Apologizing For Success

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Mar 13, 2006 2:17 PM

This conference I'm at leans far to the left. I can count the conservatives here on one hand, but I've managed to track the others down using a sophisticated wireless pearl-and-blazer positioning system.

The nature of this web-geeky conference is that many of the speakers are very, very successful entrepreneurs who are also big Lefties. Most of the panels don't deal with politics, but since they know they're in a friendly, homogenous crowd, politics keeps creeping in. A Bush-bash is good for a quick round of applause, so they use it.

Another thing that keeps creeping in is a palpable sense of shame among successful entrepreneurs-- shame about their own success. As a conservative, this is is just beyond me. I do not understand it.

Craig Newmark gave the keynote speech this afternoon. That's the Craig of Craig's List-- the list that grew from a Bay-area classifieds site into a site that serves millions in hundreds of cities world-wide. It also, undoubtedly, makes a bunch of money for Craig and the rest of the visionaries who have built the site into an international name.

This is good. People who come up with visionary ideas that they are able to nurture to the point where they can serve millions of people every day should be making lots of money. They deserve it. They earn it. Because Newmark is successful, all of his employees have jobs, and millions of people around the world find new furniture, new jobs, and new boyfriends (not that I know anything about that) easier than they ever have before I repeat-- this is good.

So, why are these guys so obviously uncomfortable with it? Why is everyone here so uncomfortable with the idea of success? Well, that's not quite right-- success as measured in traffic or social impact are fine. It's just success that is monetized that seems to be a sore spot. I understand that people don't want to run around and spout off about exactly how much money they make. That's just tacky.

But, throughout this conference, in the questions from the audience and the answers from panelists, there's been a blush-factor whenever ads and revenue come up. Speakers hem and haw and sorta, kinda apologize for having to make a living, and then assure everyone that they're totally not in it for the money and that it's just kind of an unfortunate byproduct of all the social change they're effecting.

Guys? Money is social validation of the fact that you have something to offer. I think it's Walter Williams who calls money "certificates of accomplishment." It is not something to be ashamed of. Money made by some successful visionaries makes more successful visionary work possible.

These are panels about business, for goodness' sake. Why can't we talk about the business aspects without those who are successful having to apologize for it?

I'm surprised there are so many successful Lefty entrepreneurs if this is the environment they work in. Making folks apologize for success doesn't seem like a good way to engender it.

It also seems a little disingenuous. Am I really to believe that these guys don't enjoy their plasma TVs and nice houses? Am I to believe they don't really think they earned them? I think they probably do enjoy them and do think they earned them-- they know how hard they work-- but just have to act otherwise in a largely Lefty crowd.

I, for one, am glad that they do succeed. We're all better off for it. This is not a zero-sum game. A free market allows for success to breed more success, wealth to breed wealth, innovation to breed innovation. Why don't these people think that's cool?