Be who you are....
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As a reader of this blog, you may have already gathered that I enjoy finding timeless observations of human behavior, especially by historical figures (some well-known, some not), that strike me as profoundly evident today.
The following passage, written more than 150 years ago, from Thoreau's Walden, struck me as a wonderful piece of inspiration and a potential aid in remaining conscious of one's personal information consumption and external influences, which tend to combine as a powerful source of distraction (and subtraction) from one's self-acquaintance:
We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.
The Thoreau passage points to evidence of an inverse relationship between social media interaction and self-acquaintance:
What's really "new" about the news? Try watching a newscast (especially local news) and try to find something different from the night before or even a decade prior. Since "good news" does not sell, the news is filled with tragedy, crime, despair and petty political arguments -- all of which have occurred, in some shape or form, thousands of times over the course of thousands of years. All that changes from day to day, month to month and year to year is the names and locations.
Does one really need to see and read of the same happenings occurring again and again and again?
To be fair, all news sources are not totally sensational and useless; however, the effort and time required to find something factual, unbiased and useful is generally too great and too much of a distraction and a drain on mental health to be worthwhile.
As with anything and everything, there is a balance to be found for optimal exposure to information -- the law of diminishing returns applies: At a certain point -- the point of a healthy balance -- each increment of increased exposure decreases the given item's utility. This balance differs for each person and self-knowledge is the means of discovering this balance.
The greatest source of "news you can use" is you. Have you heard from yourself lately?
Related Post: What Would Thoreau Think of Twitter?
Thoreau Image by Shannon
"In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? .... Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all the modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired wisdom in any mode but this...." ~ John Stuart Mill
Do you seek out information that agrees with your perspective? Of course you do! And investors are certainly no exception to this behavior. Not only do you prefer to seek views that align with yours but you tend to ignore those that do not. Is this healthy behavior? Perhaps it is and perhaps it is not; however, your humble author will suggest that an awareness of this human tendency is healthy and the unawareness of it is not...
"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof." ~ John Kenneth Galbraith
Confirmation bias is the technical name for people's desire to find information that agrees with their existing view. Information
that reinforces favored preconceptions is over-weighted (also known as
self-attribution bias) and any information that conflicts with this
view is ignored. Taken from an investing perspective, possibly you have said something like this: "Nah, it's a short-term blip -- the market will soon return to its most recent pattern."
"There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees." ~ Michel de Montaigne
Now that you may be at least a bit more aware of your tendency to over-weight information you find agreeable and to under-weight information that you do not, how may confirmation bias be overcome?
"The difference between what the most and the least learned people know is inexpressibly trivial in relation to that which is unknown." ~ Albert Einstein
Any person with a few minutes of time and minimal education level can find data points to support any given view, especially about something that is, at present time, unknown. No matter how convincing an argument (or how strong your attraction to like-minded perspectives) be sure that your decisions are actually yours.
"There is only one side to the stock market; and it is not the bull side or the bear side, but the right side." ~ Jesse Livermore (hat tip to The Kirk Report)
"If I can assign names as well as pictures to objects, the right assignment of them we may call truth, and the wrong assignment of them falsehood." ~ Socrates
How can we be sure that we are making "the right assignment?" The problem is that we often make assignments and assessments purely on the basis of what others have told us or what we have read in various news media.
We also accept the definition of, and adopt as our own, certain words, phrases, terminology, and symbols that are delivered to us by social conventions and all forms of media.
Is this prudent behavior? Just because something is widely accepted or is intelligently communicated should one, by default, accept its validity? We do it every day...
Today, I would like to share a portion of one of my favorite Socrates dialogues, where he is applying his famous "Socratic Method," as written by Plato, in Cratylus:
What were you thinking about when reading this dialogue? Personally, I imagined a modern day Socrates and Cratylus strolling down the street and catching a glimpse of CNBC on a television monitor in the window of Circuit City. They stop for just a moment to watch and listen to some commentary on the economy and stock market and Cratylus asks Socrates if he thinks he should follow the "advice" of the financial media pundits. From there, Socrates delivers his dialogue...
