When you listen to people talk about choices they regret, whether it was working for the guy who put on Fyre Fest or joining a gang or a cult, it’s remarkable how much it comes down to wanting to impress someone. Not their friends, not other people, but one person—usually the leader. That’s the theme in Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress, for example. Over and over again, he reveals how badly he wanted the approval of Donald Trump. He wanted to be at the center of it. He wanted to be indispensable. He was willing to do just about anything to achieve it. And now he’s in jail.
Seneca’s story is similar. He started off as Nero’s tutor, but as Nero became emperor and grew more and more powerful, it’s hard not to see how the dynamic shifted. Seneca remained in service to this deranged ruler, doing his bidding, helping him with things he knew were wrong. Why? He likely told himself that he needed Nero to like and trust him so that he would be able to temper his worst impulses and steer him toward goodness. That was part of it. But also, he must have enjoyed the power and influence. He liked knowing that he was needed by the most powerful man in the world.
It was a costly bargain, one that destroyed Seneca’s reputation and, in the end, took his life. If only he could have remembered his own advice, it would have helped him snap out of it—“The favor of ignoble men can be won only by ignoble means,” Seneca had written. Yet that’s precisely where his job took him.
We should learn from all of these examples. There is no way to work for bad people without becoming at least a little bit like them. There is no way to not be discombobulated by the reality distortion fields of these types, and this, as James Comey recently explained, is the first step in the slippery slope of corruption. We must be very careful about who we work for, who we associate with, and who we try to impress.
Because it puts into motion a process that once begun is impossible to stop...and rarely ends well.