With a screech of tyres, I suddenly found myself with a bruised thigh and half seated on the bonnet of the abruptly halted car.
The driver’s door flew open and a somewhat excitable man leapt out.
While practising his universal sign language, he fired off a spectacular diatribe of sledging and cuss words that would have made the Australian cricket team proud.
In the time it took him to storm to the front of the car, he had managed to question my: parentage, intelligence, fashion sense and assert his belief that I regularly participated in physics-defying feats of animal husbandry.
Sliding off the bonnet, I deployed my underdeveloped sense of subtlety and tact to the situation.
Using simple words, short sentences, and visual aids; I helpfully explained concepts such as pedestrian crossings, the right of way, red lights, and how both the police and insurance companies generally consider it poor form to run people over.
The driver squared up and clenched his fist.
I glared back at him, suitably unimpressed.
At that point my son piped up: “Uh, Dad? I think this car is our uber ride…”
He held up my phone displaying the uber app. Featured prominently was a mugshot of the angry driver, and the license plate of the car that moments before had run a red light and attempted to launch me into the next time zone.
The driver and I both goldfished.
“… Now about that five-star rating?”
The driver groaned in frustration, muttered something uncomplimentary, and thundered back behind the wheel of his slightly dented Prius. With an underwhelming roar of the engine, the hybrid surged off, narrowly avoiding running me down a second time.
While catching the bus home I was underwhelmed to discover I had been charged a £6 “cancellation fee” for the privilege of being run over, threatened, and having the driver flee the scene. Bastards!
Education for fun and profit
On and off over the past couple of years I have been working my way through a post-graduate qualification just for fun.
I say “fun” to distinguish between what I have been doing, and the “investing in yourself” type of studying that seeks to maximise the marketable value of your time. This course is unlikely to change my day rate or improve my employment prospects.
When viewed through that lens, as is the case with a great many tertiary qualifications, this could only be described as an expensive indulgence!
Some of the reading I have been doing for that course posed a thought-provoking question:
“What do you do, when you do what you do?”
Like much of the material in this course, at first glance this question seems nonsensical, abstractly meta, and bizarrely recursive.
However the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a concept worth exploring.
How do you approach your work?
Consider the humble uber driver.
The driver who drove us on our outbound leg of the journey was a smiling, outgoing, and intelligent fellow. He helped load the stuff we were carrying into the back of the car, inquired if we had any route preferences, and was even naïve enough to let my son choose the radio station during the drive.
Whether genuine or just playing the part, that driver was working hard for a high customer satisfaction rating.
Contrast that with the aborted homebound leg of the journey, where the driver was harried, careless, and combative.
Had we ridden in one of those fabled self-driving cars, it wouldn’t offer to help load the trunk, ask whether I was having a good day, or care whether I enjoyed the journey!
Functionally all three alternatives are performing the same role, the “when you do what you do” part: collecting, transporting, and safely delivering paying passengers to their desired destinations.
Yet the way each approach that mechanical task couldn’t have been more different.
Phoning it in versus genuinely delivering value
Next consider the big city hotel concierge.
Bad ones wear painted on smiles and offer insincere gratuity-seeking “have a nice day” platitudes as a matter of course.
Good ones genuinely try to make their guests’ stay enjoyable.
Undoubtedly they still hope to receive a generous tip, but that motivation is secondary to delivering an enjoyable experience, and generating some repeat business or word of mouth recommendations.
The function performed is the same, but the “what do you do, when” element are worlds apart.
It is all in the giving
At the time of writing Christmas is rapidly approaching, so let’s consider gift giving.
The love-struck gentleman caller may invest vast amounts of time and effort in the selection of the perfect gift for the object of his affections. He wants her to make her happy and feel treasured with a thoughtful gift.
Meanwhile the long-suffering husband seeks to avoid yet another argument by skimming through his wife’s Amazon wishlist and buying the most expensive item. He doesn’t care about the gift or the giving, he just doesn’t want the drama and fallout associated with not purchasing something suitably expensive that she can show off to her friends.
When gift wrapped under the Christmas tree, both presents look identical! Yet the motivation behind them are at opposite ends of the giving spectrum.
Playing “Guess Who” in meetings
Until this point we’ve considered either/or points of view to the “what do you do, when you do what you do?” question.
Now for a larger example, think about the most recent meeting you attended.
Everyone in the room (or dialled into the conference call) has invested their precious time for the purpose of the meeting. Yet not all contributions will be equal.
Some prepared in advance, others will wing it.
Some will punctually respect the value of their colleague’s time, others prefer to selfishly keep everyone waiting and make a grand entrance.
Some will present evidence-based well-reasoned arguments, others won’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Consider some of the common meeting attendee archetypes. Which ones do you recognise?
- Tin-pot dictator: Informs rather than discusses, alternatives equal dissent.
- Brown-nosing toadie: Faithfully follows the prevailing wind, wholeheartedly supports the winning team… once the outcome becomes clear.
