Making It (Up) In America
America runs on ambition, a classic vice—but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The first email I ever received from Francesca Gino hit my inbox in July 2013. My Ph.D. advisor had sent an introductory email to her, suggesting that the three of us work together on a field experiment with a corporate partner. Francesca replied positively within two hours and our collaboration began.
It was more than six years later that our research was finally published in an academic journal. During those six years, I got dozens of emails from Francesca in exactly 110 separate email chains. Besides that, we had several group phone calls and in-person meetings to talk about our project, and I saw her occasionally at academic conferences.
After our collaboration finished, I didn’t think about Francesca much until June 17 of this year, when I read a blog post providing detailed and convincing evidence of fraud in four of her published papers. Some of the instances of fraud were accomplished with only a few keystrokes: Open an .xlsx file containing the results of an experiment and change a few values in a few cells to make the “results” more dramatic and easier to publish. Evidently these revelations have caused her to lose her named professorship at Harvard Business School, whose website currently describes her as on “administrative leave.” As I read this news and the evidence behind it, I felt my jaw literally drop, something I had previously thought only happened in cartoons.
By now, Gino’s alleged fraud has been reported on more or less everywhere, including at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She’s been a giant in the world of business research for a long time, publishing well-regarded research prolifically, writing bestselling books and, according to one source, commanding high-five-figure speaking fees for keynotes. Her stature in the field makes her disgrace all the more stunning. Yahoo reports that she may become the first professor ever to be stripped of tenure privileges by Harvard.
Much of the cost of Gino’s fraud will be borne by her coauthors, of whom Gino had a total of 148 throughout her career. Many of them fear that association with her will tarnish their reputations, and will cast doubt on the veracity and value of their collaborations with her. As for the paper I coauthored with her, the other coauthors and I have checked our records and data thoroughly to ensure that she never altered it and that everything is honestly reported in the published version. (Francesca’s role in the collaboration was to make the introduction to the corporate partner and to act essentially as a senior adviser on research, not to generate or directly to handle the data.) This internal audit of our paper and at least one external audit are still ongoing.
My other coauthors and I feel confident that our paper is “clean” and that, although Gino may have falsified data in many of her other papers, our paper at least is above reproach ethically. Since my conscience is clear and I have left academia anyway, I feel very little concern about the problems that Gino’s fraud could cause for my career. Instead, I’ve been preoccupied thinking of something else. As I observe the fallout of a colleague committing a large-scale fraud that generated national headlines, the only thought going through my mind is: Why is this happening to me again?
The first time I was on the periphery of a large-scale fraud was when I was a teenager in the 2000s. My father helped me get a summer job working for a family friend: A wealthy investor named Barton who attended the same church as us and lived just down the street in our neighborhood. I earned $10 an hour working essentially as an office assistant. The only task I remember clearly is filing: Putting endless stacks of papers in order in giant cabinets. The office was small, clean, and, above all else, boring. I shared the room where I did the filing with two finance professionals in their twenties who flirted shamelessly with one another all day. I wasn’t especially close to the boss, but I did spend some time at his house after work a few times, babysitting his kids occasionally and attending a church meeting once. Overall, it was fine temporary work for a suburban kid.
It was only years later, long after I moved away from home and had mostly forgotten about that nondescript summer job, that I learned that the SEC had charged Barton with financial fraud. Eventually he was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison for running a $50 million Ponzi scheme. It was a shock to my family and our little community that still makes us shake our heads in disbelief and bewilderment.
In the 12 years since Barton was sentenced, I’ve reflected often on the summer I spent working for him. His crimes had surely already begun when I worked there, but I remember seeing him around the office and thinking of him as nothing but a friendly and easygoing presence, a man with a firm handshake and a ready smile. If I had been more attentive or perceptive, could I have seen signs of his growing misdeeds? I remember him playing Santa at a church Christmas party. If a neighborly, put-together family man like that could be a craven thief when his office door was closed, then what other crimes were being furtively committed all around me by others who appeared equally wholesome? What other crimes were my friends and colleagues capable of—and what was I capable of?
