You have heard the phrase, "Close, but no cigar."
It describes someone who came close to the big payoff, but who
ever get over it? Will it haunt him for the rest of his life?
could have had the Democratsí nomination for President in 1992
if he had decided to take on the seemingly unbeatable George Bush
in 1991. He skipped the opportunity. Bill Clinton, with far less
reputation to lose, took the challenge. The recession overcame
Bushís victory in the Gulf War. Clinton won.
He will be
remembered in the textbooks only for the Lewisnky scandal, which
involved a cigar. He charmed his way out of it politically, but
he will never charm his way out of it historically. There will
be a textbook version for public schools and a Website version
for snickering adults, but it was still a failure that will mark
him as a loser.
Cuomo or Clinton? Cuomo. He will not be remembered.
true of Clinton will be doubly true of Bush II. He will go down
in the history guildís assessments Ė dominated by liberals Ė as
the worst President in American history, outflanking Harding and
Buchanan. (I do not rank him as the worst, or Harding or Buchanan
as the worst, who were pretty good, since they did nothing significant.
But if there were a Mount Rushmore for Presidential disasters,
his image would deserve to be up there.)
and Bush achieved something unique in American history. No two
men of rival political parties were ever elected in sequence to
two-term Presidencies. They were political winners on a unique
scale, and also legendary losers.
DROP-OUTS AND STAY-INS
recently read about Joe Green. Not Mean Joe Green, who was
a famous Pittsburgh Steelers defensive player who became even
more famous because of a Coca-Cola commercial. No, this Joe Green
was Mark Zuckerbergís roommate at Harvard. Zuckerberg asked him
to quit Harvard, move to California, and work on what became Facebook.
father, a professor, recommended against it. He uttered some variation
of that famous phrase, "Stay in school, boy." Mr. Green
stayed in school. It was the conventional thing to do. It was
the safe thing to do. It was the socially acceptable thing to
do at Harvard.
dropped out of Harvard. Michael Dell dropped out of the University
of Texas (Austin). Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College.
speaking, "Stay in school, boy" is good advice. Over
50% of those who enroll in college donít take it. They drop out.
After they do, they earn wages no higher than a high school graduate
who never went to college. The drop-outís family is then stuck
with canceled checks worth tens of thousands of dollars. What
are these checks worth? A lot of regret.
want this regret. They donít want those checks to cry out to them
for the next 30 years, So, they try to persuade their children
not to drop out.
In my first
semester at Pomona College, a high-prestige school in southern
California, I was not happy. I decided to transfer to the less
expensive but then unknown University of California, Riverside.
My parents were concerned, despite the fact that Pomona cost them
more. I had a California state scholarship that would not transfer.
But I wanted out, and I left. It was one of the best decisions
in my career. I finished my education elsewhere. I was not a drop-out.
I was a get-out.
semester, another Pomona student dropped out. She went to New
York City. She graduated from Barnard College. Her name was Twyla
Tharp. She became the most successful modern ballet choreographer
of my generation. She made the right decision to leave Pomona.
I doubt that
either of us left enough traces to be missed two months later,
nor did we look back nostalgically to wonder if we had done the
true of us was surely true of Ludwig von Mises. In the midst of
the Great Depression, he decided in 1934 to leave Vienna, where
he was the research director of the equivalent of the Austrian
Chamber of commerce. He had a safe job. He did not have a safe
He was convinced
that the influence of Germanyís Nazi Party would increase across
Europe. As a Jew, he would not be safe in Austria. He persuaded
several other Jewish economists to leave. In 1938, the Germans
marched into Austria. They eventually confiscated Misesí library.
After World War II, it wound up in the Soviet Union. After the
Soviet Union fell, it was discovered intact. Had he remained behind,
Mises would not have survived.
So, it works
both ways. Some people grab the unique opportunity. Some donít.
How do you
know when to grab and when to pass? There is no entrepreneurial
formula. If there were, our choices would be automatic. But there
is a pattern that can help us choose.
PRICE OF BEING WRONG
1934 moved to Switzerland to take a teaching position. It was
his first paid teaching position that he had been offered since
1906. That was seemingly late in his career. As it turned out,
it wasnít. He remained in the classroom until 1969: another 35
years. But he did not remain in Switzerland.
he and his wife made a run for it. They had to get to Portugal
in order to get to the United States. They had to go across France.
