Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chasing the rabbit: Enough

John C. Bogel, the founder of Vanguard Funds is one of the giants of American investing. At age 79, he provides tremendous insight about the economy and society. His new book, Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life is packed with insights about the country's current economic state. But it also has many application to the college athletic environment.

I heartily endorse the book for anyone who is interested in understanding the current economic environment, learning about how to be a better investor, or is interested in timeless ideas about character and virtue. Many of his observations are universal and my focus in this post are the core values of character and virtue. Many of the quotes have relevance to college athletics, an entity that many are fond of referring to as a "business." A select few are excerpted below.

Page 1 - At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, "Yes, but I have something he will never have...enough."

Bogel goes on to set his thesis, (page 2): "Not knowing what enough is subverts our professional values. It makes salespersons of those who should be fiduciaries of the investments entrusted to them. It turns a system that should be built on trust into one with counting as its foundation. We chase false rabbits of success; we too often bow down at the altar of the transitory and finally meaningless and fail to cherish what is beyond calculation, indeed eternal."

Page 23 - We have more than enough of the fool's gold of marketing and salesmanship and not enough of the real gold of trusteeship and stewardship.

Page 33 - No matter what career you choose, do your best to hold high its traditional values, now swiftly eroding, in which serving the client is always the highest priority.

Page 98 - Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

Page 99 - Numbers are not reality. At best, they are a pale reflection of reality. At worst, they're a gross distortion of the truths we seek to measure.

Page 117 (An excerpt from David Boyle's "The sum of our discontent") - We are...living at an age when life is completely overwhelmed by numbers and calculation and we are all increasingly controlled by "targets"...The frightening thing is that just because computers can count and measure nearly everything, then we do. There was a time when we could trust our own judgement, common sense, and intuition to know if we were ill or not. Now we're in danger of being unable to do anything without it being measured first.

Page 139 - It wasn't so many decades ago that the standards in the conduct of business were close to absolute: "There are some things that one simply doesn't do." But today we place our reliance on relative standards: "Everyone else is doing it, so I can do it, too."

Pages 194-95 - We have moved away from truth - however one might define it - to (with due respect to television commentator Stephen Colbert) truthiness, the presentation of ideas and numbers that convey neither more nor less than what we wish to believe in our own self-interest, and persuade others to believe, too.

Pages 211-12 - (quoting the Reverend Fred Craddock's story about a conversation with an old greyhound)

Reverend to the dog, "Are you still racing?" "No", he replied.

Rev: "Well what was the matter? Did you get too old to race?" "No, I still had some race in me."

Rev: "Well, what then, did you not win?" "I won over a million dollars for my owner."

Rev: "Well, what was it? Bad treatment?" "Oh no," the dog said. "They treated us royally when we were racing."

Rev: "Did you get crippled?" "No."

Rev: "Then why?" I pressed. "Why?" The dog answered: "I quit."...

Rev: "Why did you quit?"

Dog: "I just quit because after all that running and running and running, I found out that the rabbit I was chasing wasn't even real."

While there is no denying that there are business aspects to college athletics, trying budgetary times are going to test the values of college athletics in many ways. Profitability (measured in dollars) has been demonstrated to be an unachievable goal for the vast majority of college athletics programs. The values and rationale for athletics needs to be about more than finances. Education, character and values are much harder (maybe even impossible) to measure, but embracing them is more important than ever. Here's hoping that the rabbit each of us is chasing is real. Enough.

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