Beware the Bozo Contagion: An example of when to apply the Most Useful Philosophy.

This boat ramp is occupied.

This boat ramp is occupied.

It was an awesome summer Sunday and we were not the only ones that thought it would be a good idea to go to the lake. There was a line of vehicles pulling trailers with their boats.

There are four ramps at the place we go to launch the boat. The process is simple. You pull your vehicle up on the right side of the launch area and check the ramps. If the ramps are occupied, you wait.

“Occupied” means there is a vehicle with a boat on a trailer backing down the ramp to launch. Or there is a boat that is in the water tied to the dock. If the boat is tied to the dock it means one of two things: 1) the owner of the boat just launched the boat and is parking their vehicle, or 2) the boat owner just pulled up to the dock and tied off their boat.

If the ramp is occupied you wait. Like a public restroom, if it is in use, you wait.

Dad was in the “on-deck” slot. My yellow Labrador Carson and I were standing at the top of the boat ramps a few yards away. I would motion to Dad when a ramp became available, and point to which ramp.

I do this because the boat ramps go down at a steep angle from the “on-deck” area. The driver can’t view the bottom and see which ramp opens up.

It’s not a complicated process.

The problem with boating is that most people don’t know how to do it properly and safely. At least 9 out of 10 people with a boat don’t know how to use it.  And most people can’t control their emotions.

If you take a beautiful summer Sunday, lots of people wanting to go to the lake with their boats, and lots of people who can’t control their emotions, you have the perfect recipe for… Bozos.

As I was watching the ramps for the first availability, several trucks with boat trailers pulled up behind my Dad.

They started honking their car horns at my Dad telling him to GO! They were yelling from their cars. Dad was getting frustrated.

These people were Bozos.

He looked at me and yelled, “What’s going on? Can I go??”

“No”, I replied.

All the ramps were occupied. I would have told my Dad if one was open. It’s not a complicated process.

The guy who was two positions behind my Dad in line, we’ll call him Bozo #3, decided that he couldn’t wait any longer. He had not been in line 5 minutes. He pulled out of the line, pulled in front of my Dad and started to line up his truck and trailer to back down one of the occupied ramps.

I could see Dad getting angry.

The guy waiting behind Dad got out of his car, walked up to the offending line skipper and said, “Hey! There’s a line here.”

Bozo #3 started mumbling something. He was embarrassed that he got called out. He pulled his vehicle back in line.

Then a truck pulls out of one of the middle ramps with its trailer empty. The boat was in the water tied off to the dock.

I told you most people who go boating don’t know what they’re doing, right?

Well they don’t become Bozos magically when they are in the water on a boat. They are that way in all interactions with a boat. They don’t know how to launch a boat, drive a boat, and they don’t know how to put a boat on a trailer and pull it out of the water properly and safely.

The guy who just got out and scolded Bozo #3 for skipping the line, who was waiting behind Dad, pulled out in front of Dad. This Bozo, we’ll call him Bozo #2, started backing down the middle ramp that the truck with the empty trailer had just come from.

Dad got angry and started yelling at the guy. “Hey! I’m waiting in line here buddy!!”

Bozo #2 did not care and started backing down the ramp anyway.

There are several reasons you don’t back down a ramp with the boat in the water tied to the dock. First, it’s a dick move. You’re crowding the other person. You could potentially hit the boat tied to the dock if you back down too far.

Second, it could take the person a long time to get back from their car and by that time another ramp will have opened up. If you’re a Bozo and started backing down an occupied slot, then you will miss the chance to get the open ramp to the next person in the “on-deck” slot.

And you will look like a Bozo.

Lastly, boats break down all the time. That’s the nature of having a boat.

People will launch their boat, tie it to the dock, park the car, come back and try to start the boat. The boat will be a boat and something will have broken or whatever, the boat won’t start. This is not unusual. Then the boat has to be pulled out of the water.

If a Bozo has backed down an occupied ramp, they have to pull their rig back out if the boat their encroaching on won’t start.

Dad was amazed at the foolishness of the scene. He started looking at me as if I could explain the Bozo #2’s actions.

Bozo #3 saw the bold move of Bozo #2 and couldn’t control himself. He pulled in front of my Dad a second time and immediately started backing down a ramp with a boat tied to the dock.

I’m guessing that Bozo #2 and Bozo #3 thought my Dad and I were Bozo’s because we were just sitting there waiting for a ramp to get open instead of charging down the first ramp we could see.

A Bozo never knows he’s a Bozo.

Dad lost it. He yelled at me in desperation “Can I GO?!?”

It was easy to see what was happening. Dad lost his self-control. He let other people’s actions dictate his. He was getting angry because everyone at the boat ramp was acting like Bozo’s.