The Nazis were invading. There was not much time. They might be
caught. They barely made it, due to the creative driving of a
Why did he
risk it? Because he was not confident that the Swiss government
would let him remain in Switzerland. As it turned out, the government
would have. But Mises could not be sure. So, he got out while
the getting was good Ė just barely.
his thinking. To guess wrong on staying seemed riskierthan betting
wrong on leaving. But it was nip and tuck. He could have made
the wrong decision. But he was focused. This decision was life-changing,
but he could not have known this at the time. He saw it as life-preserving.
In the United
States, he never had a paid position again. Donors paid his salary
at New York University from 1945 to 1969. The university limited
its largess to offering him a title, "visiting professor,"
and the right to teach graduate students in a weekly seminar.
Among the auditors was Murray Rothbard, who became a major intellectual
figure, though not in academia. Ron Paul would not be running
for President if it were not for Rothbard and Mises. I would not
be writing this report.
quit Harvard, he had a vision of what he could accomplish if he
left. He compared it with what he could accomplish if he stayed.
He saw Facebook as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which it
was. If he missed it, nothing else comparable would come by.
did not see it. He listened to his father, who gave conventional
advice Ė advice that may have been based in part on the fear of
a pile of canceled checks stamped "Harvard University."
at the end of his sophomore year in 1974 without a comparable
vision of an opportunity not to be missed. There were no microcomputers.
IBMís Boca Raton PC operation came six years later. Gates had
not gotten the call from Boca Raton to see if he had an operating
system to sell, which he didnít. (He went out and bought it: Q-DOS.)
He just wanted to pursue computers. He could have waited two more
years to finish, but he was impatient. He preferred to do something
outside of academia, which could help him in his calling, rather
than take notes, take tests, write term papers, and get his degree
and a job. He got a good job anyway at Honeywell.
made the same decision to leave the London School of Economics
in his freshman year. He might have made a very good bond salesman.
Some of us think he should have. But he didnít, and he still doesnít
think he should have. He might have gotten even less satisfaction.
This is the
issue of fire in the belly. A handful of people have fire in the
belly. They can put it out only by breaking ranks, breaking free,
and devoting their time maniacally to some unique cause that no
one else sees with equal clarity. These people change the world.
But there are more who follow this path and fail than succeed.
It is that
willingness to fail that marks these pioneers. We remember the
pioneers. We never hear of the failures.
dirt trail from Independence, Missouri to Oregon, there are graves.
Each successive wagon train of entrepreneurs heading west saw
those graves. They did not turn back. A few should have. But the
price of settling the West was that trail of graves.
worked with radium too long. It killed her, but not before she
changed the world.
was Col. Custer. The bravado that made him a general in the Civil
War caught up with him and his men in 1876. But he is remembered
in history as few colonels ever are. (That did not do any good
for his troops.) His lack of good judgment marked the high point
of the plains Indians. There were people who, as children, read
of Custerís defeat, who lived to see television images of men
walking on the moon. Custerís Last Stand (capitalized) was more
than a grave marker. It was a civilization marker. He got more
than 15 minutes of fame.
JOBS VS. DEAD-END CAREERS
dead-end jobs in life. But most of them can become stepping stones.
years, I spoke for 90 minutes several times a year to unemployed
men and women who lived in the toughest part of Memphis. If you
have seen "The Blind Side," you know about this part
of Memphis. Itís where the chief character of the movie, Michael
Oher, grew up. He made his way out by way of football. Most residents
donít, unless they move into other blighted parts of the city.
(Note: there are some nice middle-class sections of the city where
blacks live. Even the ghetto area is better cared for than socially
comparable parts of other cities I have seen.)
My job was
to persuade 15 to 20 adult students that they should stick with
the jobs which the Jobs for Life program would get them. The programís
placement rate was close to 100%. But the drop-out rate was high.
They gave up easily. That was their weakness. They had the brains
to get and keep entry-level jobs. They lacked long-run future
orientation. As Mises called it, they were high time-preference
people. As Edward Banfield called it, they were lower class.
of decision would come when boredom on the job challenged the
"action" or irresponsibility. It was my job to persuade
them to stick with the program. I pulled no punches. I told them
what they knew. The jobs they could get would be dead-end jobs.
