City Journal

Kay S. Hymowitz
Capitalists on Steroids
Though exaggerated, shows like The Apprentice reflect America’s can-do response to globalism’s competitive challenge.
Winter 2005

You’re fired!” may be the money phrase on the Donald Trump reality series The Apprentice, but it’s not the show’s key locution. That honor goes to the word “tough.” “They’re tough,” the Donald says, nodding toward two Barbie-blondes among the five remaining twenty- and thirtysomethings competing to win a job running one of Trump’s businesses. “Assume your opponent is the toughest, smartest person in the world,” he advises later. Above all, “tough” is the word for the setting of the series. “New York is the toughest place on earth,” America’s favorite billionaire warns. Week after week, the players learn just “how tough the city is.” And Trump delivers innumerable variations on the theme: “It’s the meanest city in the world, it’s the most vicious city in the world! . . . This jungle of Manhattan is the real jungle; you have to fight for a cup of coffee here, for God’s sake.”

The jungle Trump is referring to has nothing to do with the Starbucks at 45th and Fifth. Nor, at a time where the city’s murder rate is lower than that of Dallas, does it allude to the mean streets we all know from creations like Taxi Driver and NYPD Blue. No, Trump is talking about the New York jungle that winds its way from Wall Street to the haunts of publishers and editors around the Flatiron district, up through the garment district, around the offices of big midtown law firms and real-estate developers, across Madison Avenue, and into the deal-making home offices of unassuming lofts and walkups all around the city. It is the jungle that is the capital of the global economy, where people, particularly young people like the contestants on The Apprentice, come to compete for their rightful place. The struggle takes resilience; it takes toughness. But it’s not all blood, sweat, and tears. “If you’re not careful, [New York] will chew you up and spit you out, but if you work hard you can hit it big,” Trump declares. “And I mean really big.”

The Apprentice, like its bankruptcy-prone, cartoon-tycoon star, may tend toward blustery showmanship, but the tough talk is not just entertainment. After 9/11, a dot-com bust, a recession, corporate scandals, an increasingly competitive economy, and a recovery whose conflicting signs sometimes seem as mysterious as chai tea leaves, the popularity of the show reflects a subtle change in the zeitgeist. In the go-go nineties, ecstatic capitalists played volleyball in their cool, dot-com offices and carried on about “soulful” companies and workers. The mood among aspirants in the current global economy has become a lot more sober. This economy requires serious competitors, men and women who are focused, determined, entrepreneur-athletes; they’re capitalists on steroids.

You see signs of the new mood in the imagery pervading many of the TV reality shows, in the language of self-help books and programs; you see it in the nation’s gyms and yoga studios, on Little League fields and in high-stakes-testing classrooms. Americans know that making their way in today’s economy is a muscle-flexing, sweat-inducing struggle, and they know that they have to raise their children to understand this as well. It’s not all misery by any means—there’s more than a hint of adventure, excitement, and fulfillment in the contemporary economy. But, well, it’s tough.

Of course, the idea that the American business world is a jungle is hardly new. Gilded Age pundits unapologetically described life under capitalism as a Darwinian struggle that would sort out the weak from the strong and bring progress to social life. Decades later, Ayn Rand glamorized the image of the entrepreneur as a kind of lone Übermensch whose natural talents would elevate him above the pack. In the 1980s, the decade when the Gilded Age robber barons came back to life as the Reagan-era Masters of the Universe, the image of capitalism as a dog-eat-dog jungle returned with a vengeance. “It’s trench warfare out there, pal,” Gordon Gekko says to his apprentice Bud Fox (note the aptly Darwinian names) in the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street. Gekko snarls quotations from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a text that, along with volumes delineating leadership secrets from Machiavelli, General Patton, Ulysses S. Grant, and even Attila the Hun, was becoming popular at the time for its putative insights into the world of business.