I see this happen to people of all walks of life. This used to happen to me all the time. Then I got crushed and put in the hospital and cried a lot. Then I learned and got better. But I still fall in this trap occasionally.

When you find yourself in a situation where other people’s bad behavior makes you angry, remember the words of Marcus Aurelius:

“So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine.”

This is the most useful, practical application of philosophy you will find.

If the people around you are Bozo’s and acting shitty, so what? If someone cuts you off on your commute to work, so what? If you have co-workers that make your life miserable, stop and think.

You don’t have to act like them.

You have a choice. You are the one in control of how you think, feel, and act. Don’t give that control away so easily.

Get away from them, or ignore them. Do not let other people’s bad behavior influence yours.

Breathe. Then take another deep Breath. The world is full of Bozos and uncomfortable situations. It’s ok. Don’t let it get to you.

One of the boat ramps finally opened up and I directed my father to it.

We got our boat in the water before Bozo #3. He was still waiting on the ramp for the boat that was tied to the dock to pull away so he could put his boat in.

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Stumbling through life? Try this useful trick.

This was once the most powerful man in the world. He taught me this useful trick.

This was once the most powerful man in the world. He taught me this useful trick.

One of the most useful things that happened to me after the avalanche was the introspection.

I had to focus on my feelings and how I did or did not control them. I learned from Epictetus that I can control very little in life. These things I cannot control are the “externals”. Epictetus said what you can control is your thoughts, actions, and feelings, the “internals”.

Since getting crushed by a wall of snow I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the “internals”.

I currently work in a smoky casino as a bartender.

I make drinks for gamblers that come up to the bar and cocktail waitresses that take the drinks I make from the bar to the gamblers on the casino floor. The cocktail waitresses and I spend our days surrounded by drunks, degenerates, liars, addicts, obese people, cigarette smokers… and other health enthusiasts.

We work for tips. Our income depends on these questionable characters to pay us for making or bringing them a drink. The job of a bartender and cocktail waitress will always involve getting stiffed. It is up to these customers of questionable character to make the decision to pay us for our services.

We get stiffed a lot.

The waitresses will get upset when they get stiffed over and over. They get pissed off. This anger is understandable, we work hard, but it’s not useful. Getting angry never made a customer decide to start tipping.

I try to help the cocktail waitresses using what I learned. I tell them about a quote from Marcus Aurelius’ The Meditations that I refer to often:

So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine.

So often we let other people’s behavior dictate our own.

If a customer is shitty and doesn’t tip for service, then the waitresses get pissed off and unhappy. They are letting the customer’s character and actions dictate their own.
This is not a good way to be. Much better to focus on your own actions and character. Focus on the “internals”.

This is much easier said than done. Even though I know this lesson better than anyone, I still find myself falling into the trap of letting other people’s crappy actions dictate my own.

As a bartender at a casino, I have to split tips with other bartenders. It gets confusing.

Everyday you have to keep track of who owes you money and who you owe money to. It’s easy to cheat the system. Some bartenders will be less honest splitting the tips.

One bartender I work with reliably stiffs me or gives me a small percentage of the amount I’m due.

This guy has problems. He will get off work, sit at the bar gambling and drinking for hours, then tell me that he doesn’t have the money he owes me. Or he will ask to borrow some money from me. He will say this with a straight face when he knows I saw him drinking at the bar we work at, and losing money in the slot machines.

It is not a fun situation.

The other day I had money from the night before that I was supposed to split with this degenerate bartender. He owed me money. I figured I wouldn’t give him his cut until he paid me the money he owed me. If he didn’t pay me, then I’d just keep his cut, since he already owed me money.

On the drive into work I was thinking about the situation and became disappointed in my thought process.

I was being weak.

I screwed up on the “internals”. I was letting the degenerate bartender’s character and actions dictate my own. I was ashamed of myself. Because of all the crap I’ve been through, I should have known better.

Marcus’ quote popped in my head:

So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine.

I cannot let other human’s bad actions dictate mine. That is the weakness that I must watch out for. I need to control the “internals”.

I walked into work and gave the guy his cut of the money. And it felt great because I realized my mistake and had the chance to change my actions.

I try to relate this idea to the cocktail waitresses when they get upset with customers. “So what?”, I tell them. Don’t let their shitty character affect your own.

They all agree with the idea in theory, but it is hard to implement in their actions.

This trick of controlling your “internals” has helped me greatly as I stumble through life. It has been like a handrail on a staircase steadying my travel.

You might want to try this trick yourself.

This trick might just save your life.

History doesn’t Repeat but it sure does Rhyme

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We’re just a bunch of humans. All throughout time we deal with the same wants and needs, the same insecurities and battles with self-pity. We all have to start from scratch and learn. Learning is hard and most of us can’t or won’t do it. So we make the same mistakes over and over. We are much the same today as in the time of Cicero because the passions of man don’t change.

