These are notes from the book A Taste For Happiness by Michel David-Weill
On Society and Art…
Ideally and traditionally, the aristocracy values honor and the middle classes the concept of integrity; this obviously does not mean that other people are lacking such qualities, but it is rather normal that the middle classes, who define themselves by their material possessions, have been so concerned with honesty that they have adopted it as their basic moral criteria, because it must be said that temptation is far greater to someone in the middle classes than to someone who has nothing… A true member of the middle classes considers rules and regulations as superfluous, since anyone whose honesty is in doubt is excluded. And the fact that a man betrays their values even though he comes from the middle classes, would not prevent everyone from mistrusting him. “Never lose sight of the ethical issues”: these were the last words my grandfather spoke on his death bed. Many people never adapt to the world of business, because they do not pay enough attention to this issue. My father, half jokingly, always used to say these wonderful words: “Beware of self-made men, because they believe it’s their fault!” What he was implying was that, instead of realizing that luck, opportunity, and daily hard work allowed them to succeed; they have an unpleasant tendency to believe they are exceptional.
… never demonstrated so well as when artists are commissioned to paint specific subjects. In a certain way, this has allowed painters to come into their own, because their subjects are dictated, which gives them more freedom. When there are choices, a lot of time is lost on wondering what to paint. And that is a waste of time because what matters most is not what one is going to paint, but the way in which it will be done. The Virgin and Child has been painted a hundred thousand times, but there are only a thousand that are masterpieces.
…even though I might admire the Goya of the final years, when he wanted to prove something – the horror of war, to be specific – I cannot prevent myself from thinking that any attempt to involve oneself, even in the name of a good cause, only results in something second rate. It may not be unimportant, but it is not essential. I believe far more in necessity and the virtue of personal detachment in order to create something miraculous.
It is essential to retain the ability to be surprised and take care that one’s eye does not make anything seem banal, otherwise, all is lost. What is pitiful in mediocrity is that it dulls the senses. And the great privilege of seeing beautiful things every day is that they are constantly stimulating. I am continually delighted by the things I see which, far from distancing me from reality, allow me to perceive truth. Unfortunately, most people today are blind and our senses have been dulled. If you are standing in the middle of a lush meadow in Normandy, you feel nothing any more. You need to be in a blazing hot desert, or among the rocks of a lunar landscape to experience something again.
…them sit in silence for ten minutes, adding: “What is annoying about today’s world is that you can hear nothing because there is too much noise.” It is the same in painting: there is so much visual commotion that we only see the things that jump out at us. We are so used to strong colors, intense drawings, fantastical sounds and blinding lights that our sensitivity is affected.
While most of my contemporaries cannot escape, they continually live within that world which changes the way they see life. So human beings are cut off from their own feelings, which explains the popularity of voyages to exotic places. Standing in front of a nude by Titian or Velasquez, an Annunciation by Fra Angelico, one sees something perfectly obvious, something which does not need to be described or thought about, and which cannot be improved upon or altered because it is true. Now, we spend our lives seeking the moment when reality becomes beauty itself. And sometimes, when we look at a sky, or the sea or a person, we feel a profound sense of joy, of connection.
In the Arab world, the population does not believe itself to be either ready or capable or, consequently, eager to adopt the American model. They feel too disorganized, too subjugated beneath a religious system to participate in Capitalism, and, to them, this religious model is the only possibility. The United States is indisputably a country where people feel immense pride and great patriotism, a country that has known how to integrate people.
Justice is stronger in the United States than compassion. Everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty; but once found guilty, there is no forgiveness.
At the salons, which were hosted by women, people were invited to discuss interesting subjects with one person at a time in a way that was entertaining, without ever talking about oneself or being boring, and it was unheard of to raise the issue of one’s personal problems. This art consisted of making the person you were conversing with shine in the best light possible, with an ease of conversation, regardless of their intelligence, beauty, wealth or status. This was an exquisite challenge, and there are still some traces of it left today in Paris…
Of course, you do have to try to be as charming as possible with other people, simply and principally so that you do not become bored. One of my daughters is very funny and I said to her one day, “You are very entertaining to talk to”, to which she replied: “That’s because I don’t want to get bored!” That seemed completely fair to me because it is rare to become totally bored with a person with whom you can be amusing.
