Reflection 42: It’s Not As Bad As You Think – It’s Worse

I thought that – after six plus decades of living, two careers, and innumerable experiences in both the public and private sectors – my capacity for surprise at the depth of our moral and intellectual corruption had played itself out. Then, I read Michael Lewis’ book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.

Lewis tells a story that we know all too well: The explosive growth and ultimate collapse of the subprime mortgage market, in 2008. When I started the book, I was reasonably well informed about most of the movable parts that led to this historic economic debacle. I also had a sense of the greed, herd mentality, and short-term mindsets that fueled it.

But Lewis provides an unusually vivid and detailed roadmap for how it all worked and, equally, for the attitudes and taken-for-granted ways of operating that made it possible. Knowing in a general way that something is corrupt and unseemly is one thing. Getting a blow by blow description of the many, many wildly corrupt choices that so many made, at so many different levels, is quite another.

One of the story’s most powerful lessons is the sheer depth and virulence of the manipulation and self-aggrandizement that seemed to be the unquestioned mindset of virtually every participant. This was no benign financial bubble, where a product (“dot com” companies, silver, tulips in 17th century Holland) caught fire and had its price driven up by irrational optimism and the market’s herd mentality.

In this case, really clever people used their enormous economic power, and an unbounded lust for outsized profits, to create a highly suspect product: Subprime mortgages. They then transformed them, through financial sleight-of-hand, into a blue chip seeming investments – triple A rated bonds – to be sold (and re-sold) to unsuspecting investors. The pay-off: Enormous fees for the corporate originators of the mortgages and bonds, and multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses.

Lewis’ story vividly illustrates the extent to which we have devolved into an atomistic, every person for himself society. The fate of our fellow citizens, the financial system, and the country – all of these are someone else’s problem. Indeed, even Lewis’ “heroes” – a handful of people who saw what was coming – were focused, not on its social consequences, but on how to “short” this ill conceived market in order to make their own financial killing (hence, the book’s title).


An aspect of Lewis’ narrative that graphically illustrates this larger pattern of pervasive, systemically engrained corruption involves the role of the rating agencies – Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, and Fitch. These companies provide risk assessing “grades” for bonds and other financial products. And their importance is unquestioned. Indeed, many pension funds and other investors are limited by law or internal guidelines to “safe” Triple A rated investments.

One glaring problem with the system – one no one hides – is the fact that the investment banks pay the rating agencies to grade their bonds. A reasonably intelligent investor would, you would think, be concerned that the agencies might go easy on the people who pay their bills. But as Lewis explains, the structural problems go much deeper. And this is where his story – here and elsewhere – becomes revelatory.

In many respects, the mistakes of the rating agencies and banks were identical. Wanting to flog the money machine – rather than slow it down – no one, seemingly, thought to systematically examine the underlying mortgages. Instead, the prevailing belief was that the bonds’ diversity (the mortgages were drawn from all over the country), an ever-rising housing market, and other macro factors ensured their safety.

Because their sole reason for being is to assess risk, you would think the rating agencies would have gone farther. And, in fact, they did have “secret” formulas for assessing each offering’s risk. But, as Lewis points out, rating agencies are populated with people who can’t get jobs at Goldman Sachs and the other, sexier banks and hedge funds; people who, in terms of intelligence and drive, are typically overmatched.

So when it came to ensuring the quality of the bonds backed by subprime mortgage pools, here is what we, the public, were left with: Secret formulas crafted by relative lightweights – whose dedication was already compromised by their firms’ dependence on fees received from the very companies whose products they were rating.

And – no surprise here – the financial heavy weights at the investment banks systematically gamed the rating agencies so-called secret formulas. They quickly figured out their weaknesses, exploiting them so that lousy products could still get a Triple A rating.

In other words, bald cheating was routine and, indeed, was seen as smart, aggressive business. Never mind that the junk that flooded the system was sold to the investment banks’ own customers; people to whom, you would think, they felt at least some duty of loyalty and fair dealing.

To illustrate how this gaming process worked, Lewis describes one aspect of the rating agency’s formula: Their use of FICO scores to measure the credit worthiness of the borrowers who held the underlying mortgages. To earn a Triple A rating, the FICO scores of the borrowers, in the pool of mortgages being rated, had to average out to at least 515.