I did my best to persuade them to look at those jobs as stepping
stones, not dead ends. The jobs were dead ends. Their careers
were not Ė unless they quit.
them about the difference between calling and job. Their job would
put food on the table. Their calling was the most important thing
they could do in which they would be most difficult to replace.
For the women, it was their role as mothers. They saw that. No
problem. For the men, it should have been their role as fathers.
I gathered that few of them saw this.
a hard sell. The programís drop-out rate for men was higher than
for women even before the initial program was over. These men
did not have a calling. So, their failure rate was high.
job was a dead-end activity. I told them this. It was a training
opportunity. The calling was long term. That was what would guide
their progression of success. Their calling would convert dead-end
jobs into stepping stones.
I would like
to think that my presentations made a difference, but I donít
know. The program did not collect statistics on how many quit
their jobs before and after I was brought in.
I focused on to make my presentation has proven useful in my writing
and lecturing. I made a similar presentation to Ph.D.-level
scholars. A few said it helped them to focus.
Vienna had a dead-end job: literally. He got out while he still
could. The job in Switzerland probably was not a dead-end job.
He taught graduate students. But, as it turned out, it would have
been a dead-end career position. Europe did not want him after
the War. The man who had gotten him the job, his disciple Wilhelm
Röpke, retained influence by means of his disciple, Ludwig
Erhard, who became finance minister and later Chancellor of Germany.
needed in the United States, but he could not have known this
when he fled Switzerland. He arrived in 1940. There would not
be even the tentative beginning of an Austrian School revival
until a year after his death in 1973. He saw a few disciples extend
parts of his legacy. The Foundation for Economic Education, up
the Hudson 25 miles from New York City, was Misesian. It had marginal
influence, and none academically. It would not have been clear
to Mises that the dead-end job at New York University was a stepping
stone for people who read his books from 1945 until his death
in 1973. His position gave him a very tiny bully pulpit. But a
small one in the United States was far greater in its impact than
a graduate school in Geneva.
money newsletter phenomenon began in the mid-1960s with Harry
Schultz. There had been other pro-gold letters, but Schultz helped
make it a phenomenon. If there was a patron saint of that movement,
it was Mises. He began to get a hearing by way of writers who
were outside of academia. There is no way that Mises could have
seen this in 1940. The technology existed, for there was Kiplingerís
letter. But there was no indication that the newsletter would
become a recruiting tool for Misesí ideas.
a real dead-end situation in 1940. He got on a bus and headed
across France for the border with Spain. He made his way to New
York City, not knowing what he would face. He won the cigar.
were a way to put food on the table. They let him write his books
and articles. He never made enough money from his writing to support
him. That was not the purpose of his books. His position at NYU
helped to get his books published by Yale University Press, where
the senior editor liked what he had to say. Mises did have an
academic position. The editors at Yale probably did not know that
it was an unpaid position. The title sounded good. That was what
it took for the editor to get Misesí books into print: Human
of Money and Credit, Socialism,
and History. All of them are available for free downloading
in the Literature section on Mises.org.
a scholar believed that a scholarís influence is best assessed
by how many times other scholars cited his books. He was wrong.
His growing reputation has come through other means than footnotes
in academic treatises. It has come, above all, through a maverick
Congressmanís constant barrage of criticism of the Federal Reserve
System. How could Mises have foreseen this in 1940, 1960, or 1970?
This is a
reminder for all of us. We do not always live long enough to see
the results of our efforts. But we should be able to see what
our callings are. Mises understood his calling: writing his books,
not teaching the people who were enrolled for credit in his seminars
at NYU. A few of the auditors were the key to his future impact,
not the enrolled students. He may have seen this in 1969, the
year he retired. He could not have seen it in 1950. In 1968, he
was the oldest full-time professor in the United States. He held
on as long as he could.
As a brief
overview of your calling, consider these factors:
do you have a clear-cut advantage over your competitors?
- Is this
advantage visible to others?
- Can you
leverage this outside your present job?
- Can this
leverage extend beyond your retirement?
- Can this
leverage extend beyond your death?
- What are
the technical tools of your leverage?
- Are you
skilled in the use of these tools?
- Are your
competitors equally skilled?
give careful consideration to these issues. Your calling may not
depend on correct answers, followed by consistent implementation,
but asking these questions will help you begin to extend your