Review – The Drama Of The Gifted Child

The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self (buy on Amazon.com)

by Alice Miller, published 1979, 1997

Recently I was discussing economic and social philosophy with some friends and the question came up about why certain philosophical ideas aren’t more popular or well-known if they seem to be more logically correct than the alternatives. We entertained a number of reasons why this might be but the one that stuck out to me as particularly weighty is the idea that the truth is deep, long and heavily nuanced and doesn’t make for quick, emotional soundbites. I made the quip, “Why is the economy the way it is? Do you have 5 years to study what you’d need to know to understand it?” followed by, “Why does the political system look as it does today? Do you have an entire lifetime to devote to studying all of human history?”

The other weighty suggestion that was offered is that there are many philosophies that cater to telling people what they want to hear (ie, an easy to accept reality) and only one that emphasizes telling it like it is (ie, a hard truth about reality).

I see echoes of these two notions in the opening of Alice Miller’s “Gifted Child”:

The damage done to us during our childhood cannot be undone, since we cannot change anything in our past. We can, however, change ourselves. We can repair ourselves and gain our lost integrity by choosing to look more closely at the knowledge that is stored inside our bodies and bringing this knowledge closer to our awareness. This path, although certainly not easy, is the only route by which we can at last leave behind the cruel, invisible prison of our childhood. We become free by transforming ourselves from unaware victims of the past into responsible individuals in the present, who are aware of our past and are thus able to live with it.

Most people do exactly the opposite. Without realizing that the past is constantly determining their present actions, they avoid learning anything about their history. They continue to live in their repressed childhood situation, ignoring the fact that it no longer exists. They are continuing to fear and avoid dangers that, although once real, have not been real for a long time. They are driven by unconscious memories and by repressed feelings and needs that determine nearly everything they do or fail to do.

This book asks the reader to consider two troubling ideas. The first is that they are likely to be carrying some emotional baggage from their childhood that originates with the way they were cared for by parents and other important adults in their lives. The second is that they are likely to transmit this baggage to their own children (if they have any) and other important, intimate relationships if they don’t find a way to come to terms with it beforehand.

Like the consideration made about the popularity or penetration of certain economic and social philosophies, these ideas are troubling for most people to accept because it forces them to revise their current understanding of the relationships they have with important people in their lives, it forces them to take responsibility for the course of their lives and their choices and give up the perverse safety and security of seeing life through the eyes of the helpless victim and it forces them to concede that the present is not a unique or isolated moment pregnant with infinite possibilities, but rather one moment at the end of a string of moments stretching back into the earliest reaches of human history in which possibilities exist but are limited by certain choices and events which took place in the uncontrollable past.

There is of course great freedom in choosing to explore these troubling ideas but they come at the cost of a grave responsibility that few, based on my practical experience, seem willing to bear.

To find this freedom, one must seek out “the lost world of feelings.” Human infants are entirely dependent upon their adult caretakers for their survival, unlike most other animals who, while weak and undeveloped, are nonetheless able to move around, seek shelter, find food, etc., on their own almost immediately after birth. For a young human, being ostracized or unloved by ones parents is a death sentence. Therefore, the human psyche is wired at birth to prioritize adapting to the parents’ emotional needs over fully developing its own.

If certain emotional expressions or behaviors prove to be problematic for the relationship with the parents, the human child will work to repress and hide that part of themselves. They will disown it and their personality will become dichotomized into “me”, the feelings and behaviors and characteristics I acknowledge and accept because they have demonstrated value with my parents, and “not me”, the feelings and behaviors and characteristics I deny possessing or experiencing because they have been a source of conflict with my parents, on whom I depend for survival.

This is what Miller means when she talks about searching for the “true self.” The irony, however, is that

the child does not know what he is hiding.

That is, it is not as if the child knows what his true self is and isn’t and is lying to himself and others about who he really is. It is more like, he has shoddy vision and can’t see a focused image of himself in true detail, or else he has a map of himself leading to the buried treasure of his own reality but he doesn’t know how to read the map and therefore doesn’t know where his self is or even what he’ll find when he gets there. Every now and then this person might get a glimpse or a sense of their true self in a particularly emotionally charged moment but really all they’re experiencing is the anxiety indicating the existence of repressed and disowned selfhood, not a look at what is missing.

To heal, these emotions must be encountered and experienced. Further, painful emotions must be resolved by tracking down their genesis in early childhood experiences. Memories and relationships with respected and important adult caretakers must be studied and re-evaluated through the more objective eyes of an independent adult rather than the way they were first constructed by a subjective and immature child. This not only allows the adult of the now to be released from the terrors of the former child but it can enable the adult to have new modes of living and doing:

Rational, constructive action depends not only on the intactness of our intellectual faculties, but also on the extent to which we have access to our true emotions.

[…]

the inescapable conclusion is that for people to be able to organize their lives, they must have access to their emotions.

This is one of the many and for me, the most important, takeaways from this book. It is not enough to rationalize about a choice and a potential plan of action. To actually develop an impetus to act requires an emotional experience. Adults who repress certain parts of their emotional selves due to childhood traumas become incapable of acting in certain areas of their lives. They become procrastinators, perfectionists or otherwise evasive in the area of making a decision, acting on it and then sticking with it.

By finding and integrating one’s lost world of feelings, one has the opportunity to become active and empowered in new areas of one’s life that were otherwise mysterious, frustrating or dormant.

