All posts by Robert B O'Connor

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)
http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_BulwerLytton,_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; http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/07/thevitamin-myth-why-we-think-we-need-supplements/277947/.

 

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.

Gumption is Resourceful – Part I

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We don’t need more strength or more ability or greater opportunity. What
we need is to use what we have.” —Basil Walsh (p.23)

Steve Jobs got a tour of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in late 1979. Part of the tour was a demonstration of the Alto, a prototype personal computer running point-and- click software, using a device called a mouse.

It was like a veil being lifted from my eyes,” Jobs later said, “I could see what the future of computing was destined to be.

Gumption has the knack for finding ways to get things done. Gumption is resourceful. Resourcefulness is characterized by vision, i.e. the ability to see the means at hand, creativity, and WhoHowness (a word I invented to name the indispensable skill of knowing who and how to ask for help).

Vision

Apple was also working on an easy-to- use small computer. At PARC, Jobs saw that Xerox had solved many of the problems Apple’s engineers were struggling with. Just seeing that the problems could be solved was the means at hand for Apple to solve them too.

Gumption is Resourceful. "We don't need more strength or more ability or greater opportunity. What we need is to use what we have." Basil WalshApple introduced the Mac in 1984, priced for the mass consumer audience. Xerox never made a commercially successful computer. Jobs saw what Xerox could not because:

  1. He was the only Steve Jobs in the room, and
  2. He had vision.

They were copier-heads who had no clue what a computer could do,” he told his biographer. Xerox lacked the experience Jobs got from selling the Apple I and II to consumers.

Jobs had vision. Xerox looked at the Alto and saw the means at hand to sell thousands of computers to businesses already using computers. Jobs looked at the Alto and saw the means at hand to sell millions of computers to consumers who did not yet own one. His vision made Apple more resourceful than Xerox. Apple had more gumption.

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

i. “I could see what the future of computing was destined to be.” Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 97. 25

ii. “They were copier-heads who had no clue what a computer could do.” Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 98.

WHAT COURAGE IS FOR

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“Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.”

– Mike Tyson, boxer

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.

On 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 barbeque 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.

Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth. Mike Tyson, BoxerYou set out on Day One to be free of your bad habit, to become better. But you need what you need right now. You want to choose better, but you don’t want to give up what you have so long enjoyed. Courage is for confronting these two irreconcilable desires— and doing what needs to be done.
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On Day Four, we retreat from the emotional strain of being responsible for ourselves. We retreat from active to passive. We retreat to our bad habit, our status quo, what doesn’t require any effort. Becoming better is hard, and we are soft.

We speak of lacking willpower. What we lack is the courage to bear the suffering that comes with personal change and growth. 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.” What is courage for? Courage is for going there.

A Way to Be Wrong Called Hindsight Bias

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Your mind projects wrongness on the world via hindsight bias, the sense that what happened was bound to happen.

Hindsight Bias - The tendency to believe, after learning the outcome, that you knew it all alongRandomness does not look random. You overlook the decisive role of chance.  Certainty is an illusion. And this illusion can cover the rocks while you sail right onto them. Wrongness.

Bill Belichick is a lucky so-and so. Have you seen his girlfriend? His New England Patriots’ brilliant success over the last dozen years seems so inevitable now: the future Hall of Fame quarterback; the genius coach; the great organization. How else could it have turned out?

Differently. Their first two Super Bowls wins came from field goals of more than forty yards, kicked in the last ten seconds of each game. The Patriots’ most recent titles came when their opponents pulled defeat out of the jaws of victory. Totaling results from their nine Super Bowls, the Patriots have been outscored by their
opponents by 38 points.

The Patriots’ image is improved by hindsight bias. We remember the past imperfectly. We forget the parts that don’t fit the narrative we have now. We remember the skill but forget the luck. Wrongness. 

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Imagine all the people in the world are sitting in one room. Each holds a coin. They all stand up and begin flipping their coins. They sit down when it comes up tails. The last person standing will have seen their coin come up heads thirty-two times in a row.

There’s no skill involved. It’s a function of base size: We started with seven billion coin flips. But our winner could be forgiven if she thought she were something special. She is not. She is no more likely than you are to get heads next time. (This concept applies handsomely to high-flying mutual funds, by the way.)

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When you see a successful person, you are often looking at the winner of an extended series of coin tosses. Probably smart and hardworking, since those characteristics dramatically leverage the value of luck. A coin-toss winner nonetheless.

Hindsight bias obscures the role of chance in their achievement. As Paul Getty said, the secret to success is to get up early, work hard, and strike oil.

Would Ray Kroc, builder of McDonald’s, have sold billions of hamburgers if the owners of a drive-in restaurant—the McDonald brothers—had not astounded him by purchasing eight of his Prince Castle five-spindle Multimixers? Would George W. Bush have been president if he had been born George W. Guànmù? Do you
want fries with that?

It seems so certain now, but what were the odds that Bill Gates would become the richest man in the world? Gates is brilliant, hardworking, and visionary. He is also lucky.

In 1968, when Gates was in the eighth grade, the Lakeside School Mothers’ Club invested the proceeds from a rummage sale into a computer terminal and a block of time on a mainframe computer in downtown Seattle. This decision dramatically increased the possibility that a kid at Lakeside Middle School could learn computer
programming. Had the mothers’ club bought the sorely needed movie projector instead, Bill Gates might have ended up a lawyer like his father.

A few years later, fledgling Microsoft was working on a programming language for IBM’s first PC. As it happened, IBM was unable to purchase an operating system for the PC from Digital Research, the likeliest vendor. IBM asked Gates if Microsoft could help.

Although Microsoft did not have an operating system, he said they could (you have to take your luck). They bought one from Seattle Computer Products, tweaked it for the PC, and sold it to IBM for fifty thousand dollars. Microsoft kept the rights. Gates’ shrewdness displayed dramatically increased the positive effects of his good luck. But you still could not have predicted Microsoft’s extraordinary success the day before IBM said yes. Bill Gates won more than his share of coin flips along the way.

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Hindsight bias is wrongness that distorts the past. Because common sense learns from the past, hindsight bias is wrongness that weakens common sense. When you look back, don’t forget: things didn’t have to turn out this way.

Learn more about ways to be wrong to get yourself on the path to being right more often.

[i] “Randomness does not look random.” Nassim Taleb, Fooled by Randomness (New York: Random House, 2004),
54.
[ii] “…hindsight bias…” Scott Plous, The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making (New York: McGraw-Hill,
1993), 138.
[iii] “…by purchasing eight of his Prince Castle five-spindle Multimixers?” Ray Kroc with Ronald Anderson,
Grinding It Out—The Making of McDonalds (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1977), 6.
[iv] “…a bright kid at Lakeside Middle School could learn computer programming.” Stephan Manes, Paul Andrews,
Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America (Seattle:
Cadwaller & Stern, 2013—Kindle Edition).