Fun, money, honesty: pick any two?

Enjoy your work.

Make lots of money.

Work within the law.

Pick any two.

I don’t know who originated this.  It is clever, but is it really true?  Joseph Wilson of Xerox, Dr. Edwin Land of Polaroid, Milton S. Hershey of Hershey’s Chocolate, and George Romney of American Motors were examples of business executives who were decent, honorable, enormously successful and, by all accounts, happy, and there are plenty of examples outside the world of business.

Equating the unethical with the practical is a way of excusing unethical behavior and also a way of excusing failure.  This kind of thinking goes back a long time.  G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man speculated that ancient Carthaginians sacrificed infant children to Moloch because they thought that just because this was so savage and cruel, it would be practical and effective.  I could imagine a Carthaginian merchant saying, “Our religion might not be very pretty, but it works.”

I don’t think Chesterton knew much about ancient history, but he had great insight into universal human nature.  Today’s admiration for greed and ruthlessness in business is no more rational than the worship of Moloch.  Rationality means behaving toward others in such a way as to make it in their self-interest that you succeed.

Bertrand Russell said that if people really understood their self-interest, their behavior would be on a higher ethical level than it is.  He wrote nearly 90 years ago in Skeptical Essays: “It may be laid down as a general rule to which there are few exceptions that, when people are mistaken as to what is to their own interest, the course they believe to be wise is more harmful to others than the course that really is wise.”

When I was small, we boys would organize games, and everybody was expected to play by the rules.  If you cheated, nobody would play with you.   In adult life, it takes longer for cheating to catch up with you, but very often (alas, not always) it does.

Good intentions alone won’t make you succeed, but neither are crookedness and double-dealing a magic formula for success.  The saddest thing in the world is somebody who has in effect sold their soul in return for success, and failed to find a buyer.

Click on shirky’s law: “equality. fairness. opportunity. pick two” for a related “law,” somewhat off topic, of which I also am skeptical.  I found the “enjoy, money, law” version in the comment section of that post.

Click on Shirky: Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality for thoughts on the sources of success in blogging, and an argument (with which I disagree) that these are the same as the rules for success in the real world.

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