Why the Golden Rule is the Secret of Success
To many people, the Golden Rule is very simple: he who has the gold makes the rules.
They aren’t entirely wrong, of course. But that’s not the idea or the ideal. And if you want to succeed, understanding why makes a difference.
The real Golden Rule is found in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Many take it as merely a platitude, or perhaps a command to be “nice.”
Jesus uses it to summarize much of the Law and the Prophets. That may seem hyperbolic, or perhaps hyper-theological, until you realize (as even few Christians do) this: the Golden Rule is the underpinning of all sales, entrepreneurship, free market economics, and indeed, of modern civilization itself.
Think of a salesman or an entrepreneur. He wants to make money. But how will he go about it? First, by solving someone else’s problem.
Perhaps you’ve never thought of it that way before. Maybe you’ve thought of the stereotypical fast-talking used car salesman in the plaid jacket, trying to get you to do something you don’t want to do and, presumably, cheat you.
If so, you’re certainly not alone. Confucius taught that “the virtuous man knows what is noble; the low man knows what is profitable.” Medieval Japanese social hierarchy placed merchants at the very lowest rung, while the Indian caste system placed them just above the untouchables. The Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun, widely considered one of the early fathers of modern sociology and economics, went so far as to write that looting is morally superior to trade, because it requires courage to defeat a rival in combat.
No wonder most of human history has been characterized by barbarism!
This sort of thinking is rooted in a false belief: that there is a finite amount of wealth, and that the only way someone may gain any is for someone else to lose it: a zero sum game. Most of human history and action, from Mongol conquests to modern collectivism, is characterized by this belief: to have something, you have to take it from someone else.
But wealth is not in the ground, or hidden in a castle, or stashed in Uncle Scrooge’s money bin. Wealth is in the mind. And it can be created in unlimited qualities, limited only by man’s creativity and the constraints under which he works.
How can this be? Let’s examine the salesman, the entrepreneur, again. He could loot: many still do. But he doesn’t. And short of that, he has no claim to your money.
So how then can he get it? He must persuade you to give it to him.
That persuasiveness is frequently seen as seduction, something corrupt, something dangerous. But when was the last time you were actually “seduced” into buying a car? Most people need a car; and if salesmen had such magical powers, wouldn’t you just keep buying cars until your entire front lawn was filled, much as a cocaine addict ruins himself financially to pay his dealer?
Perhaps the salesman is better at selling than you are at buying, but that’s certainly not the salesman’s fault. He could indeed cheat you, and again, some do. But we have courts for that, and police; and in times past, cheating frequently ended in the cheater’s death. Plus, reputation is a big deal: get a bad one, and no one will do business with you anymore. That is not a formula for sustainable success.
The salesman is just trying to feed his family. And guess what: so are you. He needs money more than the car he’s selling; you need a car more than the money you’re holding: how else are you going to get to work, or take the kids to school?
So when you make the exchange, you both become richer than you were before. Both of you.
Now multiply that simple transaction across an entire civilization. How much richer are Americans today than before the automobile? And how many other businesses, and jobs, exist because of that one invention, and because of the people who sold it?
The compounding effect is staggering. The world’s per capita GDP – roughly, the amount of wealth per person – stayed pretty much flat for all of time until the middle of the 18th Century, when people began to embrace this idea. Allowing entrepreneurs a legal framework in which to pursue their vision created the entire modern world, from candlelight and doctors using leeches to iPhones and robotic surgeries in just 250 years.
How does the Golden Rule apply? Go back to the beginning, to the salesman before the sale. How does he get money? Yes, he must sell something. Yes he must persuade. But first, he has to solve someone else’s problem.
And that’s the key to everything.
Success lies in standing in the other man’s shoes, taking stock of his situation: his preferences, his problems, what he needs, maybe what he doesn’t even know yet that he needs. The iPhone was like that. The car was like that. The airplane was like that.
Virtually everything was, at some point, like that.
Someone saw a problem, frequently a problem lots of other people had but few really saw, or at least saw as solvable: it was just a “fact of life,” like polio. The someone who did see it thought hard, worked hard, invested great sums of money, came up with a solution. And then, after all that exertion, he still had to go persuade someone to buy it. And if no one did – because freedom means no one has to – there came no money, no fame, no trophy for trying.
You can be upset about the price of a computer, or a cancer drug, if you want. But what you have to recognize is that all the money in the world could not have bought it just a few short years ago. George Washington could defeat the British Empire and help craft the U.S. Constitution, but all his wealth and power couldn’t buy an air conditioner or an aspirin. Real wealth is ability more than it is money: money can only buy what someone creates and produces. Without that, money is just toilet paper.
The entrepreneur, the teacher, the salesman of every kind, solves the problems of countless people and makes a little money from each of them. Some are angered that a John D. Rockefeller or a Steve Jobs is rich. Those critics fail to grasp that those men’s fortunes are but the tiniest fraction — a commission, if you will — of the wealth created, spread out across all their customers and entire societies, by those men’s ideas and efforts.
All the conquerors in all of time could not do what one Thomas Edison, or one Robert Fulton, did to change the world, and for the better.
So the secret to success is indeed the Golden Rule. The better you are at solving other people’s problems, the more money you can make, the more good you can achieve, and the more you can change your community or even your world.
So get to work.