Quickly figuring this out, the investment bankers realized that no distinction was being made between a “thick” FICO score – based on years of credit history – and a “thin” one. So, they would bring the overall average up by finding borrowers with high FICO scores but no reliable credit history; a person, for example, who once got a credit card, paid the bill, and never bought on credit again. And rather that craft a portfolio of 515s, they further gamed the system by balancing the 400s (almost certain to default) with an equal number of 650s – thin or otherwise.

This cynical manipulation of the rating agencies and, in turn, the purchasers who relied upon them, is just one of many stories that Lewis tells. We also learn about CEOs who didn’t understand the markets their most profitable products were traded in; reckless and sociopathic traders who were rewarded with multi-million dollar bonuses; and a system where virtually every major player’s reflexive response to the market’s looming collapse was to hide the truth as long possible – so they could sell as many of their bad investments to others, including (with no apparent compunction) their own customers.

In short we are given an in-depth X-ray into a system where lying is routine, loyalty nonexistent, and profits the only measure of success. And, sad to say, the tepid reforms that have been passed in the aftermath of the market’s meltdown have done far too little to alter this culture.


Lewis’ story, by driving home the depth and pervasiveness of these behaviors, reminds us that reform efforts are far more challenging, today, than they were even 40 years ago. When a behavior becomes the norm, we lose our ability to view it as dysfunctional. That is why entire populations can embrace fascism (as in Germany and Italy); genocide (as in Rwanda or the Balkans); and countless, senseless wars throughout history.

My sense is that we have reached that point in business. Many smaller businesses continue to operate in the old fashioned way – offering good products at a fair price; treating employees and others with some modicum of respect. But as you move up the pyramid in terms of size, the qualities that Lewis describes are, increasingly, the unquestioned norm.

We live, after all, in a world where Donald Trump is celebrated media celebrity even as he sells his name to unscrupulous developers and a bogus university. So one very serious challenge we face, if we hope to make things better, is to remold our collective consciousness so that, once again, fraud, recklessness, negligence, self-dealing, price gouging, and so on are viewed as disreputable – and not as business as usual.

Lewis’ narrative is also a dramatic reminder that, as ordinary citizens, there is so much we don’t know. Being reminded of that fact, another important take away is the huge price we pay when our leaders temporize in their critiques – as they habitually do – when it is politically expedient.

When Bush invaded Iraq, for example, virtually every political leader went along with it because, given the country’s prevailing mood, it was the “smart” move. In that case, however, since the issues were clear and the arguments against readily available, the consequences were somewhat contained.

But the subprime mortgage crisis stands in stark contrast to Iraq. As Lewis’ detailed accounting vividly demonstrates, we ordinary citizens had virtually no ability to understand the crisis as it unfolded – or, even now, after the fact. In this case, our willingness to tolerate endemically cautious, politically driven leaders – leaders who refuse to lead – is even more dangerous. Given the unavoidable, and increasing complexity of the world in which we live, we desperately need leaders who will actively identify and explain problems – and, crucially, speak aggressively and fearlessly to power.

Reflection 41: Safety and Aliveness

Life is an impossible deal.  We arrive here – and leave – through no choice of our own. While we are here, there is no roadmap for what to do, or – if there is – we have no idea what the right one is out of all the ones being proposed.  And, to seal this (impossible) deal, we know all this.

Oh to be a dog!  At 12, they never brood over the fact that their best years are behind them.  And at the moment of death, all they know is the comfort of their beloved owner’s arms and the pinch of the vet’s needle. 

But while self-awareness is our greatest burden, it also creates life’s most redemptive possibilities.   

Central to Radical Decency is a forthright acceptance of this unforgiving equation.  Instead of ignoring life’s fundamental mysteries, or presuming to answer to them, we seek to more deeply understand the inherent limitations of our biology and neurobiology, as well as its intricacies, contradictions, and potentialities.  Then, working with our flawed humanity – with all of its demoralizing shortcomings and equally stunning moments of transcendence – we seek to create lives that are more loving and decent to ourselves, others, and the world.  This is the essence of decency to self.


