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Lydia Fisher

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Leonardo da Vinci, Wall Street, and the Yellow Canary

Posted: 05/27/11 12:27 PM ET

Leonardo da Vinci had a point when he so eloquently put it, "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." A little philosophy, a little history might go a long way on Wall Street. After all, complex instruments cooked up by byzantine "too-big-to-fails" nearly collapsed our economy. The name alone turns the whole notion of a free market enterprise system upside-down. We rise and fall on our own successes or failures. Not on bailouts.

So, what did I find to be the most important tools, throughout my multi-decade-long career on Wall Street?

I'd say, character and conscience. This is not just talk. In the mid-1980s, my former Salomon Brothers mentor affirmed the same.

Naturally, what we value and how we prioritize shows up in behavior. In the composite, it shapes a culture. And, depending upon culture, civilizations may either progress or regress.

If I can muse here for a moment. The making of the financial crisis can be looked at as a reflection of values and priorities. Idolizing money and power, in a skewed sort of way -- at the expense of others -- led to a "feeding frenzy," leaving much damage. Trillions in bailouts, debts, amidst billions in bonuses (still). How simply Orwellian!

No surprise, then, that I would find an unexpected phone call about a yellow canary so compelling for our times. Read on.

It was one of those quiet evenings. I'm at home listening to a symphony and reading a book. The phone rings. It's my mother. In her Lithuanian accent, she's ecstatic to share a wondrous experience. There's hardly a dull moment with my mother and father. They've energetically been together over six decades since falling in love in a refugee camp.

While conversing and dining in their Floridian home, a petite yellow canary accidentally flew into their window. Stunned, it fell on the ground. The neighbor's cat lurched to take advantage of the bird's plight. My mother shouted out to my father. The cat started to drag it by its wing. Death was near. My father bolted out of the house (he is 88) to intercede. He shooed away the cat, picked up the canary and spent the next fifteen minutes caressing it in the palm of his hand.

My mother was taken by how my father, a retired physician and a "tough as nails" dad, went on to lovingly nurse this yellow canary back to life. As it awakened to the warmth of personal touch, my father proceeded outdoors to place the tiny bird on a palm leaf. The yellow canary stood up, spread its wings, and flew ever higher into the heavens.

My parents marveled. I reflected. The beauty, the goodness. It's a story of kindness, human touch and connection, rooted in love and compassion. It's a spontaneous exercise of conscience to do the right thing. There it is, the simple foundation from which all else emanates.

What would have happened had my parents looked away, went on to just enjoy their dinner together, desensitized to what goes on around them?

Clearly, systemic failure, an ethical void and sundry influences got us to where we are today. But, here's something to think about... the pace at which we are moving. Is it consistent with being human? Are there consequences? Does it give us the opportunity to truly reach our full potential, each in our capacity as a unique individual?

Albert Einstein had this to say, "overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality."

We're frenetically moving in an ever-accelerating world through the maze of complexity, bigness, and information inundation. Maybe, too many distractions, too little reflection. Seems like, the bigger, the more complex, and layered we've become, the more impersonal it feels, the less relevant the human connections and relationships.

A crisis was created, in large part, around the ability to mask truth through complexity. Complex securities, many, not all, proved to be illusions, with real human impact. For all the microscopic scrutiny that the myriad channels of communication afford, the most basic was overlooked or not more deeply scrutinized. Bad loans are bad loans, no matter how one packages them up.

Beyond the veil of everything that is fleeting, are we moving forwards, making human progress, or moving backwards, or standing still as if in circular motion?

Lydia is Founder/President of Galyda Media and the author of Cinderella of Wall Street.