All posts by Robert B O'Connor

How Ms. Easy and Mr. Magic Defeat Your New Year’s Resolutions

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“We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is
the first duty of intelligent men.”

—George Orwell

Spoonbenders sell the illusion that the life you want can be had without sacrifice and struggle. The name comes from magician Uri Geller, who made sold the illusion that he could bend metal spoons with mind power.  There are two Spoonbenders to be wary of as you make your 2018 New Year’s Resolutions: Ms. Easy and Mr. Magic.New Year's Resolutions

Ms. Easy promises that you’ll change with almost no effort, because of her unique product. Mr. Magic promises that you’ll change via incredible feats of mind power, to which he has the secret.

Ms. Easy starts with this premise: Do better at this one thing (whitening your teeth, conditioning your hair, losing weight) and you will be better. Ms. Easy overpromises: this is going to be (pick one) effortless/convenient/cheap.

Possibly, if your goal is controlling dandruff. Absolutely not for more profound changes, such as a mature long-term approach to diet and exercise.

Nevertheless, in one form or another, Ms. Easy’s siren song “eat what you want and still lose weight” echoes in your ears around the new year.

The only way to do that is to change what you want to eat. Simple. Not at all easy.

Mr. Magic also starts with a reasonable premise: Be better and you will do better. But then he gets out the spoons.

He may take a mystical approach. Mr. Magic may even borrow from evangelical Christianity and use revival-style meetings to deliver his message and sell his merchandise. He’ll also put an exaggerated focus—like Uri Geller—on mind power.

Mr. Magic may even tell you that positive thinking and proper mental alignment will quickly cause improvement in bank accounts, advancement at work, and family relationships.

Now you know people can call forth latent courage to do more and be more. But Mr. Magic makes it sound so easy and so final. (Like painless weight loss!)

If that doesn’t get you to open your wallet, Mr. Magic may declare that the power is not within you, but out there. You will, he says, grow your wealth, lose weight, get happier by aligning yourself with the universe, which will then provide you with abundant prosperity.

Mr. Magic suggests that being broke is just a blockage of energy. He advises opening up your channel – with his help – so money and consumer goods can flow through: “Prepare your wish list to the universe.”

Prepare for spoonbending, actually.

Everything you want is out there awaiting delivery, says Mr. Magic, if only you will provide the correct address. Like the lie of painless weight loss, the Laws of Attraction are much more convenient than the work of real change.

Like Uri Geller’s spoonbending, close inspection reveals the content of Mr. Magic’s message to be less compelling than the delivery. This is a new-age version of “eat what you want and still lose weight.”

Keep this in mind when you make your New year’s resolutions: so-called universal laws gain traction on your wallet through magical thinking, the absence of common sense.

Gumption ignores the spells and promises of Ms. Easy and Mr. Magic and gets on with the work of real change.

Shortcuts don’t work. It takes sacrifice and struggle to create the life you want. It take gumption. Gumptionade – The Booster for Your Self Improvement Plan will get you there.

No Spoonbending

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“We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is
the first duty of intelligent men.”

-George Orwell

A magician named Uri Geller received widespread media attention in the United States in the 1970s. He claimed to be able to bend metal spoons using paranormal mind power.

Geller appeared on many U.S. and European television programs to demonstrate. Critics showed that he used simple tricks. This did not stop Geller from making a living from the illusion that spoons can be bent with mind power.Spoonbenders make a living selling the illusion that the life you want can be had without sacrifice and struggle.

Some people make a living selling the illusion that the life you want can be had without sacrifice and struggle. That’s magical thinking. Over one hundred million people in the United States go on a diet in any given year. Dieting is a growth business, despite and because of the fact that the customers fail to get the results they want.

There is copious spoonbending centered on the illusion of painless, convenient change: Eat what you want and still lose weight! Spoons are not bent by magic. Losing weight is neither convenient nor painless. Even people who succeed tend to add the lost weight back in a year or two.

Every January many of us become powerfully infatuated with the idea of a new and improved version of ourselves: fit; organized; rich; and—above all—thin.

Infatuation knows nothing of common sense. We don’t foresee, let alone prepare for, what Carl Jung called “the laborious adaptations and manifold disappointments” that accompany any sort of significant personal progress.

We buy soap instead: Spray ’n Change.

The problem is not that this soap won’t get us clean; the problem is that the sellers claim it will keep us clean forever. And they want $972 per bar.

