Robert FitzPatrick is an author, teacher, and internationally recognized authority in multi-level marketing schemes and pyramid sales fraud. He is the president of Pyramid Scheme Alert, a consumer organization to confront the abuses of pyramid schemes.
What was your childhood like? Any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
My childhood was protected, rather isolated, shaped by the extremely conventional lifestyle of an emerging Southern City, Charlotte, NC, a place with little or no art and culture, diversity (other than the apartheid of white and black), with no other languages besides English heard, and dominated by bland commercialism, pop culture, sports, patriotism and protestant piety. However, in this one-dimensional and quite oppressive environment that seemed to abhor originality, eccentricity and individualism, I was also, fortunately, an outsider, being raised a Roman Catholic and with parents whose own parents were immigrants, with no claims to be “southern.” We were anomalous, though not alone, as we were part of a very small Catholic subculture in Charlotte in the 1950s and 60s with its own schools, churches, clubs, holidays and language (Latin), and which ignored or was socially excluded from the larger, prevailing and very tight-knit southern culture of that segregated city.
Living in a city of such banal and racist values, while also being excluded and discriminated against, as though I should wish to belong, which I most certainly did not, shaped me as an outsider, a person largely unaffected by financial status, social position and instinctively suspicious of and not intimidated by authority.
What advice would you give to a younger self (20-year-old you)? Place where you were at the time, and what you were doing.
Don’t judge yourself so severely, allow for yourself as much compassion and understanding as you would extend to others.
Strangely, this is a reverse of the doctrine, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Growing up in a moralistic, dogmatic and rather insular family with powerful Irish Catholic morals, I was trained to be sympathetic and understanding to others, especially underdogs, but we were also mercilessly judgmental of ourselves, living always in a state of shame. I would now advise my 20-year-old-self to do unto yourself as you would do unto others.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
In terms of advice to younger people and as a guiding rule throughout life, I hear the admonition to measure virtually all decisions in terms of economics. Homes are chosen based on resale. Children are educated, trained, oriented based on future – unknown – job markets. Political views are based on financial considerations. Social connections are expected to support, never hinder, social mobility. This obsession with financial security or advancement is soul-killing and especially debilitating to a young spirit.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
I was sued for tens of millions of dollars in a defamation suit for expressing a professional view regarding identifying a pyramid scheme fraud. I came face to face with the prevailing reality that justice is reserved for those with financial resources to work the legal system; that the law and conventional opinion favor the powerful over individuals; and the “legal” system can be used as a brutal, crude tool to silence or eliminate individuals. In that circumstance, and over a five year period of defending myself, I questioned my motives, my career, my values. I had to consider the real possibility of losing every asset and possession I had, all due to having written and spoken in a way was factually-based, truthful and within my rights professionally as a business model analyst and an expert in fraud. The case brought against me was a frivolous SLAPP suit designed to suppress free speech, in which I ultimately prevailed. However, these suits are seldom intended to win, but always to inflict harm with harassment, crushing legal fees and intimidation.
I was sustained in this battle by the total support of my spouse who showed me that losing all possessions could be faced together and that my truest assets could never be seized by any court.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
My definition of “success” has always been measured by an individual, not an external, standard. I would say that this guide for “success” was primarily given to me by my parents who charted their own lives by inner values and were largely unmoved by social status, need to belong and or any financial measure. The message I received, which I would define as the biggest contributor to my own success, was to live by my own inner standards and values. This has given me the freedom to take risks, go in new directions and not be controlled by external, especially monetary guides.
What is your morning routine?
The morning is a time for slow start and reflection for me. I do a regimen of exercises most mornings in my bedroom, sit-ups, pushups, yoga stretches. I slowly get through bathing and shaving and then a breakfast of fruit and granola or whole grain bread, with coffee. I do a lot of formulating of plans, writing ideas, reflections on relationships, pondering big questions in the first few hours of the morning. My wife and I speak about ideas, people, our dreams during the night, and other activities when we eat together. We also usually listen to NPR Morning Edition during some of this time. I start my work about 9:30 or 10, siting at my desk, reading emails and addressing whatever projects are pending.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
I am not a particularly habitual person. My daily schedule varies. I don’t go to bed or even wake up at the very same time each day. My life is not planned out very far. However, one significant change that is habitual and has required active cultivation before becoming completely normal and effortless now is how I eat. I am almost completely vegetarian. I eat no fast food, no soft drinks, no junk food. My diet is mostly grains, beans and greens, lots of greens. I am well supported in this habit by my wife who does most cooking. We buy organic vegetables almost all the time.
This way of eating is our preference and our pleasure now. As a result, I actually weigh less now than I did in high school. I don’t suffer from the arthritis and many other disabilities people my age (71) experience. I have a strong, steady energy level. I seldom experience pains or discomfort associated with eating. I view this habit as less about diet and mostly about living purposefully and consciously. It is a remarkable fact that many people do not give much thought to and are generally controlled by advertising or old habits regarding something as fundamental and personal as what we eat. Eating, based on sound nutritional information, and purposeful shopping and cooking is, in today’s world, one of the few areas where personal freedom and choice really can be exercised.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
My best remedy when a sense of isolation and aridity seems to dominate my inner life is to reconnect with nature, in the mountains of North Carolina where we have a house or even in my own back yard in the city. This seems to reorient me properly to the immense scale and complexity of things, put my issues into perspective and just allow the natural process of creativity to return.
What’s a book(s) that have influenced your life the most? Why?
Culture Against Man by Jules Henry – was perhaps the first book I encountered and understood that presented the possibility that large, conventional institutions – corporations, schools, media – were operating with values and exhibiting behavior that could be viewed as insane, destructive and counter to human well being. In short, the book introduced me to the idea, which I already privately felt, that large segments of society or at least large parts of it that shaped much of our individual lives, could be certifiably mad, while those who are called mad could be the sane ones.
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller – explored in novel form the same ideas that Jules Henry, the anthropologist, had expressed with the added value of presenting this dark wisdom with brilliant, ironic humor.
The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen – which I read late in life, opened my eyes for the first time to the fundamental reality that history is one continuous thread; that cultural values and roles of today are only legacies of earlier ones; that, current or historical, life and society are largely the same. The “knight” errant of legend and the aggressive “businessman” today are not disconnected. One era, such as “Medieval” does not disappear with “Enlightenment” but only modifies, with roles adapting while fundamentally remaining the same. And people, whether in caves or skyscrapers, are the same.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“I laugh because I must not cry. That is all. That is all.” – Abraham Lincoln
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” – Mark Twain, (attributed)