But those days are to today’s economy what a warm-up act is to the main show, or, perhaps more fittingly, what Roger Maris is to Barry Bonds. As Fortune columnist Stanley Bing puts it in the you-ain’t-seen-nothing title of his latest best seller, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy: Conquer Your Enemies, Promote Your Friends, and Wage the Real Art of War. (Bing, by the way, is also the author of the 2000 What Would Machiavelli Do?: The Ends Justify the Meanness.) Facing global competition, global opportunity, and an Internet economy that Proxicom founder Raul Fernandez once described as “Darwinism on steroids,” everyone from the lowly sales executive to the top brass has to be in top form. All have to be capable of 24/7 concentration—able not just to endure change but to seize opportunity in what Joseph Schumpeter famously called creative destruction.

More than the citizens of any First World nation, Americans have charged wholeheartedly into the global economy—and have become familiar with both creation and destruction. With a smaller government and fewer regulations than most advanced economies, American companies have been able to downsize, reengineer, and restructure, and they keep doing so at a dizzying pace. The reason Trump’s “You’re fired!” resonates so powerfully is that it captures an essential truth: Americans hear those words far more often than workers in other capitalist economies.

Americans also work more hours. In France, a best seller called Bonjour Paresse (Hello Laziness) recommends sloth as a virtue; its subtitle in English would be The Art and Importance of Doing the Least Possible in the Workplace. No way would such a book find a following on this side of the pond. Americans know that they have to work harder and plan big, to be perpetually scanning the horizon for the Next Big Thing or watching out for the competitors nipping at their heels. (“Only the paranoid survive,” Intel CEO Andy Grove wryly observed.) Critics of America’s brand of economics, particularly Western Europeans, sneer at its “cowboy capitalism.” Though they understate the benefits and overstate the ill effects of our low-regulation, low-tax, high-turnover, perpetually innovating system, there is nevertheless a grain of truth to the image. The Wild West? No. But harsh and full of risks? Yes.

Just consider the changing profile of the corporate CEO. According to an analysis of Fortune 700 CEOs by Chief Executive, today’s boss is less likely to resemble the steadfast company man of bygone years than an independent agent grittily pursuing his own ambitions to whichever corner office they take him. In 1980, the average Fortune 100 CEO spent 26 years with one company. Today’s Fortune 700 CEO hangs around for barely 16. A full 20 percent of all Fortune 700 CEOs have been in their current positions for only one year or less. Today’s CEO is also likely to be younger than his earlier counterpart. In 1980 more than half of Fortune 100 chief execs were in their sixties; today, barely a quarter are. Why? “More and more CEOs believe that the increasingly rigorous demands on the time and performance of a CEO require the stamina of a younger person,” the article explains. “The job’s a lot tougher now [there’s that word again]. Today top executives are expected to be on call 24/7. That’s in addition to the normal pressures of dealing with shareholders, visiting customers, and maintaining an often brutal travel schedule.”

Mindful of the long hours and stressful demands of the global economy, ambitious Americans go into training with all of the self-discipline of professional athletes. A USA Today profile of Stephen Covey, the mega-successful author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes his strenuous routine: “Even when [the 72-year-old] Covey gets off a plane and arrives home at 11 p.m., he’ll spend 90 minutes in his home gym where he swims with fins on both hands and feet, bikes and does yoga and Pilates.” He jokes about his baldness: “While you guys are blow-drying, I’m working.” Fortune reports that adrenalized executives bored with your run-of-the-mill, ho-hum 26-mile marathon are taking up “ultra-marathoning.” They might try the Marathon des Sables, a sprint across the Sahara in 120-degree heat, or the Gobi March, six marathons in seven days across the Gobi desert.

In their business-class Airbus seats, perhaps they will be reading books like The Leadership Lessons of the U.S. Navy SEALs; The Ultimate Guide to Mental Toughness; Discipline: Training the Mind to Manage Your Life; or Unleash the Warrior Within: Develop the Focus, Discipline, Confidence, Courage You Need to Achieve Unlimited Goals. And in the airline magazine, they might flip past a glossy photo of a group of square-jawed, brawny-shouldered models (no soulful types like The Pianist star Adrien Brody need apply) advertising a new men’s clothing line from Donald Trump, which is designed “to make a strong first impression”—with, one surmises, an emphasis on strong.

