The Social Climber's Bible: A Book of Manners, Practical Tips, and Spiritual Advice for the Upwardly Mobile

The Social Climber's Bible: A Book of Manners, Practical Tips, and Spiritual Advice for the Upwardly Mobile

by Dirk Wittenborn, Jazz Johnson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143125204
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/28/2014
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jazz Johnson is the daughter of James L. Johnson and Gretchen Wittenborn Johnson. She manages her family’s estate in New Jersey and raises heritage breed turkeys.

Dirk Wittenborn is a screenwriter, producer, and the author of Pharmakon and Fierce People. He lives in Brooklyn and summers on the wrong side of the tracks in East  Hampton.

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Dirk Wittenborn is a novelist (Fierce People, Pharmakon), screenwriter, and the Emmy-nominated producer of the HBO documentary Born Rich. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter and summers on the wrong side of the tracks in East Hampton, New York.


Jazz Johnson is a graduate of Barnard College, manages her family estate, serves as Master of Fox Hounds, and raises heritage turkeys. She hopes that collaborating with her uncle, Dirk, on The Social Climber’s Bible does not get her kicked out of any of the clubs she belongs to.

A Book of Manners, Practical Tips,
and Spiritual Advice for the Upwardly Mobile




Dirk Wittenborn and his niece Jazz Johnson have seen the best and worst social climbers of our age at work, watched them succeed and fail in their assault on the summits of high society, new money, old money, show business, downtown, uptown, New York, Los Angeles, Europe, and beyond: Between them, they have spent more than fifty years marveling at the skills, ambition, and nerve of those who have the moral fortitude to go for the gold. In the course of their research on climbing, the authors also made a startling personal discovery that has affected their own life’s journey: Social climbers were not only getting ahead of them, they were also having more fun. Their groundbreaking self-help manual, The Social Climber’s Bible, offers two very different but uniquely revealing perspectives on upward mobility.

Ms. Johnson is a thirty-six-year-old Johnson & Johnson heiress. A former debutante and graduate of Barnard College, she has been photographed for Vogue and has created a line of her own jewelry. A distinguished horsewoman, Ms. Johnson has won in the American Hunter division at many top horse shows in the country. She manages her family estate, serves on Johnson & Johnson’s board of charitable foundations, is master of the Essex Fox Hounds, and has named her four dogs after alcoholic beverages. Jazz is an insider in that rarefied world fans of Gossip Girl and Downton Abbey dream about and social climbers of all ages want to belong to.

Her fascination with the subject of Mountaineering was sparked at age seven when she asked her parents why her dashing billionaire grandfather, J. Seward Johnson Sr., former vice president of J & J, world-renowned yachtsman, philanthropist, and founder of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, was no longer married to her elegant and sophisticated Bostonian grandmother. The answer: Grandpa had met and married an incredibly gifted social climber who, besides being a penniless Polish immigrant forty-one years Grandpa’s junior, also happened to be the upstairs maid.

Dirk Wittenborn, a novelist and screenwriter, is a producer of the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary Born Rich. His fiction has often explored the interplay of class and money in the American dream. Early in his career via a brief connection to Saturday Night Live, the highlight of which was being filmed teaching cats to swim, he picked up enough bad habits and celebrity friends to become a part of New York City’s downtown demimonde. It was edifying to Wittenborn to watch how quickly some of Gotham’s most prominent young social climbers befriended him in the mistaken belief that he might know someone who could help them; even more enlightening was observing the grace with which those disappointed Mountaineers quickly dropped him. Old enough to remember when sex was safe and cocaine wasn’t addictive, Mr. Wittenborn was on the scene to witness that seminal moment in American history when, as he says, “ass-kissing became networking.”

In short, whereas Ms. Johnson belongs to the most exclusive clubs in the world, Mr. Wittenborn has been kicked out of them. Like those pioneering sex researchers of the sixties and seventies, Masters and Johnson, who dared to show the world that sex was nothing to be ashamed of, Wittenborn and Johnson have dared to offer an unbiased exploration of our present-day culture’s final taboo, the last form of social intercourse the world still refuses to be candid about—social climbing.


Every year the self-help industry inundates us with new books, blogs, and TV gurus offering advice about how to maximize your human potential with promises of surefire steps guaranteed to turn your life around—sadly, those steps rarely lead you anywhere except to the depressing thought that you are the person you are, have the life you have, because that is all you deserve. That is, until now!

