Antidote for Failure

Al Jacobs

I hereby confess … I’m a people watcher. It’s something that’s been a part of my temperament for decades. However, this is not just a random habit. Not at all. I’ve developed it in a most selective manner. My specialty: I observe people in their failures.

Admittedly there may be a touch of voyeurism in my chosen avocation, but I simply can’t resist the drama. It’s not that I actually want to see dreams destroyed and lives disrupted, for I’m not a sadist. You probably know the sadistic type .. attending the stock car races hoping for a six-vehicle pile-up. But not me. Actually I always root for the participants … hoping they will overcome adversity … longing for the happy ending. Why, I’ve seen the movie Gone With the Wind countless times and I always pray that Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara will stay together at the end. Maybe one of these days it will come to pass.

But enough idle wishing. Instead, let me give you five concrete tips on how to sidestep failure … a technique I’ve learned through observation – as well as the result of enough errors on my part to cause everything possible to go wrong.. My advice is simple. Heed the following warnings and watch things improve.

I. Half of success in life is just showing up on time. This, the first and simplest rule, is well known. It requires no elaboration except a personal observation: No single trait can more thoroughly discredit an otherwise fine individual than repeated failure to make timely appearances and meet deadlines. Whatever else a person does right is subverted if always late.

II. Resolve your problems in a low profile manner. Many of our problems involve differences of one sort or another with other people. Controversy is normal and resistance to ideas and actions is expected. When the solution to problems lies in overcoming objections, as it often does, the last thing you want is organized opposition. Having to fight off multiple opponents makes everything more difficult, so the fewer people you must deal with, the better. This usually means the less attention you attract to yourself and your interests, the more successful will be the outcome.

Basic to this is the advisability that in all your dealings, maintain a low profile. A wealthy man with a prosperity not readily apparent expressed what was perhaps the ultimate extension of this philosophy some years ago. He cautioned: “Conduct all your affairs silently and anonymously.” This, of course, goes against the grain for many of us. It means we must soft-pedal our accomplishments and appear to be less than we actually are. For those of you with this ability, you’ll be impressed by how much you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit for it.

III. For a helping hand, look to the end of your arm. This may be cliché, but to drive home the point, a trite platitude sometimes does the job. No one will match your personal involvement in your own well being. You must be an active participant, if for no other reason than you cannot rely upon others. This is true regardless of their position or supposed expertise. More specifically, without your input do not depend upon your tax preparer to analyze whether the deduction of actual automobile operating costs works better for you than the flat IRS mileage allowance. In addition, expect your employer’s accounting department to mess up your reimbursement request if the form you submitted is disputable. Likewise, though your systolic/diastolic blood pressure readings now register 126/74, your HMO physician will not reduce your diuretic dosage without your prodding. Finally, expect your attorney opposing your ex-husband’s petition for a reduction in child support payments to ignore your most persuasive argument unless you stress it forcefully. In these circumstances, as in all of life’s trials, your own efforts lead to favorable result. Don’t passively defer to others.

IV. Make time your ally, not your enemy. There is one striking aspiration in society. It’s the primal urge to acquire possessions. The business community is arrayed to sell merchandise and services in a forceful manner and it’s joined enthusiastically by academia and government. This in itself is not necessarily bad, but it leads to unfortunate results for many people. Those who don’t understand what they can afford, as well as those emotionally unequipped to resist instant gratification, will be victimized by a marketing system distorting time in its eagerness to dispose of products.

Thus, the young married couple buying a $180,000 tract house in suburban Baltimore is encouraged to make a $9,000 down payment, apply for a new 30-year first mortgage of $144,000 and finance the $27,000 balance with a second mortgage to be paid in full five years after purchase. The fact a $13,000 down payment plus closing costs represents the buyers’ entire savings in seven years of marriage should be a warning. Of even greater concern will be the source of the $27,000 to pay the second mortgage over the next five years. Under these circumstances, time will become their adversary.

This is one example of what to avoid. Despite the temptations and pressures, you need to collect information and pause for reflection before committing yourself to any transaction in which the passage of time works to your disfavor.

V. Pay attention to Murphy’s Law. Mounted on an 11” X 14” parchment in a black frame, under glass, above the basin in my office bathroom, is one of the many versions of Murphy’s Law. It reads:

Murphy’s Law
(or the optimist creed)

  • Nothing is as easy as it looks.
  • Everything takes longer than you expect.
  • And if anything can go wrong, it will, at the worst possible moment.

It’s been there many years. As I shave my face and brush my teeth, I reread it regularly.

Although overstated for humor and effect, Murphy’s Law contains a strong essence of truth. It reminds us complexity of any system or function is accompanied by consequences not easily foretold. Experience clearly demonstrated how, as variables increase, more things go wrong, and as Murphy points out, unpredictability leads to troubles, with total breakdown of the system the possible result. Despite this, the needless involvement and complexity incorporated into many persons’ lives defy description. Whatever the justification, the systematic disregard of Murphy’s Law causes untold misery for many.

There’s a logical extension to Murphy’s Law that deserves to be mentioned. As matters become increasingly complex and therefore more things to go wrong, it becomes less possible to function from a position of certainty. In all your dealings you will be far better off if you can act with assurance and, therefore, from a position of strength. The landlord, for example, who realizes a tenant is becoming a persistent delinquent and yet must reluctantly accept a partial rent installment in order to meet a mortgage payment, is clearly dealing from a position of weakness. This is the sort of circumstance you should anticipate by setting aside sufficient reserves beforehand.

A final thought: Here, my friends, you have an encapsulation of the not-so-well-kept secrets of success, based on a half-century’s observation of misery … a well orchestrated exhibition by much of society simply ignoring those elements which lead to personal success and fulfillment. I’ve become convinced the majority of Americans prefer failure to success, but for reasons I can’t understand. It seems they repeatedly engage in self-destructive behavior, knowing events will turn out badly. If there is some plausible reason for this, perhaps it’s Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity, which he described as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al can be contacted at



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