I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.
~Thich Nhat Hanh
If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.
by Budd Schulberg, published 1941
What Makes Sammy Run? (WMSR) is a work of fiction and judging by the title, you’d think the book is about Sammy Glick, the eponymous antagonist. Certainly that is what many reviewers, readers and critics seem to focus on. But WMSR isn’t about Sammy– it’s about the people around him, who tolerate and even tacitly support him, who enable his antics in various ways and thereby lower themselves in the process. WMSR isn’t a study in lite social tyranny, as some think, but rather it is a study in the Stockholm Syndrome. The real villain in this novel is the narrator, the despicable Al Manheim.
It’s easy to be fooled. Sammy isn’t a “nice person” and he clearly isn’t a “happy person.” He’s a wildly imbalanced person with a humongous ambition and not much else of note. He isn’t necessarily handsome or well-spoken. He isn’t an intellectual. He certainly doesn’t have any charm, or empathy for others. It’s easy to dislike him and it’s easy to watch him tread over other people on his way up and make the mistake of thinking he’s the bad guy.
But the question we must always ask ourselves in a tale of moral depravity is, “Where’s the hero, and what is he up to?” Who is keeping this guy in check? Who is going to stop him. In WMSR, the answer is “There isn’t one.” So the people who bear the responsibility for Sammy’s reign are all those who could be the hero and stop him, but don’t, or worse, those who claim to find him distasteful but end up worshipping him.
The best example of worshipping the supposed bad guy in the book is the way Al Manheim falls in love with Kit, a woman who admits to a one-time sexual relationship with Sammy Glick because of her burning curiosity to know what it’d be like to have all of his ambition and energy inside of her. She’s supposed to be the strong, principled and competent femme of the novel yet she couldn’t resist her own base sexual craving for a man she knew was no good. And rather than keep her at arm’s distance, Manheim becomes a soppy wet romantic for her. This is what you call “selling out.”
Sammy’s rise to the top in Hollywood despite having no talent, no money, no experience and no real value to anyone for anything is supposed to serve as a condemnation of the industry and maybe tangentially of the voluntary, for-profit capitalist economy itself. We’re supposed to read WMSR and look around us at all the entitled pricks like him who are our bosses, our owners or are actively in the process of clawing their way to such heights and smirk or despise them. “You’re just another Sammy Glick!” But why then do people secretly admire and envy them and their achievement-less achievement?
The answer is that the Al Manheim’s of the world have no self-esteem. They don’t love themselves enough to say “This is wrong!” on the many occasions they have to say such things. They don’t admire themselves enough to ignore the nuisance Sammy’s, to resist their endless persistence, to insist in return that they go ply their filth somewhere, anywhere but here. Instead, they open the city gates, invite them in and grab them a footstool so they can be comfortable as they bark out their orders. Then, like Al, they drink or smoke or ingest their minds into oblivion when the pressure of thinking about what they’ve done gets too great.
In other words, they’re weak.
Sometimes, they’re so weak, like Al Manheim, that they become accomplices to the madness. Like Nick Carraway, they’re happy to stand silently on the sidelines and observe and oogle as long as they can have the feeling that they’re in on the big adventure, as horrible as they think it may be.
And like Jay Gatsby, the Sammy Glick’s all have a pitiable background. They come from a world without love and so they can’t imagine a world with it. They’re not human, choosing, conscious entities. That experience of life was stripped from them at birth when they entered their perceived loveless world. All they can do is march to their idiot tune and destroy a bit of the world along the way to their doom.
Only they wouldn’t get very far, if it weren’t for the Al Manheims and the Nick Carraways.
The answer to the question What Makes Sammy Run? is less interesting than you hope. It’s so simple, it’s almost stupid– he has no love. It’s also somewhat pathetic because it can’t be helped. Sammy is damaged goods and no amount of therapy or intervention can get him back. The great irony of the novel, of any Sammy Glick, is that someone, somewhere served as the Great Enabler by bringing them into the world and nurturing them long enough to develop their skewed sense of possibility. From there, they’re working on auto-pilot.
A far more interesting question is What Makes Al Go Along With It?, especially when He Says He Hates Him.
Or, something I was thinking about last week, What Makes Davey Crawl? “Davey” is a small business owner, responsible for a few dozen people, who has managed to slowly run into the ground over a period of decades what could be a valuable little enterprise. There are the Sammy’s out there, deterministically trying to skitter to the top without adding anything of value, and then there are the Davey’s just trying to hold on and desperately, desperately disinterested in doing any better.
