If you’re like me, chances are you are not part of the elite. Like 75% of college students, you may have gone to public school. For various lengths of time, you may have been underemployed or unemployed. Further, you definitely didn’t come from a rich family with prominent connections.
Despite not being one of the elites, life can still be pretty good. Personally, I enjoy being a nobody so I can more easily do as I please. When nobody is watching your every move, life feels totally free!
However, when the elites do go on strike, we should probably pay attention. Because no matter how hard the gatekeepers try to keep us shut out from the pinnacles of success, it’s always good to understand various points of view. Maybe then we can one day climb to the top of society’s ladder as well. If we can’t, maybe our children can.
Let’s explore what The New York Times strike means for the rest of us. I’ll also discuss whether we should redefine what it means to be an elite and whether the term really matters. No matter how much we have, we seem to always want more.
But first, let me share some background on my experience with The New York Times.
Didn’t Think Much Of The New York Times Before
Before starting Financial Samurai in 2009, I never thought much about The New York Times. It was just another paper to me. As an investment banking veteran for 13 years, The Wall Street Journal was the paper du jour.
While I was a newbie financial analyst from 1999 – 2001, every one of us had to read The Wall Street Journal from cover-to-cover. If we didn’t, we’d get embarrassed by our VPs who would constantly quiz us on the news. Not only did we need to know the news, we needed to form an opinion on how the news would affect a company, the stock market, or the economy.
Even as the industry moved to reading the news on our Bloomberg terminals, we’d still read The Wall Street Journal on a daily basis. There was always at least one big story everybody would be talking about on the trading floor. If we didn’t know it, we’d feel like dummies and miss out on connections.
Meritocracy Is A Myth
Come 2011, I still didn’t think much about The New York Times because I had stumbled across an NYT-published article called, How A Financial Pro Lost His House by Carl Richards.
The gist of the article is Carl bought too much house, was underwater by more than $200,000, and decided to do a short sale. A short sale is an offer of a property at an asking price that is less than the amount due on the current owner’s mortgage.
Carl argued that while he had a contractual obligation with the bank, he had a moral obligation to his family. Therefore, he stopped paying his mortgage and handed back the property to the bank.
At the time, I remember thinking, “Ah, so here’s a well-paid guy who is causing hardship for the rest of us who decided to continue paying our mortgages. Are we really the fools here?” If everybody kept paying their mortgages, the devastating financial crisis would not have occurred to the extent that it did.
2011 was a tough time for me because layoffs were still happening in the finance industry and I also had a huge primary mortgage. My Lake Tahoe property was also underwater by several hundred thousand dollars too. Compensation was rightly slashed and I also wanted out. Anybody who could afford to keep paying their mortgage but decided not to seemed suspect.
In Asian cultures, breaking a contract is dishonorable. So to see Carl’s story get celebrated on a large platform felt off. The more people who broke their mortgage contracts, the more the economy would suffer. The article just made me feel like an idiot for doing the right thing. But I could not break my promise.
A Realization That Platform Matters Over Meritocracy
In the investment banking industry, we generally get rewarded for bringing in business and punished for losing business. Besides professional sports and entrepreneurship, investment banking is as close to a meritocracy as it gets.
However, what I realized from the 2011 The New York Times article was that merit may not always be the most important thing to getting ahead. Instead, looking the part and being a part of an elite system are more helpful for wealth and success.
Once you’re part of the elite, you can hang on like Teflon. No matter how badly you mess up, you tend to get multiple second chances. It’s kind of like starting a business when you’re already rich versus when you’re poor. The poor have one shot at making it whereas the rich have multiple shots.
Instead of being punished for not paying his mortgage, Carl Richards was rewarded by The New York Times with a regular financial advice column. Once he got the regular column, Carl got more exposure for his financial planning business, which meant more money. Then, Carl was able to land lucrative book deals. Kudos to him. No rational person would turn down such opportunities.
I’m thankful for Carl Richards and The New York Times because they enabled me to believe that anything was possible! I didn’t have to be perfect on my financial journey. I just had to be honest. And if I really messed up, I might even get handsomely rewarded! The next year I left my job for good.
