When Professionals Fail In Their Personal Lives

To any remaining readers of this site—

I apologize for my unexpected hiatus from the site—hopefully I’ll get some good updates up in the next week or so. My absence has been due to primarily two things:

1. I’ve spent the past few works participating in legal work that doesn’t just affect me. Normally, if it’s just my own schoolwork, I don’t mind going at about a 75% effort level so that I can have time for pet projects and hobbies. If I am the only one who can potentially be “harmed”, then I don’t mind the tradeoff. But when I’m working on stuff that involves other people, then I need to try to come as close to 100% effort as I can, because I don’t want anyone else to be harmed due to me leaving that extra bit of “oomph” on the table.

2. The other reason that I’ve been gone is because I’ve been undertaking personal projects that are much more open ended. A lot of the posts on this site are often reflections and takeaways based on what I have reading in my own personal life. But lately, I’ve been doing stuff like trying to put together a historiography of Jesus Christ—specifically, I’m trying to compile lists of “facts” that are historically ascertainable about His existence, and I’ve also been trying to figure out which parts require the faith element and what the rationale for having that faith ought to be.

On a more investment-focused note, the current “big picture” question I’ve been struggling to answer is the extent to which one’s personal side should affect my perception of their professional career.

Take someone like Benjamin Graham. It is not hyperbole to say that his work The Intelligent Investor changed the world, gave us Warren Buffett as we know him (this making Graham responsible for countless enjoyable retirements and stories of financial independence success when you measure the second and third order effects of his life), and is still affecting investment decisions that people make with their money today. Heck, almost a century later, Warren Buffett cited two chapters of his work in his most recent letter to shareholders, the most widely read financial document of the year. There are only five or six people in the past century who could arguably be as influential as Graham when it comes to teaching sound investment principles.

On the other hand, the stories of his infidelities to his three wives are epic, and that might be even be understated. After his second son committed suicide in 1954, Graham immediately began a sexual relationship with his son’s girlfriend, Marie Louise, and returned from the funeral to notify his third wife Estelle that he wanted to spend six months of the year with his deceased son’s former lover, and six months of the year with her. This ruined her life. What are we supposed to make of that?

In the popular consciousness, we generally ignore most sins in evaluating one’s professional credentials unless the sins fall into a pre-ascribed category of “very bad.” Take someone like Ty Cobb. Without a doubt, he should be known as the best baseball player of all-time, deserving of a spot on baseball’s Mt. Rushmore next to Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Cy Young. Yet because Ty Cobb was virulently racist and sexist, baseball historians and Major League Baseball are content to let his legacy diminish and fade.

The potential problem with this thinking is that it doesn’t make any attempt to adjust for the context of Ty Cobb’s life; first of all, it’s not just that he hated women and minorities, he was mean to everyone. You could be the whitest Protestant in Georgia, and you’d still walk up and leave a dinner table if you had to spend ten minutes with him. Second of all, some of the things Ty Cobb said weren’t that far out of the mainstream for turn-of-the-century Georgia—there is a tendency to apply modern standards to pre-evolved times that may not be fair in making historical judgments. And lastly, very few people adjust their opinion of Ty Cobb to the fact that Ty Cobb’s dad shot his mother when Ty was a teenager—perhaps we’d all have a few screws loose if we had to go through life carrying that memory.

On the other hand, Mickey Mantle’s personal flaws, notably alcoholism, have glorified his reputation and perhaps strengthened his legacy as a “flawed but ultimately relatable” figure. There’s a certain arbitrariness in which we decide that some sins are “better” than others. Some personal vices and flaws are enough to diminish professional legacies, others paradoxically enhance them.

It seems that we have three options: we can say, “Professional and personal lives should be completely segregated. Let the professional life of an individual be evaluated on its own merits.” The second option is to say, “You can’t compartmentalize someone’s existence. We should holistically evaluate a person taking everything into consideration.” And the third view is to say, “We generally ignore personal vices, unless they are especially terrible (think O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson) and then it affects our evaluation of the entire person.” At the current time, I’m not convinced of which way is the proper philosophical approach to adopt.

 

 

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18 thoughts on “When Professionals Fail In Their Personal Lives

  1. Clarkaroo says:

    Oh Tim, I enjoy your writings.

    Nothing like talking about Ty, the Babe, and Mick. In my lifetime there still remained baseball folk (in the 50s) who considered Ty Cobb to be the greatest of all time.  He forced his will upon every game he played. His highest-ever averages were mostly all in the book before the hittable-ball era of the 20s. Babe was the greatest next. Even tho Babe was the biggest star there ever was, it took Bill James inventing reliable truthful measuring tools to demonstrate Babe was a far better player than everyone else. And the Mick? Look at the photos. He just glowed! Mickey had a beautiful bright aura just one click from the visible spectrum. 

