What Am I Getting Away With? by Dave LaRue

I recently read two questions that were shared in an article written about the late Bernie Madoff. He was the man who orchestrated the biggest Ponzi scheme in US history. More on him later. The two questions were:

“What do I think I’m getting away with?”
“What do I think others around me are getting away with?”

These really fired up my interest. My thoughts just started to ignite. Every now and then, we all should ask ourselves these questions. Remember, great thinking comes from asking great questions and having great conversations.

I’ve seen so many examples of both and I’ve certainly had many of my own. I did the old-fashioned method of brainstorming and took out a legal pad, put a line down the middle, and wrote the questions on the top and just started to think of times in my life where these questions took me.

The first things that occurred to me were simple but ultimately definitive things that spoke to the powerful personal and social needs and forces that often drive our initial attitudes and willingness to give the benefit of the doubt—and, if we’re not rigorous, every decision afterward.

For these very reasons, these are the most important forces to gain self-awareness of as leaders and entrepreneurs. It’s a list where you may recognize yourself or others close to you.

I’ve seen people go further than prudent with unlikely, shady, or outlandish, claims simply because they: 

Wanted something exciting to talk about.

• Were lonely and liked talking to the people involved.

• Leapt at the chance to talk to someone about their own business and dreams.

• Identified with having big ideas no one else supported.

• Felt that the opportunity would help them stay current in a field they were not savvy in.

• Didn’t actually understand how unlikely the scenario was (didn’t know what they didn’t know).

• Felt sheer defiance: the lack of interest of the smart money somehow “proved” it was an even better idea, despite appearances.

• They couldn’t accept that they were the “dumb money,” or late to the game.

• Were desperate for a win, or, worse yet, cash.

• Looked past others’ behavior or track record because of other related personal or financial commitments.

• Having had their runaway self-promotion validated and they couldn't bear to take it back.

• The art of avoidance: Were locked into “a little white lie” about, e.g., know-how, connections, funding, or bandwidth. Or, they felt they couldn’t back out because they were helpless to have a tough conversation.

I was once in a deal where, I now know, I did a terrible job of vetting the other people that were leading the charge. I ignored my gut feelings and went ahead with the investment anyways. The main reason I did it was because I was brought in by one of my best pals. He’s still a great pal. But the two of us wound up making a lot of costly decisions and, perhaps worst of all, being temporarily associated with people who turned out to be not so good. They were very likable and seemed on the surface to be solid. But it was later revealed that they’d had some tarnished business dealings in the past. So, we not only kept investing both time and money into the deal, but the biggest exposure and most costly risk was the potential of being judged by association with people who might tarnish our own reputations. 

When it became clear how this one deal could bleed over into my other businesses, I had to find an exit strategy—even if it would cost me my whole investment. It’s like the Kenny Rogers song, “You gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away—and know when to run!” So I put my sneakers on and, strategically, ran! 

What was really interesting learning from the aftermath of this deal is, because I had earned a respected reputation and built a solid track record of successful, fair, open, and honest dealings, I wasn’t vulnerable to any baseless character attacks from others involved. A really long story short is that I was able to work out a solution and, almost 15 years later we have a successful business with great people and great products. 

I actually could tell several more stories where I was making decisions/choices in areas that are not my genius! I love opportunities, I love hearing people’s dreams, and so I often find myself more excited about their opportunities than they are. Had I not learned about this tendency in myself, I would be susceptible to making the same mistake again and again! But I know how to learn a lesson. Now after several costly learning experiences, I have created a system/process to follow when vetting opportunities. I bet you can guess my number one attribute of any deal! It’s truly knowing who the people I’ll be involved with are!

I think it is interesting to talk about the different reasons people feel like they’re the exception to “if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.” Why do we talk ourselves into it? What are we seeking? Hoping for? Fantasizing about? I have discovered for myself my burning desire to achieve, succeed, create great stories makes me susceptible to filling in the blanks and not vetting the answers to, "Is it too good to be true?" 