What we spend is not surprising. America is a rich and optimistic nation. Most of us hope to be better than we are now.

What is surprising is how poorly most of these products perform. Their goal is to overcome your resistance to buying, not your bad habit.

Spoonbenders encourage passive consumption over creative suffering. They are false guides. They direct you away from where you need to go.

Gumption doesn’t buy Spray ‘n Change, even on January 1.


How will you combat the spoonbenders? Gumptionade – The Booster for Your Self Improvement Plan will show you how.

i. “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious…” George Orwell’s January 1939 review published in Adlephi, of Bertrand Russell’s book Power: A New Social Analysis; Accessed March 13, 2015.

ii. Over one hundred million people in the United States go on a diet in any given year. ABC News Staff, “100 Million Dieters, $20 Billion: The Weight-Loss Industry by the Numbers,” Posted May 8, 2012; http:// dieters-20- billion-weight- loss-industry/ story?id=16297197. Accessed August 24, 2014.

iii. …the illusion of painless, convenient change. Keith Girard, “Startup Stories: Challenging Diet Industry Giants with a Computer,”, undated; structures/5963512-1.html. Accessed August 24, 2014.

iv. …add the lost weight back in a year or two. Rena R. Wing, Ph.D., Deborah F. Tate, Ph.D., Amy A. Gorin, Ph.D., et al., “A Self-Regulation Program for Maintenance of Weight Loss,” New England Journal of Medicine, 355:1563–1571, October 12, 2006.

v. ... “the laborious adaptations and manifold disappointments that accompany any sort of significant personal progress.” C. G. Jung, AION: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 34.

Gumption Is Curious

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“Do not block the way of inquiry.”
– Charles Sanders Peirce

Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was appointed to the commission investigating the Challenger space shuttle disaster (seven souls lost in an explosion caused by a fuel tank leak).

“Feynman is becoming a real pain,” said Chairman William Rogers at one point. Of course he was. Feynman was curious. Feynman was a scientist. He wanted facts.

The Rogers commission conducted many hours of hearings and received many written reports. Two facts available to members—and to NASA before the disaster—were:

  1.  The outside temperature at lift-off was much lower than for any previous shuttle launch, and
  2. Rubber O-ring seals played a crucial role in preventing fuel tank leaks.

Feynman was curious: Had a connection between these two facts caused the disaster? A piece of O-ring was passed around during expert testimony. Feynman cooled the sample in his glass of ice water and pinched it. It failed to spring back into shape. The commission saw that very cold O rings lost flexibility. Inflexible O-rings could cause a fuel tank to leak.

Smoking gun.

Feynman went on to uncover the fact that NASA misunderstood commonly accepted measures of risk, understating the chance of a shuttle disaster “to the point of fantasy.”

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman was smarter than the other members of the Rogers commission. He was also more curious. He had more common sense. He had gumption.

Curiosity helps you bypass obstacles to clear thinking, including incentives to ignore unpleasant facts. NASA’s obstacle that cold afternoon was “Go Fever,” the top-down bias of a group toward consensus and forward movement without effective consideration of risk.

Here on Earth, money is the primary cause of bias. If you find yourself unsure about where someone is coming from, be curious and follow the money.

Let us say you are sixty years old and have significant left knee pain while walking. The orthopedic surgeon says you need a knee replacement ($40,000). The chiropractor recommends manipulation (full course, $1,700).

The acupuncturist recommends needles in your leg (five sessions, $600). Pfizer recommends Celebrex ($150 for thirty pills). The manager of the GNC store recommends Instaflex Joint Support supplement ($69.99).

Why would they each have a different opinion about what is best for you? Follow the money.

Your family doctor recommends you take aspirin (ten cents per day) and lose weight (free). This option will not make her any money. This is the best thing to try first.

How will you follow your path to inquiry? Gumptionade – The Booster for Your Self Improvement Plan will show you how.

i. “Feynman is becoming a real pain.” James Gleik, “Richard Feynman Dead at 69; Leading Theoretical Physicist,” New York Times, February 17, 1988. deadat-69- leading- theoretical-physicist.html. Accessed July 8, 2014.

ii. NASA misunderstood commonly accepted measures of risk… Gleik. Ibid.

Willpower Is Not Gumption

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Willpower fails when you need it most.

Willpower is simply distilled enthusiasm. It may be stronger and last longer, but willpower is still enthusiasm-based.

Enthusiasm is an emotion, and your emotions are outside of your control.

