Influential U CEO calls BS on Showtime series Billions’ take on being ‘transactional’

As a teacher of Transactional Competence, I am used to hearing the term “transactional” misused and abused. However, a recent rash of scenes on the Showtime series BILLIONS has finally brought me out from behind the velvet rope of my business to call B.S. on the show’s bastardization of something we all do every day—transact. Humankind exchanges to survive. No one is immune.

The Season 6 cast of Billions, on Showtime

Says bad players are to blame and Transactional Competence is the cure

The time is long overdue to take the tarnish off “being transactional” and instead start calling out the bad players, gamers, and fraudsters who give it a bad name. We all know who we’re talking about without even mentioning names because they are the ones most often mislabeled as “transactional,” when what they actually are is unethical.

In a scene in season 6, episode 5, performance coach Wendy Rhoades kneels before her pay-to-play guru and places a pint of ice cream on the floor between them.

Master:           What’s that?

Wendy:           Vegan ice cream—a gift for you

Master:           No! What’s that?

Wendy:           A gift for you, as I said, it’s ice cream, I made it myself.

Master:           For what purpose?

Wendy:           For… to … (stumbling)

Master:           To curry favor. The very sweetness of the cream, bittered this way, does not buy friendship or comfort.

Wendy:           Where I come from everything is a transaction.

Master:           Where you’re going, your commitment to the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, the goal is to avoid being transactional at all. Can you do this? Will you try?

Wendy:           I’ll start with a month. Go from there.

Master:           Start with a day.

Wendy:           When I decide something …

Master:           Start with an hour, even a minute, then add a minute onto that one. That’s the work. We’ll meet again in four days…see how it’s going.

Wendy:           You’re not sure I can refrain from transacting for four days?

Master:           Whether I’m sure matters not at all.

Wendy:           Well, I am! I’m sure.

I’m very doubtful.

I already know Wendy will lose the challenge, not because I doubt the character’s resolve, but because to live is to transact. The script vilifies transactions when, in fact, it is all you and I ever do. If you turned on the electricity, ate food, or wore clothes today, you’re transacting. If you’re employed in exchange for income, you’re transacting. If you own a business, start-up, or consult, you’re transacting. If you have children or a life partner, you’re transacting. The master-apprentice relationship portrayed in this script is itself a transaction.

“Human life,” asserts John Dewey, “depends on transactions with other human beings, non-human beings, and things acting together in order to survive. From birth to death and beyond our lifetimes, we are all part of, and are constitutive participants in, an extensive body of transactions on which life itself depends.” 

John Dewey, American Philosopher and Educator, The Pattern of Inquiry

How did “transaction” become such a tainted word?

How did transactions become synonymous with heartless quid-pro-quo? In the news, television, and motion pictures, “transactional” is often used to denote behavior devoid of care or ethics. Worse, transacting for one’s aims is often portrayed as dirty, opportunistic, and unclean. Shows like Billions (Showtime) and Succession (HBO) make entertainment out of overachieving bad players; those who make sport of gaming others for their benefit. 

Bad players, who have devolved exchange into manipulative one-upmanship, have made lying, cheating, and stealing commonplace. We’ve each grown warier of the crooked and the opportunistic. Many turn to strategies to finagle the system or cheat one another without a highly valued business built for ethical and conscious monetary gain (Patagonia, 3M Company, Accenture).

Nowadays, to label someone “transactional” is to demean them as heartless—only concerned with economic activity. When we now refer to transactional behavior, we mean that one’s manners lacked all the best bits of humanity and only showed monetary self-interest. We put lawyers, politicians, hedge-fund managers, and national leaders into this category. We expect to be duped. While most who enter public service do so for altruism, when does it turn self-serving?

We are always transacting and can’t avoid it. Why the pretense?

Altruism is a core aspect of various religious and secular worldviews. Most view altruism as a practice of attention on the happiness of others, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual. However, these spiritual quests are themselves an exchange for everlasting life or a Zen-like existence (almost always a self-awareness journey to bring peace and mindfulness to an anxious mind or a worried soul).

I know the Billions’ story simply attempts to bring a behavioral challenge to Wendy Rhodes. Still, the script uses transaction or transactional to demean any exchange to obtain one’s aims. It is meant to categorize economic activity as selfish, and assumes a fantasy realm of actions that are true, pure, or only in service of the greater good. Even the goal of Buddhism is to become enlightened and reach nirvana; each rebirth is a reward for good behavior in the previous life.

Is there any exchange not done to obtain one’s aims?

To live, breath, and eat is to transact. My issue with how transaction and transactional are often represented in Hollywood and Washington is that the word has become synonymous with bad, greedy, or selfish behavior. Those in sales, whose job is to get contracts, now fear selling or asking for the business as if this is now an evil act. Retailers and restaurateurs must pretend to help you with whatever you need; their aims be damned. We show up for work, give speeches, write blogs, or post on social, all in hopes that the transaction moves our way.

