The Wolf of Borgartún

Jordan Belfort teaches a room full of Icelanders how to sell
3.6.2014
Words by Mark Asch
"Fuck the bankers who stole my money." "Fuck the bankers who stole my money." "I will make it all back and then some." "I will make it all back and then some." A couple hundred Icelanders have risen from their seats in Háskólabíó to repeat after Jordan Belfort, the "Wolf of Wall Street," the high-living penny stock wizard and white-collar felon turned reformed, sober guru of sales, entrepreneurship and "ethical persuasion." Following the recent Scorsese/DiCaprio adaptation of Belfort's memoir–a cautionary tale, but one which does not undersell the appeal of drug-fueled financial-sector dick-swinging–tickets for his Reykjavík appearance, in early May, have mostly sold out despite prices in the low to middle five figures ISK.

When I interviewed Belfort the week prior, I asked him, given recent events—the collapse of an economy fueled by an overleveraged banking sector and unsustainable household debt—do Icelanders really need to get better at selling stuff? Icelanders, says Belfort, “innocent people who woke up one day and their banks had been destroyed by a handful of greedy people,” are shellshocked, in danger of passing up new opportunities. Belfort feels he’s in a great position to inspire Icelanders to overcome “limiting beliefs” formed in response to the crisis. People take note of his own comeback from a more “self-inflicted” trauma, as he explains: “I went from being incredibly wealthy at a young age to being broke, in jail, losing my self-respect, my children being taken from me, being smeared and vilified in the press—and yet somehow, I managed to take that and come back, and build an amazing life again, and I'm in the process of paying back all the money that I—that, that was lost. When people look at that, they're like, ‘Wow, if this guy can do it, I can do it.’ Especially when I explain how I did it.” Belfort, so very tan, has an emphatic Noo Yawk voice further enlivened with a boiler-room vocabulary. At Háskólabíó, he tells us that Icelanders were “hit between the eyes with a lump of shit.” But the collapse was the fault of a few crooks at the banks. Wealth is not thievery; the past is not the future. He refers to new oil exploration in Iceland’s territorial waters, and says he’s heard that some Icelanders are relieved that any major windfall is years off. He makes a face like: Whaaa? “It’s bullshit.” There is a little applause. We stand and repeat after him: “I am ready to feel good NOW.” We are victims. “Twenty scumbags” in the banking sector are villains.

Super Power, Super Responsibility

Belfort has, he says, a dualistic worldview: yin and yang. Inner attitudes and outer behaviors. The twin motivations of pain and pleasure. Duality also perhaps informs his evident belief that sales technique, and the pursuit of wealth, is either ethical, or is not. We stand and repeat: "I will be filthy rich." "I will be filthy rich." "I WILL BE FILTHY RICH." "I WILL BE FILTHY RICH." "But not greedy." "But not greedy." There are caveats that can be inserted into the call and response, which ensure we stay in the correct category.

In our interview, Belfort is adamant that "the idea that you need to slash and burn and disempower others to get ahead is complete and utter bullshit." To create sustainable success, you're "looking to create value." He thinks that `The Wolf of Wall Street' is a more moral film than Oliver Stone's `Wall Street,' because you see his 'comeuppance'" (and are then inspired to see him come out of jail to be successful, again, this time doing it the right way: he's in the process of arranging a tour that's going to net him forty or fifty million dollars, he reminds both me and the crowd, all of which he's going to give back as restitution, which, he also notes, he can afford to do). During his talk, Belfort frequently prefaces mentions of ethics with the instruction to "write this down."

Belfort's four-hour talk is split into two parts. In the first half, he discusses his philosophy of sales and entrepreneurship. In the second half, he introduces us to his "Straight Line" system of person-to-person sales technique. When we spoke on the phone, he was clear in his conviction that his message is perfectly compatible with ethics. It was DiCaprio who convinced him of this, at a time when Belfort was reluctant to unleash his system onto the world, for fear of its consequences. "Nothing's wrong with your system, your system's amazing," Belfort says that the star reassured him. "You just got to teach it with ethics and integrity." Think of an M-16, Belfort says. If a single mother, out in the boonies, uses that rifle to mow down escaped convicts approaching her cabin with intention to rape and murder, "that's a really valuable, great, wonderful, weapon of good, and justice." But it can just as easily be used by an insane sniper in a bell tower. Good intent, bad intent. "With great power comes great responsibility–I think I heard that in Spider-man, right?"

Both the analogy to a superpower and the analogy to a weapon come up at Háskólabíó as well. In front of his paying crowd, they are part of a riff on one particular question he can't stand being asked by journalists. "Is sales evil? Shut the fuck up." (Another duality: Belfort's crimes are in the past, and he came out of prison with a clean slate. Unfailingly earnest and enthusiastic with me, he accepts the interview as a platform for by-now rote assurances. But whenever he mentions "journalists" at Háskólabíó the implied relationship is adversarial, and clearly there are limits to the challenges to his dignity he is willing to accept: he recently stormed off an Australian TV interview after questions about disputes over his restitution payments.) In any case, despite the associations Belfort's answer has for him, my actual question was nothing so binary as whether or not sales is evil. I wanted to know whether Belfort thinks there's any intrinsic danger in a sales mentality that emphasizes control and influence.

