Some popular research data recently emerged claiming that human beings are moving on a kinder, gentler trajectory. The evidence, fewer wars where thousands were slaughtered. Fewer murders in towns and cities. Therefore, they say, evil is losing out, the good is thriving. One glance at the news suggests otherwise, and all the evidence in my personal life defies that analysis. Evil has simply mutated and changed garb. Evil is alive in business, in politics, in governments, in nations. Sometimes it’s overt as in Darfur, Sudan, Syria or Al Qaeda. Evil is still around us in acts of violence as we’ve just witnessed, as well as more quietly among the brazen thieves, the Madoffs, the bullies, the harassers. One in four women in the most advanced democracy in the world, yes here in America, suffer physical abuse from husbands or boyfriends. One in six young girls and one in twenty boys suffer some form of sexual abuse, too often from members of their own families.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Evil is woven into our past, as a species, but it doesn’t need to be a part of our future. History has blessed us with extraordinary messengers to show us the way to a better future. Their names are familiar—yet their messages are too often ignored. You’ll likely recognize most of these names: Buddha, Confucius, Moses, Christ, Mohammad, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela and more. They all appeared in history to illuminate our way towards the good. But a culture of complacency and even cynicism simply shuts the door on them, and we move on with less insight, less knowledge, fewer values with a compass that points whichever way we want, at any given moment.
In my own case, when it comes to understanding the historical past, I need to look no further than my own memories of childhood. I was drawn into events which, for most people, are simply chapters in a book on European history. As a result, I consider myself an extremely fortunate man. My proof is quite simple: I’m alive. Being born in Rumania, on the eve of the Second World War was risky enough. Yet only a few years later, I found myself, as a small boy, forced to work in a Communist labor camp, as a generation of former leaders, intellectuals and anyone else who might pose a threat to the new regime was exterminated. My grandfather was one of these people, a national leader in Rumanian politics, and so, as a result, a member of this doomed generation. He was put in solitary confinement where, one day, a guard kicked him in the mouth until he died. No one would have bet long on my chances of making it through that same gauntlet alive. But, after years of childhood captivity and abuse, that’s exactly what happened. I landed in America at the age of 15, knowing hardly a word of English and having no education beyond the first grade. Yet I was a quick study, gifted with an admission to Exeter and graduated with honors from Princeton and then Stanford Business School. Hired directly out of school by Young & Rubicam, I began a career in marketing and communications as a trainee. Thirty-seven years later, still at Y&R, one of the leading agencies on Madison Avenue, I was running the entire company, as Chairman and CEO.
It’s been an unlikely life, to say the least. For an off-the-boat immigrant boy (metaphorically speaking, since I arrived at Idlewild Airport, now Kennedy, in 1954) my success was not the most probable outcome. I’m not saying my life was simple and easy. I was groomed for a life of success by more than the usual allotment of hardship and challenge early in life. And I was given many crucial opportunities through the compassion of countless people in America. But in the end, looking back, I’d have to say that a positive force was almost always on my side—without it, my particular American Dream never would have been fulfilled. That goodness in human behavior, the goodness of countless people who helped me succeed and become whole, was the reality, the spirit, I have tried to define and celebrate in The Constant Choice. It is a goodness I believe can and will prevail over the sort of evil and violence that seems to emerge so dramatically in our society, as it has just done again.