Speaking of Cicero, he once famously said in 55 BC,”The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt.”

Hmm… that sounds familiar. Was Cicero really speaking about Rome? Or did he have some crazy looking into the future machine and he was speaking about the empire of the U.S.A.? Or was he looking even farther into the future and speaking of the next great bureaucracy that will tangle up us forgetful humans?
Rinse, repeat. The cycle continues.

I’m reading Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent book “The Swerve: How The World Became Modern.” It tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, a scribe of the Papal Court in Rome (turns out there were 2 other competing papal courts at the time) and his discovery in the early 1400’s of an ancient poem that had been lost in the passing of centuries, Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura” (translated: On The Nature Of Things).

At the beginning of The Renaissance a work like On The Nature Of Things was highly disruptive. In it Lucretius suggests the universe functions without the need of instructions from the gods, and the world is made up of tiny particles we can’t see that collide at random and form larger particles. He figured out atoms before us modern humans figured out microscopes. Even during his day Lucretius’ thoughts went against the majority of thinking.

Lucretius was a man that leaned toward the Epicurean idea that the point of life was to seek out pleasure. This simple and harmless way of thinking was directly opposed to the Christian beliefs that all men are sinners and we must suffer for these sins. Christianity, especially the Papal court of Rome in the early 1400’s, insisted that mankind should suffer. The idea that life was meant for seeking pleasure was heresy and the Church stamped out every Epicurean thought they could find.

The Papal Court in Rome dictated how everyone should think and feel. It proclaimed it’s authority over every person on the planet. They claimed they got their authority from God, although it was best that you didn’t point out to the Court that the word “Pope” is not mentioned in the bible. You had to do what the rulers of the religion said or you were persecuted.

The Papal Court was of course, like all areas where power concentrates, a cesspool of corruption and broken morals. They extorted money from their followers. They forced their opinions on everyone. You were to live as the Court instructed you.

As Stephen Greenblatt tells it, the Papal Court sounds just like Washington D.C. now, or the British aristocracy in the 1700’s, or ancient Rome in the latter stages of its’ decline. These cycles keep happening in human history. A group (religious, or political, or both) gains power, then proclaims that the masses must do as they say (but not as they do). Then the corruption becomes so rampant the whole thing collapses on itself.

Rinse and repeat.

The players change, the location changes, the ideology changes, but the basic psychology of the process is the same. As I stumble through learning the histories of ancient cultures it’s amazing how similar they are. You basically read the same story over and over. We are doomed to repeat the same mistakes we’ve always made because the passions of man don’t change.

There have been great, learned, and reasonable people throughout history, like Lucretius, but they are in the vast minority. When the next great ideology comes along it usually does what it can to erase all traces of learned and reasonable thought. The cycle continues.

How to Really Screw Up: Getting Too Deep Into An Ideology

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Us humans are really weak and fragile beings. We’re scared and we don’t want to be alone. We like to feel important and get attention. When I say We and I say Us, I mean me.

As I was progressing through life I would get these ideas and the ones I liked I would cling to. If I saw that other people liked my ideas or I got attention, good or bad, I would cling to them even more. I began to think that if I felt strongly about a subject and I repeated what I thought often enough and loud enough, then what I thought became a fact.

I would hide behind my made up facts. What would I hide behind my “facts”? My insecurities, manias, and failures. I would become an authority on my “facts”, these became my ideology. Being an authority figure made me feel good, it gave me a sense of feeling important.

It didn’t matter if I was actually correct in my ideology. I felt confident about it so I must be correct.
Definitions are important in the business of communication, so let’s make sure we define what we’re talking about so we’re all on the same page. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Ideology as:

• A systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture
• A manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture
• The integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program

These are some fancy sounding concepts. They’re ok, but I tend to think of an ideology as “How you feel about a certain topic.” I like this definition because it gets at the heart of the matter; we get attached to the way we feel about things.

How do you feel OR What do you think about (same question, different wording) global warming, politics, religion, or… the price of oil? It doesn’t matter what the topic is, the topic doesn’t need to be controversial, it can be as simple as your favorite sports team or your opinion of your boss at work.

We tend to pick a side of an argument and stay on that side. We will look for any bit of information that confirms the view that we have already taken. In the process we get stuck. We get too deep into an ideology and our thoughts become closed to outside influences. We can’t learn because when we come across new facts or ideas that challenge our cherished ideologies, we toss them aside. We lose our objectivity. We cling, we cling to our beloved ideas! …And we get all cabbaged up. We get stuck.

I first began to realize the problems of getting too deep into an ideology when I first started investing my own money. It was just after the financial crises of 2008-2009. The government was bailing everybody out. The economy was in a panic. And the government was printing as much money as they could to calm everyone’s fears. Massive inflation must be right around the corner.