One question that comes up for some people as they consider all of this is, “But why did my parents ever treat me in such and such a way?” Using some of the memories and recollections of a famous cultural writer as an example, Miller says,

like so many gifted children [he] was so difficult for his parents to bear not despite but because of his inner riches. Often a child’s very gifts […] will confront his parents with conflicts that they have long sought to keep at bay by means of rules and regulations. These regulations must then be rescued at the cost of the child’s development.

The parents’ childhoods involved repression as well. For their own survival they learned to disown parts of their emotional experience or certain of their behaviors that caused trouble with their parents. They rationalized this turn of events and created rules for living that would help them avoid these perceived dangers. And then when they had children, these rules and procedures came into question by the existence of the innocent child. And so a new round of repression is started.

The only way the cycle can be broken is for the adult to make the painstaking effort to connect with his child self and understand what happened and how it has impacted him, and then he must choose to live his life differently with that new awareness of his past. This is hard for many to do because

What they do not see, because they cannot see them, are the absurdities enacted by their own mothers when they were still tiny children.

Another powerful idea contained in this book is an explanation of the appeal of irrational ideas to adults with traumatic childhood experiences. The trauma of childhood is itself irrational– there is no “reason” for any child to be abused or neglected by those who brought it into the world, and save those who are simply unlucky in having some external misfortune befall their family (ie, the child is made an orphan when the parents die unexpectedly), there is no excuse or justification the adults could offer a child as to why they are being treated as they are. For survival reasons, the child must make a place in their psyche for irrational ideas to exist because in doing so they “close the loop” on the irrationality and make it seem rational. “Some things just don’t make sense” is a way to make sense of things that don’t make sense.

When this space for irrationality exists, adults can become wedded to irrational ideas and beliefs, such as political ideologies, abusive social relationships or supernatural superstitions. On one hand, they lack the ability to rationally resist these ideas and beliefs because they are willing to accept that not everything has to make rational sense in their lives. On the other hand, they may positively identify with the claims of these ideologies because they appeal to their own experiences or sense of self as a victim who is oppressed by others, that is, they offer a way to feel like they’re getting even. On this point Miller is worth quoting at length:

Oppression and the forcing of submission do not begin in the office, factory or political party; they begin in the very first weeks of the infant’s life.

[…]

Political action can be fed by the unconscious rage of children who have been misused, imprisoned, exploited, cramped and drilled. This rage can be partially discharged in fighting “enemies”, without having to give up the idealization of one’s own parents. The old dependency will then simply be shifted to a new group or leader. If, however, disillusionment and the resultant mourning can be lived through, social and political disengagement do not usually follow, but our actions are freed from the compulsion to repeat. They can then have a clear goal, formed out of conscious decisions.

Once our own reality has been faced and experienced, the inner necessity to keep building up new illusions and denials in order to avoid the experience of that reality disappears. We then realize that all our lives we have feared and struggled to ward off something that really cannot happen any longer; it has already happened, at the very beginning of our lives while we were completely dependent.

The term “fighting yesterday’s battles” comes to mind when thinking about this irrational space.

While Miller’s analysis applies to any child and any adult experiencing emotional pain and depression (whether they’re aware of it or not!), the book is especially focused on the plight of “gifted” children because of the uniquely problematic experience they can have in this area due to their talents and abilities. Not only do “gifted” children tend to experience these emotional troubles more deeply,

many people suffering from severe symptoms are very intelligent

but they also tend to experience these troubles uniquely through feelings of grandiosity and contempt.

Grandiosity is the concept of identifying one’s personal value as a person with one’s special talents and abilities. One’s greatness isn’t just a part of one’s self, it IS the self. But this complicates the emotional life of the gifted child because it is inevitable that not every part of themselves is grand. There exists then another dichotomy, wherein all the parts that are grand (which may be very few and overall represent a quite limited part of the total person or experience of self) are “me”, and all the parts that are normal or weak (which is likely then the majority and the wider experience of self) are “not me”. And if my parents love and care for the grand gifts I have but dislike or don’t know how to deal with the unexceptional aspects of my self, then

we remain at bottom the one who is despised, for we have to despise everything in ourselves that is not wonderful, good, clever… we despise… in short, the child in ourselves and in others.

[…]

“Without these achievements, these gifts, I could never be loved. would never have been loved.”

An emotional experience that often goes hand in hand with grandiosity is contempt.

The function all expressions of contempt have in common is the defense against unwanted feelings. [ie, despising what is not grand about oneself]

[…]

Once we are able to feel and understand the repressed emotions of childhood, we will no longer need contempt as a defense against them.

[…]

Contempt as a rule will cease with the beginning of the mourning for the irreversible that cannot be changed… it is, after all, less painful to think that the others do not understand because they are too stupid.

Gifted people often experience contempt for others as an expression of insecurity about the repressed parts of themselves that are not part of their gifts. Unable to have empathy and kindness towards themselves in these areas, they become impatient and hostile towards those reminders of their own weakness that they see in others.

Sadly,

hating and offending an innocent person, using him as a scapegoat, can only strengthen the walls of our inner prison of confusion, isolation, fear and loneliness: it cannot free us.

And the most innocent person of all, the most unfair scapegoat a person can choose in this drama, is their child self. Whether these ideas are new or familiar, I encourage anyone reading this to consider the implications of the ideas contained in this book not as if they describe a set of generalized human experiences but rather as if they describe something specific and personal to the reader himself. If this book’s message can be taken to heart and internalized, it can be the jumping off point for great personal change that will ultimately resolve itself in what Miller refers to as a “healthy self-feeling”:

I understand a healthy self-feeling to mean the unquestioned certainty that the feelings and needs one experiences are a part of one’s self.

