When was the last time you threw yourself into something completely new?
Leapt into the unknown?
Explored a new skill or delved into a topic you knew virtually nothing about. Where you lacked even the basic vocabulary required to start your learning journey.
Making the leap is daunting. Challenging. Exhilarating.
Stretching outside our comfort zone. The certainty of looking silly. Of asking stupid questions.
Once the fog of ignorance begins to clear, we catch those first initial glimpses behind the curtain. Gaining glimmerings of insight into what the moving pieces look like, and how they interact.
The feeling is truly magnificent.
Studying that new skill provides a welcome diversion. A stream of accomplishment and achievement. Recharging our batteries. Rejuvenating our outlook. Providing positive reinforcement and something to look forward to. A source of enjoyment, often missing from the “boring middle” part of our careers.
The joy originates in the thrill of the chase. The feeling of incremental improvement. Of tangible progress towards a notional goal. Sometimes well defined and specific. More often, just a vaguely articulated general direction of travel. In understanding that enjoyment is found in the journey, more than the outcome.
In the beginning, there can be a lot of graft, with little to show for it in terms of tangible outputs.
Learning an instrument starts with a lot of noise and some incomprehensible symbols on sheet music.
With practice and persistence, we progress from laughably bad to cautiously competent.
Opening the door to jamming with friends. Playing in a band, or an orchestra. An enjoyable experience for all concerned, except perhaps those within hearing distance of those awkward first notes!
Considering the journey of learning to swim.
Putting your face in the water without panicking. Floating. Kicking. Introducing arms. Breathing. Putting it all together. The first lap of the pool. Stringing laps together. First fifty metres. Then one hundred. Eventually one thousand. Freestyle. Backstroke. Breaststroke. Perhaps even butterfly.
Developing an enjoyable pastime for a lifetime, one that is potentially a life-saving skill.
A journey that takes months of repetition and practice to approach competence.
A year or more before comfort and confidence emerge. The challenge overcome. Goal accomplished.
Similar patterns play out with every interest, hobby, and skill we seek to develop.
I remember discovering the beautiful elegance of double-entry bookkeeping in high school. The reassuring certainty of numbers which reconciled precisely. Of deciphering the stories that cashflow statements and profit & losses had to tell, as they narrated the journey between balance sheet dates.
A whole new world of comprehension opened up before my eyes. One that existed hidden in plain sight, speaking only to those who had invested the time to learn their financial language.
This proved to be a learning plateau, rather than the peak I thought I had summited. Not yet knowing enough to comprehend how much I didn’t know.
Soon that illusion of precision and the certainty of reconciliation was dispelled by the creative writing talents of management accountants and imaginations of corporate financiers. Their songs and sonnets penned in the universal language of spreadsheets.
A new learning revelation: that finance is more qualitative art than quantitative science. Opinion, not fact. No matter how many digits may trail the decimal point!
The next step on my journey was starting to understand economics. The interconnectedness of all things. Cause and effect. Consequence and reaction. Second and third-order effects, spreading like ripples in a pond. One person’s shock providing another person’s opportunity.
I remember the day I first took an interest in the share price tables in the daily newspaper. Arcane symbols. Indecipherable codes. Teasing and beguiling with the hidden promise of riches and wealth.
Learning of a tribe of investors who believed with religious fervour that the secrets of the future were revealed by patterns displayed in charts of the past.
Learning of another tribe who just as fervently believed those same secrets were contained in backwards-looking financial measures. Dividend Yield. Price to Earnings ratio. Net Tangible Assets.
Dipping my toe in the water with my first share purchase, a domestic retail bank with a strong dividend yield. My investment thesis was simple: buy and hold, while my money makes money.
Survivorship bias-laden biographies of the successful. Nobody wants to read about the also-rans.
Gloating retrospective histories of financial calamity. Nobody gets excited about the average and mundane. Monotonous underwhelming underperformance. A slow death by fees and charges.
Helping me convince myself that I was smarter than the average person on the street. All of the alpha. None of the ability.
Investing every spare dollar.
