The Anything Goes Era

One fatal mistake after 100 brilliant decisions still amounts to zero.

Cole Porter Photograph by Horst P. Horst

“Times have changed. In olden days, a glimpse of stocking Was looked on as something shocking, But now, God knows, Anything goes. If driving fast cars you like, If bare limbs you like, If Mae West you like, Or me undressed you like, Why, nobody will oppose. Anything goes.”

— Cole Porter, 1934 musical

It is based on nothing more reliable than intuition which can also be ego, “I take risks. Therefore I am.” The problem occurs in high achievers towards the climax of their careers and the wannabes in the early stages. One looks to make a killing, the other to make a name. Then, like a bolt from the heavens, the law of averages catches up.

The risk of flying too close to the sun was recognized as long as 2,000 years ago by the Greek historian Diodorus who wrote the story of Icarus in 30 B.C.E. As everyone remembers, it is the story of an over ambitious boy who crashes and dies after the wax on his wings melts from the sun’s heat.

Failure is remembered for sensational outcomes not psychological causes. Dennis Kozlowski’s two-million-dollar party in Sardinia, General Petraeus’s revealing classified documents to his mistress, Michael Milken playing fast with financial regulations, Dick Fuld and Jimmy Cayne betting on never-ending growth in mortgages. Although there is much more here than the symptom, the media focuses on shock value and ignores the substance. Journalists are not mind-readers. Those mistakes are not penalty-free either, like in Monopoly. They can be pitiful in the extreme. Michael Milken was sentenced to ten years, General Petraeus was fired as CIA director, Kozlowski spent 8 years in prison, and these do not include the vanished careers and broken families. Then former masters of the universe had to claw their way back as misdeeds become enshrined in a Google search. In some cases, they transform their lives, but the scars remain, the glory days gone forever.

You wanted immortality buddy? You got it.

It is remarkable how quickly ‘anything goes’ turns into everything sucks. Freedom depends on self-imposed limits. Warren Buffett hedges against the downside like a Las Vegas bookie by exercising moderation (except when it comes to Cherry Coke). Buffett builds a fortress of solid people around him who act like moral bell ringers when it involves ethics. He relies on a brilliant team of portfolio wonks and his own genius to gauge probabilities on the financial front. I recall he told a friend once not to invest all his money in Berkshire, “Don’t do anything crazy.” Buffett would say there is never a case for betting it all once, not even on himself. That’s why you never hear Buffett’s name mentioned in the same sentence as black swans. He never met one.

Buffett’s approach is based on a simple factor called the zero multiplier effect or ZME. You may remember this from fifth grade when a teacher wrote a long string of numbers on the blackboard (whiteboard to the younger generation) and multiplied them by zero. The answer came to zero. Children looked on in disbelief and said, “Can’t be true.” When people make a fatal decision, no matter how successful their lives have been, they can’t believe they just multiplied by zero.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award; ex-publisher Forbes