This is the story of Ralph, taken from the book Why Men Are The Way They Are by Warren Farrell.
Ralph’s story may not be normal – he was an unusually high earning lawyer – but it is representative.
You can think of this as a parable about the trap of becoming overly focussed on status and spending. The dangers of sleep-walking through life. And the dangers of “One More Year” syndrome.
The Escape Artist
Ralph was a 41 year old man in a men’s group. He was married, the father of 2 children. He had been in the group for 3 months and had hardly said a word.
One evening he looked up and said:
I think I’d like to speak up tonight. I’m afraid I only joined this group because my wife forced me to. She got involved in the women’s movement and started changing (she called it “growing”).
About 3 months ago she said: “Ralph, I’m tired of having to choose between a relationship with you and a relationship with myself”. Pretty fancy rhetoric I thought. Then she added: “There’s a men’s group meeting next Tuesday. Why don’t you get involved?”
Well, I kind of laughed her off. But a week later she started again. “The group’s meeting next Tuesday. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not doing some changing in 3 months, that’s the end.”
The end! For the sake of a men’s group? I asked.
“Its symbolic Ralph” she said.
So I figured I’d join this symbol and see what you fags were talking about! But the problem was, you didn’t fit my image and I began identifying with some of the things you were saying. Well anyway, last night Ginny reminded me the 3 months were up tomorrow. So I think I’d like to speak up tonight.
We laughed at Ralph’s motivation, but encouraged him to continue.
Well, what struck me was how each of you chose different careers, but you all worried about succeeding. Even you Jim – even though you’re unemployed and have a laid back facade. That started me thinking about my career.
All my life I wanted to play pro baseball. When I was in high school, I was pretty hot stuff. My uncle scouted me and said: “Ralph, you’re good. Damn good. And you might make it to the pros if you really work at it. But only the best make good money. If you really want to be good to yourself, get a good job – one you can depend on for life”. I was surprised when my folks agreed with him. Especially Dad. Maybe that turned the tide for me.
Ralph hesitated, as if he were piecing something together.
Anyway, I was proud of myself for making the transition like a man. I’d always liked reading and learning, but just hadn’t focussed much on it. But I figured just for a couple of years, I’d play the system. I borrowed friends old term papers, looked at old exams, focussed on the exam questions that came up repeatedly. I never cheated. I just figured I’d play the system for a couple of years, raise my grades to get into college then I could really learn and do what I wanted after that.
I decided on law school – but to become a social work lawyer, so I could make a real contribution to people who most needed it. But about my second or third year of law school when my colleagues saw I was taking what they called “missionary law” seriously, they explained that if I really wanted to be effective as a social-work lawyer, I’d better get some experience first in the hard-knocks, reality-based field of corporate law rather than ease into the namby-pamby area of social work law right away – if I didn’t I wouldn’t get the respect to be effective. Frankly, that made sense.
So I joined a top corporate law firm in New York. I knew I could work there for a couple of years and then do what I really wanted with my life after that.
After a couple of years in the firm, I was doing well. But the whole atmosphere of the corporate legal community made it clear that if I dropped out after 2 years it would be seen as a sign that I just couldn’t hack the pressure. If I continued for just a couple more years and became a junior partner (marked with potential) then I could really do what I wanted with my life after that.
Well it took me seven years – with politics and everything – to get junior partnership. But I got it. By that time I had lost some of the desire to be a social work lawyer – it was considered a clear step backward. In other ways I maintained that ideal – it seemed more meaningful than kowtowing to rich money. But I also knew the switch would mean forfeiting a lot of income. My wife Ginny and I had just bought a new home – which we pretty much had to with 2 kids – and I knew they’d be going to college…Ginny’s income was only part-time now and she was aching to travel a bit.
By that time, I also realized that while junior partners had potential, the people with the real clout in the legal community were the senior partners. I figured I had a pretty big investment in the corporate law area now – if I just stuck it out for a couple more years, I could get a senior partnership, get a little money saved for the kid’s education and travel and then I could really do with my life what I wanted …
It took me 8 more years to get the senior partnership. I can remember my boss calling me into the office and saying: “Ralph we’re offering you a senior partnership”. I acted real calm but my heart was jumping in anticipation of telling Ginny. I told Ginny I had a surprise to tell her when I got home. I made reservations in her favourite restaurant, bought some roses and her favourite champagne.
I came home early so we’d have time to sip it together. Ginny said: “What is it Ralph?”. I said I got the senior partnership! She said: “Oh fine, that’s great” but there was a distance in her eyes. A superficial enthusiasm, you know what I mean?
So I said: What do you mean fine? I’ve been working since the day we met to get this promotion for us and you say Oh fine!
Ginny replied: “Every time you get a promotion Ralph, you spend less time with me. I guess I wish you’d have more time for me. More time to love me.”
