CASTINE, MAINE — I'm fascinated by "The Apprentice," NBC's prime-time reality show starring Donald Trump, 16 aspiring entrepreneurs, and various New Yorkers. However, my subtitle for the show is, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to be a Mensch." In other words, I'm fascinated by its premise, and promise.
Were I a participant, The Donald would have fired me on the first show. It wouldn't be personal - it's just business, after all. And it's not that I'd necessarily be bad at business. I, too, sold lemonade as a kid, and I know about location and moving the product. You gotta break some eggs to make lemonade ... or something like that. I even think I could negotiate a low price for icky squid, golf clubs, and leg waxing, as the apprentices did in show No. 3 - all valuable contributions to the GMP (Gross Media Product).
And it's not that I lack leadership qualities, unless that means merely playing to win, stiffing the competition, and keeping my eyes on the prize earned buying low, selling high. The mensch in me wants assurance of a service-to-humanity component in my work. But that's not leadership, or is it?
So I would be fired for my definition of the bottom line: making a good return on investment in a way that also enhances the profession and the community.
And I'm pretty sure that lots of enlightened contemporary entrepreneurs share my definition of profit motive.
I'm surprised The Donald doesn't see the potential for an innovative deal in the making, rather than recycling prime-time charades and scavenger hunts for the sake of expanding the Trump brand.
For instance, let's not confuse "The Apprentice" with real mentoring, as the title implies, or real leadership. This is not Bill Moyers's Journal, after all. It's infotainment: The Art of the Deal meets "Fear Factor." It relies on good old American fascination with celebrities, luck, money, and suckers.
As a society, we're known for indulging our plutographic tendencies in prime time. We like to see the high-profile rich - our royalty? - living large. We like to see their things, their hangouts. No wonder winning apprentices get to glimpse Trump's crib and ride on his private plane! That's Gatsby-esque, media bling-bling.
More poignantly, we're moved by the proximity and touch of celebrities. Last week, when Sam, boss of the day, got a handshake from Trump, I got the impression he would never wash that hand again. He had won something merely by this fleeting brush with greatness - even though he was fired at the end of the show.
And we Americans love our winner-take-all competitions. Nothing says entertainment like ending each episode with both a lucky winner, and a goat who exits the field of battle vowing a comeback. "You haven't heard the last of me, Mr. Trump. Wait 'til I own my first building."
But I'm hung up on the show's undeveloped promise.
With such a large audience, it's an opportunity for some unique mentoring from Trump's business acumen and street smarts. However, we get only empty calories. Lose the bling-bling - I want a thoughtful "toolbox" from the (self-anointed) master builder.
So before I take the elevator back down to the street, here's my pitch: Teach us about creativity, teamwork, and a deeper sense of social profit by assigning tasks that leverage a surprise bottom line - say, making money while also providing quality healthcare, profit sharing, and flextime for employees.
How about creating an enterprise zone in a neighborhood where people need jobs? What if the Big Apple's star real estate mogul sent his minions down to street level to solve a housing problem for a few homeless families? Or get kids hooked up with junior achievement clubs, instead of negotiating a bargain price for an ounce of gold.
I know, I've got this ethical baggage - I think business should be about making good things happen for everyone. And if that gets me a ride on the down elevator, so be it. I guess I want to leverage all the wrong things. Or are they the right things, at an inconvenient time - prime time?
Give me a call, Donald, when it's time to get fired up. It's an entrepreneurial idea, don't you think? Making a prime-time show based on business doing good? We could call it, "The Art of the Social Capitalist," or just "The Mensch." Who says there are no second acts in American life?
• Todd R. Nelson is an associate editor of Hope magazine.