Tag: Wisdom

An Important Life Lesson we can Learn from Sailors

A quick yet incredibly important quote today that adds to the wisdom of Andy Benoit and Joseph Tussman.

Bion of Borysthenes

… [W]e should not try to alter circumstances but to adapt ourselves to them as they really are, just as sailors do. They don’t try to change the winds or the sea but ensure that they are always ready to adapt themselves to conditions. In a flat calm they use the oars; with a following breeze they hoist full sail; in a head wind they shorten sail or heave to. Adapt yourself to circumstances in the same way.

— Bion of Borysthenes (From Peter Bevelin’s All I Want to Know Is Where I’m Going to Die So I’ll Never Go There: Buffett and Munger — A Study in Simplicity and Uncommon, Common Sense)

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Still Curious? you’ll love the the wisdom of Publilius Syrus

Ten Words That Forever Change How You View Leadership

Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm. — Publilius Syrus

“Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm.”
— Publilius Syrus

It’s easy to lead when things are going well.

It’s easy to take credit for success.

It’s easy to look good when the metrics are going in the right direction.

And yet … I’m reminded of Warren Buffett’s words of caution: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

If you want to gain an edge you need to think deeper. And when you do that … nothing looks the same again.

The Road Less Travelled: The Source of Many of the Ills of Mankind

This is a must read.

Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.

While this is obvious, it is something that most people to a greater or lesser degree choose to ignore. They ignore it because our route to reality is not easy. First of all, we are not born with maps; we have to make them, and the making requires effort. The more effort we make to appreciate and perceive reality, the larger and more accurate our maps will be. But many do not want to make this effort. Some stop making it by the end of adolescence. Their maps are small and sketchy, their views of the world narrow and misleading. By the end of middle age most people have given up the effort. They feel certain that their maps are complete and their Weltanschauung is correct (indeed, even sacrosanct), and they are no longer interested in new information. It is as if they are tired. Only a relative and fortunate few continue until the moment of death exploring the mystery of reality, ever enlarging and refining and redefining their understanding of the world and what is true.

But the biggest problem of map-making is not that we have to start from scratch, but that if our maps are to be accurate we have to continually revise them. The world itself is constantly changing. Glaciers come, glaciers go. Cultures come, cultures go. There is too little technology, there is too much technology. Even more dramatically, the vantage point from which we view the world is constantly and quite rapidly changing. When we are children we are dependent, powerless. As adults we may be powerful. Yet in illness or an infirm old age we may become powerless and dependent again. When we have children to care for, the world looks different from when we have none; when we are raising infants, the world seems different from when we are raising adolescents. When we are poor, the world looks different from when we are rich. We are daily bombarded with new information as to the nature of reality. If we are to incorporate this information, we must continually revise our maps, and sometimes when enough new information has accumulated, we must make very major revisions. The process of making revisions, particularly major revisions, is painful, sometimes excruciatingly painful. And herein lies the major source of many of the ills of mankind.

What happens when one has striven long and hard to develop a working view of the world, a seemingly useful, workable map, and then is confronted with new information suggesting that that view is wrong and the map needs to be largely redrawn? The painful effort required seems frightening, almost overwhelming. What we do more often than not, and usually unconsciously, is to ignore the new information. Often this act of ignoring is much more than passive. We may denounce the new information as false, dangerous, heretical, the work of the devil. We may actually crusade against it, and even attempt to manipulate the world so as to make it conform to our view of reality. Rather than try to change the map, an individual may try to destroy the new reality. Sadly, such a person may expend much more energy ultimately in defending an outmoded view of the world than would have been required to revise and correct it in the first place.

— Via The Road Less Traveled, Timeless Edition: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth

This beautiful excerpt encapsulates so much of Farnam Street.

Still Interested? Check these out:

The Map is Not the Territory — Maps are necessary, but flawed. The problem, however, goes deeper than abstraction.

What made Charles Darwin an Effective Thinker? — Most people take evidence that disconfirms their prior beliefs and ignore it. Darwin was different and that’s part of the reason he was so incredibly successful.

Joseph Tussman: Getting the World to do the Work for You — The world will do the work for you if you know this one secret.

The Farnam Street Latticework of Mental Models — Acquiring knowledge may seem like a daunting task. There is so much to know and time is precious. Luckily, we don’t have to master everything.

Exploiting Unrecognized Simplicity — How geniuses really prosper. Once you know this, the world looks different.