We have written this book because none of these guides to a brighter future has the honesty or common sense to mention—much less recommend—what scientific research, our personal experience, and interviews with highly accomplished people in all walks of life have shown us to be inarguably true.

The surest, fastest, and most painless method of improving your position in this highly competitive world and giving yourself a chance to step into the winners circle is . . . SOCIAL CLIMBING.

Now, we know what you’re thinking. You hate social climbers. Right? That’s what everybody says. But before dismissing our offer to change your life, ask yourself this one simple question: Would you cancel meeting up with your mother, sister, old friend from college, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, child, or that nice old lady with the wooden leg who lives down the hall with her cats if you were invited to hang out with: Bono? Michelle Obama? George Clooney, Bill Gates, Kate Moss, Beyoncé, the Pope, Derek Jeter, Lady Gaga, the Dalai Lama, Damien Hirst, David Bowie, Jerry Seinfeld, Prince William, or the Duchess of Cambridge? Sean “Diddy” Combs, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Gérard Depardieu, Roger Federer, Stephen Hawking . . . ? Someone whose friendship could enrich your life and at the very least give you an experience to make your friends envious?

If your answer’s “No,” you’re lying.

If your answer’s “Yes,” your qualms about becoming a social climber are irrelevant, because you already are one. We’re not telling you what to want, just how to get it.

Are you brave enough to be honest about what you really desire? Willing to listen to what your inner child tells you you’re entitled to? Do you have the courage to open your eyes to the importance of the superficial in postmodern life? If so, you already have the makings of a good social climber. And our book will make you a great one!

Follow our instructions, embrace our dos and don’ts of upward mobility, and social climbing will cease to be something you have to do in order to get ahead and instead become a way of life—a shining path as contemplative and revealing of the life force within you as Buddhism, only a hell of a lot more fun.

How It All Began

According to anthropologists, social climbing was imprinted on human behavior before primitive man descended from the trees. If you didn’t have it in you to be the alpha male or female, the second best way to ensure your survival was to develop the social skills that would enable you to become the new best friend of those with the sharpest teeth and the most lethal hunting skills, before they decided to eat you. Like the ability to make a flint hand ax, or start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, social climbing was both a tool and a skill that could not only radically improve the quality of life for those who walked on their hind legs, it could save your life.


Throughout our evolution, from Cro-Magnon through Neanderthal to Homo sapiens, how to make friends and influence humanoids has been a cornerstone of civilization, or, as a theologian might put it: Social climbing is God’s way of leveling the playing field.

How Did Social Climbing Get Such a Bad Reputation?

Think of all the varieties of intimate human behavior and interaction that were once unfairly judged by the so-called moral authorities to be bad, unhealthy, and, worse, unnatural that are now embraced as varieties of normal. To nineteenth-century Victorians, masturbation, premarital fornication, oral sex, sodomy, and homosexuality were vices. Today, even the Archbishop of Canterbury recognizes them as beautiful manifestations of the drives that make us human. So why does a human form of social intercourse as age-old, widespread, and instinctual as social climbing remain a stigma?

Consider the fate of two of the most famous fictional characters of the twentieth century. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the über–upwardly mobile Jay Gatsby isn’t just punished, he’s shot in his swimming pool for a murder he didn’t commit. And how about poor Eve Harrington in All About Eve—she pays doubly for her climbing ways. Not only is she blackmailed by the slimy theater critic portrayed by George Sanders, but once she makes it to the big time, she has to pay off by sleeping with him.

How is it our culture can forgive banks their debts, the Kardashians their toxic bad taste, and Donald Trump his hair but still discriminate against the social climber?

Psychologists tell us that a healthy friendship is based on common interests, hobbies, values. If you never get the chance to socialize with your boss, or better yet, the president of the company you work for, how are you ever going to know whether you have the same interests and values? Yes, you are in the same income bracket as the drone in the cubicle next to you, but isn’t it a perverse and reverse bigotry to assume that just because the CEO has three more zeros at the end of his paycheck than you do, he is unworthy of your making an effort to get to know him?