The capitalist on steroids, facing an environment where innovation and change are the only constants, has to be courageous as well as fit. “Take risks. Take chances. You gotta go into life brave,” as the singer Billy Joel advises some of The Apprentice contestants during one episode this season. In 2003, Quantum Fund founder Jim Rogers published a book about his record-setting motorcycle trip around the world, cleverly titled Adventure Capitalist. As a businessman, Rogers may be a highflier—Time once described him as “the Indiana Jones of finance”—but his travels hardly put him in the top ranks of adventurer businessmen. CNET news.com describes Bill Rancic, who as the winner of the first season of The Apprentice, is now overseeing construction of a 90-story Trump building in Chicago, as “an adventure junkie. When he is not making business deals, he enjoys skydiving and scuba diving.” (A Chicago Tribune profile of Rancic rounds out the picture of a lean and mean striver: it mentions the copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead next to his bed and lists the contents of his Sub-Zero refrigerator—Gatorade, milk, beer, and a couple of PowerBars.)

According to BusinessWeek, men at the top of the heap are giving up golf for sports that get their testosterone rushing, like heli-skiing and surfing. “Extreme-sports participants are often managers, executives, owners of companies,” a Hartford Life manager who insures people with risky hobbies explains. “They’ve got an air of invulnerability. . . . ” Another popular entertainment for the daredevil CEO, says Chief Executive, is “Steep and Deep Ski Camp,” which offers four days of training with Olympian Tommy Moe off the beaten path of the Jackson Hole ski area. Other CEOs, like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Anousheh Ansari, founder of TeleCom, would no doubt scoff at heli-skiing as leisure time for wusses. Each has his eye on an even more Olympian sport: space travel.

Intensifying the Right Stuff atmosphere is a new cohort of worker-athletes, born after 1970 and now moving into management positions, whom management consultants sometimes call the “gamer generation”—but they don’t mean that these folks fool around. Growing up in the post-Nintendo era, they are tenacious competitors, and having witnessed the tech revolution at an impressionable age, they are ready to assume that anything is possible. “They’re way more competitive and are very passionate about ‘winning,’ ” explain John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade, authors of Got Game: How the Gamer Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever. “They’re both more optimistic and more determined about solving any kind of problem you can imagine.”

Gamers are also a no-pain, no-gain crowd; they take it for granted that you have to suffer to win. A recent Fortune article describes the dilemma of Tylenol’s manufacturer as it set out to advertise to 18- to 34-year-olds. The company found that this demographic wasn’t particularly interested in painkillers, since they “think pain is cool.” Trend guru Faith Popcorn agrees: “They wear [pain] as a badge.” For similar reasons, Gillette introduced its Right Guard Xtreme Sport deodorant line to lure younger customers; it promises that the product will “keep performing even as [consumers] push their limits”—although the company will have to try harder if it is to catch up to the Number One deodorant among the young: Old Spice’s High Endurance.

The Rebel Billionaire, a Fox reality series introduced this past fall, perfectly—if bizarrely—reflects the theme of courageous risk-taking in an age of steroid capitalism. The show stars Sir Richard Branson, the youthful-looking and mischievous CEO of Britain’s Virgin Atlantic Airways, which, not coincidentally, is looking to expand its market in the United States. Like Trump’s, Branson’s show auditions young men and women for a big-time job by having them take on a series of challenges. But while Trump is an ur–New Yorker and his show makes a fetish of the Big Apple, Branson is a man about the globe. As he told the New York Times Magazine’s Deborah Solomon, “I never spend any time in an office.” He takes his contestants into “10 countries, 5 continents, the world.” The hyperactive series has had episodes in Hong Kong, South Africa, the south of France, London, and Morocco.