How I Realized The New York Times Was Elite
It was only after I finally landed my own traditional book deal in December 2019 did I realize The New York Times was an elite institution and its employees were elite writers. One of the tennis players I met in San Francisco worked at The New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize! Now that’s impressive.
I went the grinding scenic route of getting a book deal by building up my own platform for 10 years. In retrospect, it might have been better if I had gotten a job at a large media publication. From there, I could instantly leverage the publication’s readership and reputation to land a book deal sooner.
Alas, there’s no rewinding of time. Just lessons to share with those of you also trying to get ahead in this brutally competitive world. Doing things the hard way may be more fulfilling. But nobody really cares how you get there, only that you made it. Don’t let honor and pride keep you on hard mode forever!
When Buy This, Not That came out, it became an instant Wall Street Journal bestseller. Hooray! The media publication I most respected recognized the book’s quality. It’s not easy to knock off a homogenous group of incumbents.
The Wall Street Journal bestseller list is based solely on the number of sales each book achieves in a one-week period. In other words, The Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list is based on a meritocracy.
Being Elite Is About Not Being A Meritocracy
Based on the number of sales, Buy This, Not That should have also made The New York Times bestseller list. However, as explained to me by those in the publishing industry, The New York Times bestseller list is not 100% based on meritocracy. Instead, there is an editorial committee that decides which books get on the list.
The industry insiders went on to reveal several realities.
- Given The New York Times bestseller list is editorial, they are free to do what they want.
- If you write for The New York Times, you will most likely have your book reviewed by them.
- If you write for The New York Times and sell enough copies in a week to make the list, you will most certainly be on their list.
- First-time authors seldom get on the list.
- Finance is a harder genre to get on the list.
- I’m not a preferred minority the publication fights for.
If a bestsellers list is an editorial, then so be it. Institutions are free to pick and choose who they want to be on their list. I also accept everything else on the list, including “not being a preferred minority.” It’s just the way it is in America as the elites decide who gets an extra cookie or a helping hand.
I want to be rewarded based on the quality of my work, not based on my identity. In fact, it is partially due to my belief in the quality of my work that I decided to go out on my own. There were no more financial institution’s coat tails to ride.
The Importance Of Rejecting Well-Qualified People
What I realized from my two-year book publishing experience is that part of being an elite is about rejecting well-qualified people. The more well-qualified people an institution can reject, the more elite the institution becomes!
For example, top private universities purposely keep their enrollment sizes small and admission rates low to retain their elite status. If these universities really wanted to help educate more students, they would actively work to increase enrollment. Goodness knows, their multi-billion dollar endowments are large enough to support growth.
Alas, too many alumni and university professors care about status and prestige to be willing to meet the incredible demand by increasing enrollment. As a result, many parents and students are forced to play the status game to avoid having their children excluded from too many opportunities.
The New York Times Workers Go On Strike
The most interesting thing about The New York Times workers going on strike is that it’s really the elites striking against other elites.
When you’re a part of the elite, you are considered to have already the most amount of money, power, access, and prestige. Hence, I became immediately curious as to why The New York Times employees were striking?
As always, strikes are mostly about trying to get more money.
What The New York Times Is Striking Is About
The New York Times journalists haven’t had a “working contract since March 2021.” As a result, these journalists haven’t had a pay raise for one year and nine months. As an NPR article reports,
The union is arguing for a package of raises that works out to a 5.25 percent average annual raise over the four-year period covered, which includes the past two years. The company’s most recent offer — as of late Tuesday night — represented exactly half of that.
The Times has offered to allow the guild to decide whether to continue the current pension plan, or to convert to a 401(k) retirement plan with a 6.6 annual company contribution for all covered guild employees, its most generous benefit inside the company.
It is somewhat surprising The Times seems unwilling to offer a 5.25 percent annual pay raise to its ~1,800 staff over a four-year period. As we all know, inflation is running at well over 5.25 percent today. But what business wouldn’t want to keep costs low as we head into a Fed-induced recession? It sounds like The Times countered with a 2.625 percent pay raise and the union then decided to strike.