The Iconic Think Different Apple Commercial Narrated by Steve Jobs

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

— Steve Jobs, 1997

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about creativity and to what extent attitude plays a role.

The most creative people I know are often the ones who have a hell-raiser trait in them, regardless of whether this comes from nature or nurture.

These are people who think different, feel different, behave different. These are the people who can’t easily fit into the square corporate box.

Organizations both value and despise them. They make people uncomfortable. They challenge thoughts, processes, and the status quo. They disrupt and dismiss. They push. They raise the bar for everyone else and they call people out. They’re not being difficult on purpose — they’re being themselves. They see things differently. And that comes with both opportunities and challenges.

Many people — especially those who are less secure about themselves — have a hard time working with people that push boundaries and challenge the way things are done. They don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want the bar raised. They don’t want to explain why something needs to stay the same. All of this, after all, is exhausting. It’s much easier to just ignore, dismiss, or add layers of management to dilute the impact these people can have.

The problem with that approach, however, is that you dilute what your organization is capable of. Embracing people who think differently is not a sign of weakness as a leader (and I’m not advocating for embracing everyone who thinks differently, there is some nuance here). Allowing yourself to hear the perspective of others who think differently is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.

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Two related Farnam Street Posts:

Steve Jobs on Creativity. Steve Jobs had a lot to say about creativity.

Steve Jobs on The Most Important thing. Life can be so much better once you understand this one simple fact.

A Journey of Self Discovery

“Beautiful people do not just happen.”

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In her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert told her story of self discovery in which she spent a year journeying through Italy, India, and Indonesia. On how people can go on a journey of self discovery she notes:

The last thing I ever wanted to become is the Poster Child for “Everyone Must Leave Their Husband and Move to India In Order to Find God.” … It was my path—that is all it ever was. I drew up my journey as a personal prescription for solving my life. Transformative journeys come in many forms, though, and often happen without people ever leaving home.

As Scott Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire note in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, “knowing loss, struggle, suffering, and defeat is crucial to the positive disintegration process and acts as a catalyst for personal growth, creativity, and deep transformation.” He continues:

Rather than something to be avoided or denied, it is the hardships and challenges both internal and external — that make us beautiful.

As Nietzsche said, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

Making the best out of difficult experiences, something Marcus Aurelius advised, is the key to turning adversity into advantage.

As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously wrote in On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families:

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

James Cash Penney and the Golden Rule


It is then we must remember that all good days in human life come from
the mastery of the days of 
trouble that are forever recurrent.
-J.C. Penney

Many are unaware that the department store J.C. Penney was originally the work of a man named, appropriately, James Cash Penney. Penney was raised in Missouri by a father who doubled as a preacher and a farmer. After a career full of turbulence, James became manager of a Golden Rule store in Evanston, Wyoming. The stores traded in dry goods — grain, flour, beans; anything that wouldn’t spoil. After a few years of success, Penney was offered his own store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and took his shot.

James_Cash_Penney_(ca._1902)
Penney turned the venture into a great success, and by 1913 had ownership of 34 Golden Rule stores which were renamed J.C. Penney. He’d go on to expand the chain into a dominant national department store chain that continues on today, albeit in a less prosperous form.

In 1949, Penney published a very slim book called My Experience with the Golden Rule — it didn’t describe in detail his retail experience, but instead his thoughts on the Rule itself. The little volume has some beautiful passages worth sharing. He speaks with a bit of a Southern Baptist tone, but whether you are a spiritual person or not, the lessons hold.

On the Teachings of Life

He starts with a refrain which echoes our favorite from Joseph Tussman:

As I look back over the entire range of my life’s journey I would say that discipline has never let up. I seem to have moved from one contest to another—from one hard situation to another. As I try to read it all now it seems to me as if life has been trying to make me understand that a man has only to work with the universal law and purpose and they, in turn, will work for him. But if he decides to work, trusting wholly to his own judgment, ignoring all wiser leadership, he will get hurt.

On The Challenge of Ethical Principles

I want to show that we build lasting values for later life precisely as we are motivated in our youth. For what we do in the beginning of our careers capitalizes us all the way along. If it happens that one is challenged in youth by ethical principles and if one is led, or even compelled, to adopt them, he will begin to have high altitude experiences. In other words, it is well for every one of us to be forced by whatever circumstances to work righteously. This is the supreme benefit even if, in the doing it, it seems to “go against the grain.” We learn, slowly, that all accomplishment and advancement are gained only by a contest—a fight with the circumstances and conditions through which we pass.

