What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

Our Naiveté Seems to Know No Bounds

The story hit the internet today that a bare majority of people no longer trust Facebook to obey laws protecting personal information.

Which causes me to wonder: What, if anything, does it take to erode the naiveté of people?

As a species, we tend to be trusting. Even in the face of compelling facts to the contrary. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing, you can decide for yourself. What I do know is that there is never a dearth of people willing to take advantage of it.

Never Trust Anybody

“Never trust anybody.” That’s one of the lessons President Trump says was imparted repeatedly by his father.

Trump added, “Then [my father would] ask me if I trusted anybody. I’d say, ‘No.’ ‘Do you trust me?’ [his father] would ask. I’d say, ‘Yes.’ And he’d say: ‘No! Don’t even trust me!'”

I had two reactions to this story:

  1. This lesson was probably one of the reasons Mr. Trump was successful financially.
  2. I wish someone had taught me the same lesson when I was young.

If I had learned this lesson, my expectations would have been more realistic. I would have better protected my own interests. And I would not have left myself so exposed to the back-stabbing tactics of duplicitous people. In short, I could have avoided some painful experiences and probably achieved more success than I did. Maybe I’d even been happier.

Some people might be tempted to think you just have to trust others. They don’t want to live in a world in which you can’t trust others. But why? I know the downside. What’s the upside?

The upside of not relying on trust is that you leave yourself less exposed. And are less inclined to operate on flawed assumptions and, therefore, less likely to make missteps or be ambushed.

Now, some may say that, if you heed Mr. Trump’s advice, you’ll end up like his son: a self-absorbed narcissistic individual seemingly devoid of empathy and ethics. But I’m not so sure about that. I don’t think it’s fair to point to that one lesson about trust as the culprit in the formation of a flawed personality disorder.

But perhaps it was a factor. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, in my world, there are few things worse than breach of trust. It’s a big deal to me. It’s the one thing about the Mafia I always respected: the willingness to go to jail or be killed rather than breach the trust your family placed in you. (Obviously, I didn’t like the Mafia’s objectives or their criminality and brutality.)

But I’ve found that trust frequently ends up being misplaced and leads to disappointment and pain. Because there always will be breaches of trust. Eventually, even the Mafia learned this lesson the hard way, as one after another ended up ratting out their family members to protect their own hides.

In the real world (as opposed to the idealized world that tends to captivate my imagination at times), people act out of self-interest. They will do what they believe to be in their self-interest, or what they think is right, even if it means betrayal. We’re very good at rationalizing betrayal away. We won’t even think of it as betrayal or breach of trust. Sometimes, we even manage to convert it into honor or virtue.

I wish I’d better understood this. As I’ve matured (beaten up like an old car), I’m less inclined to think that others were or are the problem and more inclined to think the problem was my own unreasonable expectations. And my naive understanding of human nature. I can’t blame anyone else for those expectations and naiveté. That was my own doing. I think President Trump’s dad understood this.

Still, I can’t go all in. I can’t live without any trust. But what I can do is to reserve it for fewer people. Close friends and family to be exact. And never to trust anyone in the workplace.

I’ve learned there are friends and there are friends, and never to lose sight of the distinction. I learned that lesson the hard way. I wish my dad had done a better job of imparting that knowledge when I was young. I wish I’d done a better job as a dad as well.

Nevertheless, I consider myself to be very fortunate: I have some true friends and family whom I feel I can trust. So maybe Mr. Trump’s father was wrong. Or perhaps he was right about the general rule, and that the exceptions are rare. You can decide for yourself.

In any case, I understand why Mr. Trump taught his son that lesson. Perhaps he went too far. Twenty years ago I would have said that he did. Today, I’m not so sure.

P.S. Despite what I believe is often a mere illusion of trust, Vera, you can always trust me. I can’t think of anything more important than fostering and living trust within our family. And never betraying the trust we have placed in each other. Frankly, I’d rather die than breach that trust.