When people read broadly (including the fine print), I heard a wise man say, they received an education. When they didn’t, they received experience instead.
Reading the “fine print” required skills that I didn’t have after college or early in my career. Such skills would have endowed me with the ability to learn from reading more than sentences and paragraphs; I also could learn from reading others people’s experiences. Being ignorant of such wisdom, I pushed through my career in search of immediate success and without regard for the development of my ethical core. The end was all that was important, and I convinced myself that it would justify the means. If others encountered troubles along their journey, I smugly dismissed them, certain such problems couldn’t possibly afflict my career or my life.
That sense of entitlement I had after graduating from USC blocked my insight into the reality that every decision I made would stay with me throughout my career. To a larger extent, decisions would stay with me throughout my life. A sense of entitlement was a form of arrogance, a weakness. At 25 I felt entitled to oversee hundreds of millions as a stockbroker; at 27 I felt entitled to my country club memberships; at 28 I felt entitled to flash Rolex watches, to sport designer suits, to drive high-end BMW sedans.
What did that sense of entitlement get me? It brought the experience of disgrace. It brought the experience of costs that exceeded a million dollars. It brought the experience of a prison term and other consequences that would last a lifetime.
By reading messages that came with the fine print of life, I would have had a better education. I may even have understood enough to pursue lasting values rather than fleeting possessions or outer possessions. Aristotle wrote that dignity did not come through possessions or positions but in deserving them. Such wisdom was beyond my grasp before, but the hard lessons of experience have convinced me that the only real value in life came through the pursuit of virtues such as truth, honesty, integrity, leadership, courage, fairness, transparency, humility, and service to others.
My misguided sense of entitlement deluded me. Because of it, I couldn’t grasp that virtues were nothing more than static platitudes when not actively and consciously pursued. To internalize virtues, or to espouse them as personal values, I’ve since learned, a person had to make commitments and deliberate choices every day. In so doing, the values became a tool, a compass that would guide all decisions.
My life may have no longer included the glitter, but as I took the daily steps—pursuing ethics in motion—I had a deeper sense of internal success and rightness with the world than any possession could provide. Such a pursuit ensured not only the avoidance of experiences that once derailed my life, but it also kept me on the path to becoming a man of good character. Perhaps it would one day make me worthy of the second chance society has so generously bestowed upon me.
To become a man of good character, I’ve learned that I didn’t need to find better values. All I needed was to live faithfully to the values I professed. That was a constant theme I heard through my work with others who were on their way to steel cages and strip searches. We all could express the virtues, but some of us were a bit too ready to attribute those virtues to ourselves. Rather than acting in ways that were consistent with concepts of truth, humility, compassion, leadership, fairness, and so forth, we made decisions in accordance with what we thought we could get away with. And a wicked sense of entitlement sometimes deceived us into believing that we could get away with much more than turned out to be the case.
The truth that I have learned was that although I could not undo the decisions of my past, I could always work to become better. Some would listen to what I had to share, enhancing their education. Others would tune out, as I once did; my hopes were that their reluctance to listen would not lead to bad experiences of their own.
Without exception, every person profiled in the previous pages understood the difference between right and wrong. Some of them even scored highly on corporate ethics evaluations. Yet as I wrote earlier—and as they discovered—it wasn’t enough to know the path to an ethical life. A person had to walk that path every day, with every decision. Instead of calculating or plotting decisions based on whether they would deliver immediate success, the wise person understood that true success, lasting success, came when all decisions flowed in harmony with values professed. Such truisms applied not only to our careers, but also to our lives.
People who relied upon their professed values to guide all decisions immunized themselves from the struggles that plagued those of us who were trapped in the criminal justice system. From personal experience, I knew that the struggles did not end with the service of a prison term.
In many ways, prison was the easiest part of the sanction. It was clearly defined, with a beginning and an end. The real challenge was in living with the consequences of a sullied reputation. That was lifelong. Once reputation had been lost, doing good works or making contributions to society would always be diminished by the blemishes of an indelible disgrace.
In my case, I was branded as “the felon.” My prison term may have been complete, but I still had to live under the supervision of a probation officer. I could not travel without permission; I could not spend money I earned without authorization; and I would never escape the stigma of my past. Even when my term of supervised release concluded, I would bear the continuing shame of having to explain my criminal history to those with whom I opened personal or professional relationships. Whereas my parents once glowed with pride when they introduced me as their son the baseball player, the successful stockbroker, the USC graduate, now I stood humiliated as they defended me, explaining why I was still a good son, deserving of a second chance.
A peculiar indignity came with having to ask for second chances. This book has been part of my ongoing effort to educate students and business executives so they never had to make such requests. By reading about the experiences that other white-collar offenders and I endured, more people may grasp the importance of making values-based decisions.