A phone rings late at night. How many of us would hear the call? How many would answer?
In days long ago, those innocent times before we became always on, always connected, always contactable, such a call would be a portent of doom.
A hospital admission.
A loved one in distress, needing bailing out or rescuing.
Today, the call would more likely be from a telemarketer or an insomniac narcissist of a boss with no life outside work. A call we would screen out or ignore. Our phones set to silent. Charging in a different room to defend our sleep. Preserving our sanity from all the noise, manufactured urgency, and relentless clamouring for our attention.
But sometimes, this time, the call might be real. Important. One of those “life happens” events of old.
A parent, on the other side of the world, in hospital. Difficulties breathing. Diagnosed with COVID.
It is amazing how a brief phone call can focus the mind and sharpen the senses.
Eliciting action. Previously insurmountable issues were instantly overcome or worked around.
Closed borders? A minor technicality.
Infrequent flights from the few airlines still servicing the distant location? A mere trifle.
Tens of thousands of ex-pats competing for hundreds of scarce seats flying home? A matter of who wants it more.
Enduring two weeks solitary confinement under house arrest in mandatory hotel quarantine? A passing inconvenience.
Long before the sun crept over the horizon, she was sitting in the airport departure lounge, having found a way to get back home. Costing as much as a new car. Exhausting her savings. But, hopefully, it would be enough to see her parent again. Either to say goodbye, or bring them home safe.
A person learns a lot about themselves during enforced isolation.
Absent the external stimulation provided by everyday human interactions.
Alone with their thoughts and demons.
Nobody to bounce ideas off.
To distract, or offer perspective.
Provide comfort and support.
The flaky, expensive, and overloaded quarantine hotel WiFI provided a temperamental link to the outside world. Not good enough for Netflix, but sufficient for text messages and social media.
Preserving communications channels. Passing the time by rekindling relationships with old friends.
Except as those glacial quarantine days slowly passed by, a strange pattern began to materialise.
One by one she fell out with some of her friends back home. After catching up about their lives and loves over the years she had been abroad, it slowly emerged that many of them were anti-vaxxers.
Some of the rabid and raving QAnon variety.
Others sceptical hold outs. Fearing unanticipated side effects and unfounded conclusions associated with a miracle treatment developed in a hurry and rushed through traditional trials and safeguards.
All succumbing to the siren song of conspiracy theories. The echo chamber of self-perpetuating social media bubbles. Vote-buying rhetoric of populist politicians advancing arguments grounded not in fact, but what their audience wished to believe.
An incongruous ideological position. Jarring to hear, when her parent lay hooked up to a ventilator, battling the very disease her friends either did not believe was serious or did not believe existed at all. A manufactured panic. A big pharma conspiracy. A viral internet meme. A distraction perpetrated by the powers that be as they looted, snouts in the trough.
One that she found herself unable to reconcile. There would be no biting her tongue to keep the peace about something with deeply personal life or death consequences. No agreeing to disagree.
Fortunately, the parent survived.
Unfortunately, the friendships did not.
People she was fond of. People she respected. People she had known for years. Succumbing to a new popular narrative. Dismissing any contrary opinions. Faith and feeling trumping evidence, history, and the scientific method. Tribal identity triumphing over independent thought.
Evolution is a fascinating process.
One that involves a great number of false starts and leaps into the unknown.
Most fail or fizzle out. Change is hard. Different is scary. Uncertainty is unsettling.
Few succeed. Those that remain appear obvious only in hindsight.
Survivorship bias in all its glory providing certainty after the fact, where little existed in the moment.
Removing the doubt and scepticism that inevitably occurred when a change originally emerged.
Sometimes the direction of travel is clear. Small, non-threatening, incremental steps along a well-established path. Ever so slightly stronger, faster, or more attractive than what had gone before.
Other times evolution is disruptive. Random. Revolutionary. The horseless carriage. Mechanised flight. Telecommunications. Seemingly crazy or impossible at the time, yet a success nonetheless.
An often-overlooked type of evolution is that of ideas.
Ideas that were radical or seemingly bizarre at their inception.
Challenging the orthodoxy.
Upsetting the status quo.
Abolishing slavery. Democracy. Equality. Women’s suffrage.
Some ideas gain acceptance. Absorbed into conventional wisdom. Proven to be right.
Others, that were once accepted, fall out of favour or fashion. Proven to be wrong.
The Earth is flat, located at the centre of the universe. Price equals quality. Smoking is good for us.
Evolution at work.