Daniel Siegel is one of psychotherapy’s most generative, contemporary thinkers.  In seeking to operationalize this approach to living, he offers a frame of reference that, as you work through its implications, has a lot to teach us:  Viewing life as a river, one of the banks is safety; the other aliveness. 

His thought is that, beneath all of our busy-ness, we long for a comfortable balance between these two state’s of mind, with life’s central dilemma being this:  With too much stability, we feel flat and drab.  But if we veer too far to the other extreme – constantly reaching for stimulation and excitement – we can too easily slip into overly stressed, emotionally fraught, unstable habits of living.


Siegel’s metaphor castes an uncomfortable spotlight on the typical life journey our competitive, win/lose culture invites.  The high road to a safe and secure life is, we are repeatedly told, to compete and win.  Go to the best possible schools, get the most financially rewarding job, accumulate more and more money – so the vagaries of life can’t touch us.

Immersed in this world-view from grade school forward, the idea of a job that is exciting and soul nourishing – that feeds our need for liveliness – is, for many, a nonstarter. Better to leap into a career as an accountant, salesman, or human resources administrator.  Never mind that, right from the start, it feels like a spirit deadening slog and sets us up for lives that feel flat, boring, demoralizing or, even worse, filled with dread.  

For others, an exciting, vibrant job is – at least initially – a part of the equation.  But then, all to often, the pressure to be safe overwhelms the dream.  We start off with the ennobling goal of teaching children but wind up enforcing order on 30 unruly kids, and force-feeding information so they can get better scores on the standardized tests by which the school is judged.  We endure these and other indignities – the slow death of our dreams – because we “have to;” to protect our income, benefits, and pension.

The thing that is so dispiriting in all of this is that the entire proposition – equating safety with financial security – is so deeply flawed.  So long as it lasts, a stable job and good income does provide a certain level of security.  But we live in a world where markets crash, and corporations and entire industries disappear overnight.  So the idea that money can be the secure cornerstone of safety in life is, for most of us, an illusion. 

The deeper truth, moreover, is that no amount of money can buffer us from life’s unforgiving equation.  For all of us, inevitably: A child will lose his way; a spouse, desperately seeking to rekindle her own aliveness, will leave; a loved one will die; illness and injury will diminish us. 

The net result?  Driven by our culturally engrained need to succeed, we eagerly give ourselves over to spirit draining jobs, grievously neglecting, in the process, our need for emotional, intellectual, and spiritual stimulation.  But in the end, the promised pay-off in terms of safety simply isn’t there.  We wind up with the worst of all possible worlds – a life lacking in both safety and aliveness.

But the dismal equation does not end here.  While safety is the main preoccupation in this success driven life, that does not mean that our longing for aliveness disappears.  To the contrary, the need for stimulation is a fundamental part of our nature.  But because it is so habitually de-emphasized and suppressed, it is usually expressed in less satisfying and, often, less healthy ways.

In the best-case scenario, our longing for aliveness finds constructive albeit limited expression in the relationships and activities we pursue in our “spare time” – nights, weekends, and vacations.  But all too often, we settle for debased forms of stimulation: The rat-tat-tat of computer games – a pre-occupation with the successes and failures of our favorite football team – the consuming stimulation of work’s competitive dramas – drugs and alcohol – the endorphin hit of sex.  Our flawed pursuit of safety is matched by an equally flawed pursuit of aliveness.


There is no easy way to stand apart from this culturally prescribed way of operating.  Because we have to make a living, we need to find some workable compromise with the mainstream culture.  But accepting this fact also means that the incentives and sanctions that push us – to do the “smart” thing, to go along to get ahead, to conform – will continue to bear down on us in earnest.

Radical Decency offers a pathway for navigating this territory; to get by in the world as it is and, at the same time, to craft lives that more effectively nurture our safety and aliveness.  The key to the approach is to focus, not on ultimate goals – happiness and inner peace; aliveness and safety – but on the concrete, day-by-day choices that, as they accumulate, define our lives.

Pursuing happiness directly, we tend toward behaviors that are intense and instantly gratifying.  But pursuing highs puts us on an emotional rollercoaster that is at odds with the goal – crucial to Siegel’s model – of a comfortable and sustainable balance between safety and aliveness.  In other words, a direct approach to happiness is a flawed model.