The time I spent working for Barton coincided with the high watermark of Lance Armstrong’s success and fame, many years before he would admit to doping throughout his career. (In fact, Barton’s office was not far to the west of Armstrong’s home in Austin.) Armstrong’s fame lit a fire in the whole greater Austin area; everyone simultaneously seemed to decide they wanted to be an underdog cyclist just like him. For a year or two, it was hard to drive around the roads near my house because there were so many packs of aspiring Armstrongs zipping around at all hours. Every time I looked out the window from Barton’s office, I could see these endless lines of amateur cyclists on their long rides.
It was only years later that I understood that there had been fraud everywhere I looked: Fraudulent financial files inside the office and imitators of an athletic fraud outside the window. But at the time I saw it completely differently: I thought I was looking at the clean files of an honest and hugely successful investor, then looking out the window at the followers of an inspirational sports hero. It makes me laugh just a little to think of how totally surrounded I was by fraud, and how completely I misunderstood my situation and my surroundings. It is astonishing that learning a few facts can change our view of the past so drastically, and it makes me wonder which parts of my life I’m completely misperceiving now.
Having this peripheral involvement with criminal fraud as an impressionable teenager has given me a lifelong morbid fascination with frauds of all kinds. Studying frauds is a little like reading the Inferno. You see the sordid uniqueness of each individual’s sins and how they reflect and grow from the personality of the sinner. You also see a little of yourself, and you learn what path awaits you if you slouch towards their mistakes.
In person, Gino exudes energy and is relentlessly positive. She used exclamation points liberally in emails, and, like a startup founder, she always expressed high confidence that we could get any grant we wanted or publish in any journal. Barton was a little more subdued in person, speaking quietly but still confidently. Like Dante’s sinners, each fraud is different from every other, and it is difficult to make generalizations about what personality type a fraud should be expected to have.
With one exception: The common thread that unites all of these frauds is ambition. Each of them were talented enough to feed their families through honest work, but each wished for more—not just money, but power, influence, fame, and immortality.
Ambition has always been part of our human nature. But it has not always possessed the strongly positive connotation it enjoys today. Consider what Shakespeare had to say about it. In Henry VIII, Wolsey advises his protege Cromwell about what thinks is the proper attitude towards ambition:
Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition: By that sin fell the angels; how can man then, The image of his Maker, hope to win by't?
Contrast this with our attitude to ambition today. In 2014, some researchers published results of surveys that asked people to rate exactly how positively or negatively they regarded thousands of English words. Surveyees rated the word “ambitious” as highly positive, with exactly the same score as “admire,” “adorably,” “beautified,” “charmers,” “cheerfulness,” “comforts,” “compliment,” “courageousness,” “delightfulness,” and many other highly positive words. Can you imagine Shakespeare or his audience giving ambition such high ratings?
Ambition is so well-regarded today that influential people who don’t need the money nevertheless dedicate their free time to increasing its presence in others. Consider a recently released conversation between Tyler Cowen and Paul Graham. Graham is, among other things, an advisor to tech startups and one of the founders of Y Combinator, a startup accelerator. Cowen asked Graham “how to boost ambition by two times.” Graham was excited by the question, and replied:
As an outside person, I’m like an instructor in some fitness class. I can tell someone who’s already working as hard as they can, “All right, push harder”…. Imagine how amazing it would be if all the ambitious people can be more ambitious.
Cowen suggested that separating people from their friends and family could help accomplish the increase in ambition that both of them wish for: “You pull them away from their old peers, who are not good enough for them, and you bring them into new circles, which will raise their sights.”
Ambition is part of the air we breathe in the middle and upper classes of America today. Shakespeare might say that we are all getting choked by this surfeit, even as our elites are pumping more of it into the atmosphere.