Why do you think I’ve been working my ass off all these years if it isn’t to show you how much I love you? I said.
Ginny said: “Ralph, that’s not what I mean by love. Just look at the kids, Ralph.”
Well, I did look at the kids. Randy is 17. And Ralph Jr is 15. Randy just got admitted to college a thousand miles from here. Each year I keep promising myself that next year I’ll really get to know who they are. But next year he’ll be in college. And I don’t even know who he is. And I don’t know whether I’m his dad or his piggy bank.
I don’t know where to start with Randy but a few weeks ago I tried to change things with Ralph Jr. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind turning off the TV so we could talk. He was a little reluctant but eventually started telling me some of what was happening at school. He told me about some of his activities and I spotted a couple of areas where I thought his values were going to hurt him. So I told him. We got into a big argument. He said I was lecturing him…spying on him.
We’ve hardly talked since. I can see what I did wrong but I’m afraid if I try again, he’ll be afraid to say much now and we’ll just sit there awkwardly. And if he mentions those values, what do I say? I want to be honest but I don’t want to lecture. I don’t even know where to begin.
Ralph withdrew from the group. He had struck so many chords, it took us more than 10 minutes to notice that he was fighting back tears. Finally one of the other men picked up on it and asked: Ralph is there anything else you’re holding back?
Ralph said there wasn’t but his assurance rang false. We prodded.
I guess maybe I am holding something back…I feel like I spent 40 years of my life working as hard as I can to become somebody I don’t even like.
Even as I heard it, the ways it was threatening to be true in my own life flashed through my mind. Ralph continued:
I was mentioning some of my doubts to a few of my associates at work. They listened attentively for a couple of minutes then one made a joke and another excused himself. Finally I mentioned this men’s group – which I never should have done – and they laughed me out of the office. I’ve been the butt of their jokes ever since.
Suddenly I realised. Ginny has a whole network of lady friends she can talk with about all this. yet the men I’ve worked with for 17 years, 60 hours a week, hardly know me. Nor do they want to.
Ralph withdrew again. But this time he seemed to be taking in what he had just said as if he were putting his life together as he was speaking. Then his face grew sad, fighting back the tears again.
I guess I could handle all this but I think for all practical purposes I’ve lost Ginny in the process. And maybe I could handle that too. But the only other people I love in this world are Randy and Ralph Jr. And when I’m really honest with myself – I mean really honest – I think I’ve lost them too.
We started to interrupt, but Ralph stopped us, tears silently escaping his eyes.
What really gets me angry is that I did everything I was supposed to do for 40 years, did it better than almost any other man I know and I lost everyone I love in the process, including myself. The more I did to stand out, the more I became the same. Just one more carbon copy. Oh, I got to a high level, okay. A high level mediocre.
In some ways, I feel I could handle all that too. But look at me – paid more than any two of you guys put together, supposedly one of the top decision-makers in the country and when it comes to my own home, my own life, I don’t even know how to begin.
Ralph cried. For the first time in 22 years.
The memory of Ralph stayed with me almost every day of my life. After that session, I started looking at my life and Ralph’s differently. I had always assumed power meant having status and income, influence and external rewards. Ralph had all of them. Yet up close he didn’t seem very powerful. I started asking whether power meant, rather, the ability to control my own life.
Most men feel much less powerful than Ralph. Ralph is a “winner” among men – and women. Compared to him, millions of men are losers…if we define power in traditional terms – the ability to gain external rewards.
Yet if we define power as the ability to control one’s own life, Ralph probably had less power than anyone in the group. Ralph had given up the ability to control his own life by spending his life doing what he was programmed to do. Most of us were questioning at least some of the things we were programmed to do.
Ralph had lost real power by trying to gain the appearance of power. He was a leader. But he was following a program for leaders….therefore he was really a follower. He had reached a high level but had done so by adapting to his boss and his boss’s boss. He was, as he put it, a “high level mediocre”.
Ralph’s story is not a tale of financial independence. It’s a warning of the dangers of status seeking and lifestyle inflation.
Ralph could have pursued an alternative career in family law, social work or baseball. Those options might have meant a lower cost lifestyle. But not deprivation.
Or Ralph could have done the corporate law thing, maxed out his saving rate and pursued rapid financial independence.
Money is not a magic wand that cures all problems. But, by saving hard, Ralph could have got to financial independence before 41, with the option to walk away from work and focus on repairing his relationships (and his own emotional wellbeing). It might still have been painful, but he would’ve had something amazing to show for his years in The Prison Camp.
The moral of the story is not that there’s one single “correct” way to live. But some ways are wrong. Ralph’s story illustrates the problem with blindly following the programming of your money blueprint and living your life on other people’s terms.
Power is the ability to control your own life.
I send out occasional emails out with my thoughts on investing and news of what I’m up to. You can sign up to receive those emails below👇