Jack Of All Trades, Master Of None – Avoiding Hubris

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Several Ruminations blog posts over the years have posited that many of us, this writer included, don’t listen very well to what the person on the other end of the deal is actually saying. We already know what we think we ought to know and, certainly, that person, a/k/a “our adversary,” is only seeking an advantage over us. We don’t even play a purely intellectual game by taking the other side’s “position” in our head and rolling it over (and over). We’ve even seen this, more than a handful of times, when that other person is really trying to help us avoid a mistake. An appropriate word for this might be “hubris.” That means excessive pride or excessive self-confidence. According to one source, in Greek tragedy it means “excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis.” That same source lists these synonyms: “arrogance, conceit, conceitedness, haughtiness, pride, vanity, self-importance, self-conceit, pomposity, superciliousness, feeling of superiority.” While we are at it, that still same source defines “nemesis” as: “the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall.”

We’ve wondered how some pretty ordinary people, intellectually speaking, have achieved financial and other success. Certainly, there are many factors, but one that keeps coming up is their curiosity and willingness to ask questions and then actually listen to the answers. They pick minds. They absorb lots of different points of view. They know when to call.

Too many of us don’t do any of those things. We suffer from hubris. Oh, yes: “not me.”

When we write about insurance issues, we usually end with a strong suggestion that readers find one or more insurance experts and rely upon and learn from those experts. Ruminations has no recollection of giving such advice (admonition) about other experts. Today, we aim to rectify that.

Over the years, we’ve tried to explain some principles and give some definitions for items dealing with engineering and construction. You can search for our postings about HVAC or utility metering or electrical capacities. But, you can’t rely on them beyond learning that common sense about those things doesn’t work. Just as people need to find competent practitioners to prepare leases and other agreements, we need to find people to guide us when it comes to areas out of our scope of expertise. And, as we suggested in the very first paragraph, hubris is not a substitute for expertise. Neither is “common sense.” The late Isaac Asimov, in I, Robot, wrote: “It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?”

How much do you really know about “zoning,” an inherently local issue (legally, procedurally, and as a practical matter)? Have you ever completed a lease for a tenancy that never started because use approvals could not be obtained? Have you ever encountered a situation where the actual construction costs far, far exceeded what was expected and far, far exceeded what would make financial sense? Did a lease’s signage provision permit a lot more signage than the government would allow and did that lease’s text unreasonably raise the tenant’s expectations? We hope not, but are sure we’ve just hit some nerves.

Do you really understand taxation? For example, what are the tax consequences associated with a tenant allowance? What constitutes UBTI? Oh, what is that? It’s Unrelated Business Taxable Income. What is that? Take out your list of experts and call one.

One expert you might want to consult is yourself. You can visit the project to understand “how it works.” Look at the lighting, entrances, and occupants. Are there a lot of vacancies? That could help when asserting bargaining strength. Will your “tenant” add to the foot traffic at the property? Look at the elevations and the signage. What do the delivery paths look like? How is the parking arranged? If you can’t do that in person, find someone who has. That could be the tenant’s representative or (especially) the broker. You can ask the surveyor, if there is one. You can supplement that with web searches.

Then, how can you know if the HVAC being offered is adequate? Link up with people who know. As a practical matter, will union labor be required? Link up with a local contractor. How big can the signage be? Link up with a sign vendor. Can’t reach agreement on eminent domain? Link up with someone who really, really understands how that works. If you’ve looked at a title report for the property, and you really, really always should do so, make sure you truly understand things like easements. If you aren’t rock solid on that or on anything else, don’t wing it. Have a phone number at your fingertips.

What is LIBOR? There are people who really understand that (and where it is headed). If you don’t really understand how a yield maintenance formula works, ask someone who does.

One last tool we can all put in our toolboxes: continuing education. Read, read, read. Attend seminars, in-person or online. Join professional organizations. (That’s a good way to find friendly experts.)

Don’t let the fear of embarrassment keep you from doing the very best you can. Hubris – don’t have it.



  1. Knowledge IS power!

    Knowledge of those with knowledge is SUPER power!


    I would add four words to your very good suggestions: the first two are “Go look.” Lease, purchase and sale, loan agreement, “go look.” I have been very fortunate to be married to a woman who, among many other good things, thought it was great fun to put the kids in the car on Sunday and drive around to look at “daddy’s buildings.”

    If locus is too far away to go look (and even if t’s not), the other two words are “Google Earth.”

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