Being Evil vs. a Nobody – A Tough Choice for Some

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It’s easy to celebrate the taking down of a “bad” guy, until we realize they can be a mirror for the darkness that lurks inside all of us…

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See the author’s TEDx Talk on Creating Extraordinary Intimacy in a Shut Down World

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Something remarkable happened last week that we rarely, if ever, witness in this age of “everyone has an opinion and is not afraid to share it online”. The Internet revealed its universal rejoice at the arrest of Martin Shkreli, CEO of Turing Pharmaceutical for securities fraud. As one Wired article put it, he may be the most hated man of 2015. This label was bestowed on him largely for buying up underperforming pharmaceutical companies that have patents on critical life-saving drugs and jacking their prices, in some cases, by 5,000% just to pad the bottom line. Let’s face it, he makes Scrooge look like a joyful bell-ringing Salvation Army Santa.

That he was arrested for securities fraud was no surprise given he practically painted a bullseye on his own back. As if taunting everyone to see just how dastardly he could be before he was finally brought to justice. What surprised me most however, was my own reaction to this whole saga. At first I felt just as righteous as the rest of the crowd at him receiving his just deserts. But then something unexpected came over me, a sense of compassion that at first I had difficulty reconciling with feelings of revulsion for this man and his actions. Eventually it all started to make sense and with that insight it became clear that his saga is one that affects all of us to one degree or another…

As Rome Burns

What made his particular case of heartlessness even more reviling is that this 32-year-old man-boy would spend hours of his free time streaming himself on YouTube playing a guitar or waxing philosophically. Images of Nero playing his violin as Rome burns came to mind as I read about this.

Then it hit me. This young and highly intelligent man from very modest means simply wanted attention –any way he could get it. I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that he struggles with existential angst just like the rest of us– the need to feel his life had meaning and import.  Only in this case it revealed itself through his misguided cleverness in manipulating markets (fraudulently or otherwise) and justifying cruel (and most importantly, newsworthy) price increases of life-saving drugs. Impact was his prime motivator, whether it resulted from beneficial or destructive means was secondary. It was his way of saying“Look at me –I fucking matter!!!”

The Martin Shkreli in all of Us

I personally think that there is a bit of Martin Shkreli in all of us. Only in the sense for most people, the idea that our life matters is important. One only needs to glance at any Facebook feed to see evidence of this ad nauseam. The big difference of course is how far a person is willing and/or able to go in their drive to attain perceived significance. In Shkreli’s case, he is clearly very bright which means capable of potentially large societal impact, either for the benefit of others or to their detriment. In the words of Eckhart Tolle: “Cleverness devoid of wisdom is extremely dangerous and destructive.” His lack of moral compass and deep need to feel significant trumped any latent human compassion that may have been lurking in his soul.

Then it hit me. This young and highly intelligent man from very modest means simply wanted attention –any way he could get it.

Unfortunately, this is something we see far too often in today’s society. Culturally speaking, we still tend to bow down to those who wrest a sense of significance regardless of how it obtained and in so doing, hope some will rub off on us. From the guileless worship of celebrities who are famous simply for being famous, to politicians and barons of industry who promise to cure all of our societal ills as long as we look the other way as the end justifies their means. In this context, “being noticed” is the ultimate currency for dealing with this very imperfect and uncertain human existence. And bankruptcy of this particular lucre then becomes the worst possible outcome as it equates to a sense of bleak meaninglessness.

Others as Our Mirror

One thing I’ve learned is that when I am uncomfortable with someone else it is usually because, at some level, I see a reflection of those same offending traits (or their potential) in me. Don’t get me wrong I’m glad Shkreli has been taken down and will hopefully be out of the picture for a very long time. Yet at the same time, I realize that my revulsion for his very unconscious behavior is a reminder that latency lurks inside of me as well. And for that I have compassion that he is still a human being with the potential to use his talents for the betterment of others. A potential that requires nothing more than a choice, the same choice each of us make every day whether in business, for our family, community or ourselves.

And it is in that choice where we can really “matter”, for ourselves and others, in a very positive way. In fact, “matter” in the only way that really matters because significance then comes from within rather than depending upon the attention of others.