Thursday, February 12, 2009
Letting Philosophy Guide Me Through Federal Prison
Over the course of my imprisonment, I’ve had ample opportunity to read. Since I chose to avoid the potential for conflict that came with crowded television rooms, reading was one of the ways I could make use of idle time. That was a change from the life I had led during the decade separating my graduation from USC and my surrender to Taft Federal Prison Camp.
Following my graduation from college, I dove head first into my career as a stock broker. I was consumed was ambition, and within a relatively brief period, I was presiding over accounts worth tens of millions at Bear Stearns, and then hundreds of millions at UBS. My focus on money, however, led to lapses in judgment. While in prison, I devoted myself to working on those character flaws. Reading helped.
In the beginning months, I read some fiction. Prior to confinement, I could recall having read only two books, both by John Grisham. The books were entertaining, though hardly what anyone would describe as evocative. By the second month of my confinement, I sat aside the fiction and focused on literature that I hoped would make me a better man.
A few anthologies in philosophy exposed me to the importance of ethics. Ironically, that was not a subject I thought much about as I was building my career. The prestigious firms of Bear Stearns and UBS both published platitudes on the importance of ethics. The culture of money management, however, belied each firm’s commitment to an ethical code. Our focus, and our compensation structure, was based on generating the highest commission possible. Such was the culture of Wall Street, and the more I read, the more convinced I became that economic crises our country faced had begun with a slide in ethics. Such a slide was pervasive, and it seemed systemic throughout all branches of the financial services sector.
My readings in philosophy convinced me that I had a duty to change my life. I felt remorseful for the role I had played in overseeing the account of what I knew to have been on unscrupulous hedge fund. The account generated substantial commission for UBS, as well as my partners and me. I joined the party in looking the other way. As a direct consequence of my misrepresentation and dereliction of duty, the hedge fund managers succeeded in defrauding investors.
I could not change the past, though I hoped to redeem the bad decisions I had made as a stockbroker by learning more about the importance of ethical behavior. Through the work I intended to pursue upon release, I believed that I could make contributions to society by telling my story and describing what I learned through the more than 400 I would serve as a prisoner. Ironically, I learned lessons as a prisoner thdaysat I knew would make me a better man going forward. Perhaps they could spare some of my listeners the disgrace that frequently followed lapses in ethical, values-based decisions.
Although I hadn’t read much of anything after USC, I’ve been making up for lost time as a prisoner. In addition to concentrated, deliberative reading strategies, I built upon my learning by listening to stories of the men around me. I was confined with more than 500 men who had once led distinguished careers in business, or were professionals of some sort. The motivations that drove our actions were remarkably similar, and they frequently began with a slide in ethics. I intended to make a difference in society by helping others make better decisions than we had made.