At the same time, it also seems kind of sad employees felt strongly enough to strike for only a 5.25 percent annual pay raise. They are supposed to be the elites. And if you’re a part of the elite, would you really need to strike for a net $2,625 more a year on a $100,000 salary?
Of course, if you’re making much less, every dollar counts. New York City is one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Performance And Pay Correlation
When I worked in banking, my compensation would regularly get slashed by 20% – 70% during difficult times. Even when I performed well, as I did in 2011, my compensation got cut because management said we had to subsidize the money-losing fixed income division.
Instead of complaining at the water cooler, I negotiated a severance to do my own thing. If I wanted to stay in the industry, I would have aggressively searched for a new job with better pay. There is no way I would have gone on strike because I’d simply get laid off.
But the media and finance industries are two separate animals. As I’m too used to “eating what I kill,” I respect how other industries pay their employees. However, I do think talented journalists should start their own newsletters and websites like plenty of us less talented people have done.
If you have The New York Times on your resume, surely you’ll be able to more quickly grow your brand and personal readership, no? You already have the writing skills.
As an ex-employee, I’m always going to be on the side of employees getting as much money as they can. Company loyalty to employees is dead, especially in the media industry. Due to the internet, media companies have had to lay employees off and cut benefits in order to survive.
Being Elite Is About Exclusivity NOT Inclusivity
The strike over a 5.25 percent annual wage increase made me realize being an elite is not just about being rich. It’s also about having a powerful-enough voice to affect your desired change.
Being a part of the elite is also about exclusivity, not inclusivity. The more exclusive, the more elite.
But do you really want to be a part of the elite if you have to strike for a meagre 5.25 percent annual wage? I don’t. Instead, I’d much rather earn as much passive income as I can to do what I want, even if I’m viewed as a peasant with inferior intellectual capabilities.
As every child and parent of school-age children knows, being inclusive of others is a fundamental part of being a good person. Teachers and parents teach their students and children to celebrate differences so that they don’t grow up and become racists, bigots, and assholes in the future.
We understand that 15 percent of the world’s population has a disability, which can make life a-little-to-a-lot more difficult. As a result, we make accommodations to help equalize the playing field and are less quick to judge.
From history, we understand how Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation prohibited some folks from owning homes and creating generational wealth. As a result, we fight to make things right for those who didn’t have the same opportunities historically.
Given being elite is about excluding other people, you actually never want to be considered part of the elite. Nor should you want to praise the elite for their power. Instead, we should question what these people and institutions are doing to make things more equitable for others.
Celebrate Your Non-Elite Status
Yes, it’s nice to feel special. However, you will ruin your life if you go too far in pursuing prestige. Instead of doing something you like, you may end up doing something you hate because society deems it worthy.
When you look back on your life, you may end up feeling full of regret for not pursuing your dreams. All for what? So you can be a part of an exclusive club that shuts most people out? Forget it.
Please celebrate your proletarian status. Being middle-class is the best class in the world. If you really want to be an elite, be elite at giving away your time and money to help other people. The more inclusive you are, the better you will also feel.
Financial Samurai will never have a paywall because I don’t want to shut out a poor kid or a poor family who wants to learn more about personal finance. Creating a $2,000 e-course is also never going to happen. I’d much rather try to get an institution I believe in to support my work.
May We All Find Comfort In What We Do
Congratulations to all the elites out there for achieving great goals. It’s not easy getting to the top of your profession. Don’t let anybody discredit your hard work and talent.
However, if you have to go on strike to make ends meet, perhaps the definition of being an elite needs to change. After all, what’s the point of being so good at something if you can’t even be properly compensated?
If you are considered an elite, the only thing I ask is for you to give others a chance to ascend as well. Don’t pull the ladder up from behind you. If you do, you might not have enough support to prevent you from eventually falling over.
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Reader Questions And Recommendations
Readers, what does being a part of the elite mean to you? Do you find it is strange or ironic elite journalists are going on strike? Why do we strive to be elite? What is your definition of being an elite?
To build more wealth, pick up a copy of, Buy This, Not That. Not only does my WSJ bestseller help you get richer, it also helps you make more optimal decisions for some of life’s biggest dilemmas.
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