Monday, October 29, 2007


Just finished Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness; great book. There is a bit about Stoicism:
"Started as an intellectual movement in antiquity by a Phoenician Cypriot, Zeno of Ktion, it developed by Roman time into a life based on a system of virtues--in the anccient sense when virtue meant virtu, the sort of belief in which virtue is its onw reward... The stoic is a person who combines the qualities of wisdom, upright dealing, and courage. The stoic will thus be immune from life's gyrations as he will be superior to the wounds from some of life's dirty tricks."

He points out that it really has little to do with a "stiff upper lip," that there is nothing wrong or undignified about emotion or its display; rather, what is wrong is not following "the heroic or, at least, the dignified path." That is, do the right thing without regard to reward or thanks, without concern for others' reactions, thoughts, or opinions.

He goes on, in a section titled "Randomness and Personal Elegance" to urge that one "exhibit sapere vivere ("know how to live") in all circumstances," summing that advice via:
"Dress at your best on your execution day (shave carefully); try to leave a good impression on the death squad by standing erect and proud. Try not to play victim when diagnosed with cancer (hide it from others an donly share the information with the doctor--it will avert the platitudes and nobody will treat you like a victim worthy of their pity; in addition, the dignified attitude will make both victory and defeat feel equally heroic)... Try not to blame others for your fate, even if they deserve blame... The only article Lady Fortuna has no control over is your behavior."

Act always in a manner that precludes oneself from being considered or treated like a victim.


I recently hired an assistant. I lured him from another firm, paid a higher salary and bonus (higher than this person ever dreamed of earning). I forewent several other candidates, many highly qualified--even more qualified in some ways (at least on paper). Why did I hire the person I did? And why do I relate the story? Because I knew and respected this person's work; indeed had worked with him in the past and wanted to do so again (for my own benefit and the benefit of the firm). He had the skills I needed and, more importantly, I remain confident that he can learn anything needed that he currently lacks. That, at least, is why I hired him.

But, more importantly, I knew him; he was known to me. There are many, many people unknown to me; many of whom actively, consciously choose to be unknown to me--and to others like me (i.e., hiring managers).

I admit that much of Life is luck ("Lady Fortuna," in Taleb's words)--perhaps even more than it should be (but not as much as some would have you believe). One would do well to maximize one's chances of being visited by Opportunty, of being prepared when she knocks to grab hold of her forelock as tightly as possible. Despite one's starting circumstances--which, I agree, might be quite dire for some--one would do well to "do the right thing," to prepare and optimize, just in case, to make the best of the situation. This effort, I believe, feeds on itself, a virtuous circle.

Or one can cry victim, refuse to prepare (indeed, lash out or even denigrate the behaviors that lead to opportunities--or jobs), and believe those that whisper "the world owes you." (Yah, good luck with that.)

I should not be where I am--or perhaps I should be much further along; I just do not, can not know. But I try to maximize what I have been given (within my own very human limitations), and be grateful (and I am). ("How nice for you.")

But really, what is the alternative? To be ever bitter and angry? Predetermined to fail?

True story: Years ago I interviewd a Harvard undergrad for a position. She had green hair. I did not hire her. I learned later that she had dyed her hair the day before in order to prove that those of my ilk were superficial, could not get beyond the surface. Yup; she was right. And unemployed. One of those hired instead (for an entry-level analyst position) is now a portfolio manager, likely on his way to partner. Good job, Green Hair!

Why do we feed and foster the proles (or even moreso the so-called "underprivileged")? Is anyone really over-privileged? I know I could use more privileges! Do I resent Bill Gates (a man whose wealth I do not consider directly tied to his innovation, merit, or worth)? Not only do I not resent him, I do not resent the way he has chosen to waste his fortune (it is, after all, his money). Do I resent the residents of Catalina Island? Nope: but I'd like to be one someday...

Getting off track: just wanted to point out the relative and cumulative benefit of maximizing potential, of "doing the right thing." If you were always maximizing your openness to opportunity, perhaps you too would be in someone's preferred hiring network, lured from your current job to one of (so my employee reports) relative flexibility, creativity, and compensation. Need not be my network--or even field--but one of your own choosing and desire. Or you could just play Nintendo or basketball or whatever. It's your life, and I cannot advise you (indeed, am precluded from doing so due to my "privileged" background and position) what "doing the right thing" is for you and your circumstances. Good luck!

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