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This blog was inspired by the very last episode of the popular television drama “Breaking Bad” [spoiler alert!]. Walter White, once a milquetoast chemistry teacher and now a ruthless drug baron, confesses to his wife that he did not persist in his life of crime for his purported reason, which was to acquire a nest egg for his family to live on after his death. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really—I was alive.” Setting aside the matter of his enjoyment—which, in career development, would fall into the category of interest—let’s consider what it means to be good at crime. Is criminality a skill?

If we consider what it means for criminality to be a career—which means setting aside crimes of passion—we see it takes several forms. It includes such illegal pursuits as armed robbery, counterfeiting, selling illegal drugs, confidence rackets, and identity theft, among others. However, it also includes crimes that some people commit as part of what otherwise would be a law-abiding career—for example, securities traders using insider information or oligarchs conspiring to strangle competition.

Both kinds of criminals need to be skilled at the particular type of crime that they commit. For example, the counterfeiter has to be good at producing a realistic imitation of genuine currency. The drug dealer needs to be good at making connections with buyers. The identity thief needs to have skills with computers or with some other way of obtaining personal information about victims. These skills therefore are highly specific to each kind of criminal enterprise. White-collar lawbreakers need to have the skills that establish them in the law-abiding careers from which they veer into criminality—again, highly specific skills that can’t be summarized as a skill at criminality.

All kinds of career criminals also need to be skilled at escaping detection by the authorities. Here again, the skills are specific: The counterfeiter has to be skilled at passing funny money in ways that will escape notice, at least in the short term. The drug dealer needs to know how to operate stealthily. The securities trader who makes a killing based on insider information has to be skilled at manipulating the source of information to keep quiet. Any of these criminals might also corrupt law enforcement by using interpersonal skills, in addition to bribes.

Although these various criminals have highly diverse skills, one skill that many criminals have in common is the ability to use violence. Violence can help the criminal escape detection—silencing potential informers by threats, mayhem, or extermination. It can also fend off competition and theft. After all, someone who, like Walter White, is earning money from a criminal enterprise cannot expect the law enforcement authorities to protect his assets. Other outlaws understand this and will victimize the criminal who does not defend himself and his loot. White-collar criminals are mostly unlikely to resort to violence, but it is one skill that cuts across a broad swath of criminals.

However, even violence is not a single skill. One criminal may be talented at personally using a gun or fists, whereas another may be skilled at identifying and recruiting thugs. (That is Walter White’s strong suit.)
The skill that perhaps is to be found most universally among criminals is the ability to live with themselves, knowing what crimes they have committed. True, some criminals don’t need this skill because they are sociopaths, without empathy and incapable of feeling guilt for their actions. But criminologists say that these people are rare. Most criminals understand that they are doing wrong and have to deal with that understanding.

Generally, they adopt defense mechanisms: I’m doing this for my family (that’s Walter White’s). I’m doing this because society has conspired against me and I’ll never succeed in the straight world. I’m doing this to sustain a great company that employs thousands of people. I give a lot of money to widows and orphans. I get a lot of respect (from some people). One more big score, and then I’ll retire and go straight. Everybody does it.

Ultimately, this skill amounts to an ability to rationalize. Or you might call it hypocrisy, which Francois de La Rochefoucauld called “the homage vice pays to virtue.” It’s not a skill to be proud of; criminality is not something to be proud of. It is often regarded as a weakness, but I maintain that it functions like a skill to the extent that it allows people to pursue one kind of career: crime.

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