A few short stories:
The CEO of Bronco Wine – which sells the Charles Shaw “Two Buck Chuck” wine at Trader Joe’s – was once asked how he’s able to sell wine for less than the cost of bottled water.
He replied: “They’re overcharging you for the water. Don’t you get it?”
Franklin Roosevelt looked around the room and chuckled when his presidential library opened in 1941. A reporter asked why he was so cheerful. “I’m thinking of all the historians who will come here thinking they’ll find the answers to their questions,” he said.
Everything we know about history is limited to what’s been written down, shared publicly, or spoken into a camera. The stuff that’s been kept secret, in someone’s head, taken to the grave, must be – I don’t know – 1,000 times as large and more interesting.
Years before the Wright Brothers flew, scores of other entrepreneurs attempted to build an airplane, tinkering with different models to see what might work.
One was a German inventor named Otto Lilienthal. On one flight in August 1896, Lilienthal’s glider was 50 feet in the air when it suddenly dropped to the ground like a stone. Otto broke his neck.
He died the next day, just after uttering his final words, a dedication to the progress of his field: “Sacrifices must be made.”
Gabby Gingras was born unable to feel pain. She has a full sense of touch. But a rare genetic condition left her completely unable to sense physical pain.
You might think this is a superpower, or an incredible gift. But her life is dreadful. The inability to feel pain left Gabby unable to distinguish right from wrong in the physical world. One profile summarized a fraction of it:
As Gabby’s baby teeth came in, she mutilated the inside of her mouth. Gabby was unaware of the damage she was causing because she didn’t feel the pain that would tell her to stop. Her parents watch helplessly.
“She would chew her fingers bloody, she would chew on her tongue like it was bubble gum,” Steve Gingras, Gabby’s father, explained. “She ended up in the hospital for 10 days because her tongue was so swelled up she couldn’t drink.”
Pain also keeps babies from putting their fingers in their eyes. Without pain to stop her, Gabby scratched her eyes so badly doctors temporarily sewed them shut. Today she is legally blind because of self-inflicted childhood injuries.
Pain is miserable. Life without pain is a disaster.
John Maynard Keynes once purchased a trove of Issac Newton’s original papers at auction. Many had never been seen before, having been stashed away at Cambridge for centuries.
Newton is probably the smartest human to ever live. But Keynes was astonished to find that much of the work was devoted to alchemy, sorcery, and trying to find a potion for eternal life.
I have glanced through a great quantity of this at least 100,000 words, I should say. It is utterly impossible to deny that it is wholly magical and wholly devoid of scientific value; and also impossible not to admit that Newton devoted years of work to it.
I wonder: Was Newton a genius in spite of being addicted to magic, or was being curious about things that seemed impossible part of what made him so successful?
The night before the D-Day Invasion, Franklin Roosevelt asked his wife Eleanor how she felt about not knowing what would happen next.
“To be nearly sixty years old and still rebel at uncertainty is ridiculous isn’t it?” she said.
The original Ford Model T had more than 100 square feet of wood in it. Multiplied by millions of cars, it was a tremendous amount of lumber and produced a tremendous amount of scrap wood and sawdust.
Henry Ford, ever the entrepreneur, wondered what he could do with the scraps. He settled on turning it into charcoal.
Thus began the Kingsford Charcoal company, which today – 110 years later – has an 80% market share in the barbeque market.
BlackRock CEO Larry Fink once told a story about having dinner with the manager of one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds.
The fund’s objectives, the manager said, were generational.
“So how do you measure performance?” Fink asked.
“Quarterly,” said the manager.
The gap between ideals and reality.
Robin Williams was a genius who understood how the world works better than most. He was also a terrible student. Sometimes those traits appeared together.
During a macroeconomic class at College of Marin, Williams’ final paper contained a single sentence to his professor: “I really don’t know, sir.”
He failed the class. But if you ask me, his answer is the highest level of economic wisdom.
Michael Lewis published his first book, Liar’s Poker, in 1989. It was a huge hit. But his next book didn’t come for another decade. He later explained his hiatuses and why he fills his time with hobbies:
Writers can get in this mindset where they feel they have to write another book … the publisher’s on you afterwards and they’re ready to get you going again. And I just always feel that the book is going to be better if I start all over again, start completely fresh as if I’ve never written a book before and give myself at least the option of not writing books.
The best ideas happen when you wait patiently for them to come, which isn’t something you or your boss can schedule.
JFK and Jackie Kennedy didn’t have a great marriage. In 1955, two years after their marriage, Jack told his father, Joe Kennedy, he wanted a divorce.
Joe responded: “You’re out of your mind. You’re going to be president someday. This would ruin everything. Divorce is impossible.”
Jack reiterated that he and Jackie weren’t happy.
His father shot back: “Can’t you get it into your head that it’s not important what you really are? The only important thing is what people think you are!”
The first cars started showing up in American cities in the late 1800s. Not everyone was thrilled. In 1896, Washington DC banned cars on the grounds that they threatened the livelihoods of horses. The Washington Post reported:
The commissioners of the District of Columbia are determined that the horse whose occupation has so largely been taken away by reason of the use of bicycles shall not further be displaced by horseless carriage.