Willpower is not gumption.The obese woman may wish with all her heart to get to a healthy weight. But how will she work through the weeks, months, and years of sensible eating and exercise after her willpower evaporates like fog over Phoenix? How will she get through Day Four?

Willpower is not always productive, either. The workaholic requires great willpower to grind out eighty-hour workweeks. The obsessive body builder requires great willpower to lift the weight and consume the supplements needed to have twenty-three- inch biceps. It requires great willpower to do what it takes to look mid-twentyish when you are late-fortyish.

Willpower is not the same thing as gumption. Use willpower when you have it, sure, but build the courage, resourcefulness, and common sense you’ll need to move forward without it.

How will you move forward? Gumptionade – The Booster for Your Self Improvement Plan will show you how.


Genius Is Not Gumption

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“Genius does what it must and talent does what it can.”

– The Earl of Lytton

Genius is an endowment. A few people are born with it. Some fraction of those people find themselves in a family or field where their genius is recognizable and applicable.

The rest of us can be inspired by the likes of Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Mozart, Einstein, Martin Luther King, Michael Jordan, Mother Teresa, Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, and others. We may learn something from observing aspects of their behavior, but we ought not to compare ourselves to them.

Their colossal accomplishments are due to a unique combination of inherited genes, phenomenal luck and superhuman appetite for hard work. This is amazing, but it is not gumption.

Mark Twain tells us to forget the idea that “Ben Franklin acquired his great genius by working for nothing, studying by moonlight, and getting up in the night instead of waiting ’til morning…these execrable eccentricities of instinct and conduct are only the evidences of genius, not the creators of it.”

Genius, by the way, is usually not transferable outside its field:

• Michael Jordan retired from basketball and joined minor league baseball’s Birmingham Barons. Genius does what it must and talent does what it can.He had a poor batting average and low on-base percentage in his one season. He returned to basketball and won three more NBA championships.

• Linus Pauling won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. In the 1970’s he advocated loudly for vitamin C as a cure for colds, flu, and even cancer. He wrote a bestselling book on the subject. In the words of physician Paul Offit, Linus Pauling was “a man who was so spectacularly right that he won two Nobel Prizes and so spectacularly wrong that he was arguably the world’s greatest quack.” But still a genius.

• Sir Isaac Newton lost a fortune speculating on stock in the South Sea Company.

• Elvis.

Genius is not gumption.

i. “Genius does what it must and talent does what it can.” Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, English dramatist, novelist, and politician (1803–73),_1st_Earl_of_Lytton. Retrieved August 13, 2014.

ii. “…these execrable eccentricities of instinct and conduct are only the evidences of genius, not the creators of it.” Mark Twain, The Late Ben Franklin, 1870, quoted in Blooms Classic Critical Views: Ben Franklin, Edited by Harold Bloom (New York: InfoBase Publishing, 2008), 56.

iii. Pauling was… “arguably the world’s greatest quack.” Paul Offit, “The Vitamin Myth: Why We Think We Need Supplements,” The Atlantic, July 19, 2013;


How will you make the most of your talents? Gumptionade – The Booster for Your Self Improvement Plan will show you how.


Necessity Is Not Gumption

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Gumption is courage, resourcefulness and common sense in harness together. Despite what people tell you – usually while they try to sell you – becoming better than you are now is not easy or convenient. It takes courage and time to change ingrained habits.

It is said that Caesar burned his boats on the beaches of Kent during the invasion of Britain. He was creating a necessity on order to call forth courage. Caesar’s legions did indeed conquer Necessity is not gumptionBritain, at least enough of it to build new boats. People with common sense don’t burn their boats. They realize they may have landed in the wrong place, that getting killed by the Britons for lack of Plan B won’t help the empire.

There is another problem with relying on necessity to produce courage: the danger is often not as vivid as burning boats. Sometimes the smoke and the fire—the ill- health, divorce, bankruptcy, driving bans, and other disasters—are so far down the road that we are fooled by the illusion that there will always be time to avoid them.

Your obese friend knows she must lose weight. Chronic procrastinators know they sabotage themselves. Smokers know they must put down their cigarettes. But the disasters they face are in the future.

These people do set off on the march to safety, perhaps around New Year’s Day, but necessity generates insufficient force to keep them moving forward. They experience Day Four. They retreat. Necessity is not gumption.


How will you conquer your challenges? Gumptionade – The Booster for Your Self Improvement Plan will help you find your way.