Know that social climbing is an expression invented by snobs to make other snobs feel superior to you. Dictionary definitions of social climbing as the pursuit of friendships with those of a higher social status assume and perpetuate a notion we think is offensive, i. e., that one group of people is superior to another. We believe you are not only as good as anybody else, you’re better. Because you, by reading The Social Climber’s Bible, have joined us in our fight to redefine social climbing, to establish it as a positive attribute rather than a pejorative designed to shame you into believing you are not good enough to go to the party.

Social climbing is not about getting to know people because you want something. It is about giving highly successful people a chance to get to know you well enough to realize you’re a great person, a special person, a person worth their friendship. And if they help you when you’re in need, well, isn’t that what real friendship’s all about?

We don’t teach our children to search out playmates who will do bad things to them. Yet as adults, we are made to feel ashamed for seeking friendships that can help us fulfill our dreams. And turning dreams into reality is what The Social Climber’s Bible is all about.

Freedom from the tyranny of the class system, the opportunity for upward mobility, was the dream that brought the immigrant to America. Europe’s peasants came to our shores to escape the unfairness of the feudal system they were born into, to have their God-given right to climb the ladder.


Given that the “pursuit of happiness” is guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence, and that upward mobility is a key ingredient in the melting pot that made our country great, social climbing is as American as apple pie.

So, if social climbing is democracy in action, why all the ugly pseudonyms: ASSLICKER, BROWNNOSER, SUCK-UP?

Of course, one’s tongue and/or the exchange of bodily fluids are often involved in social climbing, but for now let’s concentrate on how social climbing became a pejorative.

The demonization of the social climber began with the Puritans. Faced with a harsh winter and failed crops, our Pilgrim forefathers would have starved to death had they not shamelessly sucked up to the Indians and invited them to cater that first Thanksgiving. Conversely, if the Indians had had a problem with social climbers, they would have butchered the newcomers when they first showed up at Plymouth Rock. The original sin and seeds of hypocrisy surrounding the stigmatization of “social climbing” can be found in the Pilgrims’ behavior at subsequent Thanksgivings. As soon as the Pilgrims had enough food to feed themselves, the Indians were disinvited to the party. Worse, our forefathers thanked their aboriginal hosts who saved them from starvation by proceeding to steal their land, infect them with syphilis, and kill off those who refused to die a natural death.

These early American asslickers then went to work ingratiating themselves with those who commanded the next rung on the ladder—the English Crown’s governors, generals, magistrates, and tax collectors. And once the Puritans had used them to get rich enough to establish their own ruling class, they thanked the royals by starting a revolution and disinviting them to the party. Having gotten more than their fair share of the pie by befriending and then betraying any and all who helped them climb to the top, our pioneer American aristocracy had no intention of letting the succeeding generations of immigrants who followed them to America exploit them in similar fashion. The Puritans didn’t just torch witches; they tried to burn the ladder.

The rich have always known the value of social climbing. The nineteenth-century nouveau riche made few friends on the way up. But once they had made too much money to be snubbed, they solidified their position by marrying themselves or their offspring into families who, though not as rich, had cachet, class, accomplishment, and connections that wealth alone could not buy; or at least, not unless they had an awful lot of money.

Railroad robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to the comparatively impoverished but supremely well-connected Duke of Marlborough and in doing so, was finally able to snub the Astors. So it goes a hundred years later. Ralph Lifshitz changes his surname to Lauren, makes billions selling the preppie look to people who didn’t go to prep school, has a son who marries Lauren Bush, the granddaughter of George H. W. Bush and the niece of George W. Bush, who demographics alone would lead one to believe will be the last two WASP presidents of the United States. We mention this not in any way to imply Ralph was obsessed with or fetishized the glamour of snobbery, or that Lauren + Lauren is not a love match, but merely to underscore the point that social climbing is not just about money. It’s about having the taste and intelligence to ignore what less ambitious souls have told you since you were a child you can’t have and shouldn’t want . . . and having it all.

Take a lesson from the Middleton sisters: Set your priorities and put yourself in a petri dish where great things will happen to you and the sky’s the limit. Did Kate and Pippa stop climbing when they were nicknamed the Wisteria Sisters in honor of that clingy, climbing, flowering vine? Of course not; they climbed faster. Kate went from daughter of a “trolley-dolly,” aka an airline stewardess, to mother of the future king of England. How Pippa will top that remains to be seen, but we know she won’t settle for second best, unless his name is Prince Harry.