    Ty Cobb, mean as hell and on the lookout for someone soft to cut down. The Babe, a force of nature not fully under his own control. Out to have a good time and no one ever wanted to fight him. Mickey, radiating athletic perfection in every photo, and reports are legion of his kindness as well as being a jerk. 

    Seeking Alpha’s Dividend Growth crowd is the Bill James and his sabremetricians for the average investor. 

    You want just one great who is a person to believe in? Yogi Berra. You have read The Historical Baseball Abstract, haven’t you?

    Clark From Oklahoma

  2. Falldownguy says:

    Well. I signed in to ask where you’ve been.  Read the personal note to your readers and understand.  To put it nicely, “fecal matter occurs”.  Enjoy reading your emails…Agree most always with your investment philosophy.  I’m a Coke, P&G, Kimberly-Clark, J&J, Exxon man myself.  Keep the emails coming.

  3. DanielCochran says:

    Tim,
    I’ve been a reader of yours for some time now, and your two most recent posts came on the very day that I finally noticed that it had been awhile since I read anything new from you.  Welcome back!  As a graduate student myself, I am impressed that you are able to contribute to this blog as often as you do.  Your work has helped me grow as a DGI, and for that I am grateful.  Concerning your interest in the “historical Jesus”, I wonder if you have looked at the research of the s-called “Jesus Seminar” led by folks like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  As scholars, they do not try to find rationale for belief, per se, but they do attempt to determine the difference between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith.  Cheers.

  4. smarterfaster says:

    Welcome back, Tim…I believe it is both impossible and unwise to try to separate your personal life from your professional life. Ultimately, one side of your persona will leak through to the other and may undermine your work or your privacy. You will create the least stress in your life if you can integrate both aspects of your life on a single track. That way you won’t be tearing apart the fabric of your life by trying to make decisions as to which should take precedence. Until retirement, I always ordered my priorities as follows: Work first, family second, me third. I figured that the best way to take care of my family was to make sure that we were financially secure by being successful at work. Conversely, if I fumbled the ball at work, it could undermine the financial stability and strength of the family unit. Look for solutions that don’t pick one aspect over the other, but rather provides for the common goals of both. For instance, if I had to travel for business, I would look for opportunities to take the family with me. If I had to entertain a client, I would typically suggest we bring our wives resulting in a nice dinner out for my spouse. This also led to a deeper understanding and appreciation of my business by my better half. Ultimately, the measure of your life will be the sum of both the public and private aspects of your persona. You can’t expect to be a public hero while acting as a scallywag behind closed doors.

  5. Joe_G from Seeking Alpha says:

    Modern American culture seems to forgive most non-sexual vices like gambling or alcohol abuse but our puritanical roots won’t let us look past even the mildest of sexual vices.  Ted Kennedy as a drunk whose drunk driving killed  a woman but was forgiven and ultimately revered by his party, Strom Thurmond was an outspoken racist but he was forgiven and went on to spend another million years in the Senate, but Anthony Weiner tweeted nude pics to a woman who wasn’t his wife and his career came to an abrupt end.  Personally, I don’t get it.  Culturally speaking, any society that obsesses about the personal sex lives of its leaders to this extent can only be described as immature and repressed.  If Warren Buffett cheated on his wife would you not trust him to manage Berkshire Hathaway?  To connect personal conduct that you may not approve of to professional merit is just self-righteous moralizing and should be discouraged.

  6. obieephyhm says:

    Well, I applaud your effort.  Having spent 40 years of research on the first question (historicity of Jesus), I have arrived at my own conclusions which I’ll keep to myself, at least for the moment.  Except for this: be warned . . . a truly *honest* study, involving skeptical acceptance of truth-claims, will challenge every single core belief you’ve held, to date.  It will not happen instantly.  It will not happen peacefully.  It will not be comfortable.  It will cost you dearly . . . because truly *independent* reasoning is extremely difficult and attempts to discuss the struggle with those who are, themselves, entrapped in the bar-less prison of intellectual dishonesty, will radically change whose opinions matter to you.   In our world, that is usually labelled as ‘anti-social’ . . . or worse.  This *is* the sword that divides teachers from students, parents from children, brothers from sisters, wives from husbands, neighbor from neighbor . . . no relationship will remain untouched.