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Review – 1, 2, 3… The Toddler Years

1,2,3…The Toddler Years: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers 3rd Edition (buy from Amazon.com)

by Irene Van der Zande, published 2011

A friend had recommended “The Toddler Years” as a resource for continued learning and practice with regards to piloting RIE from infancy into childhood. And indeed, the book is similar in format, structure, tone and event content to works we’ve read previously and enjoyed such as Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect. Much of the material and insight in the book comes via childcare practitioners at a day facility in Santa Cruz, CA and the book has a preface by Magda Gerber. This is definitely “RIE-approved”.

As I was reading this book and noticing the similarities, I asked myself, “Why do we do what we do [as parents]?” When we first learned about RIE and NVC, it was easy to get overwhelmed with all the new DOs and DONTs in terms of behavior and lose sight of the goal. The goal is not to follow some set of rules, arbitrary or otherwise, or even to be Good Parents as some kind of exercise in living an ideal, but to live our lives in relation to our children a certain way– to treat them with the kind of respect we’d hopefully treat any other adult.

As I was reading the scenario-specific counsel in this book, I realized that “what to do” in any of these situations shouldn’t be mysterious. We can get to the answer quite easily by inverting the situation and asking ourselves what we’d do if an adult acted like a child? How would we treat that adult? With condescension, disgust, frustration, anger or worse, violence? Or would we practice patience, understanding, offer our assistance and respect their needs and choices as much as we could?

That being said, these lessons about commonly occurring parenting dynamics are indeed helpful pre-practice and may result in the thought processes and related behaviors becoming more intuitive and flow-y rather than flustering or rehearsed.

Choice

Just like all of us, toddlers are happier when they have some control over their lives. This also makes it easier for them to accept what they don’t have a choice about.

The first act of a child’s life, being born, is a set of circumstances the child itself had no choice in creating. Nor is the child aware of its lack of choice, in this situation or any others, for some time after birth. Nor even is the child capable of exerting any influence over the course of its life, via choice, even if it was aware of the choices that existed.

But over time the child’s life becomes increasingly defined by choice both in terms of awareness and in terms of action. It is no wonder then that “choice” is an important theme in the development of the life of the toddler and that we as parents and caregivers can render a great service to our children by giving them choices whenever we can and being understanding with them when they react against the situations where they lack choice but might like to have one for whatever reason.

One way to offer choice is via closed questions, that is, “Would you like to have an apple for your snack, or a banana?” versus “Would you like a snack?” The reason to offer closed questions is because it encourages the child to make choices we can live with. It can be easy to get bogged down in the subtle reality of how little toddlers have to choose about their life at times– we know they NEED a diaper change but they don’t WANT one, etc. Using closed questions frames the choice around taking a positive action the caregiver believes is necessary and hopefully avoiding fighting and antagonism over choices that don’t exist.

Similarly,

When there is no choice, we need to be careful not to offer one by mistake.

Saying, “We’re going to Grandma’s, it’s cold outside, do you want to wear your jacket?” might elicit a “No!” and a frozen child, when what we really meant was to offer a closed question such as, “Would you like to put your jacket on yourself or would you like me to help you put it on?”

Feelings

Spend a lot of time giving children names for their feelings.

As adults, we have a certain awareness of our feelings such that we can distinguish one feeling from another, the intensity of the feeling, its source and perhaps most importantly, we can label our feelings in order to communicate about them more clearly. (This is the ideal with adults, anyway… any student of NVC is aware of just how limited even many adults’ capabilities are in this regard!)

With young children it is different. Feelings might seem to come from nowhere and shock or surprise. They might seem uncontrollable. One kind of feeling of a high intensity might seem similar to that same feeling at lower intensity (ie, just “good” or “bad”, pleasant or unpleasant) and there is most of the time no sense of the character of a feeling and the name it carries. Talking about feelings with young children and repeating the names of the feelings we observe them experiencing can help a toddler start to gain mastery and awareness of their feelings.

Children need to understand their feelings. They need to know their uncomfortable feelings are just as important as their pleasant feelings. By accepting these feelings, we teach our toddlers to accept themselves and each other.

The goal of many parents and caregivers seems to be to raise a child who only experiences good feelings. Feelings of pain are warded off, “Oh you’re alright, nothing happened!” as are feelings of shame or fear, “Be a big boy, don’t cry!” Perhaps the motivation is to provide children with that ideal experience, “childhood innocence”, as long as possible and to protect them from reality which is sometimes disappointing, frightening, infuriating or just plain unfair.

But accepting some feelings and rejecting others leads to self-repression and a certain kind of schizophrenia. There is the “me” that has feelings which are acceptable to the adults and caregivers in my life, and there is the “not me” that has feelings which make them uncomfortable, which seems to pop up in my life at the most embarrassing times. Helping children to experience all their emotions as equally valid allows them to build confidence in the unity of their self.

Limits

Limits can be stated in firm but respectful words. We can do this by using what is called an “I” message. That is, instead of saying “You must do this” we can make it clear that we are speaking for ourselves:

“I want you to be gentle.”

“I need you to help me get your clothes on.”

“I don’t like it when you run away.”

We can talk about what the child is doing rather than using blaming or labeling words.

Some people find parenting with respect challenging because they equate it with a kind of “anarchy” and the giving up of their authority even in matters of safety or in enforcing their personal preferences in their own home or life. It can be hard enough to adjust to living with a messy spouse, for instance, now a diabolical two-year-old is supposed to reign over me?

