In our personal and professional worlds, we are constantly surrounded by smart and successful individuals and some not so much. But have you ever wondered why so many of these people can do such dumb things?
How in the world did Tom Coughlin, Kenneth Lay, and Bernie Madoff, to name but a few, all at the top of their games, do what they did?
Well, I happen to have the answer.
My story isn't much different from theirs, as I managed to turn a very successful career as a financial planner, stockbroker, and entrepreneur into something far different. In fact, through a series of poor decisions, I ended up becoming an international fugitive, was incarcerated in a Central American country, and served several years in U.S. prisons.
As you can imagine, I paid a very dear price to get that answer, including losing my family, freedom, country, and assets. But now I'm going to share it with you for free.
This research helped me tremendously in my own life to recognize the thinking patterns myself and so many others have been guilty of indulging.
Why Am I Sharing This Experience With You?
Upon release from prison, in addition to my obligation of serving three-and-a-half years on probation, I had 208 hours of community service to fulfill. To satisfy that obligation, my choices were working out on the highway picking up garbage (and trying not to get run over) or giving talks. The obvious pick was giving talks.
Why should the reader be interested in this? Because in our busy lives, we are all subjected to thousands of decisions each and every day, and it's next to impossible to devote the necessary brainpower to evaluating and processing each of those decisions.
When I went to prison I was scared...by the way, not an uncommon feeling there. I knew exactly what I did that landed me in there—32 federal felony counts of bribery, conspiracy, and money laundering—but I didn't know why I did what I did. I didn't need the money or the perceived power or prestige, so what on earth was I thinking?
With three out of four men released from prison today going back within three years, I knew I'd better figure out why it happened because I definitely did not want to be one of those returnees nor did I really want to be there in the first place.
Well, what better place to do research on the subject of poor decision-making than prison? Everybody in there had at least one thing in common—we broke the law.
It became my mission to talk with as many fellow inmates as I could over the next several years, trying to discover if there were common thinking errors that we were all guilty of violating. Over the course of thousands of these conversations, the same glaring thinking errors became apparent time and again.
From all walks of life, all types of crime...everything from wire fraud to murder...different socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels, it didn't seem to matter; it was always the same erroneous mind sets and decision-making errors.
I have separated these thinking errors into what I now maintain are the eight critical thinking errors that underpin all unethical behavior.
As I unfold these eight errors, don't be afraid if your face flashes in your mind. We all stick our toes in these waters. I just happened to hit all eight at once.
In fact, many times these thinking errors are "disguised" as something else and hard to detect. Or they try to seduce us by the promises of riches or easy money.
Let's start with the queen mother of all critical thinking errors.
Critical Thinking Error #1: Entitlement
What is entitlement? That sense that we are better than everybody else, or we've earned the right to [fill in the blank]. Why? Because we are all that and more; the world owes it to us. We calibrate at a higher level than everyone else.
Anyone with teenagers at home can appreciate the identification of this error. "Hey Dad, give me some money, my friends are waiting and I have to go." Or, relating to downloading music and not paying for it, "If it's on the Internet and accessible, than I can do whatever I want with it."
My sense of entitlement really started in college when I discovered that my fraternity brothers seemed to have more "things" than I did, plus they had it easier and didn't have to work for tuition and book money.
Don't we all consciously or subconsciously compare how we're doing in life to our peer group? If they have more things than we do, it makes us feel uncomfortable. But if we lead the pack in material accumulations, our self-perception can be very strong.
Critical Thinking Error #2: Super Optimism
What is super optimism? It's ego. A sense that we are invulnerable, incapable of failure, faster, stronger, smarter than others. There is no downside to what we do. If we get ourselves in trouble, we can always get ourselves back out of trouble. Always have, always will.
Super optimism carried me into the financial services profession, a career I truly loved. You can help people achieve their goals and aspirations and be compensated for it. Perfect. I love helping people. It was super optimism that got me over the hurdle of not having a college degree, yet managing to get hired into a firm that required that degree.
You can combine the first two thinking errors, entitlement and super optimism, into one snappy word called "arrogance."
I was arrogant. I enjoyed success at an early age, made great money, built a financial-planning practice, and seemed to be pulling ahead (monetarily) of my peer group...heady stuff.
There's an additional acronym that we can plug in here called PIG, which stands for personal instant gratification. Do we live in an instant gratification society? It seems like we all want it and we want it now, yesterday would be even better.
When we are programed for instant gratification, we are moving at such a rapid rate that it's very difficult to take pause and actually ponder something. No way, it's full-speed ahead, let's go get it. Besides, I'm entitled to it.
The slide down the slippery slope of unethical behavior most times does not start with a giant leap over the edge. It almost always starts with a seemingly inconsequential decision that we don't think much about. Maybe we're rushed with kids, school, work, relationships demanding our attention and pulling us in many directions at once. Or, it can be a seemingly urgent decision where we're in a hurry, short on time, pressured by colleagues and friends to do it now!
In those snap decisions, sometimes our emotions highjack our logic, then it's all hands on deck for the cleanup afterward.