What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

Colleges Survive on Exploitation

Colleges love to tell you how great and wonderful they are. And, indeed, great and wonderful things happen on most (perhaps all) college campuses. Intellect is stimulated, curiosity is nourished, and inspiration is given and received. Yet all is not as wonderful as it’s cracked up to be. Continue reading

Making America Great

There’s been a lot of talk the past year about making America great again, Vera. It was the campaign slogan for Donald Trump, who, later this week, will be sworn in as our next president. Mr. Trump isn’t a great man by any stretch of the imagination (at least not mine). But let me tell you about an American who was. Continue reading

The Place That Was Hardest to Leave

Your grandmother and I have moved around quite a bit, Vera, principally because work opportunities pulled us away. We were reared in rural central Pennsylvania, but we’ve spent our adult years mainly in Pittsburgh suburbs, the Mechanicsburg, Pa. area, Philadelphia and its suburbs (West Chester), and the Front Range (Boulder and Loveland, Colorado). We’ve lived in different neighborhoods and belonged to various groups. But there is one that stands out. There is one that proved to be the hardest to leave. There is one I miss the most. And the reasons why might be relevant to your life. Continue reading

Treasure the Special People Whose Paths You Cross

I recently received a warm message from a fellow parishioner at the Bridgewater Church of the Brethren (which we attended when I was serving as president of Bridgewater College). The message was a welcome reminder of some of the very special people whose paths crossed ours during our lifetimes — and of some of our special time together.

It’s easy to forget sometimes. It’s easy to dwell on the less-than-special people, or the people who were asses. Sometimes it seems they outnumber the special people. But I’m not sure that’s the case.

When I recall our time at Bridgewater College, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the duplicity. It was as rampant as we’ve ever experienced anywhere — actually, more so (by far). Fortunately, though, I also remember some of the most special people whom I’ve ever had the good fortune to know. I wish that’s what would come to mind first. Perhaps someday.

We’ve been lucky, Vera. We’ve encountered some amazing people along the journey. Some were people of extraordinary accomplishments. Some were pure of heart. Some oozed goodness from every pore of their bodies. Some made us laugh (in a good way). Some were simply genuine, real, authentic and trustworthy. Some blessed us with rich conversation for hours on end. Some cared — truly cared.

Some of these people are still in our lives. Some aren’t. But all have enriched our lives immensely.

You undoubtedly will have similar experiences, Vera. And you’ll most likely be a very special person to people whose paths cross with yours.

My advice is to pause and treasure those moments and those people. I have found that they, more than any success you might have or goal achieved, are what truly make life special.

When you sense someone is making you a better person merely by being in their presence, when you receive inspiration from someone, when your courage is strengthened by the aura and example provided by someone, when your intellect and heart are stretched and softened by the words and actions of someone, when you are in the presence of someone with whom you can be yourself without any pretense or airs, when you eat, drink and laugh with someone who truly cares about you and your well-being, when you desire the evening to never end, know that, in the parlance of the religious, you are in the presence of holiness and are experiencing a holy moment. In secular parlance, it is special. Very special indeed.

It matters not what you choose to call it. But it matters greatly that you recognize it. And treasure it.

We Live In an Irrational World

I like to think I’m rational. To a degree, I am; to a larger degree, I’m not. Neither is anyone else.

It took me a long time to realize this. It’s scary how slow I am to learn certain things. It makes me think I’m stupider than I like to think. I suppose no one likes to think they’re stupid. Indeed, studies reveal the vast majority of us think we’re above average. The fact of the matter is, for most of us our brains don’t have to work overtime to fool us. We are much better at rationalizing our decisions than making rational decisions.

When I worked at Bridgewater College, I had a vice president tell me I was the most rational person that person had known. I didn’t say it, but I thought to myself, how ironic? My decision to accept the offer of the board to become their president was one of the most irrational decisions I’d ever made. Perhaps I seemed rational because college campuses are some of the most irrational places in our culture. There, sentimentality reigns.

My list of irrational decisions would be long. I’m not proud of it; in fact, it’s embarrassing. They expose me for what I am: a bundle of emotions, biases, preconceptions, and self-delusions.

If you want to understand the psychological explanations for all this irrationality, I suggest you begin by reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. There is a lot of other research on the subject. Suffice it to say that, the more you read, the less confident you will be in your own rational capabilities. And the more concerned we’d be with people who claim to make decisions from their gut or by intuition.