This is a false dichotomy. Respect is a two-way street. And imperative to having respect and giving respect is to be clear about who is respecting what. Using the “I” technique makes it clear that limits have to do with individual needs and don’t involve arbitrariness or authority.

Building Confidence

Children who are confident in their ability to learn through practice are more likely to grow into independent people… making things happen rather than waiting for things to happen to them.

We learn to be action-oriented in our lives or we learn to wait for a rescue that isn’t coming.

There are two models of failure and its significance that humans can internalize according to recent psychological research. One model is failure-as-feedback, in which failure indicates that an action was not performed properly to achieve the desired result with the possibility that it could be performed properly with further practice.

The other model is failure-as-wrongness, in which failure indicates that a person is not appropriate to a task at hand in some existential way and their inability to achieve success in this instance is evidence of their wrongness or lack of completeness as a functioning person.

It is imperative that children have opportunities to practice actions, to experience occasional failure, and to be encouraged to try again in order that they build confidence in themselves and in the model of failure-as-feedback. Without internalizing this principle, they are apt to experience a life of growing self-doubt and confusion on a fundamental personal level.

Presentism

Toddlers live in the here and now. Yesterday is ancient history and tomorrow might as well be next year.

How wonderful that toddlers can remind us that the present is all we ever have! As adults it is so easy to live with regret, or to drift through the present ever-anticipating the future.

Of course, they may serve us these reminders in unpleasant ways with their seeming impatience, or their repetitious requests or insatiable demands for things they’ve already been given before. But it’s important either way, for our own sanity and enjoyment of life, that we remember that they only behave this way because the present urge is the only one they know at this moment in their life.

Sleep

Give warnings before bedtime so the child has a chance to finish playing.

Not only do small children seem to sleep fitfully at times, but they also go to sleep fitfully. And sleep seems to creep up on them and snatch them when they aren’t expecting it. One moment they are playing with their toys and screeching with gaiety, the next they are rubbing their eyes and ears and about to topple over with sudden onset of wooziness.

Adults can help children anticipate the future, and their own need for sleep, by following bed time rituals which include buffer time and light warnings that sleep is coming and it is time to begin winding down.

The “S word” – Sharing

Toddlers do not learn to share by having grown-ups make them do it. Having to give up a toy makes a toddler feel angry, not loving.

Why do adults think sharing is so important? Is it simply mindless repetition of their own childhood experience? Is it a social or cultural imperative tied to recent historical developments? Is it a way to feel equal while ignoring that we are not?

Sharing is not in the vocabulary of small children although, curiously, property rights are! The individual child’s property right, at least. While there are many ways to respect small children by thinking of them and treating them as capable of something they have not yet mastered, sharing seems to be one of those things that does not lend them respect or enjoyment when it is expected of them.

In our home we don’t care for sharing as a principle. So avoiding the “S word” will be relatively easy for us!

Tantrums

If a toddler finds out that having a tantrum is a way around our limits, the child may start throwing tantrums all the time.

Another idea that is interesting about tantrums is that they belong to the child, not to the parent. It is easy for the adult to assume a tantrum is a demonstration of a critical failure in their parenting, rather than a critical failure in the emotional regulation of the child. Of course they often come at the most inopportune times as well, right before trying to leave for an errand, or out in public amongst a bunch of gawkers.

Even during a tantrum, the child is experiencing an emotion they are truly experiencing and it’s worth it for parents and other caregivers to practice patience and understanding in these moments, validating the emotion even if it is disagreeable and talking through it with the child, along with giving them space to express their emotion, to exhaustion if necessary.

Toilet time

The time to start toilet learning is when our toddlers show signs of being ready, like:

  • having dry diapers for longer periods of time
  • letting us know that they’ve pooped or peed in their diapers
  • showing interest in sitting on a toilet or potty chair
  • wanting to wear underpants
  • disliking wearing wet or soiled diapers

The book does not call it toilet “training” for a reason. This is not a rote memory behavior or even a reflex. It requires conscious effort and it has a psychological root. Being ready to use a toilet for elimination is an egotistic decision and like many other similar experiences in life we can help the child by waiting until they’re ready rather than expecting to do something they’re not yet capable of or don’t see any benefit in themselves.

Eating and weaning

Toddlers will eat when they’re hungry, but might not eat much.

Toddlers need to eat more often than we do. Their stomachs are smaller.

Toddlers like to have choices.

Meals are served outside whenever the weather permits.

One thing I thought could’ve been added in this section is the observation that sometimes toddlers will eat quite a bit! In fact, too much and too fast if you keep putting food in front of them. We are learning to offer one piece of food at a time and waiting until our Little Lion requests more (with reaching, grunting and looking for the food). Even then, we try to pace things as his belly is bound to fill up quicker than his brain gets the signal that it’s time to stop.

Successful parenting

It helps to remember that, just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect parents or children. There are no perfect families either, even if they look that way from the outside. It’s not our job to be perfect, but to do the best we can.

I’ll let that one settle in on its own.

It’s healthy for our children to see us having interests besides our families.

It’s also healthy for our children to see us acknowledging their needs without actually fulfilling them, instantaneously or at all. New parents often forget that it’s okay to use the bathroom, even if it means a crying child. And these kinds of over-permissive decisions can extend beyond those first few months to picking the child up whenever it beckons, interrupting a rhythm or flow in some household chore to immediately respond to the child’s request, etc. The child isn’t always going to get what they want in life and it’s okay to model that now, in toddlerhood. Just realize you may hear a bit more crying and whining as a result of your decision.

Being polite by acknowledging people socially is an adult need, not a child’s.

