Don’t make the world worse
Our business can be one of the largest in the country,” said Pedro, 25, third-generation heir to the family food business. “And I know how to make it so.”
After graduating from a premier university abroad, Pedro worked for two years in a bank that promised him a promotion.
But Pedro has always been eager to join the enterprise his grandparents started half a century ago. In his three months rotating in various divisions upon his return, he had already attempted to institute several major projects.
Some suggestions had merit, but a couple went against their family values.
Pedro argued constantly with his parents. He was so frustrated at what he felt was their fear of risk and reluctance to innovate.
After listening to his proposals though, I tell him, “I can see why your family has misgivings. I am not comfortable with what you want to do.”
“Come on!” Pedro says. “I ran all these with our lawyer. Everything is aboveboard.”
“I am not questioning the legality of anything,” I say. “But in your position, I would not even dream of doing them.”
“But we all know that any business has controversial aspects,” Pedro says.
“Your parents are uncomfortable with some of your ideas, and so am I. You know why we have these misgivings, and even if they are by the book, I hope you won’t pursue them,” I say.
“I want to change the world,” Pedro says. “I have big dreams for our business.”
To this bright-eyed, driven young man, I quote from professor Charles Wheelan’s speech at Dartmouth College in 2011: “Don’t make the world worse.”
In his book “10 ½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said,” Wheelan told the graduates, “I am supposed to tell you to aspire for greatness. But I am going to lower the bar … I am going to ask first and foremost that you do not use your prodigious talents to mess the world up, because too many smart people are doing that already.”
In 1994, despite research proving that smoking causes cancer, tobacco company executives testified under oath before the US Congress that “cigarette smoking is not addictive.”
“The photo of the … executives taking the oath is always etched in my mind,” Wheelan said. “Time has wiped away any ambiguity about the real facts. We can see that scene for what it was: profound dishonesty, inspired by naked self-interest and perpetrated by people who had plenty of other life options.”
“You are smart and motivated and creative,” Wheelan said. “Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right. I am going to remind you that ‘changing the world’ also includes things like skirting financial regulations, obscuring climate change research, designing subprime mortgages that low-income families won’t understand, and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children.
“If you work hard and focus, you could probably be awesome at all of those dastardly deeds! Creative, even innovative—in a diabolically underhanded way. But … just don’t do it.
“I am not asking you to cure cancer here. I am just asking you not to spread it—literally, in the case of the unapologetically dishonest tobacco executives, but figuratively, for the rest of your life.”
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