What are your thoughts? As Socrates asked Cratylus, "Can we help being deceived?"
When you read a question that challenges you to think of your own life and reflect upon the path you are currently taking, do you recognize that it is you that is asked the question or do you treat the question as rhetorical in nature?
Today, I have some questions that will actually make you think -- not only about where you have been, but about where you are going -- and how that direction relates to money, happiness, career and the course of your life in general.
Here's a helpful hint: Do not force yourself to answer the questions -- simply let your mind freely go where the questions lead...
At the end of the questions, I will provide the source of where you can find many more like them...
When has your life dramatically changed as the result of some seemingly random external influence? How much do you feel in control of the course of your life? Is it easy for you to ask for help when you need it? Will you ask for help? Where would you choose to be if you could place yourself anywhere on a scale from one to ten, where one is hardship, struggle, and extraordinary accomplishment and ten is comfort, peace of mind, and no accomplishment. Why? Where are you now?
When has your life dramatically changed as the result of some seemingly random external influence? How much do you feel in control of the course of your life?
Is it easy for you to ask for help when you need it? Will you ask for help?
Where would you choose to be if you could place yourself anywhere on a scale from one to ten, where one is hardship, struggle, and extraordinary accomplishment and ten is comfort, peace of mind, and no accomplishment. Why? Where are you now?
If you could spend one year in perfect happiness but afterward would remember nothing of the experience would you do so? If not, why not?
Would you rather be extremely successful professionally and have a tolerable yet unexciting private life, or have an extremely happy private life and only a tolerable and uninspiring professional life?
Do you have any specific long-term goals? What is one and how do you plan on reaching it?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
Does the fact that you have never done something before increase or decrease its appeal to you?
If 100 people your age were chosen at random, how many do you think you'd find leading a more satisfying life than yours?
Would you like to know the precise date of your death?
Would you accept a guaranteed, lifetime allowance of $50,000 per year (adjusted annually for inflation) if accepting it meant that you could never again earn money from either work or investments?
If you learned you would die in a few days, what regrets would you have? Were you given five extra years of life, could you avoid those same regrets five years hence?
What would you like to be doing five years from now? What do you think you will be doing five years from now?
Since so many people place an emphasis on a happy private life, why do people often wind up putting more energy into their professional lives? If you feel your private life is more important to you, do your priorities support this? Are you simply unwilling to admit that work is more important? Do you use work as a substitute? Do you hope professional success will somehow magically lead to personal happiness?
Do you feel you have enough time? If not, what would give you that feeling? How much has your attitude about time changed as you've aged?
Can you envision how you are likely to look back upon things you are doing today? If so, how much do you try to live now as you think you will one day wish you had lived?
"Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem." ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti
Did you answer the questions or did you allow your mind to go where the questions lead you? Did you discover anything of value? Were there certain subjects, such as money, happiness or career, that made you pause to think more than others? Why do you think that is?
Often it is not the answers that help us in reflecting on our own lives but by going where the questions take us -- to a vision of the past, present and future -- to a place where the answers may be revealed to us as individual people and what steps we may want to be taking going forward...
For more questions like these, I recommend The Book of Questions. The book sure clarified a few things for me...
Related Post: Life Planning Part III: Creating the Plan
What's more, the present moment is valuable in terms of mindfulness and self-awareness, but can also be a source of anxiety, especially if we allow ourselves to be disturbed by the noise that surrounds us.
What's more, the present moment is valuable in terms of mindfulness and self-awareness, but can also be a source of anxiety, especially if we allow ourselves to be disturbed by the noise that surrounds us.
Today's Uncommon Wisdom comes from one of my favorite philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855):
It's quite true what philosophy says, that life must be understood backwards. But one then forgets the other principle, that it must be lived forwards. A principle which, the more one thinks it through, precisely leads to the conclusion that life in time can never be properly understood, just because no moment can acquire the complete stillness needed to orient oneself backward.