Enthusiasm Is Not Gumption

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“I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that.”

– Pearl S. Buck

Every January 1st we become infatuated with the idea of a new and improved version of ourselves: the thin version, the organized version, the fit version, the better parent version, the debt-free version. As with any crush, our enthusiasm is effortless and exciting, a temporary loss of balance.

Instead of flowers and chocolate, we treat our new love to frozen diet meals, gym memberships, brightly colored storage containers, bee pollen, packs of nicotine gum, yoga mats, how-to books and videos.Enthusiasm is not gumption

This enthusiastic buying and trying soon plays itself out. We lack the courage, resourcefulness, and common sense required for lasting change.

Enthusiasm is not gumption. Enthusiasm is like good luck: great when you have it, but outside of your control. You can make yourself act enthusiastic, but you can’t make yourself be enthusiastic. You either are or you aren’t. Indeed, a sure sign of gumption is doing the thing that needs to be done when you have no enthusiasm for it.

The problem with enthusiasm is that it is dependent on context. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes of things that halt progress for amateurs repairing motorcycles: the scraped knuckle, the bad light, the heat, the cold, the uncomfortable crouching, the leftover engine parts. If you are an amateur trying to repair yourself, these might be a bad day at work, loneliness, boredom, hunger, insomnia, and family holidays.

Physical discomfort reduces enthusiasm. Emotional discomfort reduces enthusiasm. Mistakes reduce enthusiasm. None of these things reduce gumption, which is not dependent on context.

Gumption has courage. Courage helps you bear the suffering required to move forward without the tail winds of enthusiasm. For New Year’s resolutions, gumption has to kick in as enthusiasm wanes in mid- January.

If you set out to repair a motorcycle or to become more than you are now, it’s great to have enthusiasm—not to mention adequate light, proper tools, and helpful friends. But when none of these are available, gumption will get you past the temptation to quit.

Enthusiasm can even indicate a lack of gumption. We often drink, eat, shout our opinions, and generally act the fool with great enthusiasm, and completely without courage or common sense.

Can you differentiate between enthusiasm and gumption? Gumptionade – The Booster for Your Self Improvement Plan will show you how.

i …Pirsig writes of the things that halt progress for amateurs repairing their own motorcycles…
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: William Morrow &
Company, 1974), 305–26.

The Real Meaning of Passion: Day Four

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You decide to get to a better place, a place where you will be more than you are now. You have a new plan and new stuff. There’s a new you waiting just down the road. You’re so passionate. Finally, you’re on the right path.

Day One of the journey is fun. A warm sun beams down out of a blue sky, flowers perfume the air, the birds sing, and there’s a spring in your step. It’s all smiles to the people you meet on the road to self-improvement. This will be shooting fish in a barrel.

On Day Two, the fish in the barrel begin to shoot back. There’s a chill in the air. The flowers are drooping and it looks like rain. You walk on, though, still pretty chipper: You’re gonna do this!

On Day Three, the songbirds have given way to crows, your feet are sore, and you have a headache. You keep moving, though not as far as yesterday.

The Real Meaning of Passion : Day FourOn Day Four you wake up in a dark and swampy place. Your diet book is in tatters, your new running shoes are filthy, your backpack smells like garbage, and you are nauseated and depressed. The path is now watery mud festooned with litter, poison ivy, and abandoned tires. The crows have given way to flying monkeys and your fellow travelers look like zombies.

You approach a wobbly rope bridge slung above a deep canyon. This is the border between where you are and where you want to go—between dependence and freedom. You can’t recall your Day One enthusiasm. Looking back, you spot a friendly face. Your bad habit is waving to you from a limo. It has hot coffee, blankets, dry clothes, and a light. There’s a cooler in the trunk.

You realize how unpleasant your life is without your bad habit. It takes your mind off your troubles. You two share pleasing rituals: the fire ceremony of lighting a cigarette, the sacred offering of the platinum card, sexual euphoria, fragrant incense from the barbecue pit, the whirling trance of chasing the big deal, ice cubes ringing in your drink like the bells of a mountain shrine.

On Day Four you experience the real meaning of passion: suffering. How much suffering depends on how much discomfort your bad habit helps you avoid. Day Four lasts a month.

You set out on Day One to be free of your bad habit, to become better. But you need what you need right now. You retreat to our bad habit, our status quo, what doesn’t require any effort. Becoming better is hard, and we are soft.