Why? Why is Davey happy without his ambition (is he happy?) when Sammy is miserable (to himself and others) with his? Sammy wants to wrap his whole mouth around the hose so there isn’t any for anyone else, but Davey just doesn’t want to turn it on all the way when there could be plenty more.
The answer is probably similarly simple, stupid and hopeless to fix. We may just have to suffer these Sammys, these Daveys and these Als as best we can.
by Lee Freeman-Shor, published 2015
Note: I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for sharing my thoughts AFTER reading it.
What can we learn from failure? Aside from the fact that there’s an entire industry of business literature fetishizing the idea that it has much to teach us (as a kind of doppelgänger to the decades of success literature that took a person or business’s success as given and tried to look backward for an unmistakeable pattern that could’ve predicted it) I’m personally skeptical of what failure might teach. Life is complex and there is often little to separate the failure and the success but timing and luck in certain endeavors.
So, I approached Freeman-Shors book with some trepidation as the subtitle of the book suggests this is a study of failure. Au contraire, what we have here is actually a psychological or behavioral study, somewhat in the vein of Benjamin “you are your own worst enemy in investing” Graham, which studies not failure per se, but rather how investors respond differently to failure and thereby either seal their fate or redeem themselves.
A Behavioral Typology
The book recounts the investment results of several different groups of portfolio managers who were categorized, ex post facto, into various groups based upon how they reacted to adverse market conditions for stocks they invested in. The Rabbits rode most of their failed investments down to near-zero before bailing out and taking the loss. The Assassins had a prescribed set of rules for terminating a losing position (either a % stop-loss, or a maximum time duration spent in the investment such as a year or a quarter). The Hunters kept powder dry and determined ahead of time to buy more shares on a pullback (ie, planned dollar-cost averaging).
While I am suspicious of backward-looking rule fitting, I do think the author’s logic makes sense. What it boils down to is having a plan ahead of time for how you’d react to failure. The Rabbits biggest mistake is they had none whatsoever, while the Assassins managed to protect themselves from total drawdowns but perhaps missed opportunities to profit on volatility rebounds. The author seems most impressed with the Hunters, who habitually started at a less than 100% commitment of funds to a planned position and then added to their investment at lower prices when the market gave them an opportunity to do so.
Freeman-Shor’s point is that when the price falls on your investment you need to decide that something material has changed in the story or facts and you sell, or else you need to be ready to buy more (because if it was a good buy at $10, it’s a great buy at $5, etc.) but you can not just hang tight. That isn’t an investment strategy. This is why I put this book in the Benjamin Graham fold, the message is all about being rational ahead of time about how you’d react to the volatility of the market which is for all intents and purposes a given of the investing landscape.
Learning From Success, Too
The author goes over a couple other behavioral typologies, Raiders and Connoisseurs. I won’t spoil the whole book, it suffices to say that this section is worth studying as well because it can be just as nerve-wracking to try to figure out whether to take some profit or let a winner ride when you have one. Freeman-Shor gives some more thoughts based on his empirical observations of other money managers who have worked for him on when it’s best to do one or the other.
More helpfully, he summarizes the book with a winner’s and loser’s checklist.
The Winner’s Checklist includes:
The last bit is probably most vital for a fund manager with redeemable capital.
The Loser’s Checklist includes:
Free e-Book With Purchase!
It is hard for me to decide in my own mind if this book is a 3.5 or a 4 on a 5-point scale. I think of a 5 as a classic, to be read over and over again, gleaning something new each time. This would be a book like Security Analysis or The Intelligent Investor. A 4 is a good book with a lot of value and a high likelihood of being referenced in the future, but not something I expect to get a new appreciation for each and every time I read it. A 3 is a book that may have been enjoyable overall and provided some new ideas but was overall not as interesting or recommendable.
While I enjoyed this book and did gain some insight from it, and I think the editorial choices in the book were bold, it’s closer to a 3 in my mind than a 4 just in terms of the writing and the ideas. I’ve found a lot of the content in other venues and might’ve rated it higher on my epiphany scale if this was one of the first investment books I ever read. But something that really blew me away is that the publisher, Harriman House, seems to have figured out that people who buy paper books definitely appreciate having an e-Book copy for various reasons and decided to include a copy for free download (DRM-free!!) in the jacket of the book. This is huge. I read my copy on a recent cross-country flight and was really agonizing about which books from my reading stack wouldn’t make the trip for carry-on space reasons and then realized I could take this one with me on my iPad and preserve the space for something else. So in terms of value, this book is a 4.