- Self-important egotist: Uses a lot of words to say very little.
- Professional meeting attendee: Process and governance obsessed. Displaying Olympian level performances in accountability avoidance, blame shifting, and action item evasion.
- Devil’s advocate playing saboteur: Generates infinite reasons why something won’t work, while offering no viable alternatives.
- Work-shy skiver: Invariably arrives late, forever moaning about how busy they are, yet delivers no tangible value.
- Incurable optimist: Can be relied upon to over promise, underestimate, overrun, under-deliver, and yet never learns.
- Crusading zealot: Constantly beating a single issue agenda drum, invariably about something that has nothing to do with the meeting agenda.
- “Institutionalised” defeatist: A lifer who embodies the institutional memory of an organisation’s past failures, and why any form of change is doomed from the outset.
- Ghostly mouse: Silent and invisible during the meeting, yet complains about being talked over and ignored outside of it.
Throughout the meeting each of the attendees is participating in a discussion. Raising risks and issues. Making decisions. Collectively attempting to productively use the time to solve a common problem.
If that description doesn’t sound like the meeting you attended, then you need to evaluate the value you received from investing your time in such a way. It is time you will never get back!
Each meeting also involves the playing of a game. An intricate performance like a ballet where each participant plays a role, and the quality of those performances collectively determine the outcome.
Everyone brings baggage with them wherever they go. For each participant, think about what they brought with them to that meeting in terms of:
- Biases and preferences
- Preconceptions and ideals
- History and experience
- War stories and scars
- Personal agendas and motivations
- A thirst for knowledge… or a closed mind
- The need to win, the fear of being shown up, or resignation that it was all a waste of time
- Motivations outside the purpose of the meeting: seeking to look good, show up rivals, or defeat enemies
- Seeking to treat the symptoms rather than solving the problem
- Conflicted commercial interests that may desire to prolong the problem
Every player brings their own unique perspective, formed throughout their own unique life experiences and interactions. All impact the quality and outcome of the discussions in the meeting, yet only a small proportion of those experiences and perspectives will be directly relevant to the topic and hand.
Each participant’s perspective and history plays a part in determining their “what they do, when” parts of the question.
From whom do you seek guidance?
Finally it is time to reflect on your own history, motivations, perspectives and biases.
When you contemplate buying a fund or a stock, where do you turn to for guidance or advice?
- Pundits in the media?
- Research Analysts from large institutions?
- Hot tips off Twitter?
- The random ramblings of unqualified armchair expert bloggers?
Stop and ask yourself why you turn to those sources.
Do they have a verifiably proven track record of being reliably and sustainably correct?
Are they knowledgeable about what they speak, and trustworthy in the way they differentiate between objective fact and subjective opinion?
Do they understand (or even care about) your own personal needs, circumstances, risk tolerance, and wants?
Asset allocations and arbitrary numbers
Next consider your asset allocation decisions.
Any asset allocation decision involves choosing arbitrary numbers. Where do yours originate from? Why are they better or more appropriate than any others?
Almost all investors maintain a home market and home currency bias. Is yours a well informed conscious choice, selected by design? Or have you unquestionably opted for the default choice and the easy options?
Everybody loves a winner
Investors often possess irrational attachments to past winners.
How many times do you hear people bragging about buying Apple or Amazon shares back in the day when they were comparatively cheap when compared to today?
How many of those same investors are still holding on to those shares, not because of their anticipated future performance, but because they did well out of them in the past?
Evaluate your own holdings. Do any of your positions fall into this criteria? Are you hiding behind an irrational excuse like “I’d pay too much capital gains tax if I sold” to justify holding on to a position that may have exceeded its best before date?
Is losing contagious?
The flip side of this question is the irrational fear of past losers.
A generation of US real estate investors had their fingers burnt and the wallets emptied by the housing crash during the Global Financial Crisis.
A great many of those investors have subsequently shied away from any further involvement in real estate due to that bad experience.
Yet that experience didn’t alter the fundamentals or the proven business model of the successful residential real estate owner.
Is their asset allocation decision rational? Provably supported by the data?
Or is it the result of an irrational bias or driven by fear?
Are there any widely held asset classes or investments that you consciously steer clear of?
Do what makes you happy… but understand why
It is up to the individual investor to make the correct decisions for how they allocate their scarce precious resources. However they approach things, their decision should leave them feeling comfortable, confident, and able to sleep well at night.
However when making those decisions, it is important that the investor develops self-awareness by examining and understanding their own motivations and perspectives.
Is it judiciously cautious prudence, or irrational fear that is holding you back?
Is it a carefully evaluated and risk assessed plan, or greed that is driving you forward?
When facing investment or asset allocation decisions, “what do you do, when you do what you do”?
- Ison, R. (2017), ‘Systems Practice: How to Act‘, Springer, 2nd Edition