Radical Decency, by contrast, sends us out in the world, each day, seeking to be decent in all that we do – to our self, others, and the world.  Steadily attending to this task changes us.  We become more curious and less judgmental; more thoughtful, creative, and intuitive; more rooted in the present; more discerning in our choices. 

As these habits of mind become more and more engrained, happiness – a comfortable and growing sense of safety and aliveness – is its natural by-product. 

With this approach, safety is based, not on economic security, but on the comfort that comes from clear and coherent priorities and a growing sense of appreciation, empathy and acceptance for our selves and others.  Similarly, our aliveness is nurtured, not by highs, but by the vibrant, moment-by-moment sense of purpose that results when we fully commit to being decent to our self, others and the world, all times and in every area of living.

Notice also that a committed Radical Decency practice steadily guides us away from a life organized around the endless pursuit of wealth.  While economic security is a legitimate goal, decency to self also requires intimacy and companionship, novelty and play, rest and relaxation, and simple respect for our physical and psychological processes and rhythms.  And, decency to others and the world requires a meaningful commitment of time and energy as well.

If we tend to these goals with the seriousness of purpose they require, a progressive re-ordering of our priorities – away from the unrelenting demands of work and career – will naturally and progressively unfold.  Jobs that require us to habitually sacrifice our personal, family and communal goals will cease to be of interest.  Instead, we will be drawn to careers and jobs – and bosses and co-workers – who treat themselves and others with respect, and have a sense of vocation and service to others and the world. 

In short, Radical Decency invites us to systematically cultivate habits of mind that decisively diverge from the values of the mainstream culture.  And as these more decent ways of operating play a more and more central role in our lives, they offer the powerful antidote we need to resist the relentless pressures of our mainstream, win/lose culture, even as we find an appropriate place within it.

These ongoing choices — bold and, at the same time, realistic — are the surest pathway to a life that creatively interweaves safety and aliveness.

Reflection 40: Size Matters

  • In 1964, Joe Namath signed a $400,000 contract. It was huge news. Today, $100 million plus contracts, for second tier sports stars, are commonplace.
  • In 1960, America’s 5 largest companies had, on average, $498 million in profits. By 2010, that number had grown to $12.2 billion.
  • In 1982 – its first year – the average net worth of Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans was $285 million. By 2008: Almost $4 billion.

Wrapping our brains around the true dimensions of this explosion of private wealth is an extraordinarily difficult task.

Equally hard to understand is a similar explosion in the size and reach of the mainstream culture’s propaganda and reality molding machine; an apt term for the de-centralized but highly coherent set of values-based messages and cultural cues – compete and win, dominate and control – in which we are immersed.

Coming to gripes with these seismic shifts in the context within which we live is vitally important. Failing to do so, we will never grasp the enormity of the challenge we face as we seek to meaningfully contribute to a different and better world. We will too easily settle for change strategies that are far too tepid and limited in scope.

This is the issue I discuss below.


Understanding this vast shift in wealth is, at bottom, an order of magnitude problem. A billion isn’t just bigger than a million. It’s a lot bigger. And a trillion is way, way bigger than a billion.

Here’s one way to look at it. Suppose you had decided to count your money, dollar by dollar, with each dollar counted consuming one second. Also assume that your the goal was to finish the job just as we reached the year 2000. If you had $1 million, your count would have to start the morning of December 21, 1999. If you had $1 billion, you would start in April 1969. And if you had $1 trillion, your starting point would have been in 29,710 BCE – more than 20,000 years before we humans developed our first written numbering systems.

Going back to the numbers quoted earlier: In 1960 America’s 5 largest companies would have started to count their profits, on average, in March 1984. By 2008, however, their counts would have started in March 1614 (two years before Shakespeare’s death). And the counting time for the net worth of the Forbes 400 would have been pushed back from January 1991 (in 1982) to June 1875 (in 2008).

Notice, also, the “plight” of our best professional athletes who make a lot of money but who are, we need to remember, hired employees and not owners or investors. Thus, while they make enormous sums of money their slice of the pie is, in relative terms, chump change – and increasingly so. While Joe Namath would have started his count around noon on December 27, 1999, today’s $100 million athlete would only be pushed back to October 1996, a graphic reminder of where true economic power lies.