For Belfort, the answer is, clearly, no. Nor is there any intrinsic danger in focusing on wealth creation, as Belfort readily acknowledges he does, both to me and at Háskólabíó–"this is not a happiness seminar, but try and deposit love at the bank to pay your rent." With evident and sincere pride, Belfort says that he sees his strategies as equally applicable to other, equally if not more valuable measures of success: spiritual fulfillment, personal relationships. The goal is an "empowered" life, in which we can afford to do whatever we want, while uplifting others; in which we give buckets of money to our favourite charities, and "take amazing vacations."

Ducks And Eagles

Though Belfort says he's "not a motivational speaker," the first half of his talk has the same, valuable core message as much motivational speech. He stresses skill acquisition and hard work, undertaken with a self-aware and proactive attitude. Much of the standing and repeating, he explains, as well as his requests that we high-five and hug each other, is to foster an atmosphere of excitement and receptivity–part of his overall emphasis on "state management." The first person you sell is yourself. Get yourself into the right frame of mind for the next task. This is how we have agency in our own lives–how we ensure that we're always "playing offense, not defense."

We stand and repeat: "I will be filthy rich." "I will be filthy rich." "I WILL BE FILTHY RICH." "I WILL BE FILTHY RICH." "But not greedy." "But not greedy."

To this end, another duality. "There are two types of people in this world," Belfort tells us. "Reasons" people, and "results" people. "Ducks" and "eagles." Reasons people give you reasons why they can't succeed. Results people understand that these so-called reasons (I'm no entrepreneur, selling's immoral, "the world happens to me") are just "limiting beliefs." Belfort gives a couple of examples. There was the stewardess who told him that there wouldn't be any food for First Class passengers on his flight–Quack, Quack, Quack.

Another time, Belfort was vacationing with his children at California's Big Bear Lake. He approached the 22-year-old at the front desk about renting Jet Skis. Out the window, he could see Jet Skis moored on the hotel dock. "But," the girl at the front desk said, "those Jet Skis are rented, until 1 pm." What time is it now? "12:20 pm." And the people who reserved them, did they pay in advance? "Well, no." Telling us this story now, Belfort pauses for emphasis, arranges his face into an expression of supreme incredulity. He made an offer: I'll pay you for the whole hour, right now, cash–he makes a gesture as if pulling bills out of a wallet–and if the people who reserved them come while we're out there, they can have the Jet Skis for the rest of the hour, on me. "Well..." Quack Quack Quack. So, Belfort said he told her: Go find me someone else! As she turned towards the back room, Belfort says, he yelled at her: Stop! He knew she was just going to bring out another duck.

Now, to be fair, I don't know whether Belfort actually treats service staff with a contempt befitting the subhuman, or only describes them this way in order to come off like a raconteur in front of a roomful of strangers. Nor do I know whether Belfort's attitude is a consequence of seeing sales strategy and wealth creation as metaphors for life, or merely a coincidence. But I have my suspicions.

Walk The Line

In the second half of the afternoon, Belfort introduces the "Straight Line" with a clip from Scorsese's 'The Wolf of Wall Street,' in which Leonardo DiCaprio sells worthless stocks to gullible investors using techniques, Belfort proclaims, he taught to the actor. As a second clip plays, I think to look down from the screen to the stage. Belfort, who must have seen this scene a hundred times, is leaning with one hand on a stool, back to us, looking up at the screen, head totally still. As the clip ends, he chuckles softly before turning around and requesting "a round of applause for Leo."

The "straight line" is the shortest distance between opening and closing a sale. The client will have questions and reservations, will want to go off the line. But, through inflection and nonverbal cues more than through any words we say, we as salespeople will convey that we're sharp, enthusiastic about our product, and credible experts. In this way, we build the influence necessary to "get control of the conversation." We especially modulate our tone of voice to "control the linguistic encounter." As we counter objections, "the client listens and subjugates himself."

For certainty to build most efficiently, the salesperson must most of all be a good listener. We use our empathy to "gather intelligence"–the client's desires, beliefs, pain. This is also where the "straight line" becomes truly ethical, where we learn whether or not the client really needs or can afford what we're selling. When you listen, Belfort says, "you own the client."

Belfort has a voice he speaks in to convey weakness, a high-pitched, nasally, wishy-washy whine. Earlier in the afternoon, he used this voice when imitating "reasons" people used to explain why they couldn't take action to improve their businesses, or properly respect the prerogatives of his wealth. Now, he slips into this voice when speaking as one of those sales prospects who remains hesitant and "unempowered," who travels all along the straight line only to say, `Let me think about it.'

The afternoon closes with us on our feet again. Iceland, Belfort tells us, is amazing. We may be a small country, but we have a big country's attitude–"a nation of three hundred thousand who act like thirty million." We have been swindled by a handful of criminal bankers, but the oil money is ready to flow, and we can be rich again if we conquer our limiting beliefs. We are, Belfort reminds us, "entitled."

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