In the movie Titanic, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) said that he’d won his third-class ticket thanks to a lucky hand at poker. In response, the snobbish Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane) remarked, “A real man makes his own luck.”
Well, there’s definitely some truth to it. I’m sure everyone will agree that it’s better to count on one’s skills, hard work and grit than to rely solely on luck. Then again, it’s easy for Hockley, heir to a steel fortune, to say. For a poor, itinerant orphan who had little to his name, Dawson probably considered himself lucky if he had enough to eat.
Hockley represents the archetypal aristocrat we love to hate — an overweeningly pompous jerk with enormous advantages by virtue of his wealth and connections. Fast forward to the 21st century. Rich people are everywhere and some (not all) still have the lordly attitude of the past. Their money has resulted in a swollen head and an oversized ego.
Here are 5 ways money makes us arrogant:
- We Believe We Achieved Success Ourselves
- We Think We’re Smarter than Everyone Else
- We Start to Flex
- We Look Down on the Poor
- We Lack Social Conscience
1. We Believe We Achieved Success Ourselves
Human beings share a fundamental bias. When something bad happens to us, we love to blame it on tough luck. But when something good happens to us, we believe it’s due to our tenacity, intelligence, exceptional skill set, incredible decision-making or some other meritorious quality. We hardly ever attribute it to good luck.
In a world that places great emphasis on merit, most people do not want to acknowledge the role luck plays in their success, for it would seem as if they did not earn it. Is it surprising then that the rich often believe that they are single-handedly responsible for their wealth?
No doubt, many rich people possess outstanding personal attributes such as intelligence and diligence, but would they be able to achieve the same level of success if they were born in a different country? What about those who have done nothing to deserve their fortune but merely received it by birthright?
In contrast, there are a great many people who have worked tirelessly for years and are still waiting for their big break. And let’s not forget those born into poverty and lack access to resources and educational opportunities.
Life is not fair. Never was, never is, never will be. Perhaps it’s time we stop deluding ourselves and admit that success is often more by accident than design.
Of course, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. Definitely not Mr Smug, a family friend whom I have the misfortune of meeting a few times a year.
To provide some context, in my article What We Learned Growing Up Rich, I shared that both Mr Wow and I have pretty well off parents. As such, our social circle comprises a number of affluent people. Most are humble and down-to-earth; some are arrogant and condescending. I’ll be relating my personal experience with the latter group in this article.
Mr Smug loves to trumpet his financial acumen, especially when it comes to real estate investing. A year before the Covid-19 pandemic, he had bought a condominium in downtown Singapore for about S$6 million (roughly US$4.5 million). As everyone knows, home prices shot up post-pandemic and Mr Smug just won’t stop crowing about his triumph.
“Do you know how much I’ve made in the last one year? My property can easily fetch a million dollars more in today’s market! I knew the value would go up! Everyone is worried about rising interest rates. I’m not! Even if the rates hit 5%, I can afford to pay…”
He would go on and on about his sound judgement and why this “idiot” and that “idiot” should have listened to his advice. Me? I would pretend to listen and wonder when he would shut up. Seriously, this guy is so full of himself!
First, when he bought his place, he had no idea about the impending pandemic and the property boom after that, all right.
Second, it’s unrealised profit, so what’s there to swank about!
Third, he forgot to mention that his dad is filthy rich and that he had been staying in one of his dad’s properties rent free for years before buying his own place.
Fourth, he also forgot to mention that he can afford to take risks that most people can’t because he has a HUGE inheritance to fall back on.
This guy has incredible luck in life, but he thinks he’s so clever!
I’m not saying that it’s all luck. I’m saying that luck is one of the contributing factors to a person’s success. When we bask in our personal glory — whether it’s our educational, career or financial achievements — we must bear in mind that it’s not entirely due to our own merit.
Few people rise on their own. As we climb the ladder of success, we have all been lucky one way or another. It could be the help we received from others or unearned advantages because we won the birth lottery. When we count ourselves lucky, we will be less inclined to allow ourselves to be taken over by arrogance. Remembering our luck keeps us humble.
When we count ourselves lucky, we will be less inclined to allow ourselves to be taken over arrogance.
2. We Think We’re Smarter than Everyone Else
Can Mr Smug be any more smug? You bet! We’re talking about someone who has an ego the size of Jupiter after all. He thinks his IQ is higher than everyone else just because his net worth has gone up. After bragging about his expensive home, he would move on to his high-flying career before taking a jab at Mr Wow and me. But instead of referring to us directly, he would always use third-person pronouns like he was talking about other people (he must think we’re imbeciles).
Some of the things he has said about us IN FRONT OF US include:
- Those people who retired in their 40s have no bloody idea what they are doing. They are going to run out of money in 20 years!
- How to retire by trading stocks! What idiots!
- I can make so much money because I understand the property market and know how to leverage. Those clowns who downsized are really dumb.
Jeez! Thanks for the “subtle”, unsolicited performance appraisal!
The thing is, we’re not Mr Smug. We don’t need a luxury home or an important job to be happy and contented. We value different things and have no desire to lead the high life. We don’t begrudge him his life choices, so why should he begrudge us ours?
He also hasn’t the faintest idea of our finances and retirement plan (we don’t broadcast and he has never asked). Neither does he know the difference between trading and investing (we’re mainly the latter). However, when Mr Wow tried to explain it to him once, he simply gave a dismissive wave of the hand and interjected, “Psst! They are the same!”
It’s one thing to give constructive criticism; quite another to make impudent remarks. Mr Smug’s supercilious behaviour is exactly the kind that gives rich people a bad name. A person’s fortune does not give him the right to behave like a bumptious douchebag. It most certainly does not automatically make him the most intelligent being in the room. But I doubt Mr Smug will ever get it as he’s obviously too smart to see things from someone else’s perspective.