People’s private lives are being made public more and more, including in France, which is not a good thing. This encourages indignation and the false innocence that is unbearable in the United States seems to be taking hold in France. In England, it’s incredible: the hypocrisy regarding scandals is extraordinary. Not a day goes by when you can’t open an English newspaper without reading about absolutely unbelievable sexual crimes, described with delight and horror, intended to be scandalous.
To tell the truth, very few people want to believe in the economic virtues linked to Capitalism: competition, lower taxes, reduction in the government’s rate of expenditure, privatizations, the possibility of firing people. The freedom to be enterprising, hard work, social mobility, opening up new horizons, all these things have been proven possible in England, the United States, China, India… In France, you reward corporatism and reject what is blatantly obvious.
…. And all we actually know is that if this battle is not fought, we will be defeated, unless you believe in being naively optimistic, which would mean saying that if we are very kind to our enemies, they will end up liking us… I do not think that the solution is to appease staunch enemies.
I recall meeting a client in New York with the team from the office and a banker from another firm to study a case. “We need to think about all of this,” André Meyer concluded, “We’ll discuss it again in a few weeks.” The others had only just left the room when he turned to us and said: “I want the plan tomorrow morning.” You can’t take your time in business.
The second principle is your duty to be available to your team. You must appear to be happy to listen to a partner, including on the telephone, even if you are in the bath or at dinner or very early in the morning. André Meyer wanted to know everything, all the time, night or day. I remember calling him once at some ungodly hour and saying: “Please excuse me; I hope I’m not disturbing you.” “You only disturb me,” he replied, “when you don’t call me.”
After the war, my father re-opened Lazard’s Paris office; it had been closed down and he had to completely rebuild it. From a professional point of view, his skills were relatively unrecognized; all the credit went to André Meyer. So the primary lesson that I learned from him was courage. And good humor: he never complained. He also had a great deal of common sense when it came to business, and by that I mean that he could intuitively distinguish what was true from what was not, though the false was often discernible by its sheer excess. Very often, people spend time deciding between two solutions when they shouldn’t make any decision at all. “The most important thing in life,” my father used to say, “is what you do not do.”
“a Capitalist regime is superior to a Socialist regime because Capitalism can operate with a high degree of Socialism, while Socialism cannot accept any Capitalism”. I am in favour of a free market, but I do not oppose the rules that guarantee competition… the individual’s imagination is stronger than the collective imagination, and everything that can be done to allow the imagination to reign is desirable!
To my eyes, power is nothing more than the reflection of the opinion of others. It is other people who grant you the power that you do not actually have. In truth, such admiration for a leader and the quasi-religious element attributed to a CEO or a President, is nothing more than one of many social conventions.
… I rejected that idea precisely because of my pride, which makes me feel disinclined to believe I am more than a good craftsman. In truth, I would feel a lesser man if I accepted the perception of others. When I meet people who embrace their social image, I do not like it very much: I think less of them because they are reduced to the role they are playing. And so, I removed myself from the person I played. I do not know him and do not wish to know him. I am not, however, at all modest when it comes to the quality of judgment and influence that Lazard has had as a whole. If I rejected any personalization of power of any kind, it was because I believed that a collective intellectual power existed at Lazard. Moreover, that power was never used politically, although it was preferable to know the political players in order to understand what they thought of an issue or a project, even if it were simply to remain informed.
