Now You Get It

“Every job looks easy when you’re not the one doing it.” – Jeff Immelt

Historian Stephen Ambrose writes about World War II soldiers who left basic training full of bravado and confidence, eager to fight when they join the frontline. Then they get shot at, and everything changes.

“There was no way training could prepare a man for combat,” Ambrose writes. It could teach you how to fire a gun and follow orders. But “It could not teach men how to lie helpless under a shower of shrapnel in a field crisscrossed by machine-gun fire.” No one could understand it until they experienced it.

A lot of things work like that.

Most actions have two sides: skill and behavior. What’s true in theory vs. how it feels in the moment. The gap between the two can be a mile wide. No amount of empathy and open-mindedness can recreate emotions. Textbooks and classrooms can’t teach what genuine fear, adrenaline, and uncertainty feel like. So you think you understand how a field works until you experience a new part of it firsthand. Then you see it through a completely different lens.

Two other things that must be experienced before they can be understood:

Losing a third of your money or more

Can you survive your assets declining by 30%? On a spreadsheet, maybe yes – in terms of actually paying your bills and staying solvent. But what about mentally? It’s easy to underestimate what a big decline does to your psyche. You might realize your confidence is more fragile than you assumed. You – or your spouse – may decide it’s time for a new plan. I know several investors who quit after losses because they were exhausted. Physically exhausted. Spreadsheets can model the historic frequency of big declines. But they can’t convey the feeling of coming home, looking at your kids, and wondering if you’ve made a huge mistake that will impact their lives.

I don’t think there’s any way to understand what a bear market feels like until you’ve lived through one.

Part of the reason is that it’s impossible to contextualize what causes losses until they happen. If I say to you, “How would you feel if the market fell 30%?” you imagine a world where everything is the same as it is today, but stock prices are 30% cheaper. And in that world, it feels like an opportunity. But what actually makes the market fall 30% is a pandemic that might kill you, or a recession where you might lose your job, or a terrorist attack that might just be beginning, or inflation with no end in sight. And in that world – a world that can’t be known until it happens – things feel different. Saying “I’ll be greedy when others are fearful” is easier than actually doing it, because people underestimate the odds of themselves becoming one of the “others.”

All past declines look like opportunities and all future declines look like risks. It’s one of the great ironies in investing. But it happens for a reason: When studying history you know how the story ends, and it’s impossible to un-remember what you know today when thinking about the past. So it’s hard to imagine alternative outcomes when looking backward, but when looking ahead you know there are a thousand different paths we could end up on.

Outsized success

Going to the moon is the coolest thing humans have ever done.

You’d think it would be an overwhelming experience. But as the spacecraft hovered over the moon, Michael Collins turned to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and said:

It’s amazing how quickly you adapt. It doesn’t seem weird at all to me to look out there and see the moon going by, you know?

Three months later, after Al Bean walked on the moon during Apollo 12, he turned to astronaut Pete Conrad and said “It’s kind of like the song: Is that all there is?” Conrad was relieved, because he secretly felt the same, describing his moonwalk as spectacular but not momentous.

Most mental upside comes from the thrill of anticipation – actual experiences tend to fall flat, and your mind quickly moves on to anticipating the next event. That’s how dopamine works.

Expectations also shift and goalposts move faster than you can imagine. Collins once said of Aldrin: “He resents not being first on the moon more than he appreciates being second.”

I don’t think I’ve met, or know of, anyone with outsized success who gained as much happiness as an outsider might expect. That doesn’t mean success can’t bring pride or contentment or independence. But it’s rarely what you thought it would be before achieving it.

Jim Carrey once said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

I think part is the same reason predicting loss is difficult: It’s hard to imagine the full context. If you think of your future self living in a new mansion, you imagine basking in splendor and everything feeling great. What’s easy to forget is that people in mansions can get the flu, have psoriasis, become embroiled in lawsuits, bicker with their spouses, are wracked with insecurity and annoyed with politicians – which in any given moment can supersede any joy that comes from material success. Future fortunes are imagined in a vacuum, but reality is always lived with the good and bad taken together, competing for attention.

You think you know how it’ll feel. Then you experience it firsthand and you realize, Ah, OK. It’s more complicated than you thought.

Now you get it.