Who are those boldfaced names chiseled on the walls of art museums, opera houses, hospitals, and Ivy League universities? They’re social climbers. If you pay for the new wing to a cultural institution, you are no longer a crass, pushy vampire squid who beat the rap on insider trading, you are the new best friend to the cultural elite of the world. Though Roget’s Thesaurus would disagree, philanthropy is now and has always been a synonym for social climbing.

The rich don’t make six-figure donations to get their children into the right nursery school because they like the teachers. They want to make sure their children start learning the secrets of social climbing by the time they’re toilet-trained—secrets they don’t want you to know, secrets that give them an unfair advantage, but secrets The Social Climber’s Bible believes you have a right to know.


You are a special person who could be more special if you had more special friends.

Whether you dream of partying with billionaires or running for political office, or long for a job that won’t require you to ever have to ask anyone again, “Do you want fries with that order?” or simply want to know what it’s like to knock back a six-pack with the reality stars of Duck Dynasty, we can show you a shortcut to the top. However, before we start, a few words of caution:


Though social climbing has a long and admirable tradition, and has played as significant a role in our human evolution as our opposable thumbs, it is best not to advertise your decision to master the art of social climbing. Put your copy of The Social Climber’s Bible in the same drawer where you hide your porno and sex aids. If it is discovered by a snoopy friend or family member, swear on the life of a loved one it belongs to someone else.


Life teaches us that the less you have to bring to the party in terms of looks, charm, education, professional achievement, intelligence, worldly experience, famous relatives, and yes, of course, that ultimate game changer, money—the harder it will be for you to get to the top. That is, unless you’re a Mountaineer.

Though the world is neither fair nor democratic, those lacking any or all of the above assets will be happy to know that if you are mediocre-looking and lacking in special skills, you have an advantage when it comes to a career in climbing. Why? Because the more accomplished and attractive you are, the more likely it is you will be pegged as a social climber.

What separates the good social climber (that is, the invisible one) from the bad (i.e., the obvious) has nothing to do with how pushy, self-serving, or ruthless you are. It’s all about manners. And we will teach you tricks of etiquette that will make your climb seem as innocent and uncalculated as a child’s smile.

Proper etiquette for the social climber involves far more than just remembering to say please and thank you. Social climbing is a strategy for getting more out of life. As such, bluffs, feints, tactical retreats, flanking maneuvers, ambushes, forced marches, and yes, unfortunately, collateral damage to innocents are involved in victory.

If done correctly, it is not unlike cyber warfare. You are the virus, and the enemy—all those who have access to things you want who are not yet your new best friends—will have no idea they’re under attack until you have gained entrée and moved on to the next party.

But before we decide which stratagems will work best for you, let’s begin by asking ourselves a few personal questions:

What Are My Assets?

Not sure? Why don’t we start by removing our clothes (that includes underwear) and taking a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror.

If you don’t like what you see, remember: Penicillin started out as mold.

Would you describe yourself as less than gorgeous? Subhandsome? Are you overweight? Out of shape? Plagued by the heartbreak of psoriasis? Would you refuse to have sex with someone who resembled yourself?


We are not like all the other self-help books that tell you to love yourself just as you are, not as the world tells you you should be and then proceed to make you feel bad for not going to the gym, and/or for drinking alone, and/or for self-medicating with prescription drugs. We want you to appreciate your shortcomings as much as we do.

So now that you’re naked, we want you to repeat our Mantra for Upward Mobility. I CARE ENOUGH ABOUT ME NOT TO BELIEVE ANYTHING THEY SAY ABOUT ME IS TRUE IF I DON’T WANT IT TO BE. I WILL NOT BE JUDGED.

As you’re repeating your new mantra, here’s another thought that will cheer you up: One of the great things about social climbing is that being a beautiful person, either physically or spiritually, is not always an asset.

Particularly as you climb to the higher rungs of the ladder, you will discover that those worth getting to know—the megarich, the hugely powerful, what we like to call Whales—are extraordinary people but rarely extraordinarily physically attractive people.

