Today is January 21 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you think about being a greater fool?” Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well may sometimes require one to be a greater fool. The greater fool theory (also called survivor investing) is the belief held by one who makes a questionable investment, with the assumption that they will be able to sell it later to "a greater fool."
This form of investing rests upon the foundation that a buyer believes he can sell the stock at a higher price than purchased. When applied to fields outside of economics, the term greater fool means someone who combines self-delusion with ego to succeed where others have failed.
In the final episode of Newsroom (Season 1, 2013) the term ‘greater fool’ was used to describe the show's main character, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), because of his belief in doing "real news." Throughout the episode, Will views it as a negative term. However, financial reporter Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) tells Will, "The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was made by greater fools.” Edith Wharton practiced the art of living well and modeled the behavior of a greater fool.
Edith Wharton was a greater fool and in so doing became the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1921 for her book The Age of Innocence. Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862 to George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander in New York City. Wharton's paternal family, the Joneses, were a very wealthy and socially prominent family having made their money in real estate. The saying "keeping up with the Joneses" is said to refer to her father's family. Instead of attending school young Edith was educated by tutors and governesses.
As a greater fool Wharton rejected the standards of fashion and etiquette expected of young girls at the time, which were intended to allow women to marry well and to be put on display at balls and parties. She considered these fashions superficial and oppressive. Edith wanted more education than she received, so she read from her father's library and from the libraries of her father's friends. Wharton began writing poetry and fiction as a young girl and attempted to write her first novel at age eleven. Her mother's criticism quashed her ambition and she turned to poetry. She would eventually write 38 books, including The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome, in 75 years. She also was awarded France’s Cross of the Legion of Honor for her World War I relief work, which included feeding and housing 600 Belgian refugee orphans as she was living in Paris when the fighting started.
History is filled with other greater fools like Wharton who ‘maintained the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that they can succeed where others have failed.” The 2016 movie, Hidden Figures, tells the true story of three greater fools: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. Each woman refused to accept what was true. The film was based on the 2016 non-fiction book by the same name Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race written by Margot Lee Shetterly. Shetterly's father was a research scientist at NASA who worked with many of the book's main characters.
Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women who worked as computers to solve problems for engineers and others at NASA. For the first years of their careers, the workplace was segregated, and women were kept in the background as human computers. The book explains how these three historical women overcame discrimination and racial segregation to become three American achievers in mathematics, scientific and engineering history. The main character, Katherine Johnson, calculated rocket trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. Johnson successfully "took matters into her own hands"; by being assertive with her supervisor; when her mathematical abilities were recognized, Katherine Johnson was allowed into all male meetings at NASA. As Lenika Cruz from The Atlantic wrote "Hidden Figures is a story of brilliance, but not of ego. It is a story of struggle and willpower, but not of individual glory." It is a story of three greater fools.
A recent greater fool is the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the first African-American to represent Georgia in the Senate and the first African-American Democrat elected to a senate seat by a former state of the Confederacy. His family’s roots, however, showed little promise of a future that led to the U.S. Senate. He grew up in Savannah in the Kayton Homes public housing project, the second youngest of 12 children. His mother as a teenager had worked as a sharecropper picking cotton and tobacco. His father was a preacher who also made money hauling old cars to a local scrapyard.
“My daddy used to wake me up every morning at dawn,” Warnock told a hometown crowd at a drive-in rally two days before his election Tuesday. “He said, `Boy, you can’t sleep late in my house. Get up, get dressed, put your shoes on. Get ready.'” Pushed by his parents to work hard, Warnock left Savannah and became the first member of his family to graduate from college, helped by Pell grants and low-interest student loans. He earned a Ph.D. in theology that led to a career in the pulpit, eventually as head pastor of the Atlanta church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached. Warnock was the senior pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church until 2005, when he became senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He came to prominence in Georgia politics as a leading activist in the campaign to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. A member of the Democratic Party, Warnock ran in the 2020–21 United States Senate special election in Georgia against Loeffler, whom he defeated in the January 5, 2021 runoff.
After his election victory Warnock would often tell the remarkable journey of his mother. Verlene Warnock spent her summers picking cotton and tobacco as a teen in Waycross, Georgia, in the 1950s before becoming a pastor. As Warnock recalled "Because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else's cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.”
Reflecting upon his victory, Warnock told a cheering crowd of supporters “Only in America is my story even possible.” Warnock, like all greater fools, possessed the ‘perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed.’ Soren Kierkegaard noted "There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true; the other is to refuse to accept what is true."
Do you accept what is true?
Do you have any interest in being a greater fool? Why? Why not?
Do you know of any greater fools?
Do you more often believe what isn’t true or refuse to accept what is true?