My son loves video games, and is actually quite good at them.
When he first started actively gaming, he would often look for any “cheat codes” that might be available for the different games he wanted to play. For those not into gaming, cheat codes are special codes that a player can type in to unlock new weapons, cars, levels, etc, without having to earn them by reaching specific milestones in the game. It was a shortcut to gratification – a way to get something immediately without having to earn it.
I would always tell him that there weren’t any cheat codes in real life, and that he needed to work for the things he earned. Fortunately, he took those words to heart, and he now has a real sense of pride around the gaming accomplishments and player rank he has justly earned. And I’m really proud of him too – just less for the gaming part and more for the lesson well learned.
Unfortunately, it turns out that I was wrong about life – there are cheat codes out there.
Just look at the news. We have had a endless string of athletes disgraced by their use of performance enhancing drugs. We have politicians getting caught on a fairly regular basis because they thought they could trade the public trust for personal gain. We have Bernie Madoffs’ springing up all over the country – money managers who bilked investors out of billions of dollars to fund their lavish life styles.
And then we have the most pervasive of all offenders – people living lifestyles beyond their means. It seems like I haven’t met anyone recently that doesn’t know somebody who is way over their head in debt (or who is dealing high debt loads themselves).
How did we get into this situation?
There’s plenty of blame to go around. Partly it came from a culture that embraces consumption and material success as virtues in their own right. Partly it came from people giving in to an environment of easy credit – live the “good life” now, and worry about paying for it later. Partly it came from people leveraging the constantly rising value of their homes to fuel an otherwise unsustainable lifestyle. Some of it came from people who bought houses they couldn’t afford in the hope that they would appreciate enough in value to somehow cover them before they crashed. Part of it was from reckless policies by the government, and a financial industry all too will to oblige them.
While the specific causes may be diverse and complex, all of them have one thing in common – a desire to find a shortcut; a way to “get things” without having to work for them first. And we’re living with the consequences of that right now.
Getting out of this mess will require creativity, sacrifice and hard work. Whatever solutions we come up with, they can’t be based on somehow returning us to the path we were on before. That has proven itself to be bankrupt on so many levels, and will simply set us up for failure once again. Instead, they need to focus on building a culture and an economy that rewards risk, demands personal responsibility, and shuns recklessness.
And we all need to agree that cheat codes won’t cut it anymore…