3. We Start to Flex
Thankfully, not everyone is as obnoxious as Mr Smug. At least they don’t have the habit of putting others down to make themselves feel good. Nevertheless, as the flex culture becomes more prevalent online, the rich are also less averse to flaunting their wealth in social settings. The change is obvious to me, especially in recent years.
For instance, my relative who is a top income earner loves to “bemoan” the amount of tax he has to pay whenever we meet. Somehow, he can always find a chance to insert it into every conversation. You can’t fault me for not being moved by his “awful plight”.
Earlier this year, Mr Wow’s friend shared that he had bought a “cheap” dining table. He made us guess the price. As expected, we were way off the mark. “Almost S$30,000 (about US$22,250) after discount,” he announced proudly. My first response was “And it didn’t come with chairs?!”
As the flex culture becomes more prevalent online, the rich are also less averse to flaunting their wealth in social settings.
Flexing extends beyond showing off one’s money and material possessions. Some people like to boast about their academic or career achievements; others like to name-drop. Sometimes they brag outright; other times they humblebrag. Social media is not the root cause of such behaviour. It has merely brought out the proud Lucifer in us by magnifying and glorifying it. What used to be frowned upon is now appealing to many. Self-promotion is awesome; self-effacement is so passé.
Whether you regard flexing as a form of self-expression or an ostentatious display of success is a matter of perspective. Personally, I can’t say I approve of such behaviour, but I’ve developed a pretty high tolerance of it in social settings. As long as people don’t flex excessively or disrespect others (e.g. Mr Smug), I just let them be.
As human beings, all of us are motivated by pride and vanity to a varying extent. It is therefore important that we be mindful and moderate ourselves. When we have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, that’s when we may take self-promotion too far and behave like the very people we tell youngsters not to emulate.
4. We Look Down on the Poor
The following incident occurred many years ago.
“Are you stupid or you really don’t understand English! I told you to scoop the watermelon, not cut it!” The party host told her domestic helper off in exasperation.
Oops, uncomfortable climate. The moment I stepped into the kitchen, I wanted to turn back immediately.
“Oh hi!” The host saw me before I could disappear.
“Sorry, I was going to help myself with a Coke,” I explained.
“Sure, let me get it for you,” she said smilingly.
As we made our way to the dining room, she started to complain about how hopeless her new helper was. “She can’t even understand simple English. I have to repeat every single instruction like I’m talking to an idiot…”
As she was talking, I suddenly let out a giggle and she thought I was agreeing with her.
“Exactly! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry…” she continued.
Actually I was giggling at the picture in my head. I had imagined a role swap: the host was the maid and her affluent employer was scolding her for being dense and not understanding Indonesian.
That was the first and last time I saw the host. I was only at her place because her cousin, a guy I was sort of dating, had invited me. However, it certainly wasn’t the last time I witnessed people disparaging their domestic helpers.
Sometimes, our money gives us the feeling that we’re more superior than those whose station in life is below ours. It could be speaking to service staff in a rude or patronising manner. It could be making fun of the way someone dresses. It’s arrogance and elitism and we need to stop.
5. We Lack Social Conscience
Miss Uppity, a relative from Mr Wow’s side of the family is another “source of inspiration” for this article. She’s my dad’s age, but the similarity stops there.
My dad grew up in a poor and abusive family and had no formal education. Miss Uppity grew up in a rich and loving family and went to Ivy League schools.
At 11, my dad had to work to support his family. Miss Uppity had servants waiting on her.
My dad’s journey to financial success was paved with hardship. Miss Uppity was rich the moment she was born.
My dad is humble about his success. Miss Uppity likes to think that she’s humble.
My dad looks up to well-educated people like Miss Uppity. Miss Uppity looks down on uneducated people like my dad. It doesn’t matter that my dad is a wealthy man now. To Miss Uppity, people like him will always be beneath her kind.
Over the years, I often have to listen to some really insensitive, at times downright offensive remarks and still keep a straight face. There’s a limit to everything, so one day, I decided to speak up for my dad and the undeserving poor. Guess what Miss Uppity’s response was?
In a true daughter-of-privilege fashion, she asked, “But why didn’t your dad study or at least learn English when he got older?”
Because he was busy trying to make ends meet! Because he had to feed my uncles and aunties and send them to school! Get off your high horse and stop being such a snob! My mind screamed and my heart bled.
There were countless other instances, but this is not a rant post, so enough said.
I often wonder — what’s the point of having of tons of money and impressive credentials if one has so little social conscience?
It frightens me to say that there many people like Miss Uppity. They are not bad people, but they are snotty and clueless as hell. They have very little understanding of life outside their bubble and they have no interest to find out. They think of themselves as aristocrats with exceptional qualities (like Hockley in Titanic) and will continue to demonstrate superiority over those who do not possess the same level of wealth and qualifications.
Socioeconomic inequality is a major challenge in the world. Granted, many rich people do give generously to the poor, but that’s not enough. To make meaningful social change, some need to change the way they think first. Instead of trying to “fix” the poor, they need to ask themselves if they are, in any way, contributing to the inequality.
If you are trying to get rich, I really hope you will succeed and not become arrogant. At the end of the day, financial prosperity is about creating options. It’s not about showing off.
You may also like: Admit It: Money CAN Buy Happiness | What Are Your Money Values and Why You Need to Know Them | 7 Levels of Wealth: A Different Way to Think About Money | Exploring Money Mindsets: A Rich Man & His Four Sons