The following is a running list of observed concerns and conditions of individuals which would suggest they may be living the lives of meaningless peons, updated as observational faculties permit:
Note: the composer of the above list may be guilty of some or even all of the infractions mentioned.
The Harvard Business School presents Seth Klarman, founder and president of the Baupost Group
Major take-aways from the interview:
It’s an entertaining and educational video that provides anecdotes about how and why small businesses grow. In the case of LEGO, because they had to– the owner-operator of the company had no golden parachute to fall back on if he failed. This kept him thinking creatively about how to solve the many challenges he and his business faced. It was “find a way” or else he and his children would starve.
It’s a story of entrepreneurialism, the essence of which is experimentation, vision and constant change.
As you watch the video, it’s hard to imagine a story like this being told about anything other than an initially small, local, privately-owned business. It perfectly captures the idea of the “benevolent dictatorship” style of business and capital management. We also get a look at the innovative process that leads to the creation of a whole new industry (or sub-industry, much like the iPhone was an emergent sub-industry within the industry of smartphones).
Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years
by Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui, published 2008, 2009
The seven deadly business sins
The authors of Billion Dollar Lessons identified seven “failure patterns” that typify the path to downfall of most businesses:
In Part I, each chapter addresses one of these failure patterns, explaining the principles and problems of the failure pattern, giving numerous real-world examples of the pattern in action and finishing with a list of tough questions for managers and shareholders/board members to ask before pursuing one of the potentially flawed strategies mentioned.
In Part II, the authors offer a behavioral/psychological explanation for why companies and individuals routinely make these same mistakes, basing their assertions on the idea of “human universals.” The idea is that being aware of them is not enough– one must also put into place processes and self-check systems that are independent of any one person’s self-honesty (or lack thereof) to allow a company to essentially “check itself before it wrecks itself.” The most important corporate institution suggested is the Devil’s Advocate.
Illusions of synergy
According to the text,
A McKinsey study of 124 mergers found that only 30 percent generated synergies on the revenue side that were even close to what the acquirer had predicted… Some 60 percent of the cases met the forecasts on cost synergies
In general, there are three main reasons why synergy strategies fail:
Double-check your synergy strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:
Faulty financial engineering
Many companies find themselves in hot water because they believe their own creative accounting too much. They let sophisticated financial legerdemain conceal the uneconomic nature or riskiness of their business. Managers often become addicted to this accounting, finding themselves stuck on the “treadmill of expectations” and give in to the temptation to commit outright fraud to keep it going, destroying the business in the process.
There are four primary risks to financial engineering strategies:
Double-check your financial engineering strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:
According to business research,
more than two-thirds of rollups fail to create any value for investors
The rollup strategy is initially attractive because
the concept makes sense, growth is unbelievable, and problems haven’t surfaced yet
But they rely a lot on positive momentum to succeed because
Rollups have to keep growing by leaps and bounds, or investors disappear, and the financing for the rollup goes with them
There are four major risks to a rollup strategy:
Double-check your rollup strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:
Staying the (misguided) course
Businesses often adhere to a failed strategy or a dying technology because they either can’t envision how they’d adapt or can’t admit that they’re on a failed business course.
The three main risks to staying the course are:
Double-check your core strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:
Adjacent market expansion entails attempting to sell new products to existing customers, or existing products to new customers, by building on a core organizational strength to expand the business in a significant way.
But sometimes, businesses expand into markets that seem adjacent, but are not– just because your branded-sunglasses customers like your sunglasses brand, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily like it on their sportscar tires, or on their surfboards, because you imagine your market is “sport lifestyle.”
There are four fundamental risks to an adjacency strategy to be aware of:
Double-check your adjacencies strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:
Businesses often bet the farm on a technology that turns out to be nowhere close to as profitable and revolutionary as they initially expect it to. Often, market research is created which suffers from “confirmation bias”.
There are three important technological “laws” to be mindful of, which are often ignored, as well:
There are four major mistakes businesses make when evaluating a technological strategy:
Double-check your technology strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:
Consolidation seems to be a fact of maturing industries. As an industry matures, smaller companies go out of business or are acquired. Most business people figure they want to be the acquirer; in the process, they ignore the possibility that they might be more valuable as a target, or by sitting and doing nothing (neither consolidating, nor selling out).
