Just outside of Amarillo, Texas, overlooking the Panhandle plains, stands a pair of trunkless legs, usually covered with graffiti, or with socks spray-painted on them. They aren’t the remains of a school mascot that was vandalized. The legs were built there by a quirky Amarillo businessman, inspired by the 19th-century poem “Ozymandias.” The poem is about a statue standing in the middle of the Egyptian desert, erected by a grand monarch thousands of years ago, which instructs travelers, ironically, to “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
The irony is clear: there are no mighty works to be seen, only a colossal wreck and “lone and level sands stretching far away.” The poet, Percy Shelly, was commenting on the foolish arrogance that inspires leaders to boast of their accomplishments, works that for all their grandeur at the time are destined for decay and dust. Shelly was perhaps inspired by a giant statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II which had recently been acquired and displayed by the British Museum. Ramses was fond of building monuments to himself, and the title “Ozymandias” is a Greek version of one of his titles.
Woodcut of Ramses II statue. Artist: John Thompson. Source: British Museum.
The poem is about hubris, our tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Shelly was writing after Napoleon’s defeat and during the rise of the British Empire. His commentary is clear: there are no permanent works, only our colossal self-regard.
When we invest, we need to keep this in mind. Companies rise and fall, great leadership can create massively profitable enterprises that employ hundreds of thousands and transform the way we live. But all glory is fleeting. Success inspires and invites imitation, other enterprises which do business a different way or with different inputs or with a different cost structure. Competition brings down prices and margins, and CEOs who were recently on the cover of Businessweek later find themselves featured in the gossip columns.
Ruins of Persepolis, once a leading city in Persia. Photo: Diego Delso. Source: Wikimedia
There are no permanent success stories only a permanent striving. “Sic transit gloria mundi.”
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”