I think in going into many of our deals—and even relationships—there's often some of the same energy, desires, and needs that a lot of Madoff investors had. It’s a little different with his scheme, as the apparent social proof of all these happy people with big returns had a profound effect. But there's something deeper that I see. 

Ultimately I think something is interesting about the Madoff scheme that has something to do with how we all have some belief at some level that life should be easier than it is, and that somebody, somewhere has it very easy, and that this is unfair.  

Whether or not you feel that there really is something wrong with others having it easier than you—or if it’s true at all that someone does—isn’t the point here. The point is the way this belief does a number on us, whether it’s because we think 1) here’s my chance to have it as easy as it should be or 2) That guy or those people are the ones who have it easy. We can lose all accountability and good sense when our sense of fairness gets involved. 

This may be because a sense of fairness is intrinsic to us on a deep level. The animal level. Instinct. Not only do apes have an innate sense of fairness, which has been widely observed, but even rats have an inborn sense of fairness that dictates their behaviorSo, without working to establish self-awareness of this fact, we are dealing with something below the level of rational control when someone says, “Here is your chance to finally be treated fairly. You deserve this.” Perhaps the learning there is that if someone who doesn’t love you tells you that you deserve something that involves giving them money, it’s time to count the silverware—emotional, financial, and actual.   

But above that deep instinctual level, we know the pull of a great vision. It is fun, it connects us to others, and it seems to connect us to a purpose larger than ourselves. Many of us are great at building the dream story and getting people to believe in the dream and in us. That may be our job. It may even be our genius, making those we share the dream with feel lucky to be doing business with such a good business person. People like to belong to a club, especially an exclusive one that makes them feel superior to others. It’s a lot like knowing a deep secret about someone that they shared with you. 

What happens is the person that knows the secret ends up sharing it with others, the main reason is they want others to know how special their relationship is with the person whose secret they’re telling others. The feeling of being in an elite group makes you susceptible to looking past all the warning signs, even though the deal sounds too good to be true. 

I think Madoff was brilliant at feeding off of this energy and what’s really interesting is that people at all different financial levels bought it, hook, line, and sinker! This is one reason why I tend to think the scheme spoke to something so deep in us—the appeal was universal! And he was a master at manipulating investors feeling, reactions, and commitment to him, even when really smart people were warning others that there was no way he could do what he said he was doing. I think Madoff realized people would reason this out by saying, “Well that person is just saying that because he can’t be part of the club. They’re not one of us. They don’t get it like we do. They don’t believe they deserve it.” 

I think many people are very susceptible to taking the path of least resistance and they maybe even really register a feeling of “getting away” with anything, even with these amazing returns. They may even have had misgivings on some level that Madoff wasn’t legitimate. But as long as they saw the reports that said their net worth kept growing, whatever he was doing must be working. Because it seemed to work, it must be OK. When people told them to be careful they would just brush it away using a variety of excuses. They didn’t stop and ask, “What am I getting away with? What is Madoff getting away with? 

Of course, on a positive note, the scam was eventually revealed, and the efforts of many people has allowed over 14 billion dollars to be returned to investors. And for the rest of us, the whole affair’s postmortem value as an object lesson in the power—and the need—to stop and ask ourselves, “What am I getting away with” is not to be underestimated. That tremendous value is available to us all. 

I’d love for you to share your thoughts and reactions or your favorite insight from the reflection. 

Cheers! 

Dave

Reflection

  1. What are some situations you have learned from along these lines? What are some situations you might still have lessons to learn from about what stops you from asking "What am I getting away with?
  2. When have you benefited from leaning into the feeling that "This seems too good to be true?" What did you discover? What friction did you have to work through?
  3. When have you missed the chance to stop? What stopped you? How can you learn from this?
  4. How about personally and in your relationships? What are you "getting away" with there? 
  5. What's your mind's trick for rationalizing away or hiding the fact that you're getting away with something in your relationships?

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