Stupidity Recorded for Eternity

Noted journalist Glenn Greenwald recently tweeted:

Now that every stupid, offensive, transgressive comment of young people are recorded on the internet, need standards for how long they count.

He added:

Most who are 36 would be horrified by things they said at 19. This is the 1st generation where youthful stupidity is recorded for eternity.

This is the world in which you’re entering, Vera.

Mine was a gentler, more forgiving world. About the only thing that seemed to live for eternity was some inane comment we may have scribbled in a classmate’s yearbook. And let’s face it, unless you were to become rich and famous, it’s unlikely those comments would see the light of day. And even if they did, they were unlikely to be as toxic as many of the things youth post today on the Internet.

The standards for dialogue have dropped and dragged our youth with them. I can’t believe some of the things people will write about their professors, coaches, fellow classmates and others. All sense of decorum seems to have flown out the window.

But you don’t have to participate. You don’t have to share things with the public that may end up haunting you for the rest of your life. You can be more discriminating. You have a choice.

I get the problem, of course: a teenager or someone in their early 20s may lack the experience and judgment to make sound decisions when it comes to matters such as this. That’s true, which is why one should err on the side of discretion. And not sharing.

Let someone else embarrass themselves. Let someone else establish a reputation as a fool or idiot. Just don’t let it be you.

This may seem like odd advice from someone who shares with the public his writings to you. Note, however, I’m in the late stages of my life, not the early ones. There is less at risk. Moreover, despite the degree to which I do share, there is an awful lot I don’t.

The litmus tests for me are:

  • Would it unnecessarily hurt someone?
  • Would the information cause a loved one to feel responsible in a way that I don’t think is helpful to anyone?
  • Would it be gratuitous and serve no useful purpose?
  • Is my opinion well grounded, or is it something I’m basically pulling out of my ass?

Certain things are appropriate for my journal, not my blog. And still other things may be appropriate only for my inner thoughts, never to be shared with anyone.

One very practical thing to remember is that prospective employers and colleges routinely check applicants’ “digital footprints” — that is, what the applicants reveal about themselves to the world on the Internet.

Some of us leave a very large footprint. And that footprint frequently ends up being the reason for a rejection by a prospective employer, client or institution.

Some may say they don’t care. That’s fine. But, at a young age, are you really in position to make such a decision? Is it that essential to share things that are likely to limit your future options?

In some cases, it might be. But it is obvious to me that in quite a few cases it’s merely a product of bad decision-making. Or of thinking your opinion matters more to the world than it actually does. Most of the time, no one else really cares, and our opinions are pretty irrelevant.

In any case, remember that all of us will say or do something stupid in our lives. More than once. If we’re lucky, and smart, evidence of that stupidity will not live forever on the web.

So, You’re Going To Be a Doctor

Vera, a couple of weeks ago your grandmother and I looked after you when you parents had some business to attend to. You were interested in the protective guard I was wearing on my left arm, the one a surgeon had recently cut open to install a plate and screws. I removed the guard so you could see the incision, which by now had had the sutures removed. You were quite curious and not the least bit scared or queasy about it. You touched the site of the incision, now closed and in the process of healing further.

Because of your surprising interest, I then showed you my shoulder, where a different surgeon had repaired fractures with even more hardware, requiring an even longer incision. The incision isn’t pretty (actually, it’s considerably worse looking than the arm), but, again, you had a curiosity that was compelling. You asked if you could touch it. I said, yes, wondering what was going through your mind.

I then remarked that, given your interest, perhaps you should become a doctor. I asked you if you wanted to be a doctor when you grew up. Without hesitation, you said, Yes! I said you’d have to share your new career plans with your parents when they returned home.

Quite a while later, we heard the garage door. When the door to the kitchen opened, you took off to enthusiastically greet your parents as you always do. It was then I heard you tell them: “I’m going to be a doctor!”

I feel I should receive a fee for this career counseling. You and your parents have avoided hours if not years of struggling to find your chosen career. At 27 months, you already have yours in hand, thanks to me!

I realize, of course, that it’s possible you will change your mind. I also realize there is no way a 27-month-old could understand what the job entailed. Or what she was actually saying for that matter.

That said, I wouldn’t be disappointed if you did become a doctor. I always thought it would be interesting and rewarding to be a doctor — a profession in which you get to help people and make the world a better place on a daily basis. I never had the memory to handle all the terms, nor the interest in memorizing all that stuff that would be required, but in a way I wish I had.

As a lawyer, I helped people and companies. But it wasn’t the same. I didn’t save lives. I didn’t find cures or heal. My contribution paled in comparison to a doctor.

That’s not to suggest there aren’t many other career paths that afford opportunity to satisfy one’s cognitive appetite and make a real contribution. There are. Even in the law, there are such options. But I never went that direction.

My addition to affirmation and economic security that comes from professional success led me to a law firm that accepted only those at the top of their class. In return, they paid well and gave us the opportunity to handle interesting, complex matters. I liked that. But nearly all our clients were businesses. Everyday people couldn’t afford our rates.

I wish I had recognized my addiction at an earlier age and worked to overcome it. But, as with so many things, it seems things are easier to spot with age.

