I don’t know why, but I find it rather depressing that Kylie Jenner has just become the world’s youngest ever billionaire, at the age of 21, based on income from her cosmetics empire. I’ve tried to figure out why I feel this way. Is it:
Envy? Am I just bitter and twisted because she is less than half my age and worth… well, shall we just say a large multiple of my personal wealth? When I was a little girl I used to daydream that my parents were actually adopted, and my true parents were a king and queen who would one day show up to claim their princess, after which I would live in a castle and wear beautiful dresses. Am I jealous that Kylie got born into the 21st century equivalent of a royal family – a reality TV family?
- Is it because I’m proud to be a woman, yet obviously it is mostly women who have put Kylie where she is now by buying her over-priced and over-packaged cosmetics? Am I ashamed by our collective gullibility?
- Is it because we (or at least, some of us) still idolise youth and wealth over more durable and admirable personal attributes, like courage, character, and contribution? Why should we care that a young, over-privileged socialite has a ten-figure fortune while the world goes to hell in a hand-basket?
Or am I just being generally grouchy, far beyond the relatively insignificant Kylies of the world, because humanity is facing extinction rather sooner than I had expected? It’s enough to put anybody in a bad mood.
I don’t think it’s so much princess-envy or woman-shame. I’d like to think, rightly or wrongly, that I’m bigger than that. I think it’s more to do with my general despair about how we still measure success by the size of someone’s bank balance rather than the size of their heart.
Yes, many rich people are major philanthropists and give away millions to good causes (even if their personal fortune is so vast that it still grows, no matter how fast they give it away). Heck, during my ocean rowing years I was on the receiving end of some incredible generosity, and I’m certainly grateful and appreciative. To be absolutely clear, I am not critical of the individuals whose hard work and/or good fortune has brought them great wealth. It’s the system that I’m questioning.
While we continue to lionise the wealthy and correlate financial riches with happiness (despite extensive research disproving the connection beyond a certain level), we perpetuate the myth of infinite growth on a finite planet. If we’re all striving to live the m/b/zillionaire lifestyle, with planes and yachts and mansions, we’re going to continue to head in completely the wrong direction sustainability-wise (see this no-punches-pulled diatribe by Marc Doll).
We need, as Alex Evans argues in The Myth Gap, a bigger us (less tribal), a longer now (not just short-term thinking), and a better good life “in which growth is less a story of increasing material consumption and more about finally growing up as a species.”
I commend Lisa Marshall’s book (she also happens to be my coach): Speak the Truth and Point to Hope: The Leader’s Journey to Maturity, in which she advocates for the wisdom of the sage or elder, which is less about chronological age and more about a state of mind, rather than what she calls “Peter Pan” leaders, who elevate the adolescent mindset to an art form. Less Mark Zuckerberg, more Atticus Finch.
In the same vein, some groups are now building on the work of Carol Dweck on Fixed vs Growth Mindset, and suggesting we need to cultivate a Benefit Mindset, a pro-social way of seeing the world in which leaders seek to maximise their contribution to a future of greater possibility.
To me it seems obvious that this is what we need more of, and yet it’s not what is highlighted in the media. It’s fantastic to see some true heroes occasionally getting headlines – like Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg – but their followings are tiny compared with Kylie, Khloe, Kourtney, and all the other badly-spelled Kardashians.
Humans love to measure and compare things, and money is a seductively simple metric. One dollar is much like any other dollar within the same currency, so it’s that easy to see that if Bezos is worth $131 billion while Gates is worth a mere $96.5 billion, Bezos is clearly better off. Money doesn’t require us to think about the relative merits of Bezos’s positive character traits vs those of Gates. With money, it’s all about the numbers.
But if we stop to think about it, does this mean that Bezos is the best person in the world, because he has the most money? Clearly not. He’s probably not even the smartest person in the world. Nor the kindest, or most generous, or most thoughtful. He’s just really, really good at making money, within our current neoliberal capitalist system.
And while that system has done a lot of good, it is also doing a lot of harm. So is that really what we want to aspire to?
So, Kylie, I watch with interest. I hope that your fortune brings you great happiness, and that you might also blaze a trail to show young women what a modern billionaire can look like, by putting it to good use in making the world a better place.