And we gradually begin to see that great principles have it in them to make the going rough, hard and foot-wearying. To seek to do best for ourselves by doing right for all concerned is by no means an easy proposition. It is, in fact, infinitely hard. But at the same time it guarantees us safety and security as a dividend on the investment of the effort we make. It does not keep us from attaining material success, hard as the going may be. But it makes the way safe and the method effective.

[…]

There were a lot of cowboys in Kemmerer in my time. One of them put the fact I have in mind in better words than I can command. Speaking of a rodeo he said: “There is one thing about a bronco that is always true. With never an exception. He is full of unexpectedness.”

The point is this, any ethical principle that one may adopt is just as full of unexpectedness. I mean, in the challenge it puts up to one. The problem with the bronco is to get on and stay on.

On the Value of Having One’s Principles Tested

Penney proceeds to tell the story of his father forcing him to start earning his own money if he wants new clothes. Upon earning a small amount, he buys a pig and uses the earnings from the first pig to bankroll the purchase of many more, until he’s got about a dozen. It’s then that his father tells him he must get rid of the pigs due to complaints, even though James would have to take a loss on the sale.

It was a long time after the event that I was able to look back upon the experience as one might look back upon a mountain range where he has been tramping and see its skyline. Let it suffice for me to say that what I leaned out of that business experience and the three parties concerned, namely, myself, my father, and the neighbors, proved to be a treasure worthy to possess.

My father knew that if I was compelled to clothe myself it would make me think and search and find ways of earning the money to do it. And furthermore he knew that I would learn this important fact:

We do not meet the demands of life with money. But with the imagination, forethought, plans and energy that earn the money.

Through life we learn many principles of business operation. But this one is of high rating among them all. Then, one thing further, my father took pains to make me understand:

–That I would not exercise my ingenuity to get money if by so doing I caused distress to other people.

–That any effort is worth only what can be gotten out of it by the action of a fair deal.

[…]

My father said to me one day: “We would resent it if a neighbor distressed and discomforted us in any way. Therefore, you see that a neighbor will resent distress and discomfort if we cause it. This means,” he said, “we must do to everyone as we wish to be done by.”

And so there emerged into my youthful experience the Golden Rule.

On Holding Fast to Ethics When You’re Riding High

Penney spends some time discussing his relationship with employees and his hope to develop them to their highest purpose. His basic idea is that “…to hire a man and literally leave him as is, is the beginning of a degree of human dissatisfaction that can go to any length.”

And then he returns to the Golden Rule:

So I come back again to the condition that the Golden Rule, if one adopts it, is a difficult master to serve. The ship’s captain will not throw the compass overboard because the wind blows fair and the day is funny. For he knows, from the experiences of the ocean’s instability, that the danger days of storm are always “just ahead.” So the compass must always be handy and obedience to it must always be loyal. And so with the Golden Rulle—the compass must be ever at hand through life’s journey. It will see us through trying times. And perhaps the most trying of all times comes when success is riding high and we may be tempted to “throw the compass overboard.” It is then we must remember that all good days in human life come from the mastery of the days of trouble that are forever recurrent.

On Advice to Young Men in Finding Their Purpose and Career

Penney closes with an admonition that the purpose of life is to find the calling to which you can devote your time and energy and feel fulfilled. As he makes clear, devoting your energy to something which you care about and feel fulfilled by is the highest purpose you can achieve:

To young men my advice is as simple and distinct as my own experience. It runs like this:

Take time to discover what you would prefer above all else to make your life work. You may have to do a lot of temporary jobs before you reach the one your ambition places above all others. But if your idea is clear and your determination firm, you will surely reach it.

Remember that it is often necessary in life to learn to work hard at many things before you arrive at the very great privilege of working hard at the one thing you prize the most.

Think persistently into great principles. That many have persisted for thousands of years simply because their truth is unassailable, applies to all of us in all situations and problems. Hence the great Proverbs, the Golden Rule, the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, and, along with these, the testimony of men who have sought their way to the rare privilege of doing what they most wanted to do.

Remember that all this effort to reach your preference in life work and your further effort to perfect it within the scope of your ability is for just one purpose. And the purpose is to give service to the utmost of your ability.

Still Interested? You can find the book here, but it’s out of print and a bit pricey for such a short volume. Another one to learn more about J.C. Penney is a book about his life and career, Main Street Merchant. If you want more on ethics and wisdom, try some of our posts on Seneca.