When did society begin pretending that we are acting for some other purpose than to transact for our needs?

Blame those who cheat the game. Bad players compel us to pretend that we are merely altruistic creatures working to ensure others thrive. This very notion seems a dishonest pretense. We sometimes observe the facade of altruism in mega-churches, self-help seminars, and charismatic gurus; in exchange for your money, you obtain salvation, enlightenment, or inner peace. Devotees usually tithe, even in years when their finances are very tight. Politicians will promise you anything to get votes resulting in vast swaths of the electorate voting against their own interest. We’ve allowed this to happen—to let bad actors misbehave.

Biologically, altruism is when an individual organism performs an action at a cost to themselves (e.g., pleasure and quality of life, time, probability of survival or reproduction), but benefits, either directly or indirectly, another individual, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for that action. Much debate exists as to whether “true” altruism exists at all, particularly in human psychology. The theory of psychological egoism suggests that no act of sharing, helping, or sacrificing can be described as truly altruistic, as the actor may receive an intrinsic reward in the form of personal gratification.

A vicious cycle

When we fear people might see us as transactional, we pretend we’re doing business for other reasons; to help, for their good, out of love or care, etc. We pretend this while we hope and pray that they accept our invitations, offers, and requests that will benefit us. We pretend this while we hope our care is enough. Then, we pretend we’re not pretending—hence the Billions scene.

This pretense perpetuates a lie and two fundamental fears. The lie: while pretending otherwise, we are transacting for our aims, nothing more and nothing less. The fear: 1. We fear being conned and worse, 2. we fear appearing like a con man. So, we pretend we’re not transacting to avoid the label—and retain our good name in our tribe. Does this make us one of the bad players? We are absolutely complicit.

This cycle creates an environment in which transacting is given a veneer of virtue when done for so-called altruistic reasons. Once we add money to the equation, virtue and values are questioned. Since we all need money to survive, is there a better way to transact? The answer is hell yes!

True Transactionalism is a better way to do business

When we make our aims known, our transactions are honest, straightforward, and faster. 

So, what is a true transaction anyway? It is a series of reciprocal exchanges that benefit all involved, which means that “across or through action,” we engage one another in a mutual transformation.

“To transact is to engage in a relational process; to become new—together, to evolve purpose and increase value through novel association. By transcending subject and object … we grow together.” 

Matt Segal, American Philosopher and Educator, Process Philosophy & Transactionalism

When you and I exchange ethically, it alters both of us for the better. We are both reciprocally transformed. True transaction is symbiotic collaboration, not unethical opportunism. Nevertheless, academics traditionally separate philosophy from economics to not sully the subject with something so objective.

Without a complete and accurate understanding of what it means to truly transact, it is easy to associate the term transactional with a cold, callous kind of tit-for-tat exchange when discussing it in relation to other disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, politics, sociology, religion, or any other. In an interview, Fredrick Barth, a renowned social anthropologist, was asked what he “…thought of this phrase ‘transactionalism.’ ” He replied:

I’ve always heard these objections, that it’s so instrumental, and it’s so opportunistic, and it’s so immoral to have that kind of image of mankind. And that wasn’t my point. My point was that [human beings] see reciprocities, and that’s sort of a mild term, but it’s a fuzzier way of saying the same thing. And I think that most of our basic relationships, all of our basic relationships, are social relations that are built around mutual transactions. And there’s no way you can escape it, because unless you look to the accounting of it your social and economic assets will be dissipated. So you have to face it, there’s nothing immoral about it, it’s not trying to make the most out of your grip on others. It’s trying, on the contrary, to create a satisfactory life, a rich mutual life together.

I used to pretend selflessness. Now we both thrive.

I, too, used to pretend I wasn’t engaged in relationships, business dealings, or educating on behalf of my aims. I was trained, taught, and spoke as if I was only “for others” and habitually disrespected my own time, value, prices, and more. I would lead entire conferences hoping to upsell programs, only talking about what is in it for them. I’m still “for others”; however, now, I make my time, intentions, value, and prices known. I make sure people know why I’m transacting. I make it known what action would satisfy my aims. Fast forward, same conferences, but now you’re going to always know what I want in the exchange. You’re always going to know that we are BOTH in this transaction.

The results are exceptional. I’m freer, wealthier, and more satisfied than I could have ever imagined. I make a massive difference in the lives of the business professionals we teach and left the wake of thousands who now experience the same satisfaction in their transactions.

Together, we have a rich mutual life together.

Are you looking out for the good of others while transacting to achieve your aims, or are you like the characters in Billions

What is your transactional truth?


John D. Patterson is the CEO of Influence Ecology and senior Faculty Manager of Influential U. He is co-creator of a next-generation business curriculum and since 2009 has taught thousands of business professionals the philosophy and practice of Transactional Competence™, a set of core competitive skills not taught in business school. LinkedIn


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