The only way to protect from massive inflation? Precious metals.

The price of gold was shooting higher. The price of silver had some catching up to do to the historical ratio of silver to gold, which is about 16:1. I bought stocks in silver companies thinking they were about to rocket higher. The silver investments I made rocketed… but they went in the wrong direction, they rocketed lower. My thesis was still intact. The economy was still in crises mode, the government was still printing money like crazy. If my thinking was correct, the price of silver should have gone straight up, yet the opposite happened. I lost a large percentage of money.

I got too deep into an ideology and it cost me. I was completely wrong. Because my wrongness affected my bank account and not just a favorite idea, I had to figure out where I screwed up because I couldn’t lose any more money. I began to understand the dangers of having a set opinion.

Then an avalanche beat the life out of me. All my ideas were vaporized. I was crying, just trying to hold on to life. Then I stumbled upon the teachings of Charlie Munger. Munger frequently warns of the dangers of ideology. At the very least ideology will prevent you from learning new ideas. Since I wanted to become a “learning machine”, I had to reexamine all my cherished beliefs.

I began to see that getting to deep into an ideology can affect all manner of important decisions from investing and business decisions, to decisions affecting our health, to our relationships with those we’re closest to. And politics? Politics is all about choosing an opinion and sticking with it no matter what. Politics is the definition of getting too deep into an ideology.

So, how do you NOT get too deep into an ideology? Objectivity maintenance will help. Always think that you could be wrong, not that you always are wrong, but that you could be wrong. Look for disconfirming evidence, the holes in your argument or idea. John Maynard Keynes is credited with saying “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Always examine, and re-examine the facts. Be open to change.

Life is crazy. Change is the only constant. You must be prepared to pivot your thinking.

Ideologies are easy to fall into. If you find yourself deep into an ideology, it’s not the end of the world. No one is immune from ideologies, not you, me, or Charlie Munger. Maintain your objectivity.

Be open to people who have the opposite idea.

Be Long Term Greedy

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I’m reading Michael Lewis’ new book Flash Boys. The book is about the world of High Frequency Trading (HFT) which basically amounts to computers that front run a customer’s stock market orders costing the customer more money than if HFT didn’t exist. HFT is basically just another tax on the investor.

The topic is dreadfully boring. It’s all about bits, and bots, fiber optics, routers, and microseconds. I find myself blasting through this book, unable to put it down. Only Michael Lewis could make a topic this boring—-fascinating. He uses the word “fuck” a lot in this book. More so than I remember in any of his previous books. The guy is a master.

When the hero, Brad Katsuyama, approaches investors trying to raise money to start a stock exchange that eliminates the HFT tax, he runs into a problem. The potential investors want to know why he left his cushy job on Wall Street, where he was making millions of dollars, to risk it all starting a business to make the market “fair”. Why was he trying to be Robin Hood? The investors didn’t trust him.

Brad Katsuyama told both himself and investors that the market had become “grotesquely unjust” and that if no one else would fix it then he had to. His potential investors weren’t buying it. He figured out a new way to pitch his idea, when he realized that if his idea worked then he could potentially make a lot of money. He told his investors, “We are long-term greedy.” They instantly liked this response.

Long-Term Greedy. I love it. Focus on yourself, on what you have. Focus on what’s in your wallet, not what’s in someone else’s wallet. Try to increase what you have. What’s the best way to do that? To create value for other people.

If you create bunch of value for others then plenty will come back to you.

This is long-term greedy. This is healthy thinking. It’s in your best long term interest to make things better for other people. Brad Katsuyama wanted to create a fair stock exchange. He’ll turn out ok. Henry Ford made cars available to the masses. No more horses! He did ok. Steve Jobs made powerful computers, ipods, and iphones. People love Apple products. He did ok. My orthodontist Dr. Cooke, fixes crooked teeth and provides the best customer service available. Her patients love her work and have the smiles to prove it. And I can’t stop recommending her and talking about what a great experience I had. She does ok.

When you are long term greedy and you focus on how to better yourself, you’ll come to the conclusion that you need to create value for other people. When you focus on making life better or more convenient, easier, or whatever for other people you are engaging in healthy thinking.

Your energies flow to everyone else.

When I lived my life submerged in self pity, I focused on what I didn’t have. I focused on what other people had and how I didn’t measure up. I felt sorry for myself. I couldn’t get any traction in life because I was only thinking about myself. It’s funny how thinking only about yourself isn’t in your best interests. It’s when you focus on what you can do to improve the world around you that life becomes rewarding.

And you will get great satisfaction when you get feedback from the people that benefit from your services.

It is a simple yet powerful change of thinking that gets dramatic results. It seems counter-intuitive: to get what you what, be long term greedy, make life awesome for other people.

Don’t take my word for it, try it out for yourself.

My moto for this project

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge