attaches itself to our reputation like a scarlet letter. Who comes to mind when you see the word greed? What do you think of them?

How do we manage the delicate balance between our desire for success and the tragedy of greed? Some of us may be more inclined towards greediness than others, and though we will often fail, we can be intentional in our approach toward managing our inclinations. Here are a few thoughts:

  • All we have is on loan. We get to use it for the duration of our life. Use it well. Use it to make the world a better place.
  • Seek the good of the other in everything. When approaching a transaction, find the win for both parties. If there is not a win for both parties, perhaps it isn’t the right transaction. Seeking the good of the other does not mean we disadvantage ourself. We seek the good of the other when we look for a win for all involved.
  • Ask yourself “What is enough?” In the United States, most of us are way past survival. We don’t need to live with nothing. We just need to be aware of all of the gifts in our lives and find joy in where we are. We are made to aspire. We are made to strive. We are made to grow. We don’t have to be slaves to needing more stuff.
  • Remember how good it feels when your spring cleaning is done. In that moment, the world is renewed and you can start fresh. Spring clean often. Clear out the detritus in your life and you’ll find room for new interests and possibilities. Less stuff often equates to more happiness.
  • Do the right thing, every time. If you want something so badly that you are contemplating compromising your integrity. Pause. Step back. Focus on the right thing and let go of the need. Given a little time, perspective (and sanity) will often return. Let it.

Ultimately, life is not a race to stockpile as much as you can and you don’t need to take from others to improve yourself. Greed is a tragedy that can be avoided if we remain vigilant. Avarice is a danger we can subdue when we focus on the things with lasting value in life. Focus your need for more on accumulating goodness and you’ll find the best of everything waiting for you there.



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