Change is hard.
Part of the Armistice that ended World War I forced the dismantling of Germany’s military. Six million rifles, 38 million projectiles, half a billion rounds of ammunition, 17 million grenades, 16,000 airplanes, 450 ships, and millions of tons of other war equipment were destroyed or stripped from Germany’s possession.
But 20 years later, Germany had the most sophisticated army in the world. It had the fastest tanks. The strongest air force. The most powerful artillery. The most sophisticated communication equipment, and the first missiles.
A catastrophic irony is that this advancement took place not in spite of, but because of, its disarmament.
George Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, noted:
After the [first] World War practically everything was taken away from Germany. So when it rearmed, it was necessary to produce a complete set of materiel for the troops. As a result, Germany has an army equipped with the most modern weapons that could be turned out. That is a situation that has never occurred before in the history of the world.
There’s a set of advantages that come from being endowed with resources. There’s another set of advantages that come from starting from scratch. The latter can be sneakingly powerful.
Ulysses S. Grant’s wife, Julia, did not like Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary.
When President Lincoln asked Grant to accompany him and the First Lady to Ford’s Theater on April 15th, 1865, Grant declined, joking with the president that it was a command from his wife that he stay home. Lincoln responded:
“Of course, General, you have been long from home, fighting in the field, and Mrs. Grant’s instincts should be considered before my request. I am very sorry, however, for the people would only be too glad to see you.”
Lincoln was shot hours later.
Historian Ron Chernow writes:
Grant would long wonder if his presence at Ford’s Theatre might have altered things and whether Julia’s dislike of Mary Lincoln had inadvertently modified the direction of American history.
Would Grant, with his acute battlefield instincts, have sensed the assassin’s tread? Would he have been more attentive to security concerns and brought his own security guard? Would the omnipresent [aide] Beckwith have sat outside the box, buffering his boss from harm?
So much important history hangs by a thread.
The Chris Rock I see on Netflix is hilarious, flawless. The Chris Rock that performs in dozens of small clubs each year is just OK. No one is so good at comedy that every joke they write is funny. So every big comedian tests their material in small clubs before using it in big venues. Rock explained:
When I start a tour, it’s not like I start out in arenas. Before this last tour I performed in this place in New Brunswick called the Stress Factory. I did about 40 or 50 shows getting ready for the tour.
One newspaper described Rock at the Stress Factory fumbling with material to an indifferent audience. “I’m going to have to cut some of these jokes,” he says mid-skit.
That isn’t bad; he’s still a genius.
But all success is like an iceberg: what most of us see is a fraction of what happened. And it’s stripped of all the hard parts.
President Clinton noted in his January 2000 State of the Union speech:
We begin the new century with over 20 million new jobs; the fastest economic growth in more than 30 years; the lowest unemployment rates in 30 years; the lowest poverty rates in 20 years; the lowest African-American and Hispanic unemployment rates on record; the first back-to-back surpluses in 42 years; and next month, America will achieve the longest period of economic growth in our entire history.
That wasn’t an exaggeration. But it marked the beginning of the worst decade for the stock market in modern times.
In January 2010, President Obama noted in his State of the Union speech:
One in 10 Americans still cannot find work. Many businesses have shuttered. Home values have declined. Small towns and rural communities have been hit especially hard. And for those who’d already known poverty, life has become that much harder.
That wasn’t an exaggeration. But it marked the beginning of one of the best periods for the stock market in modern times.
Gallup has been asking Americans for more than four decades, “Are you satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. right now?”
The average percent of Americans answering “no” since 1969 is 63%.
What’s interesting is that Gallup asks a follow-up question: “Are you satisfied with the way things are going in your own life right now?”
There, the average “no” response is just 15.8%.
People tend to be optimistic about themselves but pessimistic about others. Social media probably supercharges that. Benedict Evans says, “The more the Internet exposes people to new points of view, the angrier people get that different views exist.”
“The American Dream” was a phrase first used by author James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America.
The timing is interesting, isn’t it? It’s hard to think of a year when the dream looked more broken than in 1931.
When Adams wrote of, “a man by applying himself, by using the talents he has, by acquiring the necessary skills, can rise from lower to higher status, and that his family can rise with him,” the unemployment rate was nearly 25% and inequality was near the highest it had ever been.
When he wrote of “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank,” food riots were breaking out across the country as the Great Depression ripped the economy apart.
When he wrote of “being able to grow to fullest development as men and women, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations,” schools were segregated, and some states required literacy tests to vote.
At few points in history was the idea of the American dream so out of touch with reality. Yet Adam’s book took off. Living the American Dream became a household phrase.
Optimism is a helluva drug. People believe things that aren’t true, are only loosely true, true but improbable, or true but lacking important context. To do otherwise hurts too much. They tell themselves stories, find statistics, and surround themselves with incentives to make their beliefs seem as real as possible.
They’ve done it forever. They’ll do it forever.