The latter goes down swinging. True believers fighting to the bitter end. Long past the point of reason.
The evolution of personal finance is littered with revolutionary ideas. Some of which caught on. Others that blew up. Flamed out. Faded away.
45 years ago, Jack Bogle popularised the idea of low-cost index tracker funds. Proposing the evidence-based notion that if few can consistently win the game of trying to beat the market, then over the long term the many would be better off simply not playing and owning the whole market instead.
Heresy at the time. Flying in the face of conventional wisdom. Removing ego and the idea of getting rich quickly from the investing equation. Replacing it with the slow and steady of consistently applied good habits and patience, which relentlessly compound over time.
Today, Bogle’s idea has gained widespread acceptance. Millions of investors the world over have succumbed to the notion. Yet it remains controversial in some quarters. Threatening the continued existence and lucrative lifestyles of those Masters of the Universe who stalk unwary prey from the glass towers of Wall Street, Kabutochō, or Canary Wharf.
A conspiracy theory still, or now conventional wisdom? That conclusion is determined not by the merit of an idea, but rather the number of people who succumb to its appeal.
Other financial ideas once enjoyed similar acceptance, only to leave those who embraced them poorer for the experience. Dutch tulips. South Sea trade. Japanese real estate. Dotcom stocks.
Outcomes only certain in hindsight. Unknowable in the moment, no matter how confident the investor.
The claim that “this time is different” seldom proving to be true. Yet seldom is not the same as never.
13 years ago, the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto published a white paper setting out the case for a digital cryptocurrency.
Heresy at the time. Flying in the face of conventional wisdom. Democratising commerce. Decentralising settlements. Insulating against fraud. Providing anonymity. Shifting the balance of power from the institutions into the hands of the people.
Or so the popular narrative goes.
Today, Nakamoto’s idea has gained widespread acceptance. Millions of investors the world over have succumbed to the notion.Yet it remains controversial in many quarters.
The wild west of personal finance, where fortunes are made and lost in a matter of days, while charlatans and snake oil salesmen abound to prey on the unwise and the unwary.
It has been entertaining, and at times alarming, to watch Personal Finance bloggers find religion about cryptocurrencies, and occasionally the more interesting blockchain technologies upon which they rely.
Finding their resolve and reason gradually weakening.
Eroded by a combination of boredom, peer pressure, and the fear of missing out.
Religion replacing rationality. Financial planning once based upon repetition and patience discarded in favour of speculation, greed, and dreams of exponential overnight returns.
Succumbing in steady succession, one by one, like a line of toppling dominos.
Sceptics becoming evangelists. Displaying a zealotry possessed only by the newly converted.
Who knows, they might even be right? Cryptocurrencies may well prove to be the way of the future. Evolving our concept of normalcy, as Bogle’s low-cost tracker funds evolved our approach to investing in stocks.
Yet each time I read about another blogger jumping on the crypto bandwagon, I can’t help wondering about that concept of idea evolution.
Will their actions prove vindicated?
Prescient, or perhaps just lucky? Early adopters of what becomes the mainstream, like investing in the internet back in the mid-1990s, long before dotcom mania had set in.
Or will they ruefully learn an expensive lesson? Regretful of discarding their investing beliefs in favour of something that proves to be an evolutionary dead end? Like an anti-vaxxer having their beliefs challenged from the inside of a COVID ward.
How the evolution of finance and currency plays out will be fascinating to observe. I don’t possess a crystal ball. Any opinion I may hold is at best ill-informed, loosely held, and not worth listening to.
Whatever your outlook on crypto, take a moment to consider whether that perspective is grounded and rational?
Does your investment thesis withstand challenge and scrutiny?
Have you succumbed to mania and conspiracy theories?
Or perhaps your thinking is rigidly fixed in the past, while evolutionary ideas pass you by? In danger of joining the dodo and the dinosaurs in extinction, like active fund managers charging high fees for poor performance.
Do your beliefs come across as reasoned and that you have done the thinking?
Or are they more akin to those of a “care in the community” case, wearing a tinfoil hat while spouting nonsense through a megaphone down at Speaker’s Corner? Confident. Earnest. Fervent. Yet someone we probably shouldn’t succumb to allowing their opinions to influence our approach to investing. Or healthcare.
- Andreessen, M. (2011), ‘Why Software Is Eating the World’, Andreessen. Horowitz
- Nakamoto, S. (2008), ‘Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System‘
- Stone, B. (2013), ‘The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon‘