This order of magnitude analysis provides a hard dose of financial reality as we assess the effectiveness of conventional change efforts. Increasingly the nonprofit sector is being asked to fill the void created by the steady erosion of the government’s social safety net. And yet in contrast with the exponential growth in private wealth, the increase in charitable giving has been tepid –from $55 billion in 1980 to $217 billion in 2010

In comparative terms, while – in the early 1980s – the net worth of America’s 400 richest people outstripped the accumulated wealth of the entire nonprofit sector by a factor of 5 to 1, this differential had grown to 20 to 1 by 2010.

In short, an always-present fiscal mismatch has turned into a route. Our current reality is this: Massively outgunned in terms of lobbyists, lawyers, political contributions, and advertising budgets, the possibility of effecting meaningful reform through traditional political processes has become more and more implausible.


These same years have also experienced a comparable, explosive growth in the mainstream culture’s propaganda/reality molding machine. But because its emergence has been gradual, it is difficult to fully grasp its scope. And in contrast to the shifts in private wealth, our understandings in this area are further complicated by the fact that the change is so diffuse and difficult to quantify. For these reasons, its effects are even more pernicious.

This sort of cultural brainwashing is, needless to say, not new. Embedded cultural cues that make people “wrong” when they don’t do what their “betters” expect have always been with us. Indeed, George Bernard Shaw iconic example – Eliza Doolittle, the poor flower girl who could pass for a duchess but only after she learned the “right” way to talk, walk, and dress – was created over 100 years ago.

The last half-century, however, has been different. The culture’s reality molding machine has expanded to unprecedented levels, driven by two key factors:

  1. The enormous increase in wealth wielded by the individuals and institutions with the greatest stake in reinforcing and intensifying our mainstream ways of operating; and
  2. The vast array of technological advances that have so greatly expanded the intensity, persistence, and reach of their messages.

To begin to appreciate this seismic growth, it is useful to compare the 1950s – when I came of age – with today’s world.

Back then there were just a handful of TV stations – which stop broadcasting at midnight – a couple of local newspapers, and a handful of weekly and monthly magazines. So each day offered any number of taken-for-granted places of refuge from the messages of the mainstream culture:

  • Late at night when there was, literally, nothing to watch;
  • In the evening hours between your favorite TV shows;
  • On weekend mornings when all that TV offered was Sunrise Semester and cartoons;
  • On your daily drive to and from work;
  • During the natural lulls that occurred at work, because letters took days to arrive.

In this pre-computer/Xbox world, leisure activities were also, far more commonly, our own creations: Card and board games, playing catch with the kids, riding a bike, reading a book. It was also a time when having friends and family over to your house for drinks and dinner – a taken for granted activity in 19th century novels – was still a regular part of life’s routine.

All of that is now gone or strikingly diminished. We are plugged in all the time.

  • Our computers and smart phones are our constant companions;
  • Texting, face book and email saturate our lives with instantaneous communication;
  • The TV is a nonstop source of whatever entertainment suites our fancy – news, sports, shopping, movies, even pornography.

And it’s all available – or inconveniently present – on demand: In the car, at the beach, even in the bathroom.


While these new toys are delightfully distracting, they extract a heavy price. Why? Because the subtext of so much of what they offer embodies and reinforces the corrosive values that dominate our culture: Compete and win, dominate and control.

We are awash in nonstop messages that push us to want more, to buy more and, in general, to be perfect and invulnerable: Poised and articulate; youthful, thin, and attractive; hard working, successful, and rich; winners in whatever we do.

At times these messages are explicit, offered as product ads or commentary. But far more pervasive and influential are their implicit expressions: The story lines and characters in the shows we watch; and, equally, the ways in which our celebrities – actors, entertainers, TV hosts, reporters, commentators, and politicians – present themselves and conduct their lives.

For me, the depth to which these messages have taken root is exemplified by NPR’s routine editing of interviews to eliminate every “ah,” “umm,” and other verbal stumble. Even at NPR, apparently, we are not ok – not publicly presentable – until every pimple and unseemly bulge has been made to disappear.


