Understanding yourself as a human is at the root of self-knowledge. All kinds of success -- not just financial -- derive from it. Perhaps the greatest and most distinctive trait of being human is the capacity to reason, to be rational. Or could it be that what makes us unique in the animal kingdom is the capacity to stretch beyond reason -- to knowingly and purposely act irrationally.
My favorite investing and economy blog, The Big Picture, recently shared a wonderful speech, The Uniqueness of Humans, where Stanford primatologist and anthropologist, Robert Sapolsky, shares his observations of (and insights gathered from) his study of baboons. [I'll provide another direct link to the video of this entertaining and educational speech at the end of this post.]
Essentially, Sapolsky shares that humans have the same fundamental genetic makeup of all animal species. Animals, especially baboons and chimpanzees, exhibit many of the same behaviors, such as aggression, theory of mind, empathy and cultural transmission, as human's do. Humans, however, present these behaviors in unprecedented ways, such as passive-aggression and non-reproductive sexual behavior.
What struck me the most about the speech is how Sapolsky ended it, which was framed by this abstract phrase:
The less it is possible that something can be, the more it must be.
In other words, humans are not only capable of holding contradictory notions in their head, but even more striking, the fact that something is contradictory or seemingly impossible is the very reason it becomes a moral imperative to act on it.
Sapolsky used an explicit example of this behavior that is unique to humans by describing a Nun who ministers to prisoners on death row -- some of the most frightening, deplorable human beings on the planet. When asked why she ministers to these men, she simply replies, "the less forgivable the act, the more it must be forgiven. The less lovable a person is, the more you must find the means to love them." The Nun's behavior is irrational but as Sapolsky worded it, "magnificent," and the basis for a "moral imperative" to act.
...humans have the capacity to simultaneously believe in two contradictory things." ~ Soren Kierkegaard
On a side note, I thought it interesting that Sapolsky humbly admitted that his own brilliant mind could not rationalize the Nun's behavior, especially because, in his own words, he is a "strident atheist." I found this to be a contradiction of contradictions: This "magnificent" irrationality, which is a defining human ability -- the capacity to leap beyond the finite bounds of rational thought -- is absent in his own life.
Furthermore, in his speech, Sapolsky used a quote from Soren Kierkegaard, who is famous for his "leap of faith" idea, which essentially says that the rational mind cannot believe in God; therefore, one must go beyond rationality to believe -- to have faith. It is futile, therefore, to try and think of something that thought can not think. One must simply have faith. Kierkegaard, by the way, believed in God and was a Christian (although not in the conventional sense at the time)... He also believed that one individual's life can impact the entire world -- another concept that Sapolsky seemed to admire but is not quite able to believe.
If not for this magnificently irrational capacity, however, Kierkegaard, and many other important figures, may not have ever succeeded (or may not have even tried) in their most important contributions to mankind. Some of these remarkable individuals that instantly come to my mind include Rene Descartes, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ, Harriet Tubman, Viktor Frankl, Gandhi and the list goes on...
Regardless of one's religious faith, or more specifically, regardless of the level of one's intellectual brilliance, we all limit our potential as individuals if we stop at the bounds of our own rationality. Certainly there are implications and applications of this in the financial world, specifically with investing! For more reading on subjects similar to this one, follow the links to my "related" posts below the video link...
Check out the video, if you have 30 minutes, and let me know what you think!