I recently wrote my first long-form paper in several years, so this piece will be super brief.
It examines a deeply uncomfortable but increasingly important topic, especially this coming week.
[5 minute read]
“What you have learned in market economics in the past forty years will be useless in the new world. For the next twenty years, you need to get familiar with the concepts of political economy.”
Source: Getty Images
With central banks hamstrung by soaring inflation, politicians are rapidly taking greater control of most major economies. For those of us looking to manage wealth in a new regime, that presents a very specific problem.
When it comes to getting a clear view of political reality, our current information landscape is as murky as it gets. Media opinion has increasingly merged with factual reporting. And, as we’ve just seen in the U.K., politics is often dizzyingly volatile.
But one of the most avoidable causes of wealth destruction I’ve seen over the last decade is when personal politics clashes with market reality. For example, polls consistently show that voters think the economy is in worse shape when the opposing party is in power. Moreover, certain current policies are themselves burdened by personal ideology. When analyzing exploding fiscal stimulus, one person’s “handout to lazy workers” is another’s “necessary income support.”
How do we bring our attention to one of the most damaging personal biases, and one that’s going to get increasingly important?
One of the simplest and best approaches was suggested by Paul Graham in his classic essay “Keep Your Identity Small”:
“If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.”
Limiting the extent to which we identify with a certain party or ideology is certainly helpful, but how do we bring our attention to those parts of our identity that we’re not even aware of?
ABC News anchor Dan Harris recently delivered an extremely entertaining TED Talk. Since the publication of his book “10% Happier,” he’s become something of an accidental spokesperson for the benefits of meditation. So in order to see how effectively mindfulness had translated to his overall life and relationships, he had everyone close to him interviewed for an hour.
The resulting “360 review” was 13 pages of praise. Then 26 pages of a “beat down” so severe that his wife had to go to the bathroom to cry while reading it.
Dan’s flaws were invisible to him, but obvious to everyone close to him.
We need a clearer mirror not a louder microphone. There are a lot of books about how to get “more rational,” but far fewer about this “shadow work.” This is probably because it’s so much harder, but the benefits extend far beyond making you aware of limiting biases. I’ve recently been working with an innovative new startup who have used novel methods to bring greater attention to my many flaws and my “shadow.”
Here are five practical questions that have helped me:
- What does my “creative” output reveal about my unconscious? [It may sound fuzzy, but “creativity” has given my unconscious a spotlight to bring my repressed parts into view. After I finished writing it, I realized my recent piece The Talking Serpent was a portrait of all my worst faults].
- What behavior of mine has the opposite of its intended effect?
[For example, the piece I wrote forced me to realize that I often seek affirmation from others by presenting myself as an “intellectual expert” on different topics. This has the paradoxical effect of making me both less credible, while alienating the people closest to me who have to endure my sermons].
- How can I safely discover how those closest to me truly
see me? [Dan Harris’ brutal 360 review clearly worked! I have also stumbled on a remarkably powerful question for emotional political debates: “What do you think I believe?” It forces the other person to reveal what they think of you, while also occupying your headspace. It’s a good one for Thanksgiving dinner].
- Who do I dislike and why? [As Carl Jung said “everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves”].
- What triggers negative sensations or emotions? [Being able to accurately interpret your own emotions is a superpower. For example, knowing that anger is largely lateralized in the defensive left hemisphere “ego” is a hugely valuable signal. When a political debate triggers us, ask why].
Shadow work is unpleasant and difficult, but has correspondingly significant rewards. Once you’ve identified and resolved conflicts in your character you’ll have dramatically more energy and see the world much more clearly. As Morgan Housel is fond of saying, “all behavior makes sense with enough information.” This is most important when we apply that clarity to ourselves.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”- Carl Jung.
- Watch. The benefits of not being a jerk to yourself by Dan Harris for TED (13 minute watch).
- Why watch. Dan Harris is a really dry and entertaining guy. So this was both funny and moving.
- Read. Little Rules about Big Things by Morgan Housel (17 minute read, contains profanity).
- Why read. This is characteristically phenomenal work from Morgan. Essentially it’s a collection of wise aphorisms. So much of his work relates to self-knowledge and behavioral finance. I believe there’s more value in here than 99% of non-fiction books.
- People learn when they’re surprised. Not when they read the right answer, or are told they’re doing it wrong, but when they experience a gap between expectations and reality.
- Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works.
- A lot of financial debates are just people with different time horizons talking over each other.
- Having no FOMO might be the most important investing skill.
- Read. We Will See the Return of Capital Investment on a Massive Scale- Interview with Russell Napier. [This is the opinion of Russell Napier and may not be the opinion of Stifel or its associates] (26 minute read).
- Why read. I always read every new Russell Napier interview, and this is no exception. He’s informed my view of the unfolding market landscape and his podcast with Hidden Forces was one of the best I’ve heard this year. His pivot from 20-year deflationista to inflationista in mid-2020 remains extraordinary. He’s not mincing his words now, and it’s a plausible perspective. It will require a lot of flexibility and re-learning for investors.