The Apprentice and the End of Civilization

I’m not usually one to wring my hands about the decline of popular culture.  I haven’t spent more than five minutes with a video game--but, I don’t believe they are any worse for kids than sitting in front of a television for six hours a day.  Hip hop is probably no more shocking for me than Led Zeppelin was for my parents. I’m even okay with Reality TV.  Sure, most reality TV is dumb, but remember what TV was like before Reality:  Compared to shows like The A-Team, Baywatch, and Barb Wire—American Idol looks downright compelling.

But I draw the line at The Apprentice. For my overseas readers (or for US readers living under rocks) The Apprentice, to my complete dismay, remains one of the most-watched television shows in America.  I thought if we just ignored the show, it might just go away.  Instead, it is metastasizing—now there’s Apprentice II with Martha Stewart—still sporting a house-arrest ankle-bracelet tan-line.

The original Apprentice features prominently (of course) the blow-dried, blowhard Donald Trump as imperial master over the fates of sixteen ambitious business neophytes --who each week compete in artificial challenges designed to test their mettle.  They meet at the end of each show in Donald’s mahogany boardroom where he pronounces one of them unfit for service at Trump enterprises with the words “You’re fired” (a phrase I understand he had audacity to attempt to copyright…beyond audacity really).

So what’s the harm of a little Donald and Martha every week?  Plenty.  
With every generation we bet our future on the promise of a new crop of entrepreneurs and managers-- whose creativity and focus will help us to defy the odds and move us to even higher levels of progress and prosperity.  What bothers me about The Apprentice is that some of the 15 million viewers who tune in each week may actually believe that the ideas the show promotes will help them achieve success in business.  They won’t—except, perhaps in the most dysfunctional of organizations—maybe like the ones led by Trump and Stewart).

Here’s my take on the Apprentice guidebook on how to succeed in business.

It’s more important to look good than to be good.  
It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of watching the show to figure out the name of the Apprentice game:  Always come out looking better than your fellow-contestants (it doesn’t hurt to be better looking physically too).  The people who do well are the people who are sophisticated in manipulating their fellow contestants, Trump’s minions, and Trump himself (not a tough task to anyone who understands the narcissistic personality).  

In contrast, most successful people I know became successful not by looking good, but rather by actually being good (some look good too—but that is very much beside the point).  Most of them started their careers in humble positions (certainly not as apprentice to some Titan ego) and paid their dues for years.  They learned a lot about a market, a set of customers, or a business discipline—and then used that knowledge to make a contribution to a company or an industry.   They became successful because they became good—not because they impressed some ego in an expensive suit.

There’s no “I” in teamwork… (but there is an “M” and an “E”).
The Apprentice is rigged to be good television—and nothing pumps the ratings like a good cat-fight.  So while contestants are ostensibly asked to work as teams, the “money shot” each week is when Trump pushes contestants to stab each other in the back (or in the face, rather—since the person stabbed is always present).   This provides a few rare moments of perverse amusement (sort of a human demolition derby)—but it also reinforces the myth that people get to the top of the business ladder primarily by stepping on others.  While there are certainly as many mercenaries in business as there are in any other field—in my experience these people are very much the exception rather than the rule.  We often forget that most people in America work in small firms, far from the intrigues of Wall Street (98.5% of American firms have sales of less than $25 million a year).  Most businesspeople know that the key to success is surrounding oneself with great people and finding ways to help make them successful.  

Suck Up and Kick Down.
Anyone curious about what it would be like to work in the Trump organization need look not further than Trump’s two sycophantic sidekicks—septuagenarian George Ross and the glacial Carolyn Kepcher (NBC apparently tried to soften her image with a makeover in season two, which only succeeded look like a piece of ice with softer edges).   These two are the poster children for the suck-up and kick-down style of management.  They obsessively scrutinize every move of the contestants for anything that might reflect badly on the Donald and level withering criticism when they find them. When they enter the boardroom, they prostrate themselves before the hackneyed platitudes of their emperor.  Their utter humorlessness suggests that what seems impossible must in fact be true:  They are not in on the joke.    

Perhaps I have underestimated the television audience, and nobody’s really going to pay much attention to a guy who was born on third and thinks he hit a triple and a convicted felon.  But if some young people out there are in fact taking their cues from The Apprentice—it’s a tragedy.  Hunter Thompson once said “When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.” In the age of The Apprentice-- It has, and they have.