I believe the modern-day analogy of driving a car works well: We should be mindful of the task at hand (the present moment) and eliminate distraction to the best of our ability; check the rear-view mirror from time to time but not to the point of fixation; keep our own pace with the underlying goal of "arriving on time" with little regard for the pace others are keeping; and we should try to see the big picture so as to see, not only a few feet in front of us, but the road ahead and all that surrounds it.
In fact, perhaps we could travel well if we attempt to drive on a road that is a bit less traveled...
What are your thoughts?
Does this type of environment not reflect what has happened in past bear markets? Do we not always have the greatest doubt in the most dire of circumstances? Is it not our "fear of falling" that perhaps is the cause of our falling?
Today's Uncommon Wisdom comes from G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831). You may want to read it at normal pace one time then slowly a second or even third time:
...if the fear of falling into error is the source of a mistrust in Science, which in the absence of any such misgivings gets on with the work itself and actually does know, it is difficult to see why, conversely, a mistrust should not be placed in this mistrust, and why we should not be concerned that this fear of erring is itself the very error.
Is your patience being tested like never before? It is sure to be tested again. Perhaps we should be careful not to allow ourselves to make the mistake of trusting our mistrust or of fearing our fear...
What can we learn from entropy and how does it apply to human behavior?
Entropy is a term central to the second law of thermodynamics and can be scientifically described as a "measure of the unavailability of a system's energy to do work." It is a derivative of a Greek word translated as "a turning toward" and Webster's Online Dictionary offers a broader definition of entropy as "a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder."
Can we possibly avoid turning toward degradation and disorder in our lives?
"Question: Who governs the governors? Answer: Entropy." ~ Frank Herbert
The inspiration for this post comes from a recent book I read called, Leadership is an Art, where entropy is creatively employed by the author, Max De Pree, as the tendency toward deterioration from within the corporate structure. De Pree urged leaders in organizations, his corporate clients, to stop entropic activities -- to "intercept entropy."
My only disappointment with De Pree's idea is that he did not expand on the interception of entropy as a broader human condition that extends far beyond the work place and into all areas of our lives; therefore, I will take the interception farther...
"Entropy is the normal state of consciousness -- a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable." ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
A common scientific example of entropy is the melting of ice: As an ice cube melts, it changes states. To change states, the ice cube's molecules must increase in activity. This increase is an increase in disorder -- an increase in entropy. It is important to note, however, that energy is used to melt the ice but no work is done -- so it may be considered useless energy.
"Only entropy comes easy." ~ Anton Chekhov
Much like entropic activity in physical science, human behavior also has a tendency toward useless energy that may come in the forms of apathy, complacency and inertia just to name a few.
The key observation to make at this point is that humans are not ice cubes. We have been blessed with intellectual faculties that provide the capacity to alter our own course -- albeit at a slow and deliberate pace -- we have a mind that is more powerful than the brain -- we have the ability to make choices and changes -- our activity need not be useless.
The challenge with intercepting entropy is that most of our useless energy essentially comes in the form of bad habits that have become automatic and of which we are unaware; therefore, we may define our term as such:
The Interception of Entropy = awareness of (and subsequent mindful attention to) the existence, causes and prevention of entropic activity. In simple terms, the interception of entropy is learning good habits and unlearning bad ones.
Of course, the awareness of the existence of entropy in an individual's life is up to the individual. Once this awareness exists (hopefully with the aid of this post) most of the work is done and we may see more clearly entropy's causes and effects:
Can you think of others?
I see entropy as a natural occurrence; however, our natural tendencies as humans and individual personalities are not always conducive to our well-being. The natural path is not the same as the chosen path -- the prior is by default, the latter is by choice.
I see entropy as part of the larger struggle of mind vs. brain -- without mindful attention to our condition, we may just end up where we are heading, and that may be for the better or for the worse...