If we were being mean we might say Microsoft’s Paul Allen has the look of a mortician and Bill Gates resembles a snail out of his shell; or suggest corporate raider Ron Perelman was the inspiration for SpongeBob’s snobby neighbor, Squidward. Our point is, if you check the Forbes 400, the top of the food chain isn’t pretty. Movie stars, supermodels, and rock stars may be better-looking, but they’re ugly in their own way. Human nature being what it is, people who are filthy rich and powerful and famous and less than beautiful want to surround themselves with people who will make them feel more attractive by comparison, i.e., you.

The privileged elite, the Mountaineers’ portals to a brighter future, are what we call Big Fish. Though we can be accused of mixing metaphors, you will soon discover that one can’t get close to the top of the mountain without learning how to recognize, hook, and filet Big Fish. Having spent their lives working and climbing to get where they are, Big Fish want friends they can count on to envy them, friends who will make them feel superior: friends like you.

Those readers whose assets do not include physical beauty should also know they have one huge advantage when it comes to social climbing. If you are clearly more attractive than the Big Fish, i.e., gorgeous/handsome, they will want to have sex with you. If you have sex with them, they will either be disappointed or, worse, fall for you and want to have sex with you again and again and again, thereby becoming possessive and limiting your ability to move on and seduce one of their richer and more powerful friends.

Now, stop chanting. Put your clothes back on, and let’s take a look in your closet.

As Coco Chanel said, dress as you wish to be perceived. First and foremost, social climbers should look like they belong . . .  anywhere. Unless, of course, it’s in your interest to look like you don’t belong, which is a more complex strategy that will be covered later. You want to fit in and at the same time set yourself apart just enough so that you’ll be remembered. Your outfit should tell a story—invite conversation, curiosity, and just enough envy to make people think you’re worthy of their friendship.

A large hat with a veil for women, or a fedora for men, pulled rakishly low over one eye, can make the difference between being remembered as the guest with the unfortunate nose and being recalled as the fun person in the chapeau.

As a rule of thumb, never be overdressed, for the simple reason that it will make it clear how hard you’re trying to be something you’re not. Those who actually belong to whatever social strata you’re trying to move up into won’t be trying hard. Which means no matter how hard you’re working at pretending to be someone other than yourself, it should appear at all times that you are just being yourself.

Of course, occasionally arriving in a ball gown or a tuxedo to a casual event can work wonders for you if you wear it in a way that implies you’re on your way to somewhere fancier, better, and more socially promising, which in turn will give your hosts, who more often than not are as socially ambitious as yourself, the false impression that you might have connections they can exploit to their advantage.

Here are some suggested fun looks for the social climber—looks that will make you seem worth getting to know at a glance but not strange. A word to the wise: You want your outfit to be a conversation starter, not a joke.

If you’re a Sikh, go with the turban and uncut hair, aka the kes, along with the other four Ks, the kanga (wooden comb), kara (steel or iron bracelet), kirpan (dagger), and the special sexy kachhera (underwear). Look what the Mormon Church’s magical briefs did for Mitt Romney. If you have a drop of Scottish blood in you, wear your kilt and sporran when flambéing the boulevard. Indonesian (or just look it), a blue blazer and a sarong is a worldly ice breaker. For those who are from the Arabian Gulf states, a word to the wise: Though a head scarf is dashing, a burka and full robes might get in the way of your dance floor fun, unless of course you’re the daughter of an Emirate emir and have a disco in your 747.

Whatever look you go for, stick with it—not having to waste time shopping or deciding what to wear will give you more time to work on your social life.

How to Sound Like a Somebody

The rules have changed since My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle had to learn how to talk fancy. The era when an accent could hinder your climb is fortunately behind us. Sounding as if you come from somewhere when you come from nowhere can be a plus. Texas twang, southern drawl, English, Australian, Pakistani, whatever, don’t lose it, go with it. It will make you seem more authentic. The one caveat to this rule, of course, is if your accent is “Jersey Shore”—in this case, if elocution lessons are not an option, the quickest way for you to get respect is to let your host or hostess know that your family is in organized crime.

In terms of presentation, one last piece of advice: A good social climber doesn’t look or smell nervous. If you belong, you don’t sweat. Now because you’re soon going to be stepping into situations where you don’t belong, carry a clean handkerchief and a good deodorant on your person at all times. Never forget: When a social climber steps into a room, he or she should smell like a breath of fresh air.


Telling people they look gorgeous when in fact they’re an eyesore or praising them for being wise when they have the intelligence of a cocker spaniel doesn’t make you a phony, it makes you a kind person.

