Lies, Movies and the Snowball Effect

Unless you’re a saint – and if you are I’m not sure what you’re doing reading my blog – you probably remember some time in your past when you told a white lie (at least it seemed white at the time), but then found yourself having to talk your way around it later (more lies). Eventually you find yourself in a bit of a jam.  I experienced this more than a few times when I was a kid, and fortunately I learned my lesson: the first lie is the biggest one.

I was thinking about this recently when I watched The Wizard of Lies, the HBO movie about infamous ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, starring Robert DeNiro. Richard Dreyfuss also starred as Madoff in an earlier miniseries. I thought both versions were excellent.

The Madoff story is amazing in how badly people got fleeced – $65 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b”). But at the same time the key elements of the story are boring and predictable. Madoff didn’t set out to fleece investors of that sum. In the DeNiro version, Madoff explains to his flabbergasted family that he always thought he could make it back up and catch up to the lies. But he never did, the market tanked in 2008 causing people to liquidate the assets (they thought) they had, and the rest is history.

When he wrote the first fraudulent check to an investor, he was trapped.

I was reminded of another great movie that focused on how good people can get themselves into terrible trouble with one small ethical misstep. The movie is Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford. It came out in 1994 and was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, where it lost to Forrest Gump.

If you haven’t seen the movie, or if it’s been a long time since you have, I recommend viewing it (currently available on Netflix). It shows how someone from the upper-echelon of society can make the fatal mistake of the one small lie, and also how we allow ourselves to be swayed by appearance.

I might point out also that a key character instrumental in abetting/corrupting the respective main characters in The Wizard of Lies and Quiz Show were both played by actor Hank Azaria (23 years apart).

A couple takeaways that might of helpful to you, or helpful to parents seeking to guide their children away from self-destructive behaviors:

  • Humans have been telling stories about the slippery slope of the first lie for years. These two movies – both of them about real life examples, and depicting people who already occupied the upper-strata of society – can be good teaching material. Consider also that Watergate was exactly this story, and it shows how repetitive the problem is. It’s one of the many bugs in our software.
  • Remember the first rule for anyone who finds they have dug themselves into a hole: “Stop digging”.  Many people make their lives more complicated than they have to be by continuing to dig even though they know they’re in a hole.
  • Be wary of any advice you might receive from Hank Azaria.

Ethics discussions in college and business are often about large issues that are often beyond the scope of the average person. I mean, even if I wanted to fleece investors out of a few billion dollars, I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to go about it.

But as I’ve told college students on the occasions when I’ve been invited to present to them and this topic comes up, their first ethical test once they are in the business world will not be some big massive question (“should I embezzle a million dollars from the company or not?”). It will be when they fill out their first expense report.

It’s the first lie that gets you. Being vigilant when you’re tempted, and being humble enough to stop digging and admit fault when you realize you’ve made a mistake, is the hard work of walking the straight path.

Good luck!