Vicious Traps

There are times in nature when two plus two equals ten – when two little things combine to form one huge thing.

A little cool air from the north is no big deal. A little warm breeze from the south is pleasant. But when they mix together over Missouri you get a tornado.

Two calm water currents are not a problem. But if opposing currents meet, you get a deadly whirlpool.

Bleach and ammonia are common household products. Mix them together and you get lethal chloramine gas.

In each case it’s easy to underestimate risk – or at least be surprised at what happens – because the initial ingredients seem harmless. The idea that two innocent small things can combine to form one big dangerous thing isn’t intuitive.

This same thing happens with personality traits.

Years ago someone told me that bubbles happen when confidence (a good trait), optimism (a good trait), trust (generally good) mix to form greed and delusion. The reason bubbles are so common is that the inputs are mostly innocent, even if the output is lunacy and destruction.

So many things are like that. Some of the most vicious traps occur when two admirable traits mix in the wrong way and create something dangerous. They’re the hardest flaws to identify and fix.

Take patience and confidence. They both sound great. But mixed together they often form stubbornness, which is a disaster. Confidence that you’re right gives you permission to ignore signs that you’re wrong, and patience gives you permission to extend that denial indefinitely.

Charlie Munger once said:

Failure to handle psychological denial is a common way for people to go broke. You’ve made an enormous commitment to something. You’ve poured effort and money in. And the more you put in, the more that the whole consistency principle makes you think, “Now it has to work. If I put in just a little more, then it’ll all work.” People go broke that way, because they can’t stop, rethink, and say, “I can afford to write this one off and live to fight again. I don’t have to pursue this thing as an obsession in a way that will break me.”

In general: People who are panicking know they’re panicking. People who are being dishonest know they’re being dishonest. But those in a patience-confidence trap have no idea, because both traits on their own seem so positive.

Or curiosity and boldness. They are wonderful on their own, but combined can easily create impulsiveness.

It’s almost impossible to be successful in business without being both curious and bold – new ideas plus the ability to act on them. Think of what happens when you’re not curious and bold: Either dull and bold – I don’t even know what that looks like – or curious and timid, which is … an academic maybe?

But without some sort of brake, curiosity and boldness are so easy to spin into impulsiveness.

Part of this is realizing the first rule of very successful people: Those who think in unique ways you admire are likely to also think in unique ways you don’t admire. A lot of people who are admired for thinking, “I wonder what would happen if we tried something different” are the same people who become despised for doing something different that doesn’t work, or loses money, or hurts other people.

Elon Musk with Twitter is an example (so far).

Huge and successful companies expanding into fields they have no experience in is another (AIG, General Electric).

Dig into any successful business and you’ll likely find two people: One who comes up with crazy ideas, and another who kills most of those ideas while giving the sensible ones a shot.

You would never have heard the name Walt Disney if it weren’t for his brother Roy’s ability to tame wild ambition into viable business ventures. Walt had such a singular focus on creating good animation that, if left to his own devices, he’d push every project past its breaking point. His early ventures went bankrupt before Roy joined and hit the brakes.

Walt, as you might imagine, often viewed Roy’s balance as anchoring his ambition. That’s why curiosity and boldness are so dangerous – they feel like the right traits, even when they’re the biggest risk to your success.

How about humility and ambition? Excellent traits, but together they can create successfully disguised arrogance.

When you’re humble (“I am fortunate, and could not have achieved this without other peoples’ help”) but ambitious (“I am talented, and can achieve more than I already have”), the mental conflict often settles with hidden arrogance (“I am special, but I can’t say that out loud).

False modesty might be more dangerous than explicit ego because it hides – even inside your own head – your intentions and motivations.

The right balance is knowing what you’re good at and not being afraid to say it while being just as eager to share what you’re not great at.

But that’s rare – especially in the social media age – where performative humility is everywhere, often the consequence of two innocent traits coming together, which makes it so hard to acknowledge. It’s a vicious trap.