Can we be afraid of the right things? Can we ever move on from what is comfortable? Many people never get past Day Four. Many people never cross the border. Many people never grow up.

Unexplored places on the early maps of the world were noted with dragons and the words “There be monsters.” Gumption is for going there.




How do you soldier through to Day Five? Gumptionade – The Booster for Your Self Improvement Plan will help you figure it out.

Gumption is Creative

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Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
– Jim Lovell, astronaut

How will you stay alive in a crippled spacecraft after you’ve used up the lithium hydroxide air filters that fit the round canister in the Apollo 13 lunar lander—now your lifeboat? You will asphyxiate if you can’t remove carbon dioxide from your atmosphere, but your remaining air filters fit only the command module’s square canister.Gumption is Creative

You proceed to make creative use of the means at hand. You invent “an adapter for the square command module canister from cardboard, a plastic bag, a sock, and a hose from one of the crew’s pressure suits.” Creative use of the means at hand.

How can the German owner of a Polish factory save his Jewish employees from concentration camps? Schindlerjuden is how. Oskar Schindler made astonishing use of his means at hand during World War II—an industrial smelter, metal oxides, bribes, falsified records, scotch, black market dealings, and above all salesmanship—to create a “war effort essential” enamelware production facility. Employees of such a factory could be hidden in plain sight.

What do you do when you are building the University of Virginia and need to know where to put paved pathways? Thomas Jefferson instructed the builders to wait a couple of years and then pave the trails people made in the grass as they walked from where they were to where they wanted to go. He used the means at hand—the student body—to make a map.

Sam John Hopkins of Centerville, Texas, wanted a guitar, but was too poor to buy one. He solved his problem by using the means at hand: a cigar box, scrap wood, wire, and glue. That is how Lightnin’ Hopkins got a guitar. Creative use of the means at hand is resourcefulness. Along with courage and common sense, resourcefulness is gumption.

What can you do with your means at hand? Gumptionade – The Booster for Your Self Improvement Plan will help you figure it out.



i. “…a plastic bag, a sock, and a hose from one of the crew’s pressure suits.” 
Gene Kranz, Failure Is Not an Option (New York: Berkley Books, 2000), 328.

Gumption is Resourceful – Part II

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“I had an interview with the Board of Guardians of St James’s parish, on the
evening of September 7. In consequence of what I said, the handle of the Broad
Street water pump was removed on the following day.”

                                                                                      — John Snow

Physician John Snow invented epidemiology during the terrifying London cholera outbreak of 1854. He went door to door in Soho, the most affected area, counting the number of people in each house who had been sickened. He then drew a map of the neighborhood, showing the number and location of confirmed cholera cases.

Gumptionade Cholera Map

There were no public water lines. Households obtained their drinking water from pumps scattered around the city. Water from Soho’s Broad Street pump was considered superior.

This was before germ theory, but not before germs. Snow’s map gave him vision. He saw the correlation between cholera cases and households using the Broad Street pump. He saw microbes without the benefit of a microscope. He saw cholera moving invisibly through water.

This contradicted leading scientists, who believed that cholera and other urban epidemics were caused by “miasmas,” bad air found in densely populated areas. After Snow convinced the parish Board of Guardians to remove the handle on the Broad Street pump, he discovered that its water had been poisoned by sewage from a nearby household cesspit.Gumption is Resourceful

John Snow saw the footprint of cholera and translated it into statistical fact, the means at hand to end the outbreak. Vision. Resourcefulness. Gumption.

Public health medicine in London in the 1850s was practiced under conditions of uncertainty and unpredictability—in what is now called a low-validity environment. An example in our own time is online dating.

It’s wise to develop simple formulas for decision making in low-validity environments. In London’s cholera epidemic, it was the households’ source of drinking water and cases of cholera. In online dating, it’s age, education, and income. It’s resourceful to draw a map.

Dr. Snow drew a paper map of cholera’s footprint. Steve Jobs carried a map in his head of a mass consumer market that did not yet exist. Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s took sabermetrics and mapped undervalued baseball players.

All three used the means at hand to see what others could not. The baseball establishment, Xerox, and the leading scientists of Victorian England had narrower vision. They did not recognize the new facts. They were not resourceful. They lacked gumption.

You operate in a low validity environment much of the time. Improve your own vision. Look for facts about yourself. Map the things that you do.

What big opportunity is right in front of your eyes? Gumptionade – The Booster for Your Self Improvement Plan can help you see it.