Made to feel poor

Rajat Gupta, then CEO of McKinsey once spoke at my school. He was forceful, intelligent and experienced. He treated his audience of school kids with respect and liberally interspersed his speech with Sanskrit shlokas. Gupta had lost his father at an early age and was able to continue his education due to the support of his school principal. From such beginnings, he entered IIT Delhi and later worked his way through Harvard to the highest paid position held by any Indian in the US. At the time, he wanted to start a world class business school in India (ISB).

In 2012, Gupta was convicted of insider trading and sentenced to 2 years in prison as well as a heavy fine. On one instance, Gupta was believed to have leaked confidential information to a hedge fund who used it to make millions. It was one mistake which disgraced a stellar career. Why did he do it? Wasn’t he already rich? Hadn’t he already donated heavily to charities?

According to CNBC, Gupta had an intense desire to be seen as a real player, a great man in the know of powerful secrets. Despite his considerable wealth, he frequently associated with people who were far richer than him.

At a recent college reunion, an old friend kept moaning about how little success he had achieved. He only stopped when I told him my car was smaller than his.

The Indian urban middle class enjoys a lifestyle unimaginable a generation ago. By the standards we grew up with, we should consider ourselves wealthy. Of course that doesn’t happen. Envy fuelled ambition is termed aspiration. The problem isn’t that there is anything wrong with my car, it’s just that the guy I went to college with drives a BMW. It doesn’t matter if I never thought of owning a BMW till then, but the fact that he has it means I can’t get it out of my mind.

Everyone knows that the people who really matter wouldnever judge us online posessions, but we judge ourselves.

Consumerism is the idea that the next thing you buy will make you happy. The best marketing psychologists work to sell us a fictitious lifestyle where we are respected, admired, envied and loved. Deoderants don’t sell feeling fresh, they sell the idea of becoming attractive. Cars don’t sell transport, they sell the idea of status and an independent lifestyle. Go to a bookshop near you and see the huge number of books dedicated to the lives of big businessmen and to supposedly helping you join their ranks.

Underlying all this is the idea that anything short of all this means you are missing out on life. In other words, you as a person are a failure.

My father said that it’s the product nobody wants to buy that is advertised the most. Think about that, advertising is targeting the greatest collective insecurities we have. So most people must feel poor, underappreciated, lonely (look at beer and alcohol ads) and unattractive. What a world.

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