Rules for Success

Al Jacobs

My apologies if the title of this article sounds boastful. I acknowledge I have no special insight in resolving many of life’s problems. Dilemmas involving intimate personal relationships, emotional and religious experiences, or life and death decisions, are far beyond my talents. However, exposure to the world convinces me many of the professionals who offer their services in these matters – marriage counselors, sociologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, clergymen, and the like – can similarly claim no special perception. However, I’ve been around a good while, and my observations reveal most grief comes because people fail to establish reasonable approaches to problems. Having now excused myself from addressing insurmountable dilemmas, we can focus on the difficulties of everyday living.

Many years ago I clipped two sentences from a newspaper article, and while the subject of the article is long forgotten, as is the newspaper, the two sentences made a profound impact on me. The text read simply: “Ed Callaway is a lucky man. He arranges it that way.” The obvious question: Can you take actions to tip the scales of good fortune in your favor? There’s no doubt in my mind what often passes for good or bad luck is not mere chance, and in life’s crap game the players are rolling loaded dice. But whether the dice are weighted to favor seven or, instead, snake eyes, can be influenced by the roller.

What I suggest are rules which, when followed methodically, result in good fortune. Though I’ve encountered a lot of circumstances, many of them bizarre, the five rules I’m about to describe helped me get through most of them pretty well. As you’ll see, these aren’t vague platitudes requiring superhuman effort or leading to uncertain results. They’re understandable and applicable, with predictable benefits.

Rule 1: For a helping hand, look to the end of your arm. This may be cliché, but to drive home a 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 can’t rely upon others. This is true regardless of their position or supposed expertise. More specifically, without your input don’t 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.

Rule 2: Pay attention to Murphy’s Law. Mounted on an 11 by 14-inch parchment in a black frame, under glass, in my office is one of the many versions of Murphy’s Law. It reads:

Murphy’s Law

  • 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.

Although overstated for humor and effect, Murphy’s Law contains a load of truth. It reminds us complexity is accompanied by consequences not easily foretold. Experience shows that as variables increase, more things go wrong, and as Murphy points out, unpredictability leads to troubles, with total breakdown of the system. Despite this, the needless involvement and complexity incorporated into many people’s lives defy description. Whatever the reasons, disregard of Murphy’s Law causes untold misery.

Rule 3: Resolve your problems in a low profile manner. Many problems involve differences with others. Controversy is normal and resistance to ideas and actions is expected. When the solution lies in overcoming objections, the last thing you want is organized opposition. Fighting off multiple opponents makes everything tougher, so the fewer people you deal with, the better. This means you don’t attract attention to yourself and your interests. Basic to this, in all your dealings, maintain a low profile.

The ultimate extension of this philosophy came from a wealthy man whose affluence didn’t show. His caution: “Conduct all your affairs silently and anonymously.” This, of course, often goes against the grain. It means we soft-pedal our accomplishments, and appear 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.

Rule 4: Beware the natural law of income and expenditures. Innumerable works discuss income and expense as they relate to one another. Whether a scholarly dissertation on taxation, helpful hints on personal budget balancing, a diatribe on welfare spending, or an historical review of the final years of the once dynamic Pennsylvania Railroad, certain elements of fact and fiction weave together to blur the obvious. The inability by many to separate financial illusion from reality is a national defect, and for an individual this failing can be a personal disaster.

Of the many books on the subject is an exceptionally clear and enlightening one titled The Law and the Profits, by perhaps the most lucid writer of the twentieth century, the English historian C. Northcote Parkinson. In it he postulated the maxim “Expenditures invariably rise to meet and exceed available income,” and substantiated this as it relates both to organizations and individuals. It’s this impulse to spend whatever is available that’s the undoing of many otherwise rational persons. The message is clear: To maximize your effectiveness you must reject this tendency to spend up to and beyond your financial limit. I recall one fine example of this philosophy: a wealthy self-made investor, who liked to boast of his thriftiness by saying that in his years as a young depression-era attorney he lived on only 30 percent of his income. (Interestingly, at the same time, his indolent son-in-law boasted, though more discreetly, that he, likewise, lived on 30 percent of the wealthy man’s income.)

Rule 5: The secret of success in virtually every endeavor is mastery of the details. To a certain extent this rule encompasses elements of the first four, for without a full understanding of specifics, you cannot easily employ the other rules. If there’s a single factor to explain why so many people fail in their undertakings, it is their inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to spend time and energy to collect, evaluate, and utilize information. Perhaps this is excusable, as little in our training encourages close scrutiny of anything.

It’s my belief the admonition, we must step back to get the big picture, is just an excuse to avoid thought. Instead, view the world, not as a monolith to be comprehended through revelation, but rather as a jigsaw puzzle. Visualize a multitude of differently shaped and colored pieces sorted, rotated, and fit together, often in unattached clusters, as the picture slowly forms. In short, the minutiae, which may seem an annoyance obscuring the subject, is often the actual substance assembled to form the subject.

It’s only by diligent investigation you know what you are doing, learn what is happening to you, and control the situations which confront you. As once so eloquently expressed: “When you know the details, no one can lie to you.”

A final thought: Though not actually one of the rules, there’s one other custom you’ll do well to abide by. I’ve heard this statement credited to numerous persons, many of whom are successful, and it’s a habit I’ve adhered to for decades. The maxim: Half of success in life is just showing up on time.

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. You may view them on


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