Can you think of a time in your life when you were quite content with much less in terms of material wealth than you have now? Do you recall a time when you thought to yourself, "Once I reach X level of income, my life will be so much better?" What happened once you reached X level of income and even surpassed it? Would your "past self" be satisfied with the material wealth of your "current self?" Why or why not?
One of my favorite books, actually recommended to me by a TFP reader, is Stumbling on Happiness, which is a fascinating study of the human condition supported by an entertaining and informative balance of neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and humor. Author, Daniel Gilbert, explains the evolution of the measure of happiness and its uniqueness among individuals and as compared to that of others, in the frame of the Experience-Stretching Hypothesis, which I found to be particularly interesting and useful:
Experience stretching is a bizarre phrase but not a bizarre idea. We often say of others who claim to be happy despite circumstances that we believe should preclude it that "they only think they're happy because they don't know what they're missing." Okay, sure, but that's the point. Not knowing what we're missing can mean that we are truly happy under circumstances that would not allow us to be happy once we have experienced the missing thing. It does not mean that those who don't know what they're missing are less happy than those who have it...
From what I could gather, the Experience-Stretching Hypothesis is an application of contextual theory, as put forth by T. Hagerstrand (Regional Studies, 1984), which argues "that the contexts in which human activity takes place -- the time, the space, and the place in the sequence of events -- are crucial to the nature of that activity." Daniel Gilbert highlights the contextual experience as highly subjective and iterates it as such:
...claims from someone's point of view -- from the perspective of a single human being whose unique collection of past experiences serves as a context, a lens, a background for her evaluation of her current experience...
I will reiterate that the perception of any given experience will typically change, or "stretch," over time with regard to the same experience and the same individual. As Gilbert says, "Once we have an experience, we are thereafter unable to see the world as we did before."
"Children's talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives." ~ Maya Angelou
An immediate example that comes to my mind is the early developmental stages of childhood and the increasing levels of stimulation required to "be happy" as we age. I recall, when my two young children were toddlers and were given a gift, they were more interested in the wrapping paper than the gift within it. In fact, I seriously doubt that they even knew or cared that there was another experience waiting for them within the package...
Adults watching a child opening a gift will think to themselves or say aloud, "How cute! She actually likes the ribbons and paper more than the toy!" Then another adult will likely hurry the child along to open the next gift. Knowingly or not, adults will "teach" a child to stretch the child's limits, or experience, of happiness to something greater than it needs to be...
For, as children ourselves, we also discovered that there was always more that we could obtain, and our quest for the next greater experience was henceforth perpetuated. Are we not still "teaching" ourselves to do this every day in our actions?
"What is important in life is life, and not the result of life." ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
As with any experience or pursuit that comes attached with emotion, whether it be the acquisition of wealth, a career advancement, an investment decision, or of sexual gratification, the expectation or anticipation of the experience is almost always greater than that of the acquisition or realization of our desire's object. It's "the thrill of the chase:"
Once we acquire the wealth, the better job, the genius stock trade, or the sexual gratification, we are already looking toward the next greater experience -- the proverbial carrot that we will never quite reach...
"If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires." ~ Epicurus
It is my unscientific guess that most people who would say that they are truly "happy," would also say that their happiness is not a function of obtaining an end -- it is one of finding pleasure in the act of pursuing happiness, which is the means to an end, illustrated in a common metaphor, the journey -- with little or no consideration for where the journey will take them.
If we simply become aware of our experience stretching, we thereby enable ourselves to slow or even stop the stretching of our happiness by mindfully seeking contentment and by finding pleasure in the pursuit rather than in some unidentifiable, or even unreachable, reward.
This fulfillment, for us all, is the journey, itself -- the contentment of where we are now -- It is the ribbons and paper...
Over the last several years of living life and observing human behavior, I have learned that we evolve through stages of construction and deconstruction -- of learning and unlearning -- where, at some point later in our lives, we come to realize that all we have learned may be some kind of illusion that has unnecessarily led us away from a path that began in the right direction...