These pervasive messages deeply impact our effort to create better lives and a better world. To begin with, we cannot avoid them. We are all in the dirty bathtub. And in the last 50 years, the bathtub has gotten a lot dirtier.

In addition, it has become more and more difficult to find kindred spirits with whom we can align in our effort to create better lives and a better world.

When it comes to the culture’s predominant values, we are literally drenched in cues that define us. Our jobs and schools – where we live – how we dress and accessorize – how we talk – what we eat and drink – they all point to where (and how well) we fit in, in the mainstream culture.

But what are the reliable indicators of a person who consistently seeks to be decent to themselves, others and the world? While these people do exist, the catalogue of social cues that allow you to identify them is strikingly thin. Such a person could be sitting across from you at lunch or be working in the office down the hall, and you might never have a clue.

And, unfortunately, we live in a world in which expressions of concern – a potentially important marker in our search for kindred spirits – have been co-opted by the mainstream culture. Empathic words and symbolic acts of charity have become a kind of affective camouflage, used to make our competitive, self-aggrandizing pre-occupations more acceptable to others – and to ourselves. In this environment, how do you tease out the genuine article, your real allies, from this endless stream of faux reformers?


With these examples I hope to demonstrate how important orders of magnitude are in understanding the enormous impact that the values, predominant in the mainstream culture, have in our lives.

But as much as size matters in understanding the dimensions of the challenge, it matters even more as we craft our responses. We need to conceive of change strategies that, as they take root, can become comparable in scope and impact to the problems they seek to address. In other Reflections I seek to make a creative contribute to that effort. See, for example, Reflection #15 (identifying business as a key strategic focus); and Reflection #45 (describing a more deeply collaborative approach to social change).

Radical 39: A Radically Decent Business – Lessons Learned

Work dominates our lives. It consumes the best hours of the majority of our days – for most of our adult lives. It is also the place where the wildly overstated values that dominate our culture find their most unrestrained expression. For these reasons, it needs to be a key area of focus as we seek to operationalize Radical Decency.

Two factors make change in the workplace more immediately feasible than, say, change via the political process.

The first is its hierarchical structure. While the pressures of the competitive marketplace are great – a point discussed below – business owners have the power, if they chose, to implement Radical Decency within their organizations.

The second factor is, ironically, its amorality. In business, values are not a priority. What matters is profitability. If the standard ways of operating dictate a competitive dog-eat-dog approach, they will employ these tactics. Equally, however, if Radical Decency becomes the new norm, they will adopt that approach instead. Businesses won’t resist a different and better set of prevailing values, they will simply adjust.

With these thoughts in mind, one key goal I have in mind is to demonstrate that a radically decent business in not only possible but is, in fact, an entirely sound and profitable model. I discuss these ideas in greater detail in Reflection #15, “Social Justice – Focusing on Business.”

In the summer of 2005, I set out to create such a business, joining together with a group of “healers” in a practice that came to include psychotherapy, life coaching, chiropractic, message therapy, and financial planning. The goal was to create a truly holistic healing practice based on the principles of Radical Decency. See Reflection # 24, Holistic Healing – Embracing the Practical and the Radical.

The experiment lasted three years and, while the business ultimately closed, we learned a lot of valuable lessons in the process. A few of the more important lessons are discussed below.

Lesson #1: Be clear, specific, and persistent in describing what Radical Decency is and how it impacts every aspect of your business.

Why? Because if you don’t do this, many of the outsiders with whom you deal – customers, vendors, referral sources, investors, lenders – will fail to get the message. They will assume you are just like everyone else; just another business with a catchy marketing slogan on your marketing material and business card: “Progress is our most important product;” “the customer always comes first.” And, they will expect and encourage the sharp practices that are the marketplace’s norms.

This process – if it takes hold – contains two dangers. The first is a squandering of precious time and energy as you seek to work with people who, because Radical Decency is your unbending first priority, you should never have been engaged with in the first place.

The second danger is a more subtle process of seduction. In seeking to create a radically decent business, the greatest risk is not a cynical abandonment of the philosophy’s core values. It is, instead, an almost imperceptible, decision-by-decision retreat to the cultural norm.