The good social climber knows that the truth is often hurtful, cruel, and, most important, does not make you popular.

If you have qualms about telling the white lies, whoppers, exaggerations, and confabulations of fact and fiction that will not only make your climb go easier and faster but also make people like you more, consider this:

Both scientists and philosophers agree that no truth is absolute, all truths are subjective, and reality is a matter of perception. That is, what small minds might call a lie is not. Social climbers should think like legendary quantum physicist Hugh Everett, who said, among other things, that anything that can happen, does happen in some universe somewhere.

For example, say you’re a man who has been invited to a social function where you’re expected to wear a suit and tie and you have nothing in your closet except track suits, hoodies, and sweats. If you show up and admit to your host or hostess that you are dressed for a game of b-ball because you don’t own a suit, your chances of making a successful impression are far slimmer than if you arrive in your athletic gear and apologize for the way you are underdressed by explaining that you were just shooting hoops over at the Nets new arena in Brooklyn with Jay Z.

Could it be true? In a physicist’s theoretical parallel universe it could!

Does the white lie make you seem like the kind of person your host will want to show off to his even better-connected friends—most definitely!

The only question the social climber should ask when employing the physicists’ and philosophers’ creative approach to reality is simply—WILL I GET CAUGHT?

In this case, if your host is white and has a net worth under a hundred million dollars, the odds of his bumping into Jay Z and finding out you’re lying are longer than the odds of your being struck by a meteor while sitting on the couch watching the Nets play on television.


For the social climber, honesty is rarely the best policy.

You must always remember that those who have far more money, power, and access than you do will undoubtedly have been climbing for years and are far more experienced Mountaineers than you are. As such, they will have a built-in bullshit detector.

Simply saying everything and everybody is fabulous won’t make the Big Fish think you’re especially remarkable, especially if they’re French. The key to keeping your betters’ bullshit detector from going off and avoiding being written off as an obvious suck-up or straightforward sycophant requires three things: 1) patience, 2) planning, and 3) polishing reality, that is, a willingness to confabulate one or more small white lies that will make someone other than yourself look and feel good.

Here’s how it works: First demonstrate yourself to be a critical-thinking person of discerning taste by subtly putting down those you are sure the Big Fish thinks are either above or beneath him (this should be done in private to make sure that a third party doesn’t quote you and thus prevent you from becoming friends at a later date with those you have dissed to ingratiate yourself).

Having established a bond of shared disdain, retreat.

Whether you wait a week or an hour to sink your hook depends on your circumstances and the amount of alcohol and/or drugs the Big Fish has consumed. The important thing to remember is you should wait until the Big Fish is feeling good, happy, and relaxed, surrounded by friends. Then, at a suitable lull in the conversation, interject, “You know, Barbara (or whatever name your Big Fish goes by), the last time we talked you said the most brilliant thing about [art, the junk bond market, romance, parenting, whatever].”

Now even though the brilliant statement you just referred to was never made by Barbara, and even if she has in fact never made a brilliant statement in her life, when you proceed to attribute a brilliant statement to her that she never made, she, and everybody else, is going to be impressed.

Offer up a reworked truism of Oscar Wilde’s, plagiarize Fran Lebowitz, or paraphrase Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. For instance, if you were talking about art, you might want to endow the Big Fish with these words of wisdom. “Great art doesn’t idealize the real, it realizes the ideal.”

The Big Fish isn’t going to say, “I never said such a clever thing in my life.” He is going to smile, swallow it hook, line, and sinker, and take credit for the words of wisdom you invented for him.

More important for you, that Big Fish is immediately going to think two things: a) Sometimes I forget how smart I am, and b) you are an intelligent and discerning judge of character and must be invited back to remind him of other clever things he’s forgotten he said.


It is rare to encounter an individual who will think you are stupid for saying that he or she is the most intelligent person in the room, but such individuals do exist, particularly in the financial world; think of Bernie Madoff.

Social climbers do not improvise on reality—telling white lies that make other people feel good about themselves—because they don’t know the difference between fact and fiction. Social climbers are simply realists; they take the world as it is and try to change it by improving their own position in it. Take comfort in the fact that the twenty-first century is the golden age of misinformation. One only has to listen to Fox News to know there is no such thing as hard fact. Besides, you are lying for a good cause—you.