Teaching children to wave hello and goodbye, to high-five, to smile or “be nice” to strangers who greet them and to say please and thank you may seem cute but it is not necessary and it may even be unsafe (why undermine a child’s instinctive apprehension of strangers?)

Some people who do not understand that children are individuals and not objects can find it frustrating and demeaning to deal with an “aloof” child. Why is it so important to this person to be acknowledged by a tiny toddler who is more interested in drooling over their toys? What does their need for acknowledgement and validation-in-existence truly imply?

Guilt keeps us looking backward and feeling bad about what we should have done instead of looking forward and feeling good about what we’re going to do next.

This idea is tied to the failure-as-feedback model. If we are always learning and growing, as the toddler is, and we want to model this as normal, we would do well to focus on what we’ll do next and not to obsess about the past.

Enjoying your child

Childhood passes quickly. And it never comes back. “They won’t need me as much as they do now.”

A truly bittersweet thought. To acknowledge that the pain, discomfort and disruption of being always needed is ephemeral; but so too is the joy, confidence and excitement of being the center of a young person’s world.

4/5

 

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Review – Essentialism

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (buy from Amazon.com)

by Greg McKeown, published 2014

This past year I’ve been exploring topics related to the concept of mastery. It is so tempting for me to try to be interested in everything I come across and consequently it’s a real challenge to be selective and commit to being a master of only a few things. Essentialism was recommended to me by a friend and it’s a great concept inside of an okay book.

The key to essentialism, which is a combination of the ideas of prioritization and mastery, is to be conscious of tradeoffs. One has to develop a habit of asking, “What will I NOT do in order to get this done?” Progress in one aspect of life can only be made at the expense of denying progress in all the others.

The author teaches at Stanford and implements the empathy-based design thinking approach in his essentialism advice. In this case, he offers several techniques for building empathy with yourself– to gain clarity about your purpose, to acknowledge physical limitations (primarily sleep) necessary to making sustained progress and to engage in free-spirited play to unlock creative thinking and avoid self-reproach. And like a design thinker, he advocates a kind of Minimum Viable Product approach to making progress on your priorities. Don’t set your sights on one big effort, or assume that you can define the endpoint of your efforts before you get there; start with a rough idea of where you think you want to go and think of the next tangible iterative step you could make to progress. In so doing you’ll develop confidence and motivation to keep moving forward.

One thing I enjoyed most about the book were the numerous pithy quotes at the masthead of each chapter and sprinkled throughout the text. I might copy a few of them into the blog after I finish writing this. On the other hand, the book is also another disappointing amalgamation of pop business and productivity stories, name-dropping and “stuff my friends did that I thought was worth including in my book” that deny this book a chance to enter the pantheon of classics, aside from the fact that it really offers nothing new on this subject other than the marketing of the idea.

The four-part structure of the book, Essence, Explore, Eliminate, Execute, has the clear “focus-flare” cadence of the Design Thinking toolbox’s Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Essence sounds like Empathize, Explore sounds like Define, Ideate sounds like Eliminate and Prototype/Test sound like Execute to me.

In thinking about the message of focusing on what’s really important, I made a note in the margin on one page which said, “if it feels like I can do anything I want with my life, it’s ironic because I will in fact only do one of those things.” If that’s true, and I think it is, it would be better to figure out what that one thing is sooner rather than later lest I risk wasting a lot of my time on what turns out to be non-essential.

3/5

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Review – The Acquirer’s Multiple

The Acquirer’s Multiple: How the Billionaire Contrarians of Deep Value Beat the Market (buy on Amazon.com)

by Tobias Carlisle, published 2017

I received a free copy of this book from the author.

I spend a lot more time thinking about the best way to introduce people to the world of value investing than I actually get requests for such information, though I do receive occasional requests for advice. The reason is not just because I am a pedantic thinker but because I spent a very long time acquiring my own knowledge on this subject, with many wrong turns and wasted efforts and I have always wondered, “Is there a better way?”

Toby Carlisle’s “The Acquirer’s Multiple” may just be that better way.

But first, let me explain the most up-to-date advice I have been vending, and keep in mind, this advice is not intended as “how to be a good investor/make good investments” because I am not a registered investment adviser nor would I attempt to impersonate one– this is just my opinion of “how best to learn about investing”. I think I can dispense that advice as an opinion without running afoul of the authorities because I am just talking about ways to acquire certain knowledge. At least I hope so!

My suggestion is to read the following titles, in this order:

  1. The Richest Man in Babylon: Now Revised and Updated for the 21st Century (Paperback) – Common
  2. The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy
  3. Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist
  4. The Accounting Game: Basic Accounting Fresh from the Lemonade Stand
  5. The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, Fourth Edition (or more specifically, Buffett’s Shareholder Letters from Berkshire Hathaway, and his private partnerships, available on the Berkshire website)

Perhaps at a later date I will spend some time writing a post explaining in greater detail why I recommend these resources in this order to an aspiring student of (value) investing, but for now I will simply say that the first two explain how to save and how to develop the psychological discipline and personal habits that permit one to save money, and you must have savings if you want to fuel an investment program. The second lesson is in inspiration, to study the life of the greatest master of investing in the modern era to understand both what is possible, and what it takes, to be great at investing. The third lesson is a rudimentary knowledge of accounting, “the language of business” because if you’re going to be investing in businesses you ought to have a clue what is going on.

Only then, young grasshopper, are you ready for your fourth (but not final) lesson, which is to learn the methods and principles of (value) investing itself. And I can think of no greater expositor of these principles than the great master himself once again, Warren Buffett, especially because you can read along as his company develops and see the wondrous workings of these principles in “real time”.

