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.



Originally posted 2014-03-07 22:58:30.

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