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Big Losers: What happens when someone wins big, only to lose it all? How can she recover from that?
The Long Fall: We love to see the Bishop fall on his ass. We love to see Britney lose it in public.
The Comeback: How sweet it is!
Some people have achieved their dream and then lost it through incompetence or bad Luck. This is a terrible blow, I can only imagine, to one’s self-esteem. How can someone deal with such a loss?
Imagine the remorse that Bernie Ebbers must feel now. He was the founder and CEO of WorldCom, a telecommunications company whose financial statements contained many lies about the company’s financial health. In a corporate pratfall that cost investors 180 billion dollars, WorldCom imploded. Ebbers was found guilty, at age 65, of numerous financial crimes. He is currently in the federal slammer in Louisiana, and there he will remain until he is almost 90. At the time of WorldCom’s collapse, Ebbers was considered by the financial community to be one of the richest men in the world. He owned mansions, yachts, planes, and all the other perks of billionaire-hood. Now he resides in a cell in a federal prison. Authors writing articles about “Big Losers” use his career as an example of the ultimate loser. The big event in his week may now be the semi-monthly “Hot Dog Night” at the prison cafeteria. He is, perhaps right now, ironing shirts in the prison laundry or mopping a hallway. There is no way for him to recover even a tiny fragment of the money, freedom, and good life he would have had if he had never broken the law. He will spend the rest of his life doing menial labor, playing pinochle, and waiting to die. Mr. Ebbers is paying a heavy price for his crime - a higher price than if he had merely murdered someone.
The only lesson a Machiavellian can learn from the life of Bernie Ebbers is this:
Do Not Break the Law
We all know that most crimes - particularly white collar crimes - go undetected and unpunished. Nevertheless, my personal advice to you is to avoid breaking the law. The legal and social consequences of being caught and charged are way out of proportion to the benefit to you if you get away with it. You may think that you can use bribery and clever legal tricks to avoid being punished, but use your ingenuity instead to be successful without breaking the law. The fact that you think you will surely get away with it is an indicator that you are not assessing risks rationally. The problem with crime is that it is so enormously profitable that it is very tempting. A small amount of crime, thoughtfully executed, can make you an enormous amount of money - if you get away with it. A small amount of crime, if you have the bad luck to be caught, can cost you your fortune (as Mr. Ebbers discovered), your family (as Mr. De Lorean discovered), and your freedom (unless, like Mr. Libby, you have powerful friends in high places).
The Long Fall
It is fascinating to many of us to see those who were once held in high esteem to lose their fortune, their freedom, and their status. We love to read and learn about these events, despite the mock outrage or mock concern expressed by so many. For example...
- A bribe-taking politician caught on tape
- A larcenous CEO who has redirected corporate assets into his private accounts
- An actor who loses his composure on stage and splutters forbidden race-words at his hecklers
- A drunk actress’s mug shot, especially if she looks like a skid-row wino
- A famous scholar who passes a plagiarized scholarly article as his own work
- A pretty blonde teacher who seduces her male high school students.
- An athlete who was caught taking a bribe to throw the game
- A famous politician, in a moment of defeat and anger, declaring that America “won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more.”
- A diplomat found in a drunken stupor, bound with rope, naked, wearing “sex toys”, unconscious on his front lawn
- A formerly famous child actor killed in a knife fight in a bar fighting over fifty dollars
- An Olympic athlete whose associates tried to cripple a rival
- A pretty singer who flips out in public and shaves her head
Such stories allow us to indulge in a satisfying moment of smugness. We can reassure ourselves that the famous and powerful are really not so special after all. Our idols have feet of clay. For a month, Geraldo, Nancy, and Larry will interview guest after guest, asking people “How could he do it?” and “Why did he do it?” and “Do you think he did it?” More responsible news commentators will interview each other, asking “Why is the media so fascinated with him?” and “What will his strategy be to save his career?” The crows gather over the carrion.
May you never experience The Long Fall. It changes one’s life forever, and the changes are usually all bad. How can you protect yourself from such a personal tragedy? By diligent attention to the details of your life, managing yourself and those around you, staying focused on your goals and your plan for achieving them. If bad luck overwhelms your efforts and you take the big fall through no fault of your own, then you must deal with it. Find a future that is achievable and start achieving it.
What advice can I give to Mr. Ebbers if he should happen to see this page while browsing the net in the prison library? Learn to like to read and keep a book going all the time. Teach what you’ve learned to some the men you meet in prison who seem salvageable. Write your autobiography, but write it the way it really happened. Do not try to defend what you did, just write what you did. While you should have been more thoughtful in the management of WorldCom, your story is surely a remarkable one.
Making a Comeback
Who made the greatest comeback? Certainly many powerful men and women have had their years of setback, but the image of Richard Nixon comes to my mind. He was defeated by John Kennedy in the 1960 election, then defeated in the 1962 race for the governorship of California. He left politics, vowing never to return. “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more,” he told the press. Five years later he defeated Vice-president Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election.
What special ability did Richard Nixon have that enabled him to recover everything he lost in 1960? The Nixon years were good years for America, except of course for that last part - the Watergate scandal.
Nixon’s great ability was to fight his way back into respectability and acceptance after a personal disaster - he had several during his career. His great character flaw seemed to be that he couldn’t figure out what to do when he finally achieved the pinnacle of success - except to get revenge on his enemies. He spent his time spying on the opposition and messing with their minds instead of solving the world’s problems.
We must also observe that Nixon was very, very lucky. Robert Kennedy, who might have been the Democratic nominee had he lived, was assassinated. George Romney, a Republican competitor, used the word “brainwashed” to describe how the military convinced him to support the war in Viet Nam, thereby destroying his candidacy. Populist-Segregationist George Wallace ran as a third party candidate, stealing Humphrey support from racists in the South and unions in the North. It was as if the Fates conspired to make Richard Nixon President.
Nixon, of course, became one of the few individuals to take the Long Fall twice in his lifetime. He departed the White House in disgrace to avoid impeachment, and he spent the rest of his life in self-imposed exile in California. Mr. Nixon’s character flaws won out over his strengths in the end.
Download or read online: Machiavelli’s Prince in English translation by W. K. Rowling
Read a brief summary of Machiavelli’s life and works,
written by W. K. Rowling as the Introduction to his translation of The Prince
A readable summary of Machiavelli’s Prince can be found at
The Modern Prince:
Better Living Through Machiavellianism
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