Irrationality is a major impediment to being a good investor. In the current phase of my life, I spend quite a bit of time studying investments and making related decisions. Warren Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger (like me, a lawyer by trade), has said his goal is to become the most rational person possible. Since taking over responsibility for my own investments, I can understand his point more fully. It’s not easy being completely rational. We bring so many preconceptions and biases to the table that get in the way.

Of course, there is no way to become completely rational. Humans aren’t constructed for total rationality. Inside our thought processes are embedded all kinds of experiences that, for better or for worse, we extrapolate and generalize. And inside our DNA is embedded millennial of survival biases and mental shortcuts. Unfortunately, some of these are more pertinent to years long gone; they don’t necessarily translate well to 21st-century living.

I also wonder if irrationality is a defense against what might otherwise seem to be a sense of purposeless and insignificance. Most of us desire to find meaning in life. Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as being insignificant. Yet perhaps that’s where rationality would take us. Perhaps it’s too disquieting a place to live for most of us.

But perhaps we expect too much.

Sometimes I think the main contribution of religion is the concept that none of us is the center. Despite what we might say we believe, we do in fact view the world from our center. But how rational is that? Not so much I suspect.

I wonder what the world would look like if rationality reigned. Not that it’s ever gone to happen. It won’t. Or at least not in my lifetime.

As Kahneman’s work and its progeny have persuasively shown, we make irrational decisions even when we’re aware of the internal biases and predispositions that pull us from rational thought. So, knowledge and self-awareness are not antidotes for what ails us. I wonder how the academics who think education is the be-all and end-all of everything wrap their heads around that.

Yet I can’t help but think knowledge and self-awareness help. But is such thinking grounded in reality or my own self-delusional tendencies?

Accepting the fact I’ll never be completely rational yields at least three byproducts, I suppose. First, it undermines one’s confidence, which, if I’m honest with myself, is probably a good thing.

I tend to be overconfident — too smug about the soundness of my judgment and decisions. A little less confidence is probably a good thing.

Second, a realization of my own irrationality engenders a healthy dose of humility. I could use more humility.

Finally, it makes one less impulsive and more contemplative, slower to make decisions. Decisions made in haste tend to be flawed. Some have to be made quickly. Others don’t. Taking one’s time is probably a good thing.

I don’t know what my life would have been if I’d been as rational as I thought I was. It would have been different, that much is sure. Better or more interesting? That is far from certain.

What I do know is that I would have tried harder to see problems from a different perspective. I’d given more consideration to the perspectives and opinions of others. I’d been slower to reach conclusions. And I’d been less dismissive of others. I’d also be a better investor.

What else would I have realized at an earlier age?

  • The power of propaganda – I minimized the power of propaganda earlier in my life. I had the misguided impression that humans were more rational than we are. The past 15 years have demonstrated the power of propaganda beyond anything I could have imaged during my naive young years. It’s one of the things that scares me. Where it could take us is anyone’s guess, but it’s not likely to be a good place. It rarely is.
  • The threat posed by arrogance – People who don’t understand the limitations of the human mind are particularly dangerous. Their arrogance can lead people astray under the guise of decisiveness and strength. That’s one of the paradoxical aspects of humanity: our perceived strengths can sometimes be our greatest weaknesses.
  • The power of rationalization – Rationalization usually appears as rationality. But they’re very different things. I realize that today. When younger, I would have said I knew it. But I truly didn’t. Perhaps I still don’t perceive the differences to the degree I should.
  • The art of persuasion – My misconception about the power of rational thought limited my effectiveness in certain roles. If I’d better understood better the art of persuasion and the means to get people to think and act as you want them to, I’d been more effective and accomplished more. Every college student should read the books by Robert B. Cialdini. Unfortunately, most don’t. Why? Because most academics think the world is a more rational place than it really is.

So here I am, at the ripe age of 61, with the relatively new-found awareness of the depth of my own irrationality, determined to embrace Charlie Munger’s goal of becoming a rational person. Is it achievable? Not entirely. More completely? I don’t know. That’s the strange thing about the human mind: its power of deception is vast.

But I do think I’d have been a better decision maker. And a better CEO. And husband. And father.

If you want to be a good decision maker, Vera, be mindful of the illusion of understanding. Don’t fall for the idea that the world is more rational than it truly is.

Angels Like To Play In Dirt

Today is a big day in our household, Vera. Someone qualifies for Social Security (although she’s not claiming her benefits yet). A lot has happened in those 62 years. Fortunately for me, 46 of them have been shared with me, nearly 40 in marriage. So what have I learned during that time that could be relevant to you? I’ve jotted down a few of the more important discoveries at the end of this post. But first, a word about how it all unfolded. Continue reading