The Tumbler Theory

In the faded mist of everybody’s adolescent memories exist mythical characters whose deeds and personas only enlarge with the passage of time.  Tom Damski is one of those people for me.

Tom was an enigma.  In the summer of 1982, in the middle of punk rock city California, he was firmly tethered to everything that embodied the 70’s.  Terry cloth shirt, puka shell necklace, and long hair that flipped up at the neckline was his signature look.

The rumor was that he had gone up to the Starwood in LA, stood in the middle of a slam pit, and beat the shit out of any punk rocker who dared to knock into him.  And I fully believed it.  Yet for all his 6’3″ 250lbs of football playing toughness, he actually seemed like a pretty cool guy.  He could have dispatched yours truly with the flick of his wrist, but for some reason he was always very cool to me.

The lasting vision I have of Tom is from a Frosh-Soph football game against our cross town rivals.  He was a full-back, and I remember watching him (from the bench of course), literally exploding through the line of scrimage, defensive players hurling themselves at him and clinging on for dear life as he carried them down the field on his back.

Later that same year I heard that Tom stepped off the curb to cross the street and was hit by a car.  He died on the spot.  It was so random.  But that is how life is…..random.


Life for the most part is not random.  In the vast majority of cases it serves you up with the consequence that you deserve based upon your previous actions.  For lack of a better term, I call this “The Tumbler Theory.”

What is a tumbler?  Besides being a delivery vessel for fine and delicious booze, it is defined by a random online dictionary as;

“The part of a lock that retains or releases the bolt and is moved by the action of a key..”

In reality, for a lock to open, a number of tumblers have to be put in place. Sometimes it only takes three tumblers to do the trick, but in more complex locks it can be five or more tumblers that need to be perfectly aligned in order to release the mechanism.

The tumbler theory exists in life as well as in the markets, and you will save yourself a lot of grief if you understand how it works.  Let me illustrate.

“Dude, my wife left me.  I don’t even see my kids anymore.  I can’t concentrate on my work and it is beginning to show.  I think I am going to lose it all.”

…or so went the kvetching from my one time best high school drinking friend.  I had known him for almost twenty years and as we threw them back at our class reunion and pseudo-rebonded, he continued….

“…it just sucks man,  I mean I don’t deserve this.  A guy should not be penalized for one mistake.”

His mistake was banging his ex-girlfriend while his wife and two young kids were away visiting his mother-in-law.  Misplaced memories of loyalty initially made me sympathize with him, but as he continued with the story, any empathy I had soon went out the door.

This was not a random event; no outlier incident that cost him everything he valued in life.  He had numerous opportunities to avoid having the tumblers line up for what ultimately resulted in his wife and children catching him in a post in flagrante delicto keepsake moment.

It started with a phone call from his buddy on the fifth night that his family was out-of-town.

“Hey man, we are going out to have a little fun, why don’t you come out and join us,” went the story line from his serpent-like friend.

“What the fuck,” he thought.  “Sure, I’m married with kids, and have long left that single bar life behind, but I’ve been working hard, and I don’t just want to sit at home tonight by myself.  What is the harm in going out and hanging with my old crew?”

Tumbler one in place, check!

“Oh yeah,” his friend continued, “your ex-girlfriend Barbara is going to be there.  I guess she just broke up with her boyfriend.  Guy was a total dick to her and she is ready to cut loose.”

Click!  Tumbler number two.

When my friend got to the bar, all his still single power drinking buddies were there. Old habits die-hard, and he felt that he “just had to match them” pitcher for pitcher.

“Paging tumbler number three, tumbler number three, you have a call.”

He described to me how Barbara looked good that night.  Real good.  He loved the way she looked at him.  The sexy pout and coy glance over the shoulder as she moved to the rhythm of the music on the dance floor.

He knew he should not have fed into her game, but his ego was not interested in listening as it was empowered by a steady stream of moderately priced booze.  And most of all, the thing she had going for her that night was that she wasn’t his wife.

Hmmmm…..let’s call those tumblers number four, five, and six.

The final tumbler fell into place when, as the bar was announcing last call, he told Barbara “yes” when she asked him if she could “crash” at his place, since her roommate had left with some guy and would be up all night at their studio apartment.

See, having your recently single ex-girlfriend in your house, at two-thirty in the morning, shitty drunk, with your family out of town….well, you’re not really in a position of power at that point to say “No,” when she asks if she can sleep in your bed with you.

At that point you’ve missed the opportunity to avoid the tumblers you can’t control and change the ones you can.

The wackiness that ensued can only be imagined when his wife and kids, hoping to surprise him from an unexpectedly truncated trip, walked into the bedroom the next morning and found him with Barbara.

It was hard to have sympathy for him.  Perhaps that is harsh, but this is a guy who spent his life allowing the tumblers to line up.  It was easier that way because it freed him from any responsibility for what happened to him in his life.  Then the bad events that befell him were just random.  Or bad luck.  Or fate.  Or feng shui.  Or whatever.

I on the other hand had spent my whole life doing the opposite, working hard to make sure the tumblers didn’t line up, which largely spared me from most major self-imposed tragedies.

The same tumbler theory applies to trading.  There are an almost infinite number of tumblers that can line up and cause you to blow up on your trades.

Not enough sleep the night before.  Failing to review your charts.  Chasing a breakout.  Taking an out-sized risk position.  Pulling a stop.  Averaging down. And so on.

Usually no single tumbler in and of itself is enough to cause too much damage, but have enough of them line up, and it can crush you.

That’s the way the tumbler theory works.  You will never know how many are needed to be in place to cause you the most damage.  Sometime it’s just a couple.  And sometimes it is so many, over such a long time frame, that you can’t recognize the series of events that you ultimately allowed to happen, and which led you to your demise.

Put in place some of the “good” tumblers by subscribing for free to Via E-mail or Via RSS and by following me on StockTwits and Twitter.

What bclund is, is the intersection of markets, trading, and life (with some punk rock, pop culture, and off-beat humor mixed in).

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  • Adam Kaplan


    • Brian Lund

      Who, me….??? Seriously though, thanks.

  • Normand

    Superb post.

    Thanks for sharing. I will make sure to spread the good word “tumbler”.


    • Brian Lund

      Cool buddy, much thanks.

  • Nils

    I would say getting married was the first tumbler, but that’s just me 😉

    Anyways, it’s interesting to see how people have a tendency to explain negative events that happened to them as random chance (oh, did she fall on your Penis?) while they overestimate their contribution to positive things that happen. This breeds false confidence.