As I watch my two young children grow, I can see that their understanding and life perspective is clear and undistorted, which, in my opinion, is a form of profound wisdom. This simple pureness, left uncorrupted, could help guide them truthfully and faithfully throughout their lives...
"It is a pity that, as one gradually gains experience, one loses one's youth." ~ Vincent van Gogh
The gradual and consistent exposure to institutional education and social conventions, however, begins to erode at this pureness as we grow older. A form of construction begins that is intended to be a preparation for entering "the real world." As most of us learn later in life, this construction is flawed and our pursuit of truth and meaning in life may only come from the deconstruction of all that we have learned...
"The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently." ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Our youthful resistance to join the workforce and to start climbing the corporate ladder is no mistake. As we graduate from high school and college, our construction is yet incomplete so, with a shred of reluctance remaining, we jump into the stream of the 40-hour work week and begin "climbing the corporate ladder" for the next several decades of our existence.
We work for the end of the day; we long for the end of the week; and we live and work for the vacation, the promotion, and the retirement...
We have now been fully constructed by (and have graduated from) the school of social conventions.
We accept our fate because it is easier to follow the path of least resistance than find the path to a meaningful existence.
"It should be noted that children at play are not playing about; their games should be seen as their most serious-minded activity." ~ Michel Montaigne
At 39 years of age, having two young children and advising clients who are 45 to 75 years in age, I can see the full spectrum of age and the various stages of construction and deconstruction:
When we are young, we are pure; we live firmly in the present moment; we see the possibilities rather than the limitations; our dreams are big and we believe in them; there is no difference between work and play; we see things for what they are, rather than what they are not; we use our imaginations; and money is an object, not a pursuit.
Our "middle-age" years tend to be the most stressful. This is the time when we have lost ourselves; we have "learned" that money and material objects bring happiness; we confuse rewards with goals; we believe that dreams only come true for the few and "lucky;" our work and play are completely separate experiences; who we are and what we do are not the same; and we see the limitations rather than the possibilities.
"It takes a long time to become young." ~ Pablo Picasso
For the fortunate among us, we live long enough to experience the wisdom and deconstruction that comes with older age. Recent studies have revealed that older people are happier and more content than those of us who are younger.
In old age, we realize that our middle-age pursuits were quite foolish; we allow ourselves to become children again; we care less about social convention and care more about priorities, such as health, family and giving of ourselves; we see that it is the journey -- not the destination -- that is important; and we understand that meaning comes before money and not the other way around.
"Live as though you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time." ~ Viktor Frankl
Are we depressed yet? My purpose with this post is to awaken a sense of self-awareness. Everything you have read thus far is not opinion or complaint -- it is observation.
My perspective, especially from my parental and financial planning experiences, is not different from that of a psychologist: The root of all our problems is the lack of meaning and purpose in our lives, which stems from a lack of self-awareness.
I have discovered that, to find ourselves -- to find meaning and purpose in life -- it is absolutely essential to unlearn what we have learned. I have observed that, generally, only the very young and the very old have the proper perspective on life and the space between is where we lose ourselves and our proper perspective.
To hasten our self-awareness, we must deconstruct what has been constructed -- we must engage ourselves in the process of unlearning...
"You are led through your lifetime by the inner learning creature, the playful spiritual being that is your real self. Don't turn away from possible futures before you're certain you don't have anything to learn from them." ~ Richard Bach
We must unleash our "inner learning creature" and the "playful spiritual being" that is our true self. To successfully unlearn, we must essentially become a child again...
Allow yourself to be amazed by small things; focus less on the past or the future and place yourself firmly in the present; as time and finance allows, make play and work the same thing; don't be afraid of risk; look at money as a reward but never as a goal or pursuit; allow yourself to daydream; and to believe those dreams can come true...
Let the unlearning process begin...