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Thursday, January 4th, 2018
gumption traps

“A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things.  He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the tracks and meeting it when it comes.  That’s gumption.”

It’s an odd word, gumption, “so homely and so forlorn and so out of style,” according to Robert Persig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (ZMM).  More than forty years after he wrote those words, that’s still the case.

Pirsig’s book is a lot of different things, as reflected in the range of topics in this ongoing series of postings about it.  On one level, it’s a personal quest, or rather two quests.  The narrator (really Pirsig) recounts his personal journey, but also the one of his previous self, whose relentless searching into the folds of philosophy devolved into mental illness and led to shock therapy treatments.

In contrast to some of the more theoretical sections, the musings about gumption get at day-to-day practical challenges.

We all are on the road of life — or the tracks of life — moving along in time whether we want to or not.  Do we face that next moment with gumption?

I must admit that mine is only sporadically in evidence, so I often admire those who seem to have it every waking moment.  Rumination comes more easily to me than gumption, which is great for certain kinds of things (creativity, deep understanding, etc.), but it can lead to a consuming quicksand if left on its own.  My best efforts are situations where the rumination leads to an idea worthy of action and the gumption is there to make it happen.

In ZMM, Persig outlined what he called “gumption traps” of two basic types, external and internal.  In the first, you are thrown off the track “by conditions that arise from external circumstances,” which he termed “setbacks.”  In the investment world, we deal with this every day in the markets, where we can’t control things and our expectations (dreams?) are often found to be off-kilter.  And we deal with setbacks in the organizations where we toil.  They are inherently messy, full of disputes and politics and differences of opinion and misunderstandings that get in our way.the research puzzle | Here’s a recent posting about the people aspects of that messiness.

The internal traps (which the author termed “hangups”) are divided into three subtypes, “those that block affective understanding, called ‘value traps’; those that block cognitive understanding, called ‘truth traps’; and those that cause psychomotor behavior, called ‘muscle traps.’”  I’ll forego discussion of the last two, because, as Pirsig wrote, “The value traps are by far the largest and most dangerous group.”  They are also the ones that bedevil investment decision makers.

“The most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity.”  Whoops.  I may have been guilty of that before (OK, thousands of times), when my “premature diagnosis” is off the mark or I “fail to see the real answer even when it’s staring [me] right in the face.”  But there’s a difference between motorcycle maintenance — where it rapidly becomes apparent that you are stuck — and less tangible encounters with markets and organizations, when you can cling to destructive assessments for a very long time without seeing how stuck you are.

The next trap is ego.  (This is getting way too close to home.)  “Ego isn’t entirely separate from value rigidity but one of the many causes of it.  If you have a high evaluation of yourself, then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened. . . When false information makes you look good, you’re likely to believe it.”  Enough said.

Anxiety, the next gumption trap, is sort of the opposite of ego.”  Pirsig recommends working it out, on paper.  Without taking the time to do that, you “jump to wild conclusions and build all kinds of errors into your machine because of your nervousness.”  Substitute “decision process” for machine and it takes you from motorcycle maintenance into just about anything, certainly the evaluation of investments.

We need to remind ourselves of this:  “You can reduce your anxiety somewhat by facing the fact that there isn’t a mechanic alive who doesn’t louse up a job once in a while.”  As an investment professional, you are a mechanic of sorts, albeit without the greasy hands.  But, by the nature of the job, the “hit rate” for investment professionals is a lot less than that of mechanics.  Dealing with the anxiety that stems from that is critical.the research puzzle | Here’s my review of an excellent publication from the CFA Institute Research Foundation that provides a window into related issues.

Boredom “means your gumption supply is low and must be replenished before anything else is done.”  But while you could use a break from the problem at hand, the work environment that you’re in might be one in which escapist activities (which is what you really need) are frowned upon.  So, you keep going, and “the next thing that happens is the Big Mistake.”

The last trap that Pirsig covered (while acknowledging that there are many more) was impatience.  “Impatience is the first reaction against a setback and can soon turn into anger if you’re not careful.”  In the investment world, the pressure to act can prompt shortcuts and the use of rules of thumb that may not apply to the situation at hand.  Allowing yourself the time to properly explore a problem — and being in an organization that gives you the opportunity to properly explore it — is crucial.  You don’t want to dawdle, but rushing unnecessarily is counterproductive too.  Important projects and decisions require time and space.

I wish I had a gumption meter so that I could see when I’m running low.  In the hustle and bustle of everyday life and in response to the demands of work, it’s easy to miss the signals.  In fact, I’d like there to be some other indicators on the dashboard that tell me what’s causing the depletion.

By now I ought to know which traps I get caught in time after time and recognize the warning signs.  How can I be so oblivious?  I suppose it’s the human condition, but at this advanced age you’d think I’d be better at avoiding the same problems I’ve encountered (or caused) before.

I’m still trying.  And reading ZMM again helped.

This is the third in a series on ideas found in ZMM.the research puzzle | This is where it begins.  The next one is about getting unstuck.tjb research | To receive notifications for each new posting, sign up here.