Given the pressure to be profitable, saying no to “gray area” deals, strategies, and tactics can be excruciatingly difficult. And putting a brake on this process requires continual attention to the many ways in which a wall-to-wall commitment to Radical Decency affects your operations.

In business, the encompassing values that give the philosophy its juice affect, quite literally, everything – from marketing and pricing to the ways in which employees, vendors, competitors, neighbors and the environment are treated. If you are not attentive to the philosophy’s seemingly endless implications, the pull of business as usual practices will be too automatic and too strong to resist.

In our business, Radical Decency’s principles were explicitly written into our governance procedures and ultimately found their way into 11 principles for operating a small business. In addition, one regular staff meeting a month was devoted solely to the intricacies of its application and we worked hard to explicitly honor its principles in our other meetings as well. In retrospect, I wish we had also reinforced the message through a more detailed manual of principles and procedures, an in-depth orientation for new employees, and regular staff seminars and retreats.

Lesson #2: Be careful, discerning and patient as your build your staff and support team (accountants, attorneys, etc.).

Radical Decency sounds easy – and who could be against it? But its actual implementation in a business environment is very tricky. Because businesses have to be profitable, conventional financial success needs to be priority 1A, standing side-by-side in importance with – but clearly subordinate to – the goal of creating a radically decent enterprise. In other words, in that hypothetical 10-20% zone where Radical Decency and profit driven choices seem to conflict, the business’ underlying values need to clearly and decisively prevail.

When is comes to building a staff and support team, finding people who know how to make money in conventional ways is relatively easy. Equally, people can be found who put their values first.

But finding both together – people who combine a determination to make Radical Decency a priority and, in addition, are committed to the hard work and focus that a successful financial enterprise require – is much more difficult.

What we discovered was that traps exist in both directions. On the one side, competent people would arrive, saying all the right things about Radical Decency. But as we got into the nitty-gritty of working together, they were unable to break out of their conventional, business as usual modes of thinking.

The most poignant example was a key professional who struggled to trust that the division of profits would fairly reflect his economic contribution. In the midst of our negotiations with him, he was diagnosed with a condition that threatened his ability to practice his profession.

Seeking to be true to our principles, we gave him the right to re-tool in a less physically demanding healing modality – when the time came – and, in addition, agreed to pay him a percentage of the profits from the practice he’d built to that point in time. However, within months of reaching this agreement, he left, unable to the escape the belief – encouraged, very predictably, by his attorney – that we, his business partners, we were intent on taking advantage of him.

On the flip side were co-workers who warmly embraced Radical Decency but seemed to confuse decency with a lack of accountability on the productivity side of the ledger. The hard truth is that, when an employee’s non-workplace needs are acknowledged and accommodated, he, in turn, has a special responsibility to strike a workable balance between those needs and the business’ need to be profitable.

In retrospective, we were too forgiving on both sides of the equation. At times, we overlooked the warning signs with productive employees who lacked the requisite decency commitment. At other times, we allowed accountability to slide with well-intentioned people who simply lacked the commitment to priority 1A – the business’ economic success.

My counsel to people seeking to create radically decent businesses is to pick your collaborators with care and, if possible, test them out before committing. Then, pay attention to the evidence on both sides of the equation – and trust your gut:

  • Is this person actively interested in Radical Decency?
  • Does he read the material that discusses the philosophy with a lively interest?
  • Does he raise issues – on his own initiative – about how to apply it? Or does he effectively put the philosophy aside when he turns to the day-to-day practicalities of running the business?

And on the business side, don’t be seduced by the person’s philosophical compatibility. Remember to be discerning about his competence and willingness to work hard.

Lesson #3: Strive for profitability but don’t let fear of financial failure drive you.

Business is tough and reaching boldly for a better way to do it makes it tougher. So, when years of hard work are at risk, the temptation is to let go of your larger goals for the sake of economic survival. But business as usual is the easy option. If you can’t make a go of it financially, better to wrap things up and try again. Settling for just another job – just another business – is life’s booby prize.

In this respect I am proud of what we did. After 3 years of hard work, we closed our doors. But my abiding belief is that we grew from the experience and took invaluable lessons from it that each of us, in our own way, are applying in our new professional endeavors. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.