In any case, Vera, it doesn’t matter to me what you choose to do when you grow up. I just hope it’s something you enjoy and that you’re good at it, and that it enables you to make a contribution to the world.

Most of all, I hope you do it for the right reasons.

Misguided Loyalties

James Liang, an engineer for Volkswagen, was sentenced to prison yesterday (for more than three years). And was fined $200,000. His offense: helping VW defraud the U.S. and violate the Clean Air Act by evading emissions requirements with diesel-powered vehicles by rigging software to cheat.

His attorney, Daniel Nixon, said Mr. Liang is a “good and decent person.” He added, “[Mr. Liang] blindly executed a crime because of a misguided loyalty to his employer.”

I don’t doubt it. Not for a minute. I’ve seen it often.

I’ve even visited fellow employees in prison for their misdeeds (price fixing). And worked hard to keep others out. But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Usually, transgressors don’t get caught.

The common denominator in most cases is what Mr. Nixon observed: misguided loyalty.

I’ve always been amazed by what people are willing to do from a sense of loyalty to their employers. Of course, it’s not always based in loyalty. Sometimes, it’s out of fear: fear of losing one’s job, fear of being passed over for a promotion, fear of being ostracized.

Most of the people I’ve observed transgress in a serious way are what I’d call
“good and decent people.” They were just willing to do things for their employers that they’d probably not have been willing to do for themselves.

I’ve never made excuses for people who cross the line. Each of us makes decisions about how to live our lives. What risks to take. What injury to inflict on others. If you make bad decisions, don’t expect others to make excuses for you.

Mr. Liang decided to conspire with others to help his employer in deceitful ways that hurt others. And the environment. It was a choice. He was one of the unlucky ones. He got caught.

To whom and what do you owe your loyalty, Vera? These are questions you’ll face in life.

Take these questions seriously. They’re not unimportant. Indeed, our answers define us. They may even affect where and how we spend our future (e.g., in prison and in shame).

I’ve had the privilege of working with some people who owed their loyalty to virtue, honesty and respect for others instead of a man-made creation we call a corporation or instead of money. One that comes to mind is a former colleague who now lives in Alabama. He took such questions seriously. He is a “good and decent person.”

But he’s so much more than that.

One Family You Should Avoid

It’s not a secret: don’t work for a family business unless you’re part of the family.

Yet people do. They fail to heed the warning.

Sometimes, it works out. Usually, it doesn’t.

One thing I’ve learned over the years, Vera, from observing clients and life generally, is that it pays to heed the advice. Unless you were born into, or married into, the family, stay clear of working for their businesses.

We’re seeing it play out at the highest echelon of society these days: in the White House. The White House is being run as a family business. Non-family members who are close to this guy are publicly humiliated as a tactic. Family is off limits. Why anyone would put themselves into such a situation is beyond me.

I’ve seen it countless times. “Blood is thicker than water,” they say. You get the point.

People delude themselves into thinking otherwise. And, as I said, sometimes it works out. But the general rule is well deserved.

In the context of family run businesses, there are two classes of people. The upper class (family) and everyone else. There is no meritocracy at work in most family run businesses.

The risks aren’t worth taking. Stay well clear.

It’s a New World (i.e., I’m a Dinosaur)

The internet has dramatically changed — and will continue to change — the world. At times, it makes me feel like a dinosaur. I’m not alone, but that doesn’t make it any better.

Two systems that are replete with dinosaurs are health care and education, although the former is well ahead of the latter in catching up to the 21st century (mainly because there is more money to be made in health care).

If you want to get a flavor for what I’m talking about, take a half hour and watch this presentation on internet trends by Mary Meeker.

Keeping up or, in my case, catching up, seems like an impossible task. My generation didn’t grow up with the internet. Yours will, Vera. Your parents’ generation was the trailblazing generation. I expect much more to come from that generation. I don’t have such high expectations from mine. I can’t begin to imagine what yours may deliver.

One disservice my generation and the Xers provide to younger folks is interpreting the world, and guiding kids, with a 20th-century mindset based on 20th-century experiences. In short, many of us fail to appreciate how the world has changed and is changing. Consequently, we’re preparing many of our children and grandchildren for a world that no longer exists. Fortunately, it’s hard to keep young people down. Many see what’s happening and are responding.

I came to believe that I’m not technologically savvy enough to do my students justice in the classroom. Few professors and teachers are. But that will change as the dinosaurs retire or expire. Until then, most of our schools and colleges will remain behind the curve. This is one of the most critical reasons no millennial should outsource his or her education to our formal education system.

Enough said! Watch Mary’s presentation and, if you’re really enticed, read her slides.

Playing Your Hand Well

You have amazing opportunity, Vera. You have a great family. And you were born in the United States, a land of unparalleled opportunity. In short, you’ve been dealt a strong hand. Now all you have to do is play it well.

I wouldn’t profess to tell you how to play your hand. That’s your call. But I’m confident you’ll do just fine.

The best I can do is share some of the things I’ve learned over the years about playing one’s hand. They’re personal to me, so don’t try to blindly transfer them to you. Nonetheless, here are a few: Continue reading