I remember the first job I ever got fired from. I was one of three purchasing agents for a company called AeroWorld Manufacturing. We manufactured and sold “replacement spares” to the U. S. Air Force – chrome-moly bolts for landing gears, threaded turnbuckles for flap assemblies, or maybe stainless steel hinges for the ailerons.
My job was to get bids based on blueprints purloined from the major plane-makers and award contracts to manufacture parts from them. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that by starting my own secret company with a friend and phonying competing bids from our regular suppliers, I could make a lot of money by awarding myself lucrative contracts. (This is part of the unfortunate process that results in the U.S. Government ending up paying $400 for a $10 toilet seat).
One day, Ted and Ernie, the AeroWorld owners, called me into their offices. They handed me a Dun and Bradstreet report that listed me and my partner, Jeff, as the principal owners of Aeronautic Industries, a company to whom AeroWorld had just lost a sizeable government contract. When Ted and Ernie asked me for an explanation, all I could manage was some lame stammer about a mistake being made. I was twenty-one years old and fired from my first job.
The Influence of Environment
AeroWorld operated in a culture of distrust and deceit. Even though I owned a house, a boat, a new Corvette and was part owner of a Beechcraft Bonanza airplane, I was distraught and depressed for much of my time at AeroWorld. I remember being out sick a lot. Furthermore, the whole time I worked there, I had the persistent feeling that something else was supposed to be going on, something other than simply putting in the time and taking home a fat paycheck. What that “something” was hit me like a ton of aircraft sheet metal one day when I happened upon a transcribed talk by Jiddu Krishnamurti entitled simply, Think on These Things. What I was supposed to be doing at AeroWorld was waking up – waking up to something larger than my own small-minded concerns, self-centered adolescent strivings, and petty grievances. Profoundly influenced by Krishnamurti, I decided I wanted my life be about something more “constructive,” something more moral. Put simply – something I could feel good about in body, mind, heart and soul. Within weeks of reading that book, I sold my half interest in Aeronautic Industries and became an apprentice carpenter, learning to frame apartment buildings in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. I was 23.
Fruit for the Juicer
Morality, it turns out, is facilitated by a lot of good modeling and caretaker support beginning early on in our brain development. If we want to have a moral culture, parents, teachers, clergy and caretakers must begin helping to develop morality early in the brains of our children. Or at least not sidetrack the morality that this study suggests develops naturally. Morality appears to require considerable neural connectivity in the orbital prefrontal cortex – the central processing area – much like that depicted in the fourth illustration here:
Without it, many of us will grow into adults who simply lack the networked “processing power” to manage the fears and emotions that distort and drive our daily doings. It isn’t at all surprising to me, therefore, to see the current mess on Detroit or Wall Street – Madoff’s 50 billion dollar swindle of charities and pension funds being the latest – or The Smartest Guys in the Room – the Enron energy traders – showing up pretty much as clueless teenagers in their emotional and moral development. These smart guys’ crimes – bilking state and federal governments, pensions funds and charities, and their own fellow employees out of billions of dollars – is a serious one that is causing great suffering for people. But the greater crime is that this “laboratory” hasn’t been put into deliberate, conscious service as “fruit for the juicer” – workplace experiences to profoundly grow from emotionally, morally and spiritually.
While time spent teaching reading in prison worked wonders for Michael Milken, prisons are not the best places to grow our moral brains. Social neuroscience asserts that “it takes a more organized brain to help organize a less organized brain.” From society’s perspective, a more restorative justice might be to require people like the Enron perpetrators to serve time in places like cloistered monasteries. More than a few emotionally and morally challenged folks – like Saul in Christianity and Milarepa in Buddhism – have used suboptimal origins as springboards for great moral transformation. We are all developmental works in progress. The few of us who might be able to cast the first stones have good parenting to thank. The rest of us and our children deserve similar support so that our neurology and our cardiology may profit handsomely from our own personal failings and firings.