Where did your hopes and dreams originate? What was the inspiration that led you to set a goal?
Humans are a society of imitators and plagiarists. Genuinely new ideas are a rare and precious thing.
Instead, we appropriate ideas. Test them. Adapt and incorporate what works. Sometimes discard what doesn’t. Belief systems evolving as knowledge and wisdom are not only acquired but applied.
Some folks choose to dogmatically persist with faulty assumptions. Ideology proving more comforting than fact. Fear of losing face. Shared tribal identity. The Emperor’s new clothes.
Long ago, I worked in a photo lab. Every week thousands of customers would bring in their holiday photos to be developed and printed. Through their pictures, I got to vicariously travel the world.
In time, a pattern emerged. I would see variants on the same pictures over and over again. The same clichéd experience. The same crowded monuments. Different faces, but the same holidays.
It got to the point where after seeing the first couple of holiday pictures in a roll of film, I could predict with a reasonable degree of accuracy what the remainder would contain.
- Arc de Triomphe. Tick.
- Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. Tick.
- Champs-Élysées, teeming with jostling crowds of shoppers and tourists. Tick.
- Eiffel Tower, surrounded by jostling crowds of tourists. Tick.
- Palace of Versailles, showing jostling crowds in the foreground. Tick.
- The Mona Lisa, out of focus and speculatively shot over the heads of a jostling Louvre crowd who are all attempting to do the same. Tick.
- White hilltop basilica, either Sacré-Cœur or Montmartre. The photographer can rarely remember which. Tick.
As I processed an endless stream of holiday photos, I watched the progress of restoration projects and renovations at postcard sites all around the globe. I also had a pretty good idea of which ones were currently obscured by scaffolding!
The notable thing about a set of holiday photos soon became the absence of one of the obligatory trophy snaps. Those images seemingly everyone felt compelled to take as proof of visit.
A polite inquiry would usually yield an entertaining story about travel delays. Getting hopelessly lost. Industrial action. Pickpockets. Streetfood that tasted great on the way in, but fought hard on the way out.
Occasionally I would ask a customer why they had chosen a particular holiday destination? How had they had selected those particular sites to visit and take photos of?
Most would look at me blankly.
They hadn’t “done” France before. Tick.
Those sites were “what you do in Paris”. Tick.
On particularly quiet days in the store, I might ask who determined what you are supposed to “do” when visiting Paris?
Invariably their answer would include some combination of tourism brochures, travel guides, package tours, and loved ones’ travel photos from when they had undertaken that same holiday informed by those same sources.
Which wasn’t a bad thing. However, it did leave me wondering how many of the customer’s holiday dreams were actually their own?
Versus how many of their goals were seeking to emulate dreams they had borrowed from others?
Had they experienced a conscious yearning or intellectual curiosity? A desire to explore a particular location out of genuine interest in the cultural experiences or natural splendour on offer?
Or had they simply been manipulated into responding to an idea created by a marketing campaign?
How much was genuine personal desire versus mindless appropriation of the desires of others?
I was unable to arrive at a conclusive answer to my questions. Yet based upon the sheer volume of repetitive holiday snaps, there seemed to be far more imitating than original thinking taking place.
The ancestry of ideas
I read a fascinating article recently about the evolution of ideas. It focussed on professional rugby league coaches over the last 50 years. Tracing the pedigree of over a hundred modern coaches back to just a handful of their successful forebears. Generations of apprenticeships had seen techniques refined. Yet the underlying approach and philosophy remained largely unchanged.
Many things had remained constant. The team featuring players who were biggest, fastest, fittest, most skilful, and trained hardest were more likely to win. Teams featuring an older playing roster, lacking in funds, or plagued by injuries tended to lose.
Throughout those 50 years, there had been only a handful of genuinely new ideas. Roughly one per decade. Each led to a brief period of dominance for the innovative team. Before long, other coaches emulated and ultimately negated the competitive advantage of those new ideas.
Today, there are hardly any coaches who have not been indoctrinated into those same schools of thought. The old guard had been disrupted, found wanting, and eventually became extinct. Innovation gradually became orthodoxy. In the old days, those arguing for the innovative approaches were viewed as heretics. Today, the heretics are those who argue against those same ideas.
An endless lifecycle, as old as time.
We see this same lifecycle at work in many facets of life.
Benjamin Graham and David Dodd pioneered the innovation of Value Investing back in the 1920s.