It is a never-ending battle to respect the facts, the people and to earn respect. It is necessary to continually put things back in their correct place and calmly say: “You have a right to your opinion, but you do not have the right to deny me mine or to deny my capacity to have a different opinion.” When you are thinking of the future, the risks a company can run are greater in the end than the advantages. How could a great personality have embezzled one hundred thousand euros – when he was being paid one million five hundred thousand euros – knowing that it might destroy his life? He was aware of it, but he had come around to the idea that it was a matter of a private act, neglecting to make the connection between his actions and society. This proves man’s deep need to sporadically behave in an anti-social manner, and this need wins out over the caution that generally inspires his actions. We see this happen all the time and yet are always surprised by it. How could such a respectable man believe he could use confidential information for his own profit?
have great difficulty in living by the rules. Little by little, they end up fearing their own boredom even more and, from time to time, they think: “I don’t care”, and commit the act; they have stopped thinking. Then they do something stupid or criminal that is pointless. Nevertheless, it should not come as a surprise.
happens”… André Meyer thought that you could never count on making up for lost business and my father believed that most any deal could go bad. What is essential is to have good business instinct. One of my partners used to say: “I hear with perfect pitch, but I sing off key”, his way of saying that he could sense what was going to happen but that his business acumen was not equal to his intuition. It is enjoyable to hear things correctly – to understand the issues – but a banker, just like a political leader, must make decisions. An exalted idea of yourself and what you do is a vice; sometimes it has good elements, but pretentiousness is almost always fatal. Seeking revenge, believing you are stronger than everyone else, ignoring the facts, all these things lead to disaster.
But if you are going to treat people as partners, that is as equals, then it is necessary to speak with each one of them about their lives, their aspirations and their remuneration at least once a year. This last point is essential because Lazard paid its partners a percentage in relation to the company’s profits. The percentage of the global profit was fixed annually for everyone according to the business they brought to the company, and this could vary from year to year depending on individual results. I always tried to ensure that the remuneration reflected objective criteria as far as possible, which is terribly difficult – and I did this with extreme care and scruples. I had to meet with roughly one hundred people at least once a year….
I accept that I am somewhat snobbish: I prefer that people do not like me rather than me not liking them. To be hated is not very pleasant, but it is far more disagreeable to hate others because that involves and damages you far more than being hated. Being hated is a problem to the person who hates you; it’s not really your problem. That said, I have very sharp common sense that means that I like my friends and not my enemies and, to me, there is a great difference between people who wish me well and those who wish me ill – and who might even like me if they didn’t hate me so much. I have been very keen to retain my independence in relation to anyone and everyone. This was crucial for me and was non-negotiable. It is not in my nature to be one hundred percent committed to a specific path or person. Yet I stay very involved and am extraordinarily stubborn, so I am prepared to do my utmost so that my relationships with the people I know remain intact and do not flag.
I always annoyed my partners with one of my beliefs, even though I didn’t mention it that often: “From time to time, you have ten bad years”.
Narrow-mindedness about money and the excessive love of money on the part of those who are already rich are often characteristic of people who don’t know how to make money. By definition, those people are very attached to wealth because, to them, it is a question of fact – you either have money or you don’t – and, in addition, it is an unstable condition. People either want more money in order to have the upper hand over others and to acquire a certain social standing through wealth, or they are intoxicated by having money to burn and the idea of possessing an abundance of material riches which allows them to burst forth like so many fireworks.
Being used to having money, which is very unfair, probably helps not being conceited about it, and the fact that some of it is earned also helps to prevent considering wealth as something sacred. The difference between people who earn money and those who do not, even if they are rich, is very obvious.
Other people will have the opinion of you that you have of yourself, and for a very simple reason: they have no imagination and, consequently, they listen to you in order to form their own ideas. We have all known women who were not very physically attractive but who claimed that they were, so they were thought of as beautiful because everyone believed them. People look no deeper and that is fine. Imagine the number of individuals that people have to meet and assess, the number of judgments they have to make simply to cope in life. They’re not going to waste yet more time coming to their own conclusions: they just repeat whatever you say about yourself. This is why you should never disparage yourself too much! Because whatever you say – for example, “I am incredibly talented at drawing” or “I am an amazing lover” – people will believe you. They will think it is true. So if you say: “I’m an idiot”, they will believe that too. You have to be very careful about what you say.