More to the point, while Trump tests his apprentices through corporate sales projects, Branson also has them do Indiana Jones–style stunts. He’s barely exaggerating when he says that his contestants “go through hell”; they walk a narrow plank between two hot-air balloons 10,000 feet in the air and jump off a cliff into the arms of a teammate suspended in mid-air by a gigantic hook. And the mood extends to commercials as well: during the first week of the series, there was an American Express ad with a burly man boasting, “My life takes me to the edge. My card always goes with me,” as well as spots for he-man vehicles like Jeep Cherokee, Hummer, and the lesser-known Toyota Tacoma, which claims “off-road toughness.” For Branson, a swashbuckling adventure capitalist who has crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific by hot-air balloon, the tasks he assigns his contestants will help him determine “how [people] perform under pressure.” “I’ve challenged myself physically,” he explains. “I’ve challenged myself entrepreneurially.”

Branson’s explanation for all this risky business puts the popularity of some of the contest reality shows in a distinct light. Almost every night, millions of Americans watch shows about real people testing the limits of their physical strength and bravery as a kind of metaphor for their life in a tough, unpredictable, risk-filled economy. On The Amazing Race, contestants have gone bungee jumping in New Zealand, kayaking over waterfalls, and crawling through ancient temples filled with rats. On the sophomoric Fear Factor, players push their limits by eating worms and beetles, letting rats crawl over them, or rappelling off 12-story buildings. The most popular reality contest, and still among the most-watched shows on television, is Survivor, where contestants go to exotic locations to test their mettle; the last one standing wins a million dollars. Mark Burnett, Survivor’s creator, has also authored a memoir called Dare to Succeed, which bristles with quotations from Sir Edmund Hillary and other explorers. Several years ago, Burnett made a deal with Fox to develop a reality contest to outperform them all. It was to be called Destination Mir, and its goal was to take contestants from space camp to orbit. Unfortunately, the Mir space station crashed—taking Destination Mir down with it.

Burnett is also the brains behind The Apprentice, which makes perfect sense when you realize that the Trump show is simply Survivor for the global-economy meritocrat. “You’re all really talented people, but only one of you will end up running one of my companies,” Trump warns his “brilliant” contestants. The Apprentice calls on its players to show their true grit in “a billionaire’s boot camp,” as James Traub called the contest in a profile of the mogul in the New York Times Magazine. “This is thirteen weeks of hell,” Trump warns his contestants. No wonder a West Pointer was the second season’s winner.

While the show doesn’t do Outward Bound tasks like those in Rebel Billionaire or Survivor, and its surroundings are more likely to be polished marble and brass than the wild, it’s not without a whiff of the Darwinian jungle. The Donald himself sports a luxuriant mane of reddish hair that seems to spring not just out of his pate but also out of his brow, where it almost merges with his wildly profuse eyebrows. His hirsute look has sparked a lot of comment in the press—the website Gothamist.com refers to “the strange power that is The Donald’s hair”—but the star knows what he is about. Fittingly, given his widely reported financial difficulties, Trump is casting himself as a made-for-TV billionaire. His appearance is meant to evoke the alpha lion, especially when he sets his mouth in an exaggerated snarl that suggests he has been studying National Geographic photos of the African savanna. Sometimes after uttering his trademark metaphorical roar—“You’re fired!”—and once his victims have left the room, he turns to his aides and says, “Whew! That was tough!” They reassure him with, “You did the right thing!” or “It was a no-brainer!” as if they were the handlers patting down a wounded boxer between rounds.

Still, let’s not forget the thing that makes The Apprentice the toughest contest of all, in spite of its luxurious surroundings. In most game shows, the prize is a trip to Hawaii, a million dollars, or a new television. No such easy pleasure awaits the strivers who win The Apprentice. No, their prize is: working for a year.

Progressive-minded critics have noticed the Darwinian spirit of reality shows like The Apprentice, and they are not amused. The Washington Post called the show “sadistic,” while in Harpers Francine Prose argued that reality TV is Republican “agitprop” in which “morality is a luxury,” “civility is, at best, a frill,” and “the laws of natural selection are even more brutal, inflexible, and sensible than one might suppose from reading Origin of the Species.” The shows “remind us that the workplace is the last realm in American society where sadism is sanctioned,” observed Deborah Solomon in her New York Times Magazine interview with Sir Richard Branson.