More banks. Insurers. A global media conglomerate that decided elections and informed readers how they should think, believe, and feel. The equivalent of social media from back in your parents’ day!
Early success bred confidence. Confidence increased risk appetite to the pursuit of higher returns. Why wait for tomorrow when it was there for the taking today?
International shares. Derivatives. Brokerage accounts in multiple countries. Leverage.
Diversifying from blue chips valued on fundamentals to stocks powered by narrative.
Global telecommunications. The promise of the internet: ubiquitous and omnipotent.
Demographic cliff-edge plays. Childcare. Pharmaceuticals. Retirement homes.
Buying into the cult of personality. Scions and celebrities attempting to prove themselves worthy.
Then watching in shock and dismay as I repeatedly blew myself up, reducing my portfolio to ashes.
Accounting scandals. Bursting bubbles. Ego. Fraud. Hubris. Insider trading. Being right, but being early.
Knowledge and self-awareness gleaned from every step. A rollercoaster ride of learning by doing. Of picking myself up. Dusting myself off. Accountably and honestly assessing what went wrong. Refining my approach. Trying again. Always learning.
Learning to align my investing strategy with my competence, risk appetite, and available time.
Learning that financial news is like celebrity gossip in suits. Lots of noise. Little substance.
Learning to recognise repeating behavioural patterns of investors and market cycles.
Landing a job at investment bank, where I observed from within that those not on the inside are unthinkingly inserting coins into a slot machine, playing a game that somebody else controls. That infamous story about monkeys throwing darts outperforming the average investor is funny because it is true.
Eventually, learning that I had exceeded my broad but shallow level of interest. Investing just enough attention to keep things ticking over, while shifting my attention to challenges new.
Recently I found myself with some unexpected free time.
Not the snatched hour or stolen afternoon away from chores and responsibilities and Dad’s taxi. No, this was more of a structural change. Lessening demands at home coinciding with coasting at work.
I found myself starting to tinker with computers again, something I hadn’t done in earnest for years.
Some idle curiosity about how modern websites work.
Descending down a rabbit hole of incomprehensible jargon, strongly held opinion, and remarkably fragmented tooling.
What began with idle curiosity about charting libraries led to frameworks. Intriguing abstractions, that modern-day script kiddies use with remarkable productivity. Templates and standardising having replaced the approach favoured by dinosaurs like me, of building everything from scratch. The same behavioural trap that every backyard mechanic and DIY dabbler falls into.
Frameworks led to all manner of related rabbit holes. Mobile-first. Responsive. Cloud hosted. Automated deployment pipelines. Event-driven. Open banking. Schemas and payloads and all manner of mysterious words spoken in a secret language many use but few understand. Words uttered without irony, when their usage should make the speaker feel very silly indeed!
After a few weeks of tinkering, I stepped back and marvelled at my magnificent creation. I had invented a financial application. One that was almost (but not quite) as good as my humble tracking spreadsheet. But that didn’t matter, because it looked slick and could scale to a size that the whole world could use concurrently.
When it came time to do my month-end personal accounting, I could have used my shiny new application. But I didn’t. Instead, I opened up my trusty spreadsheet and did things the old way. There remains a purity to spreadsheets, a comforting reversion to the safe and familiar.
The experience reminded me of that old joke about NASA investing millions inventing a pen that would work in outer space, while the Soviets just used a pencil.
Fortunately, it was the learning journey that was enjoyable and rewarding.
I better understand how some of the apps and websites I use actually work. That much of the value is found in those first early steps in the learning journey. Building a screen in an hour, rather than the more common “enterprise” IT pattern of having a team of expensive developers spend months tinkering with a colour scheme or changing the font size.
I developed enough knowledge to be dangerous. Far from competent, but aware enough of my many and varied limitations.
I could kick on, turn the application into something commercially saleable, and potentially build a business around it. Joining the storied list of personal finance software entrepreneurs who have tried (and mostly failed) to convert an enjoyable hobby into a comfortable living.
Or I could recognise I have reached the limits of my interest, and move on to whatever the next challenge might be.
The joy is found in the journey!