In the sound-bite, social-media-frenzied culture we live in, Memorial Day provides a reminder of how important it is to take a moment to reflect. Along these lines, Memorial Day makes me contemplate what I would like engraved on my tombstone. Something like this – He died trying to get better. To me, the essence of life is continuous self-improvement. That’s why I like to read books that challenge my current viewpoints, why I enjoy conversations with people with opposing opinions, and why I learned to pole vault at the age of 53.
Memorial Day may be the most important day in our country, even more so than the 4th of July, for Memorial Day is a day to honor and a day to be thankful. It is a day to remember the ultimate sacrifice of so many others, throughout history, on our behalf. It is a day to be thankful for all we have, not that we are perfect, but that we can strive to be perfect. True character is forged when we strive to be better than we currently are.
In his best-selling book, “The Road to Character,” David Brooks states – “People with character may be loud or quiet, but they do tend to have a certain level of self-respect. Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you into a competitive college. It is not comparative. It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones. It can only be earned by a person who has endured some internal temptation, who has confronted their own weaknesses and who knows, “Well if worse comes to worst, I can endure that. I can overcome that.”
Read that paragraph again. Does it make you think of any particular person? A few people come to mind and I have been blessed to know each one. Our country needs people with character to step up and lead by demonstrating a commitment to continuous self-improvement. In the meantime, here are three recommendations to help our country rekindle this strive to be perfect mentality.
First, let’s stop giving out participation trophies to our children. Don’t give them rewards they haven’t earned and encourage them work hard in all areas of their life. Don’t rescue them prematurely when they struggle. As our national debt grows unabated, and while fertility rates continue to fall, the industriousness of the next generation is likely to play a pivotal role in our future. Moreover, it may determine their own standard of living.
Second, demand that our elected officials are honest, despite the media’s spin, rationalization, and outright abandonment of any concept of what integrity means and why it should be the cornerstone of every leader in the public or private sector.
Third, be an encourager. If we are going to be defined as a nation that strives to be perfect, then we are going to have to encourage each other. We are going to have to show humility, compassion and grace.
Remember the scene at the end of the movie “Saving Private Ryan?” The hardened WWII vet turns to his family and says, “Tell me I’m a good man.” Essentially, he wanted to know if he had lived a life that honored those who gave their life for him. Memorial Day is our opportunity to ask ourselves that very question. To me, if we aren’t striving to get better, individually and collectively, then we aren’t honoring all the people who have helped us along our journey.
At our firm, continuous self-improvement is an important part of our corporate culture. Currently, two of our investment professionals are studying for the CFA exam, while several others are working towards their CFP designation. Earning these professional designations will make our team better and enable us to provide a higher quality of service to our clients.
From an investment perspective, when we evaluate corporate management, one of the key attributes we look for is this same continuous self-improvement culture. Quite famously, Jack Welch drove this type of culture during his successful tenure leading GE. In a nutshell, Welch’s philosophy revolved around promoting the top 10% and firing the bottom 10%, virtually every year. I don’t agree totally with this cold-hearted approach, but it sure kept people on their toes, which isn’t all bad. It may not be commonplace for major corporations to embrace continuous improvement, but it isn’t rare either. The private sector tends to attract highly motivated individuals. Likewise, in the world of sports. Over the course of his illustrious career, Larry Bird was the first person in the gym and the last to leave. Ben Hogan, perhaps the greatest ball-striker ever, practiced more than anyone else in his day. Ditto for just about every other hall of famer, in just about every sport.
The challenge for many of these corporate leaders and successful athletes is to remain just as motivated after achieving success or attaining a certain level of wealth and fame. In reality, success often breeds complacency, and that, in a globally-competitive economy, is a surefire path to mediocrity and eventual failure. The telltale signs of complacency within corporations include: profligate spending, undisciplined acquisition activities, a lack of innovation, and unproductive research & development.
My biggest fear on this Memorial Day is not our economy or markets, nor even political dysfunction in Washington, it is that we have become too complacent allowing the rest of the world to outwork us.
Michael Kayes, CFA