These critics might want to hit the rewind button. For all its competitive juices, The Apprentice, at any rate, is a reminder that, though the economy may be ruthless, a performance-enhanced capitalist cannot afford to be a brute. True, the contest to become Trump’s apprentice inspires a lot of strategizing and backbiting. And certainly the show has its heartless moments. In one of the most embarrassing episodes in the first season, a contestant named Sam pleaded with the Donald just as he was about to utter the dreaded words: “Don’t say it, Mr. Trump! Please don’t say it!” When Trump does say “You’re fired!” the scene is so overwrought that we almost expect to see the whimpering contestant dragged out of the boardroom by Tony Soprano’s goons.

Yet one of the central messages of The Apprentice is precisely the opposite of what the show’s critics have argued: toughness doesn’t excuse incivility, nor is steroidal capitalism for the uncouth. Any lout can swim 60 laps, jump out of airplanes, and shout down an opponent, but only the truly superior competitor can apply the same self-discipline he brings to his physical exertions to controlling his emotions and molding his personality. Trump, whose gilded excesses once earned him the sobriquet of the “short-fingered vulgarian,” makes an unlikely teacher of self-discipline. Nevertheless, he plays the wise mentor for the young, lone, battle-ready global contender who also needs to learn the etiquette of a team-playing, corporate sophisticate. “You should never lose your cool unless it’s an act,” Trump warns. Contestants who are quick to anger, who wear their will to power on their sleeves, who don’t listen, who speak rudely, or who are just plain obnoxious get the pink slip no matter how cutthroat they are. The two finalists of the first season, Bill Rancic and Kwami Jackson, were both mild-mannered men; and in the boardroom the Donald himself is surprisingly down-to-earth and soft-spoken. If he doesn’t actually like most of his apprentices, then he’s a better actor than most prime-time stars. For all his egotistical mugging to the camera, Trump also teaches that courtesy, not just steely resolve, is part of the art of the deal.

At first glance, it may seem surprising that the gentler sex has the harder time learning these lessons, but it shouldn’t be. Women are in a tricky position in the world of steroid capitalism. They may have an edge when it comes to manners, or what human-resources managers call “people skills.” But unlike men, who have had to keep their combative instincts in check since they were little boys, women have trouble combining aggression with the courtesy owed an opponent. The Apprentice’s women, especially in the second season, give the impression that they’ve been shipped over from the set of Mean Girls. When they lose, the men shake hands, but the women gossip, bicker, cry, and roll their eyes. There’s a big market these days for books with titles like The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women; Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead, But Gutsy Girls Do; Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman; and Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. But if The Apprentice is telling it like it is, ambitious young women would be better off spending their spare time reading Miss Manners.

Adding to the women’s problems is their confusion over the role of sex in the testosterone-suffused workplace. The women of The Apprentice are almost without exception what men in their less professional moments would call babes, and they know it. Having come of age in the Sex and the City era, they are about as subtle as Heidi Fleiss in the way they use sex to further their ambitions. Their idea of career-wear is blouses with Dolly Parton cleavage and rocker miniskirts. In the early weeks of the first season, the women beat the men in a lemonade-selling contest partly by kissing male customers and offering them their phone numbers. Later on, they build their ad campaign for a private jet company with suggestive pictures of the bulging underside of the plane and the text “How do you measure up? How do you fit in?” During the second season, in a desperate “gimmick” designed to goose up her team’s flagging candy-bar sales, a promising contestant named Ivana offers to drop her skirt as a bonus for men willing to shell out $20 for the candy. Trump—with his aide-de-camp Carolyn Kepcher, whose Red-state wardrobe and reserved manner serve as an implicit critique of the younger, tacky female apprentices—chastises the women. And when he fires Ivana the skirt-dropper, it is less the dictate of a bully boss than a cautionary lesson for a generation of women-who-would-be-CEO who need to learn the difference between Martha Stewart and Paris Hilton.

