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I received a note the other day from a friend in Los Angeles. He’d just finished reading The Old Money Book and wanted a few print copies for friends and family. (Please note: the hard copy version of the book will be out this fall. Thank you all for your interest.)
Living on the beach in Malibu, he’d never consider himself Old Money even though his family’s been neck-deep in the entertainment industry for generations. He deals in pop culture, a place where last week is ancient history and everyone is constantly on the prowl for that Next Big Thing, be it an actor, screenplay, song or trend.
He rarely gives in to philosophizing about anything. Still, he couldn’t resist offering his own pearl of wisdom. It was given to him by his father, who, after listening to a long-winded justification of why his teenage son had done something he shouldn’t have, replied, “Why don’t you live your life so you don’t have to explain anything?”
The rhetorical question stuck. My friend decided he’d make choices that were self-evident: clear, unambiguous reflections of his values that required no justifications, explanations, or elaborate defenses. He noted that his grandfather had done business with Frank Sinatra, who, when asked why he didn’t object to some things that had been written about him in the press, said, “Never complain. Never explain.”
But I think this code of behavior goes beyond that. If we consistently make choices that can stand on their own in the light of day, that require no qualifying asterisk, that we don’t have to justify to ourselves or anyone else, then we’re probably acting with integrity. It’s not that we aren’t able to articulate our thinking or motivations behind our behavior, it’s simply that, most of time, our actions are self-evident. They represent our values, our priorities, and our character.
We should aspire to act as if we couldn’t speak. To let our deeds shout our beliefs from the mountain top, so that, when we do speak, we only have to whisper to be heard.
I have several friends–OMG’s all–who work in the financial sector, most managing portfolios of established families and high net worth individuals. Once a year, usually at the end of the summer, they try to get together, soak up some shade (they’re a shockingly pale bunch, for some reason) and commiserate about the state of the global affairs as it relates to preserving and growing their clients’ money.
They don’t pretend it’s a noble endeavor: they’d be out on the sidewalk in a heartbeat if they didn’t make their clients a respectable return on investment. They do, however, share a sense of sadness at the lack of ethics that seems to pervade their industry, and society as a whole.
On an almost daily basis, they are privy to insider information, which, if acted upon, could result in enormous profits for them, their clients, or their friends. None of these professionals even considered taking advantage of this information, unlike many of their colleagues. When this topic was discussed, the legality of the issue was never raised. Obviously, heavy financial penalties and even prison time loom large for such risks, as we’ve all seen with the recent Wall Street scandals.
Less egregious, but still not wholly above-board practices were discussed, which, though technically legal, were dismissed out of hand by the group.
The word ethics was never mentioned. Euphemisms seemed to drape the concept like a worn but sturdy canvas that might protect a pristine, vintage automobile: “not an option”, “wouldn’t consider that,” and the familiar reference to a “slippery slope”. Shakes of the head and shrugs of the shoulders dismissed behavior that others might engage in, like dust being brushed off that same sturdy old canvas. They would have no part of it.
In this regard, they were truly above the law: their conduct did not simply hobble inches above what was legal; it soared in the realm of what was best, what was proper, and what was right.
There was surely a fatigue that accompanies such a lonely choice, but they wear it well. Worry and regret, familiar handmaidens of ill-gotten gains, would be foreign concepts to this circle of friends.
They would live by their unwritten code and be just fine.