But even this can be an overwhelming introduction for a noobie who doesn’t realize what a deep pool they’re wading into in asking the question. For the action-oriented, then, I offer a 3-Point Plan of Investment Attack which includes:

  1. The Richest Man in Babylon
  2. The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns (Little Books. Big Profits)
  3. The 2013 Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter, “Some Thoughts About Investing”

This short list will teach you how to save money so you have fuel for your investment machine, and then it provides the basic knowledge needed to decide if you want to be a humble Sunday-driver investor and do passive index investing, or if you want to be a more racy investor and pick your own businesses to invest in the way a true value investor would.

Pedantic as I am, where the heck does Toby’s book fit into all of this?! Well, I think now I can whittle my 3-Point Plan down to 2-Points: The Richest Man in Babylon, and The Acquirer’s Multiple. And I might be able to turn my original 5 item foundations into a 3 item list, using Richest Man, Accounting Game and The Acquirer’s Multiple as the set of texts. Here’s why.

Toby has done something incredible with this book. He has boiled a deeply studied, highly opinionated, multi-trillion dollar field of human endeavor down to its most essential, best researched and expertly practitioned concepts and he’s done it all in simple language that I am convinced even a complete neophyte would find approachable. He has included a number of delightful graphics that help to illustrate these simple concepts about how typical market participants behave and where investment value comes from that, for the first time in my life, I actually found increased my understanding of what I already knew rather than confused me (note: charts, data tables, etc., usually just distract me and I skip them, I am a mostly verbal knowledge acquirer). You really can’t go wrong jumping in this way.

The best part, however, is that he has curated some dramatic and action-packed biographical stories demonstrating how successful billionaire investors have put these ideas into practice. This checks the “inspiration” box I mentioned earlier because it helps the reader see how these ideas were translated into action and it gives confidence that you, too, could stand to benefit in this way.

And finally, he repeats (yes, the book is repetitious) all the neatly summarized concepts into one final summary list at the end of the book that involves 9 rules for a value investor to live by. I am confident that if a new investor referred to this list again and again at each point in his investment research and portfolio management process and asked himself, “Am I living true to this list?” he would be very satisfied with himself over a long period of time if his answer was “Yes”. And if the answer were “No”, then he’d understand exactly what he needed to do to get back on course.

I know Toby personally. He is a highly intelligent fellow, his passion for these ideas and the subject are intense and, if you ask me, he lands firmly in the “Graham” side of the “Graham-Fisher” spectrum of value investing (discussed a bit in the text) that all value investors and followers of Warren Buffett debate endlessly. And that is why I was so pleased that the conclusion of the book included an admonition to “check yourself before you wreck yourself”, so-to-speak. The Acquirer’s Multiple principle itself couldn’t be simpler, but Toby knows, as do all great investors in the Grahamian-tradition, that true risk lies in the behavior and biases of the investor himself, particularly an investor who can’t follow simple principles he knows to be true because he insists on trying to outsmart them.

Don’t try to outsmart what can be simple (though never easy!)… like reading 5 books on the art of investing when you could maybe get away with just two or three. And I am now convinced that Toby’s book should be one of them.

4/5

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Review – Shoe Dog

[amazon text=Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike&asin=1501135910]

by Phil Knight, published 2016

What can we learn from business books, especially business biographies?

I used to laugh about this with a friend a considerable amount– all these dopey books about businesses, business men and business secrets, written by ghost writers and know-nothing journalists (hack writers), developed for and marketed to mass audiences who want an entertaining dream and not an edifying edifice to stare at imponderably.

We would be amazed at how absent these books were of any meaningful details, in fact, precisely the meaningful details necessary to actually understand what was going on and “how’deedodat?” It was like some kind of conspiracy of incompetent stupidity, to write books about business without margins, without tax rates, without rates of return on capital, without the capital structure outlined and revisited periodically as an enterprise grew, without definitions of risk and explanations of strategy.

Instead, lists of names, dates, places. Stylized depictions of tragedy and success. Cliched, retrospective business wisdom, as if the hustler-entrepreneur thought in any terms other than pure, maddening survival or unbridled, sociopathic dominance of everyone around him. Overlooking special revenue or R&D relationships with governments that were critical to a firm’s mastery of its market or early survival, or ignoring impolitic questions of how the founder avoided getting swept up in the local social conflagration du jour and being drafted out of existence.

To this mish-mash of storytelling sins this book adds a new one, anachronistic language. Somehow, Nike/Blue Ribbon was a “startup” before startups in the 1960s (and even into the 1970s, when it had been around for almost a decade… just getting going, really!) and one of the guiding philosophies of Knight and his “Buttface” crew (more on this in a bit) was to “fail fast”, nearly five decades before the software development revolution convinced the business world that iterative testing and quick trial to failure was the right way for all businesses to grow and not just a specialized niche that could essentially emulate A/B variants of its product or service offering at no cost or risk with the simple push of a button. But yeah, the shoe makers were doing that back when Vietnam was a thing.

That is why I read “Shoe Dog” with skepticism and found myself lusting after a critical beatdown as I turned the pages. A 25 year-old Phil Knight travels to Japan and secures a distributorship for a top Japanese athletic shoe, quite by chance and without any explanation of how he surmounted the language barrier in post-war Japan, then proceeds to tour the globe for four months by himself as some kind of backpacker-type tourist while his order samples, presumably, sit and wait for him the whole time? This is the beginnings of what would become Nike. And it went just like that.

Yeah, right.