Men and women we admire, candidates for the highest office in the land, take liberties with reality every day. If former president George W. Bush can make up words like “misunderestimate,” if former secretary of state Hillary Clinton can tell a whopper about running from enemy gunfire at an airbase in Bosnia when she in fact was caught on video with a bunch of schoolgirls presenting her with bouquets, if Mitt Romney can quote imaginary statistics to support an economic plan designed to make him and his Big Fish friends richer and you poorer, why shouldn’t hardworking social climbers be allowed to take a few liberties in advancing themselves?

Not just to pick on politicians, what about all the actors and actresses who swear they never had a face-lift but have fewer wrinkles at fifty than they did at twenty-five? Like margarines that insist they taste just like butter, people, especially professional personalities who market themselves as a brand, are rarely all they claim to be. And why should they be? False advertising is a great American tradition.

Though you are still several steps away from beginning your ascent in public, it’s important for you to have a practical understanding of how your ability to improvise and improve your backstory can be helpful.

Imagine you’re at a party. It’s in a mansion in Beverly Hills and Adam Levine and David Bowie have just sung an impromptu duet. Uniformed waiters pass hors d’oeuvres, silver trays laden with bite-size delectables—truffled quail eggs, crab tostadas, baby potatoes overflowing with Beluga caviar; this is the kind of party you’ll be going to three or four evenings a week if you master the lessons of this book.

Now imagine you find yourself on the edge of a group of people whom you don’t know but recognize as being more prosperous, connected, and attractive than yourself. What’s more, they are enjoying drawing attention to the social gulf between your life and theirs by nattering on about, say, what a fantastic time they all had on their various safaris in Africa. As they compare the amenities offered by Abercrombie & Kent versus those provided by Eco Tours Unlimited, you, having never set foot in Africa, feel understandably left out. If you have always wanted to go on safari but can’t afford a ticket to Buffalo, much less Nairobi, you’re going to feel doubly left out.

If you interject yourself into this conversation with the truth and say, “Gee, I always wanted to go to Africa, but I can’t afford it,” you will not only succeed in making the group feel guilty for being richer and more worldly than you, you will also make yourself feel like even more of an outsider. However, if you volunteer a vague “Africa has always been a magical place for me,” the group will assume not only that you have been to Africa, but that you might have had a more spiritual experience there than they were able to purchase. Suddenly, you will belong. It will be a wonderful feeling, like Christmas and Chanukah combined but better.

If someone asks for the details of this trip you never made, what safari company you booked or which hotel you stayed in, answer honestly, “I don’t remember.” Then quickly and convincingly add, “I was only seven when my grandmother took me on safari.” Having a grandmother who takes you on safari as a child will not only give your act provenance, it will also give you the kind of exotic patina of a privileged past that’s invaluable to the climber. Plus, if people can’t place you, they can’t put you down.

If people in the group have known you for several months, do not worry about their wondering why you never mentioned this nonexistent globe-trotting granny before. They will simply assume that you remained silent on the subject of Africa and your granny for so long because you, unlike them, are not a show-off.

Whether you want to merely stretch the truth when you begin your adventures in Mountaineering or confabulate a whole new you is something every social climber has to decide for themselves. But if you are going to invent more than one or two fictional relatives to make yourself more interesting to strangers, it’s best to write down their names and keep a record of what you claim to have done with them over the years.

A word of caution regarding reinvention. Claiming to have gone to Harvard when you in fact flunked out of community college is asking for trouble in the age of the Internet. Likewise, claiming to be a Rockefeller is risky. Besides the fact that the last two people who tried it are currently serving time, even if you legally change your name, avoid running into a real Rockefeller, and stay on the right side of the law, you will be expected to pick up the tab and be inundated with business proposals and requests for loans that you will be unable to refuse without seeming cheap.

How to Name-Drop the Dead

One of the safest ways to make it seem that you’ve lived a far more exciting life than you have is to casually claim friendship with a genuinely famous, rich, and or/powerful person who is no longer alive.

Offhandedly mention any of the following and people will treat you differently:

“Leonard Bernstein taught me to play ‘Chopsticks.’”

“When my mom dated Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin used to babysit for me.”

“David Foster Wallace and I roomed together at the psychiatric hospital.”

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