I have to admit, I had Connie Francis in mind when I wrote the title of this blog. After all, I don’t live far from where some of her musical contemporaries grew up. As you read along, keep her song, “Who’s Sorry Now?“, playing in the back of your mind, particularly the lyrics, “You had your way/Now you must pay/I’m glad that you’re sorry now.” A little Schadenfreude is great for lowering your blood pressure.
Actually, I’d like to talk about smarty, not sorry. I mean smarty as in smart. As I see it, there are two kinds of smart: the right kind and the wrong kind. Of course, there are probably more than these, but I’ll leave that discussion for Malcolm Gladwell. He’s just about at 10,000 hours of cable TV interviews, anyway.
I’ll start with the wrong kind, because it was the topic of my class on business ethics the other night. Enron, the Houston-based, behemoth energy company of the early 2000s and now everybody’s idea of corruption and greed on a Dantesque scale, was filled with people of enormous smarts, drive, and, well, energy. In fact, one of the most popular business books published after its fall was entitled, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (2003). The book was made into a documentary film in 2007.
What caused Enron to collapse? Essentially, people, very smart people (Ken Lay, chairman of the board, had a Ph.D. in economics) thinking that they could control not just the results of bad investments and “solid” deals that somehow went sideways, but a failing stock market and economy. How? Lay, CEO Jeffrey Skilling, and CFO Andy Fastow ran an incredibly complex shell game of now you see the losses, now you don’t. Their intention was to set things right again once the economy picked up, which is like buying jeans two sizes too small because you’re about to go on a diet. They also had grandiose opinions of themselves. Nobody would be smart enough to catch them. They were wrong.
Contrast this with the right smart. A perfect example is Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old in Hong Kong who has been identified as one of the leaders of the pro-Democracy protests. One of his reasons for protesting is to give everyone, especially the young people who do not go to the US or Europe for university, real freedom. In other words, he is fighting for those who remain behind. He has been quoted as saying that he wouldn’t leave even if given the opportunity. He says that he’s “not that smart,” so he is staying behind to help people at home.
Wong’s kind of smart is humble, realistic, practical, concerned with others, and focused on ideals like freedom of speech and assembly. Certainly, anyone living in a democracy can understand this. But there is an even more basic difference between Joshua Wong and Ken Lay, right and wrong smarts. This difference is about control. Enron was all about control and secrecy, which sound an awful lot like the Hong Kong authorities. Wong’s smart is about giving up control and letting people be people. The People.
There are implications all around for us, from helicoptering parenting to career planning, relationships, and how we manage/mangle time. The right smart–giving up a certain degree of control–is a spiritual movement, a step away from mistrust toward vulnerability and, ultimately, love. Could we say that Lay, Skilling, and Fastow didn’t love enough? It’s possible. Love is not easily controlled and certainly not valued in most of corporate America. There is also the possibility that Joshua Wong could be persuaded otherwise given the right number of zeros and commas, as the Trace Adkins song goes, although I doubt it.
You might argue that Joshua Wong is 17. How could he possibly understand the complexities of running a multibillion dollar energy company? And you’d be right. Then again, I understand why I like the Connie Francis song so much. It’s clear. There is no moral ambiguity.
“You had your way/Now you must pay…”
I guess the task of growing older is learning how to acknowledge the clarity without being either glad or sad.
Feature image by Gabrielle Olya, “Enron and the 24 Other Most Epic Corporate Downfalls of All Time,” Yahoo! Finance (August 18, 2020); “Enron, Bad Lay,” by MyEyeSees, (2006) Creative Commons. “Joshua Wong,” DR, LesEchos.fr, Sept. 30, 2014.