There are four main issues that tend to muck up consolidation strategies:
Double-check your consolidation strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:
In summary, the most common problems that result in business failure are:
Avoiding these mistakes: the Devil’s Advocate
How can you avoid these mistakes?
Put in place a process for reviewing the quality of past decisions.
Watch out for cohesive teams who develop the traits of dehumanizing the enemy and thinking they’re incompetent; limiting the number of alternatives they will consider; show even more overconfidence than members would as individuals; create “mind guards” who stomp out dissent.
Probably most important, establish the institution of Devil’s Advocate. Either assign an in-house, permanent DA (who gains experience with each episode, but carries the risk of being labeled as the “naysayer” and ignored) or assign the role on a rotating basis with each new decision (preferable).
The Devil’s Advocate is a powerful tool for avoiding business failure because
More often than not, failure in innovation is rooted in not having asked an important question, rather than having arrived at an incorrect answer
I am posting this for future reference. Gary North’s point isn’t original (it isn’t even his alone), but he has managed to articulate it succinctly, yet again, in “Putter, Fritter and Guess“:
It turns out that the best way for a businessman to spend his time is the 20% of his hours in a day that produce 80% of his net income. It may not be easy to identify these activities, but for a successful career, a person must do this.
What we find is that even when people do this, they do not have the self-discipline to ruthlessly abandon the 80%. They keep doing these low-return tasks. This may be pure habit. It may be a commitment to the ideal of perfectionism: to be sure that everything gets done right. The person refuses to decentralize and delegate. He cannot bring himself to let go. The result is that the person does not attain his maximum output/income.
The person who steadfastly refuses to delegate and decentralize is violating the principle of the division of labor. This principle says: “You can’t do it all.” In some cases, it says; “You can’t do it at all.” A task may not be a one-person task.
The person who is a perfectionist and who insists on doing an entire project is asking to minimize his output. If, by hiring an assistant, he can double his output and reduce quality only (say) 4% (20% of 20%), this will not matter, if the 4% is related to the 80% of the product’s functions that people rarely use.
Joe Quirk on seasteading:
Benjamin Franklin participated in several major innovations in his day. He helped discover and control electricity, and he helped design the US Constitution. The control of electricity set off a cascade of innovations, driving almost every modern technology we can name. Yet the instrument of government he helped invent has not progressed.
Consider that Franklin’s many inventions have advanced beyond his wildest imagination: the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, refrigeration, the flexible urinary catheter (my favorite). Yet, the methods of government he helped invent have not evolved. And why?
Because inventors and entrepreneurs had the freedom to experiment with Franklin’s technological ideas, but not his political ideas. More importantly, as Patri [Friedman] says, customers had power to choose amongst gadgets competing to please them, while citizens are captive to the political system they inherit.
One day, people will laugh at the idea of government (legitimized, institutional theft and murder) just as today people laugh at the idea of monarchy as a system of government.
Government is a technology– it is a means for achieving particular ends. What people don’t understand right now is that
Government reduces human relationships to the Laws of the Jungle, the very thing we all claim to be striving so mightily to avoid.
As Allen Thornton wrote in the early 1980s,
And just what is this government? It’s a man-made invention. It’s not some natural phenomenon or a special creation of God. Government’s an invention, just like the light bulb or the radio.
The state was invented for me, to make me happier, but a funny thing has happened: If I don’t want this invention, people are outraged. No one calls me unpatriotic for refusing to buy a light bulb. If I don’t choose to spend my money on a radio, no one says that I’m immoral. Why should anarchy upset everyone?
Anarchists are ahead of their time, even though the truth they speak is itself timeless– conservatively, probably 200-300 years ahead of their time. The gradual evolution of the “human collective social consciousness” over time has been away from absolutism and toward individualism, with various depressing but ultimately temporary and regional setbacks along the way. Most visionaries DO look like kooks to their neighbors and countrymen before their vision is realized.
But it is the “market purists” who will have the last laugh, and ultimately deliver every one into the closest thing to a perfect society that one can get while still remaining firmly in the grips of reality in this universe.
They’ll be naysayed and boohooed and shouted at quite a bit along the way, though. Good thing most of us are of stout heart and strong mind.