Staying out of prison? Odd but good advice

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

Clayton Christensen, the Harvard innovation expert, wrote an insightful speech a few years ago titled ‘How will you measure your life?’

Christensen, with unique perspective and a strong business mind, prompts his Harvard Business School (HBS) students with three questions: First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?

This last question, he says, is far from flippant. ‘Two of the 32 people in my Rhodes scholar class,’ he notes, ‘spent time in jail. Jeff Skilling of Enron fame was a classmate of mine at HBS. These were good guys—but something in their lives sent them off in the wrong direction.’

It’s not hard to see people of iron will and heroic achievement – the Lance Armstrongs, David Petraeus’ or Tiger Woods’ of the world – possessing obvious flaws in their character. In their own lives, too, young Australians will notice people who, even though having fine attributes and sound achievements, run into similar bother.

A path to jail is less obvious than committing a crime – it simply starts with bad choices, which is something everyone is capable of regardless of their station in life. I can recall multiple times where young professionals have come to me asking if they should do something that they know isn’t right. This usually involves a superior asking them to do something that isn’t illegal but ethically questionable. Regardless, I always think of Christensen’s advice and the fate of Enron’s Jeff Skilling.

Cutting corners in the short-term spells long-run misfortune. Christensen, for example, talks about ‘marginal costs’ – an economic term for looking at the cost of alternative decisions. ‘The marginal cost of doing something wrong “just this once” always seems alluringly low. It suckers you in, and you don’t ever look at where that path ultimately is headed and at the full costs that the choice entails.’

So how do we avoid bad choices? It starts with the combination of vigilance and principles. Christensen, who has been religious for most of his life, gives the example of not playing basketball on Sundays. When he first said ‘no’ his Oxford teammates and coach were understandably both angry and confused. But had he said yes, or simply gave in just that once, it would’ve set a precedent. ‘Had I crossed the line that one time,’ he says, ‘I would have done it over and over in the years that followed.’

Another couple of similar examples I enjoy are from the professional life of black American economist Thomas Sowell. Sowell, who didn’t exactly have a successful start in life, emerged as a prominent American economist in the 1970s. Twice he turned down great professional opportunities, at consequential times in his career, because they were based on skin colour over merit.

The first is when a young Sowell, just after completing military service, was overlooked for a job as a photographer in the National Security Agency. Sowell, after discovering that the job strangely became ‘closed’ after the Agency learned he was black, notifies his Congressman. Surprisingly, not long after, he’s asked to come in for a full tour and is offered the job on the spot (a job that, mysteriously, has re-emerged). When Sowell attempts to give the interviewer samples of his work he’s told that he doesn’t need to – the job is his. ‘No, thank you,’ Sowell replied. ‘I don’t want it that way.’

The second example is where Sowell, much later in his career, was offered a place on the editorial review board of the American Economic Review – perhaps the most prestigious economic journal in the world – by Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow. But, when discovering that the offer is based on efforts to ‘racially diversify the membership of the board’, Sowell declines.

Avoiding bad choices doesn’t always require a laser like focus on principles but can also be found in simply doing the basic things right. There’s one statistic from the United States that speaks volumes about making simple life choices to stay out of trouble. According to an astonishing study by the Brookings Institution you are almost certain to avoid poverty if you: finish school, get a full-time job and wait until age twenty-one before getting married and having children.

‘You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for,’ says Christensen, ‘and draw the line in a safe place.’ Early in your career do your absolute best to say no to unethical behaviour and bad decisions, regardless of how minor – I’m certain you’ll thank yourself in the long-run. This will not only help refine your principles and make good choices but, as strange as it may sound, stay out of jail.