    History is a flawed teacher.  The history of what really-was lies buried under unfathomable mountains of history-as-written (mostly by the erst-while ‘winners’ or their shills or those with undue economic influence).   Question everything.  Trust but verify.  That which cannot be verified — repeatedly, if necessary (and it will be) — should never be trusted.  There is far more that lies outside, in the untrustworthy area, than most are willing to accept.  The result?  Well, read about Agrippa-the-skeptic and his early-modern periphraser, Baron Von Munchausen: all arguments end in one of three states — for the student of history, the most fearsome is the ‘appeal to authority’ with which history is rife.
    The historicity of anything must be faced by reading as much ‘against’ as ‘for’, with claims on both sides held to the same standard of scrutiny and skepticism.  Much more difficult than it seems until you’ve tried it . . . especially upon cherished ‘beliefs’ which have never really been closely examined.   It takes a lot of hard research.  It takes even more reading.  And it takes an enormous, incalculable amount of skeptical, critical thinking that dares to question EVERYTHING.   There are no short-cuts.  There are no quick fixes.  There are frequent frustrations of having to re-thinking things from the ground up in light of some new evidence . . . even if you’ve been examining it for decades.   It doesn’t end.  There is no conclusion.  It is a life-time project.

    I wish all the best for your efforts.  You know how to find me, if you want to discuss anything further (not, mind you, that I can be of significant assistance).   Peace.

  7. Glenbogle says:

    Jesus said, –By their fruits ye shall know them.

    You can ignore what you know, and many people do, but then you’re accepting and becoming part of what that person is. Nothing is ever overlooked or lost. (Something about “every hair in your head is counted”). It’s your choice and that’s what life is about.

  8. says:

    Clarkaroo  Nice to hear from you!

    Yogi, my grandfather went to elementary school with Yogi in St. Louis. They were a year apart, and my grandfather never met him. However, there is an old yearbook with both “Lawrence Berra” and “John McAleenan” in it out there somewhere.

    You’ve probably already seen it, but Costas’ eulogy of Mantle is worth a nice watch on a Saturday afternoon:

  9. says:

    obieephyhm  Obie, my e-mail address is . If you have the time, I’d appreciate it if you could send me: (1) the general conclusions you reached and why, and (2) the most impressive scholarship material on the subject you have found. I’m trying to put together my own “syllabus” of works to read, and if you could point me in some good directions, I’d like that.

  10. spencerstojic says:

    Tim,

    I also have been a long time reader and truly appreciate your insight on these long term investing topics. It has been a great experience every time I read a new post from you. 

    I don’t know what all material you are using in your studies, but my personal studies on the life of Christ were most benefited from a book called “Jesus the Christ”, written by James E. Talmage. It is the most comprehensive book I have read that dives into very specific detail about His life, with a special emphasis on the Jewish customs of that day. Many of the stories we read about Jesus are best understood in context of the Jewish law and customs of the time, and I have yet to find any material that is as in depth and thorough as this book. This book is used by the Mormon church, but please understand that it is not my intention to recommend it for any other reason than to help give you another un-biased resource for your studies. My particular recommendation would be be to read the post-chapter commentary that dives into much more detail on each topic. 

    Anyway, the last thing I figured I would be doing after reading your post would be commenting about a topic like this haha. I wish you the best of luck in your studies, and thank you for your diligence. 

    Spencer

  11. innerscorecard says:

    I think this is one reason that it is good that the “eminent dead” (as Munger put it) we talk to through our reading tend to be dead. We’re free to take the good and leave the bad, and can pick and choose how to engage them on our own terms.

  12. scchan_2009 says:

    Trust me, Benjamin Graham was not the only smart person that engages in dodgy personal life. Erwin Schrödinger – one of the founder of quantum theory – got kicked out from Princeton for having affairs openly. There was a film that allegedly portray the affair between Coco Chanel (probably the most legendary businesswoman in history) and Igor Stravinsky (probably the most legendary modern classical music composer). Henry Ford got a medal from Hitler for being anti-Semitic. You name it, plenty of story out there (laugh).

  13. innerscorecard says:

    scchan_2009  

    Yup. That was one big part of growing up for me. You realize that everyone has their flaws, and no one is just a great person.

    Well, except for maybe Walter Schloss. 🙂

  14. scchan_2009 says:

    innerscorecard scchan_2009I think many of these smart guys are very eccentric, so that extends to their personal life. Oh don’t forget about Warren Buffett himself, his unconventional relationship with his now-died wife is quite well known.

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