But not quite everyone is falling for it. Consider Dee Hock, the founder of Visa who passed away last year. He was born in 1929 in rural Utah, and after achieving riches and fame with Visa, he pursued a life of quiet solitude and semi-retirement. Here is what he said when he was inducted into the Business Hall of Fame: “Through the years, I have greatly feared and sought to keep at bay the four beasts that inevitably devour their keeper—Ego, Envy, Avarice, and Ambition.”
Hock’s attitude represents an older American ideal—something with which Jonathan Edwards and the Puritans might have felt comfortable. Cowen and Graham, with their love of speed and ambition and their advocacy of abandoning your mediocre friends and relatives for the sake of lucre, seem to represent what America has become in the centuries since: Technocratic, secular, hyper-individualistic, and dominated by ideas from the coasts.
Francesca Gino was never shy about her ambition. I remember hearing her once describe how she had felt extremely unsatisfied during her two years teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her remark shocked me—UNC is a top notch school in a beautiful place. What about it could possibly be unsatisfying? But of course, we could ask the same about Macbeth’s castle as described by Shakespeare:
This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.
Gino’s plum position at UNC was a bit like being the Thane of Cawdor: Pleasant, but a step below being the king. She was unsatisfied until she could climb even higher in the university rankings and sit indisputably at the top of her field. It wasn’t long before she got a professorship and then tenure at Harvard and even led the well-regarded Negotiations, Organizations, and Markets Unit there.
Evidently, even that wasn’t enough. Amazingly, several of her verified fraudulent papers were published well after she received tenure. What more did she have to gain by adding one more little publication to her already lengthy CV? Why take the risk when she already had money, acclaim, and job security at the top of her field? Wasn’t tenure at Harvard enough?
Dee Hock would call this proof that ambition is a monster: It consumed Gino and denied her happiness even as she should have felt comfortable and content at the pinnacle of her field. She always wanted more, and nothing was ever enough. Samuel Johnson understood this phenomenon well. In his novel Rasselas, after the prince and his friends travel the world to decide how to live life, the prince decides what he wants: “The Prince desired a little kingdom...but he could never fix the limits of his dominion, and was always adding to the number of his subjects.”
You may think that a prince would be satisfied to have any size of kingdom at all, but it’s not so—even a prince always feels the nagging itch of the ambition monster, always goading its keeper towards more growth and further dominions without end. Gino had exactly this problem: even after achieving great glory, she was unable to fix the limits of her CV, and always added to her number of publications—even if she had to lie to do it.
I haven’t spoken with Francesca Gino since the fraud allegations came out. I can only imagine that the whole experience is extremely painful for her, and I can sympathize with her. She is human like the rest of us, and anyone who has deceived a boss to avoid some extra work, or felt unsatisfied after achieving some solid career success, or just plain told a lie, should be able to understand how it’s possible for a normal person to get caught up in the types of mistakes she made.
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Like Francesca, I left academia years ago (though for reasons unrelated to fraud). Parts of that experience were painful for me, but it gave me a chance to re-evaluate my life and pick a new direction. Overall, I am pleased with the result: I am now working on things that are, I believe, more worthwhile than what I wanted to do before. Most importantly, it helped me kill (or at least tame) that formidable monster, ambition.
Francesca Gino is an immigrant from Italy. Like so many others, she came to America for a chance at success. Luckily for her, America is not only a land of opportunity—it’s a land of second chances. Brian Wansink, a former Cornell professor who recently resigned in disgrace after being found guilty of research misconduct, has started a foundation aiming to “help families become happier, healthier, and more connected,” and is apparently interested in pursuing music as well. With no pressure to keep churning out publications, Wansink can do what he loves or what he feels is most important in his own heart.
Gino has a great opportunity in front of her: An opportunity to cage the ambition monster, carefully choose an exciting new direction for life, and do one of the most American things a person can do—start over.