The book is full of these glaring contradictions. Knight wanted to avoid the standard, stultifying corporate life, so he built a massive corporation. He believed in playing it straight as he advised his Eagle Scout nominees, so he lied to his financiers and production partners to grow his business. He never had enough cash to keep the bank happy and grow the business organically, so he bought himself a nice home and took the team on bi-annual corporate retreats to luxurious places (the book suddenly introduces this information about 12 years into the company’s history, where it is also revealed that they endearingly refer to one another as “buttfaces”, somehow demonstrating their open and transparent corporate culture). His co-founder fools him into giving majority control of the enterprise at the time of founding, then gives him 2/3rds of his share when trying to retire without fuss or challenge.

What “Shoe Dog” taught me, then, is that I’ve been naive to think there is anything esoteric one can learn from business books like this. It is my mistake for coming to a mass market piece of media and expecting to hear an honest telling, or even an interesting one. These books are written to entertain, glorify the egos of those who they are written about or nominally by, and perhaps even to some extent to distract, delude or otherwise throw off of the scent the would-be competitors who read them.

Reading between the lines, Knight was an alcoholic. He was clearly unscrupulous and at times cruel in his dealings with others. He did not spend the time with his family that they wanted from him. He lied, consciously, to his business partners and financiers. And he sued and counter-sued to stay in business or gain advantage. He did some other stuff, too, but these are the kinds of things that seem to set people apart, alongside luck. Some people play by the rules, either legally or their own conscience or both, and some people find ways to stretch these factors or simply break them without regret. Those people go on to be billionaires. And they have an incentive to lie about what they did and how they did it because after all, lying is what got them there in the first place.

You will never know how a business was really built by reading a book about it. And you would probably never find out even if you were a friend of the founder. You may not even be clear on what happened if you were inside the company itself. It’s too complicated and there are too many human factors involved that lend themselves to obfuscating the truth, if it can even be remembered.

One thing I learned from “Shoe Dog” is it’s my own fault if I keep reading this stuff and find myself frustrated at being anything but entertained.

3/5

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Review – The Bully Pulpit

[amazon text=The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism&asin=1416547878]

by Doris Kearns Goodwin, published 2013

I picked up this title for two reasons. The first reason was to try to explore the phenomenon of “fake news” and the mainstream media’s war on Donald Trump’s presidency (and vice versa), to better understand the modern concept of the official press as an important check on government/regime power. The second reason was because at (now) 2,024 reviews on Amazon with an average 4.5-stars, this book seemed to promise it’d be a great, and long at 700+ pages of narrative text, story and I was looking for a great story, something that, whatever I thought of the point being argued, at least proved to be interesting and artfully constructed.

On the second point, I find myself frustrated. The research that went into this book is clearly exhaustive– the author speaks almost as much through verbatim quotes from primary source documents of the period (journal entries, private correspondence, public speeches, newspaper articles and editorials, memoirs, etc.) as she does in her own voice. This lends itself to creepy quirks of the book, such as the preponderance of quotes in which Theodore Roosevelt is found explaining himself in confidence via correspondence with Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a character whose relationship with Roosevelt is never formally introduced or explained! It kind of makes Teddy seem like a tool of some higher, shadowy powers. Why was he constantly justifying himself to another politician when the author never bothered to tell us when and how they met?

But this doesn’t seem to make for a great story. The narrative is rather breathless and sycophantic in tone. Teddy, a progressive openly-hidden amongst Republican ranks, is one of the good guys, he never gives up and, progressivism being the inevitable enlightened state of the universe toward which historical events are constantly moving us all, he of course never meets any real resistance along the way and always wins in the end. And this is a good thing. We never see the author questioning him, catching him in contradictions (though there are many for the alert reader!) or asking how it is that this One, Good Man managed to succeed in a wholly corrupt system and reform it despite the various Interests who had so much at stake in stopping him.

For a critic of progressivism, there is no profundity to consider; for the advocate, no value in confirming what is already known. The story is boring.

As for the topic of “fake news” and watchdog journalism, that must’ve developed at some other time period. We learn again and again of how Roosevelt took various progressive journalists of the era into his confidence and made friends of them, and them of him, with many ebullient feelings being shared all around. We learn of his unique talent for cultivating relationships with these journalists who then heralded him and his policies for public consumption, and we also come to understand the important value this access represented to people who essentially are merchants of information those with access frequently come by. In some scenes, we see them conspiring so closely that it almost seems that the journalists are formulating policy, and the politician is writing the story.

In other words, we see a symbiotic relationship that serves power. Where’s the watchdog here?

One thing I wondered as I read this book was, “Was progressivism truly inevitable?” It’s hard to see how it could’ve been stopped, or what would’ve existed that was much different from it if it had been. Roosevelt’s insidious support for what every critic at the time could quite obviously see was socialism, from within the Republican party, which according to repeated insistence from the text had a stranglehold over the entire government, calls to mind the cliche, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” It seems that there was a competitive advantage in politics in moving further and further to the left, no matter what party you came from, and the investigative journalists of the era (such as the evil Lincoln Steffens, who spent many years becoming “educated” in Europe about Marxism on his businessman father’s nickel) were only too happy to assist in readying the public for this ideological assault. When you read the accounts of the period of union workers intimidating “scab” worker families (women and kids), beating strike-breaking workers and even dynamiting non-union workers in public places, it kind of sounds like terrorism, something that seems like it would be a hard sell to good-hearted middle class Americans.

Yet, that is the side of history that won, and guys like Roosevelt and the investigative journalists helped make it happen.

