Saturday, October 20, 2012

On Hubris

Dear Mackenzie,

Everybody makes mistakes.

It’s part of the human condition and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. My own worldview, in fact, is that the more mistakes you make in life, the fuller and more vibrant your life can be.  What you should not do, Mackenzie, is make the same mistakes repeatedly. More importantly, as you go through life don’t make mistakes for the wrong reason.

The dictionary defines hubris as overconfident pride and arrogance, mixed with a lack of humility. Sad to say, we’re all susceptible to it at one point or another. By the time you read this letter, you may have studied the Greek myth about Icarus. Icarus was the son of an Athenian craftsman named Daedalus.

When Daedalus and Icarus were imprisoned by King Minos, Daedalus made two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun nor too close to the sea, but rather to follow his (Daedalus’) path of flight.

Once they took off, Icarus was overcome by the godlike power he felt that flying gave him and he started soaring higher and higher across the sky. But he got too close to the sun, the sun’s rays melted the wax, and Icarus fell into the sea and drowned.

Nowhere in world history do we have better examples of hubris at work than in Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign to conquer Russia in 1812 or Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941. (Note to people with hubris…stay out of Russia).

Napoleon was a great military leader and considered himself a strategic genius. He had conquered most of Europe by the time he turned his attention to bringing Russia to its knees.  Napoleon had met Alexander I several years earlier and the young Russian emperor had been in awe of the great Napoleon. They became allies, but when Russia reopened trade with Great Britain against Napoleon’s wishes, Napoleon decided to teach Alexander a lesson and bring Russia to heel.

France was already at war against Spain, but Napoleon was so confident in his powers that he ignored the age-old military adage against fighting a war on two fronts.  He also ignored the Russian weather, believing that he would defeat his enemy in one big quick battle.

The Red Army had other ideas. They continued to retreat strategically, drawing Napoleon and his army deeper and deeper into Russia. By the time the Russian Campaign was over, close to 400,000 French troops lay dead and Napoleon’s aura of invincibility was over.

In the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler consolidated his power on the Icarian wings of his diabolical genius.  He easily defeated Poland and France and then made short work of the British army, but the British wouldn’t surrender or even agree to a favorable peace settlement.

Hitler mistakenly concluded that England was counting on Russia to enter the war on their side. Stalin (who had issues of his own) had been Hitler’s partner in dismembering Poland and the two countries had a non-aggression pact. Yet Hitler decided that if he knocked off Russia, England would lose hope and fold.

So against the advice of most of his military advisers, Hitler invaded. In what became one of the bloodiest and most ill fated military decisions in history, Hitler made every mistake Napoleon had made a hundred and thirty years earlier. Thankfully for the world, Hitler made blunder after over-confident blunder, costing him the war and ultimately his life.

Hubris isn’t limited to military leaders, of course.

Joe Paterno’s hubris led him to look the other way as one of his assistant coaches molested a number of his young players.

It made Bernie Madoff think he could openly bilk investors out of billions of dollars, and it caused the collapse of Enron, Bear Stearns and a host of other financial institutions.

In 1978, hubris caused a pitcher from Allegheny College to decide to pitch to me in the bottom of the ninth with first base open and the winning run on third base.

I hope hubris won’t get the best of you in life my sweet daughter, but unfortunately none of us is immune.

Many, many years ago my good friend Phillip invited me to lunch.  He wanted me to meet an acquaintance of his named Sheryl who was trying to break into the entertainment industry. The three of us had a nice meal while she talked about some jingles she had recorded and how she wanted to get a record deal.

I had just left the practice of law and was in the middle of producing a film. I was on top of the world and way too big for my britches. At some point during the lunch Phillip suggested that maybe I should manage her. Very full of myself, I dismissively responded that she should send me a demo tape and told her I would call her after I’d had a chance to review her material. I did give Sheryl some general advice about the business, mostly to make myself feel important.

I no longer remember if her demo was any good or if I even listened to it, but I do know that I never followed up with her. All these years later Phillip still likes to rib me about how I passed on representing Sheryl, whose last name just happened to be Crow and who somehow went on to have an extraordinary career without me.

Well, some lessons you just have to learn the hard way.

All my everlasting love,


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