That women are having trouble coping with the pressures of steroidal capitalism is also clear from the way stress relief for the second sex has become a big business in its own right. A wide range of New Agey products and services promise relaxation, while also attending to the global competitor’s need for self-control and focus. New York–based Cloud Nine Reflexology, for instance, offers an ancient form of foot massage that “reduces stress, improves circulation . . . and may even boost productivity.” A catalog called “Alter Your Life: Solutions for Work-Life Balance” sells “serenity rings” and traveling coffee mugs inscribed “There Is More to Life than Increasing Its Speed” or “Power.” The most popular stress-relief technique is yoga, the quintessential leisure activity in an age of steroid capitalism. Yoga relaxes, yes, but it also energizes and teaches concentration and discipline. The website iVillage, targeting women, offers “15 minute stress buster” programs, “so you can have a yoga class right at your desk.” There’s one for “when pressure builds and you need to de-stress” and another for when “you need to refuel and recharge.”

Yet capitalists on steroids—both women and men—can’t escape the demands of today’s economy anywhere, not even in the nursery or family room. Ambitious parents feel that they have to start training their children at an early age to become winning competitors in the global economy. And just as they value physical self-discipline for themselves, they value it for their kids, too. They take them to 5 am hockey practice and far-off swim meets. In Santa Cruz, California, they might enroll their kids in the “Superkid Triathlon,” which includes divisions for triathletes as young as three. Many communities have hired professional soccer coaches rather than parent volunteers to give their kids a more competitive workout.

The kid soccer business has gotten so intense—and some parents have become so aggressive, yelling instructions and fighting with coaches and parents of kids on the opposing team—that soccer organizations have introduced “Silent Saturdays.” During silent games, parents are forbidden to tell little Sammy to take his finger out of his nose and go after the goddamn ball and are reduced to watching passively, something uncongenial to steroidal capitalists. In an article on silent games, The New York Times reports that some parents, especially those who are lawyers, speak darkly about censorship and First Amendment rights. One Florida coach got an e-mail from a mother who sneered about silent games, which make even cheering a child who has made a goal verboten: “In the real world—maybe not in your politically correct world, but in the real business world where most of these children go—they will have to deal with others getting stars and them not. Get a grip.” Curious about the identity of the child in question, the coach looked up the family’s application. The player was six years old.

The anxiety to prepare children for “the real business world” explains the widely discussed, though misunderstood, phenomenon of the “overscheduled child”—he is simply the youth version of the capitalist on steroids. Middle-class kids today need a Palm Pilot to keep track of all of their violin lessons, skating competitions, church classes, and soccer meets. A recent Public Agenda report entitled “All Work and No Play?” discovered that 57 percent of middle and high school kids say that they are in an out-of-school activity or program either every day or almost every day. And 79 percent say that they are in such activities both on school days and on weekends.

The parents of these children are doing exactly what parents are supposed to do: preparing their kids to meet the demands of their society. Today that means developing a ferocious work ethic, self-discipline, competitive zeal, and flexibility. An outfit called Yoga for Kids knows just how to appeal to today’s parent; the company promises yoga will “increase their [kids’] attention span and focus. . . . And everyone knows how important it is to be able to focus for schoolwork or sports or playing a musical instrument.” With or without yoga, the middle-class child’s loaded schedule not only gives him a better shot at getting into Princeton or Harvard Business School; it also fine-tunes his character for peak performance in a competitive global economy.

There’s a lot to be said for that character. America’s cowboy capitalism asks its worker-citizens to be hardworking, self-motivated, innovative, and, surprising as it may strike its critics, civil. It’s a system that has enlarged its participants’ sense of opportunity. Sure, only two or three kids per generation can grow up to be president, but anyone with discipline, ambition, and a sense of adventure can aspire to be an entrepreneur.

But you know what? It’s also tough.

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