SMH = Shake My Head

September 11, 2014:

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting a college campus building devoted to business classes, when I noticed a flier on the wall that featured a still of Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort from the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, staring back at me. In the photo DiCaprio was holding a note of tender in his hand (I forget the denomination, but I doubt it was a George Washington) and a big smile on his face. Under the image was a quote from the movie about how there are hundreds of millions of dollars out there ready for the taking and only a few who are willing to go out and take it. Under the quote was an invitation to join the sponsor’s business group or seminar to learn how to become successful in business. It was clear that only “serious business-minded people should apply.” It followed with contact information and the frills that photocopied fliers made from movie screen-captures and a quick text-plaster on Microsoft Word would usually offer the casual life-improvement seeker who happens to discover it.

I don’t know if I even need to go through the trouble of explaining how stupid this is, but I will anyway:

1. Promoting your business through a movie reference says nothing about what you’re actually trying to accomplish. If anything, it will portray the exact message you don’t want to convey.

The story of Belfort’s rise to riches was cluttered with shady deals, pressure on potential investors to invest in various stocks, and a general disregard for federal laws involving securities fraud. According to a synopsis on his biography (posted at http://www.biography.com), he pressured companies into buying stocks to inflate the market, which he could turn around and profit from. He also urged his employees, who trained to be sharks, not to release potential investors from a phone call until they made an investment (making him rich, of course), regardless how it helped or harmed them. And like many people who gain obscene amounts of money way too quickly, he turned around and invested his money into various personal addictions that didn’t really help anyone (except maybe sports car salesmen, helicopter salesmen, and drug dealers). Yes, these practices earned him a lot of money, toys, and illegal substances. But they also, eventually, earned him a hefty, hefty fine and a prison sentence. His activities had gotten the attention of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which did its part to reverse his fortunes in less than a decade. He’s since had to change his business model to earn his fortunes in more legitimate ways.

2. If you’re going to show your ignorance, at least do it far away from a college campus. The last thing a college needs that is focused on promoting critical thinking skills is to have a bunch of fliers posted around campus that proves just how much farther it needs to go to fulfill its mission.

Even without doing the research, it’s clear to see how Belfort’s practices are unconventional to the way most businesses might work. It’s like comparing yellow bananas to brown ones. Not hard to see which one is the better one to eat. And, it’s easy to criticize the institutions that raise children to become free-thinking adults when these free-thinking adults fail to make such a simple correlation between pop culture and reality. But, there’s a point when institutions have to stop taking responsibility for an individual’s failure to grasp simple concepts. At some point, the individual, whether taking business classes or not, whether starting an entrepreneurial endeavor or not, needs to read between the lines and say, “Hey, I probably don’t want to lure people into my new business model by comparing myself to a guy who made his fortunes cheating people and was later arrested for securities fraud.” But I guess that part comes later, after he’s lived out his opening line, “Hey, Leonardo DiCaprio made a movie about getting filthy rich, so I’m gonna take and share his character’s advice with anyone willing to show up and listen!” I kinda wished I had called the number just to see how much the guy would charge me to attend his seminar.

3. Most people are smart enough to learn business through experts who have taken their knocks, developed their skills in the field, and have later become paid consultants or instructors whose job now is to teach the next generation how to continue to spin the world around.

Sure, there are mavericks like Jordan Belfort who enter the wide world of oceanic moneymaking where the income washes in much harder and faster than any one institution can handle, and following his example can make you rich. There’s no denying that. But, to embrace a cliché, at what cost? Capitalism works, whether it’s obtained legally or illegally. But do we really want to obtain it illegally? More importantly, do we want to give potential clients the idea that we make our money illegally? Even if capitalism works—it is, after all, just the disbursement and intake of money with the intention of encouraging wealth—not all businesses work it properly. Belfort’s first business, Stratton Oakmont, lost its credibility and eventually its status as a solid company—it was liquidated to cover the price of Belfort’s “business-savvy” ways—in spite of its early ability to make capitalism work. In case the correlation between pop culture and reality has not yet come to light, and the ability to see the dirt under all those dollar signs is still a bit weak, let me remind you how Belfort’s old business is doing today: It’s not really making anyone money nowadays. Be smart: if you want to teach people how to become successful in business, market yourself; don’t market a character that Leonardo DiCaprio played in a three-hour movie about sex, drugs, greed, fraud, and enough F-bombs to send Hollywood back to a wasteland. What do you really expect to prove otherwise?

In the words of those who communicate only through text messaging, SMH.

*The information on Belfort’s background referenced in this journal can be found here: http://www.biography.com/people/jordan-belfort-21329985#synopsis

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