It seems like it’s worth not forgetting that when listening to the media today tell us the important role it plays in preventing democracy from dying in darkness while it does the bidding of the Deep State.

3/5

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Review – The Snowball (#investing, #books, #business, #review)

[amazon text=The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life&asin=0553384619]

by Alice Schroeder, published 2008, 2009 (condensed and updated)

This is my second reading of The Snowball. I enjoyed it almost as much as the first, five years ago, and definitely took away different things from this reading than I did last time. At that time, I was just finishing my “personal MBA”  deep-dive into value investing and was interested in Schroeder’s Buffett bio mainly for the information and insight it would yield into Buffett’s approach and track record as an investor. I was surprised to come away from that reading realizing that the book was a moral parable in the form of a man’s life (an incredibly successful, well-known and near-worshipped man) and my second journey through the book was more focused on the question “How should I think about living my life?” than the question “How should I think about investing?”

I found the book most exciting to read and most interesting personally in the exploration of Buffett’s origins and the detailed narrative about the first twenty years of the partnerships that proceeded his investment in Berkshire Hathaway. As the story wore on and it became more about managing what he had and dealing with the consequences of choices wrought long ago, I found myself losing interest, particularly as the Salomon and Long-Term Capital Management sagas carried on for a mind-numbing fifty-plus pages in total.

Buffett’s childhood was far more unusual than I cared to notice in my first reading. He was obsessed with business, investing and the impact of statistics in life not just from a young age, but in ways that were extraordinary even for someone to be described as “doing X from a young age” would imply by itself. Obsessed is not a word I use lightly here. The young Buffett was probably an odd creature to be around, even for people who loved him or found him interesting or were of unusual talent and ability themselves. This seems confirmed in later years when so many people familiar with him describe feeling exhausted after spending just a few hours with him. It helped me to realize how unfair and pointless trying to compare yourself to a person like Buffett is.

When asked by Bill Gates, Sr., at a dinner what single word they’d use to describe the outcome of their life and their success, Buffett said, “Focus.” As Schroeder describes in many places in the book, and especially at length in the final chapter, “focus” means something completely different when Buffett says it versus anyone of lesser ability and different personality. When Buffett says “focus” he means “to the exclusion of all else, with relentless, all-consuming energy, without tiring or being distracted.” There is no balance working behind the scenes. He gave up a lot of “normal” things most other people would insist on or desire in distinction to that which they were focused on, not as a sacrifice but as an inevitability of his personality.

The most obvious and tragic is his relationship with his family and his relationship with himself. Most other people who are driven towards success in their field and the monetary rewards that typically come with it offer up the excuse of their family as their motivation, honestly or not. This wasn’t the case for Buffett, and achieving supremacy in his profession and in his personal net worth really didn’t do anything to enhance his relationship with his family or the way he cared for them. It is indicated on numerous occasions what kind of tradeoff he would’ve had to make to be more involved with his family, and he never did it. It’s an excellent reminder for someone who sees themselves as driven to achieve that these tradeoffs are real and accepting a “lower rate of return” in one’s efforts is a necessary (and happy?) price to pay to maintain a relationship with one’s family, which itself is valuable.

Buffett’s relationship with himself is also instructive in this regard. Many people wonder how money can’t solve most problems, and why people who are super wealthy continue to eat poorly, exercise infrequently and maintain the same limited psychological state and insecurities they possessed before they achieved glory. The answer again is simple– in the drive toward massive wealth, things get set aside and often it is the improvement of the self as a holistic unit that is set aside first in order to claim excess in one aspect.

Of course, we can’t expect Buffett to be perfect. Nobody is, and the point of mentioning this isn’t to point out the man’s flaws, but to explain them. You can’t have Buffett and have these issues resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. They come with the territory. If you want to be “focused” like Buffett, plan on neglecting your family and yourself, quite a bit. That’s only a judgment if you think those things are objectively more important than wealth or self-actualization in the area of generating wealth. That’s not really a judgment I want to make here and I think it misses the point.

Yet, Buffett’s flaws make for a fascinating lesson in a different way. Though Buffett was unusual, and exceptional, and completely driven toward a single-minded purpose from a young age, the path was far from certain that he would need to tread to get to wherever it was that he would end up going. It’s easy to sit here today reading a book published almost ten years ago, recounting events that unfolded over the past eighty, and see what was inevitable as inevitable. But Buffett made mistakes. Many of them, along the way. That’s what’s truly remarkable, that he made mistakes and still arrived where he did. It’s a good salve for a person carrying around the perfectionist fallacy. Give it a rest and get going, you can make some mistakes and still end up alright if Buffett is any example.

I love reading stories like this, stories of flawed people of unusual ability who managed to achieve something heroic even if their life wasn’t truly ideal. I love knowing it can be done. I love knowing what the pitfalls and the tradeoffs are, so I can be mindful of them myself. I love the way I can give myself permission to not achieve what they achieved (in kind or in magnitude) having the benefit of hindsight to see what it truly took that I can’t give, or won’t.

But most of all, I just love watching someone create something from nothing. That creative energy is uniquely human and what I admire most about our species and this little project called “civilization” that we’re all tinkering away on. The Snowball is not as great an investment manual as I originally thought it was (for that, I’d recommend Buffett’s BRK shareholder letters, along with or after reading Graham’s Security Analysis and The Intelligent Investor), but it is an epic moral profile and a captivating read overall because of it.

4/5

[amazon asin=0553384619&template=iframe image2]

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[amazon asin=0070140650&template=iframe image2]

[amazon asin=0060555661&template=iframe image2]