Author’s Note: This is the fourth in my series of six fundamental principles of holistic financial wellness in my book “Money Mountaineering” may be the most important principle right now for many people: The need to be able to live comfortably with uncertainty. This entails making financial decisions that have significant consequences on the future while potentially causing painful costs today. In this essay, I address the “elephant in the room” by talking about the two parts of our human nature that can hijack our judgment and ability to make good financial decisions when the stakes are significant and the outcomes are multiple and highly uncertain.
Principle #4: Fear is the Enemy of Curiosity
Hustling chess, overcoming fear, and getting curious
A few weeks ago, I went to New York City where I visited one of my favorite spots — the park at the south end of Union Square where the chess hustlers make their living charging nominal fees for lessons to those who appreciate their skills and winning money over the board from those who don’t. When I lived in Westchester and worked in NYC in the 1990s, I spent many hours getting to know these unusual characters and was able to learn a few traps and tactics that let me scare a few masters in the weekend tournaments I used to play in.
One of my favorite denizens of that world is a man named “Po” — a wise, funny, and fast-talking player near international-master strength who never lets his customers know quite how strong he is. Po has beaten almost all of the current generation of young grandmasters, catching them as prodigies on the way up (e.g. Hikura Nakamura, Irina Krush, and many others). To hear him tell it, his “lessons” helped a few future stars learn some practical tricks that fueled their rise to the top.
Like many great chess players, Po has a distinct worldview and a well-articulated philosophy on how to survive on the chess board and in life. When I asked him what he thought of the current state of the world and what he suggested people do amidst all the confusion and chaos that seems to surround us, he paused and then gave me some wisdom that he passes on to his friends and his customers. He said that the important thing was to not be afraid — not of your opponent or all the unseen threats that might lurk on the board. He thought that most people are suffering now because “they opened their eyes and found that it is still too dark to see.”
Not only is that great advice, but it highlights perhaps the greatest challenge we face in living with “not knowing” and making good financial decisions despite all the uncertainty of the future and the incomplete information we have about the present.
Decisions over the chessboard are often not that different than the financial decisions I speak about in “Money Mountaineering.” Both entail making choices whose long term (and even short term) consequences are often impossible to predict. Not even a grandmaster will be able to understand all the aspects of a given position, let alone the plans and strategies hidden within the mind of the opponent sitting across the board. Curiosity and an ability to be open-minded enough to consider many possible futures at one time are critical to becoming a good player.
For financial decisions, this is even more important. Fear is the enemy of curiosity, and curiosity is what will allow you to identify the important things you can figure out and those that you can only make educated guesses about. Overcoming fear and becoming curious will help you identify the aspects of your decision that can never be determined and allow you to make better choices.
So, take it from Po. Even though you might be scared of the dark and can’t see what is down the road, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t proceed forward, gathering the clues, getting help where you can and making the best financial decision you can with the information you have and the range of possible outcomes that the future presents.
Unfortunately, overcoming fear is not enough. To truly be comfortable with “not knowing,” you also need to overcome at least one other bit of psychological baggage that most of us carry. For that, I want to talk about what I learned from a different teacher.
The “learner mindset”
Marilee Adams, a writer friend I got to know several years ago, recently invited me to one of her workshops. I sensed that her message to adopt a “learner mindset” when facing important life decisions might be very relevant to my 4thprinciple. It turns out that adopting this mindset is not exactly what I mean when I write about becoming comfortable with the uncertain future. But had I not attended the workshop I would never have realized quite how important it is to not fall prey to anticipation, a state of mind that can lead to bad decisions — particularly financial ones.
Just as fear is the enemy of curiosity, I think anticipation is the enemy of open-mindedness. If you think you know what is going to happen (good or bad), then you can’t be open to the range of possible ways in which the future might unfold. Anticipation is expecting something specific to happen while closing your mind to all the other possible paths the future might take.
During the workshop, Marilee explained what generates anticipation and what we should do to not let it bite us. Even though I have thought for decades about uncertainty and how to deal with it, I am grateful that Marilee reframed the problem of our tendency to think we know what will happen instead of what might happen in this way. She helped me understand in a deeper way one of the key things that sometimes causes us to lose our ability to think clearly and make good decisions in the face of an uncertain future.
Many believe that our minds can be trained to be curious, and maybe they can, but I think our ability to ask good questions can also come from a different source. Specifically, the wealth of curiosity that abounds within us just needs to be unlocked and allowed to emerge naturally.
Many of us welcome the discipline and skill development that Marilee imparts — and she is an extraordinarily good trainer in that regard, but I take a somewhat different approach to my own path to getting comfortable with “not knowing.”
Specifically, I believe that humans are at their best when they get in touch with that wild, playful, undisciplined adventurous side. This is the side that, if we were lucky, we enjoyed as a child and can still return to. For me at least, that’s where my curiosity lives.
So how do you get more curious and want to ask the questions you need to ask — about your job, your 401(k), your bank, or even cryptocurrency? I don’t believe there is a single answer to that question, but my approach is different than Marilee’s. Rather than try to train to be curious, I simply listen to my own inner voice and pay attention to what I hear.
Am I falling prey to anticipation when I think I know what is going to happen? Is it fear that keeps me from thinking about what might happen? Or is it a combination of both — throwing me off track as I hear myself say, “I am afraid and don’t want to think about what I am sure will happen (in the market, the economy, my company, and even my family).”
It is also important to realize that being curious won’t necessarily help you figure out what will happen next. Fundamentally, to make good financial decisions in an uncertain world, we need to remember that while the future is unpredictable, it is not unimaginable. Being curious and open-minded is just the first necessary step toward financial wellness.
In the end, I believe that Marilee and I agree completely that to make better financial choices you need to be curious enough to ask the right questions and open-minded enough to listen to the answers.
That is what the holistic financial wellness principle #4 is all about.
Peter Neuwirth, FSA, FCA, is a fellow of the Society of Actuaries and the Conference of Consulting Actuaries and a consultant for large corporations on their retirement plans. This excerpt is from an essay about principle 4 of holistic planning that he writes about in his book, “Money Mountaineering.”