Warren Buffett adopted and applied the approach so successfully he managed to top the Forbes rich list.
Today it seems half of FinTwit are self-described value investors. Some apply Graham’s analytical approach. Others worship at the altar of Eugene Fama and Ken French’s value factor statistical approach. I suspect more than a few don’t realise that those are entirely different things!
Just like rugby league coaching ideas, as the popularity of the value investing innovations grew, their competitive advantage diminished.
The FIRE movement provides another example of the appropriation and adoption of ideas.
The current generation of financial independence seekers and aspirational early retirees may attribute many of the ideas to Mr Money Moustache.
The generation before may have associated them with Jacob Lund Fisker of Early Retirement Extreme fame.
Those of us who predate the internet may have first come across those ideas in Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s book “Your Money or Your Life”.
Each successive generation repackaging and rebranding the same key underlying themes.
I recently stumbled across an article titled “Early Retirement”. It followed the familiar formula of such pieces. Profiling a time-poor middle-aged white guy who quit his corporate job, established some passive income streams, and retired. Next, was the young couple pursuing geographic arbitrage, supporting their greatly reduced living costs on a tropical island paradise by working part-time. Finally, there were the obligatory features of people who bought themselves lifestyle jobs after hitting eject from busy lives or high-stress careers in the big city.
Articles like this regularly appear in the lifestyle section of Sunday papers. This particular one was published back in February 1957! The only difference between then and now is the article subjects weren’t all running monetised blogs or seeking exposure for unregulated financial “coaching” services.
The core set of ideas that have likely existed since humans concluded that growing vegetables was a less risky pursuit, with a more certain outcome, than leading a hunter-gatherer style existence scavenging for food.
Origin of a dream
Which brings me back to the opening set of questions.
Where did your hopes and dreams originate?
Did you have an epiphany? Discover the solution to a problem, or a way forward, for yourself?
Do they represent a natural conclusion to a journey? Perhaps continuing a direction of travel you had already been unwittingly venturing along?
Or did you hear somebody else talking? Think their goals sounded cool? Decide to adopt them as your own?
Study hard. Work harder. Grind your way to the top.
Find a significant other. Have a couple of kids. Settle down in a house in the suburbs.
Be your own boss. Find a work/life balance that works for you. Maybe retire one day.
Remove the financial imperative. Make time investment decisions driven by enjoyment rather than material value alone.
Bag all the Munros. Ski every winter. Surf every summer. Visit every country. Live the endless summer.
Why do you wish to achieve what you wish to achieve?
Is your desired outcome really your personal attainment of the goal itself?
Or is what you seek something tangentially related to that goal?
Keeping up with the Joneses.
The vast majority of those holidaymakers appeared to have enjoyed a great time on their vacations. Their photos certainly made it look like they did!
I’m less convinced that many of them could explain why they chose a given destination, or why they had chosen to visit a given collection of postcard sites for trophy photos.
I suspect that many of us would be a little uncomfortable to admit, even to ourselves, that we had just been blindly walking a well-trodden path. Reading from a script. Playing a part that somebody else had written. Following the herd.
I wonder whether the same uncomfortable feeling would arise if we stopped and asked ourselves why we had selected a given living location? Asset allocation? Investment portfolio? Life goals?
For some, these would be considered and well-informed decisions that were consciously made.
For others, they may be the financial equivalent of high-season tourists. Battling jostling crowds. Visiting overpriced postcard sites. Potentially putting themselves in harm’s way.
All because they were appropriating someone else’s dream or blindly seeking to emulate folks back home, without really understanding why.
- Fama, E. F. and French, K. R. (1992), ‘The Cross‐Section of Expected Stock Returns’, The Journal of Finance
- Fisker, J. L. (2010), ‘Early Retirement Extreme: A Philosophical and Practical Guide to Financial Independence‘
- Graham, B. and Dodd, D. L. (1962), ‘Security Analysis: Principles and Technique‘, McGraw Hill Education
- Griffin, T. (2014), ‘Ben Graham’s Value Investing ≠ Fama/French’s Factor Investing’, 25iq
- Life (1957), ‘Early Retirement‘
- Robin, V. and Dominguez, J. (1992), ‘Your Money or Your Life‘
- Webster, A. (2020), ‘The godfathers of coaching and how they shaped the modern game’, Sydney Morning Herald