A few years ago, Peter Mattaliano was renovating the fireplace in his fourth floor walk-up in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan when he found a charred and charming letter written to Santa Claus more than a century before. A bit of research disclosed that its writer was a 10-year-old girl whose father had died.
“Dear Santa Claus: I am very glad that you are coming around tonight. My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon, which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best.”
She signed it “Mary McGann” and added, “P.S. Please do not forget the poor.” Poor Mary is now long dead, but that last line, soaked with selflessness, need and loss, remains powerful still.
For children, Christmas seems to be central for their aspirations, hopes and dreams. They send off missives to the North Pole seeking toys and sometimes much more.
For adults, New Year’s seems to be the most common focal point of our personal reckoning. We make resolutions, try to plan the future and concoct schemes to improve our own impoverished lives as December begets January. But like the health clubs we join but rarely visit, our resolutions, plans and schemes, fat with promise, rarely weigh in as we’d like.
Dear Prudence, the Slate advice columnist, received this tragic and poignant letter, not altogether unlike young Mary McGann’s letter to Santa, seeking guidance rather than “something nice.”
I keep making terrible decisions and can’t seem to stop.
Last year I left my home, my family, my friends, a 20-year secure (if uninspired) career, to move 2,000 miles away to be with my first love. I’m 50 and I was his first love as well. He’s married and his wife invited me to their home. We decided to share him, although his wife and I were not interested in one another like that.
My job here fell through. My dog died. The romance flopped spectacularly. I still love him desperately. And when he told me that it was over and that he didn’t love me and never had, I begged him to reconsider, only to have his wife come in and start screaming at me to keep my f***ing hands off her f***ing husband.
I snapped. I tried to kill myself. I ended up in a coma and then went to the psych ward. I have been out for only a week. I’m back at work. I’m freshly diagnosed as bipolar I. I’m on new meds I don’t think are helping. Of course, I had to move out and I’m living a very lonely life. I do not feel stable and I cry for hours every night. The loneliness is killing me. I have psychiatric follow-up and intend to do what I can to survive and thrive.
My former boyfriend is now making noises about wanting to be ‘friends with benefits’ with me once I am ‘well again,’ which sounds more like he wants a self-supporting mistress that he can come and have sex with and then leave at will. I still love him but I realize this is a gross affront to my worth as a human being. I just don’t trust myself to say ‘no.’ Counselling may help but I still don’t trust myself to make good, healthy decisions. Everything I do blows up in my face.
Children like Mary McGann often show more restraint and common sense than their elders.
We adult humans are shockingly susceptible to bad ideas, ideas that routinely grow into poor decisions and then metastasize into behavior that may undermine, severely damage or even ruin our lives.
In the words of Kant, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”
We share a pitiable and cracked nature desperately in need of a repair job nobody seems qualified to perform.
We’d all like to think that we’re a lot better off than this advice seeker, and most of us probably are (if not nearly so self-aware), but vanishingly few of us have a consistently good track record of decision-making and none of us is as good as we think we are.
Even when we think we’re on the straight and narrow path to success, we are prone to wander.
What we end up with can be an apocalypse in slow motion or a sudden and violent date with destiny, but it is all too often bad decisions all the way down.
They are what the poet Dylan Thomas famously described as “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” of our lives and health, financial and otherwise.
Accordingly, the idea that we act in our own rational self-interest with any degree of regularity is, quite obviously, ludicrous and falsified every single day by our choices and our lives.
Worst of all, we readily recognize such self-destructive behavior in others but consistently and tragically lack the ability to see it in ourselves.
As Jason Zweig has sagely pointed out, the worst bias is the one you don’t know about.
We just can’t seem to help ourselves. In the immortal words of Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is us,” but we don’t seem very willing to try to do very much about it.
Information may be cheap in that we can essentially carry around all of the world’s knowledge in our pockets, but it is information that fails to inform – it is primarily weaponized for tribal conflict – making meaning expensive and elusive.
As Yale’s Dan Kahan explains, “What people ‘believe’ … doesn’t reflect what they know. It expresses who they are.”
Human nature and human behavior are not likely to change anytime soon.
Most fundamentally, our brains, our networks and even our social media accounts all conspire to put us and leave us in echo chambers rather than in places where we might find helpful correction.
We find what we’re looking for most of the time, but we’re not looking for the right things.
This general problem manifests itself most often in three ways, victimizing advisors and their clients alike. Oh, and it applies to life in general, too.
- We do what is easy instead of what is right.
- We feed our short-term impulses rather than our long-term interests.
- We do what we want to the detriment of what we need.
There are no easy remedies for our shortsightedness.
However, as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman said, “You are going to be more accurate and produce more accuracy by leaning against the biases.”
They aren’t quite resolutions, but a few – often interconnected – suggestions for such leaning follow.
- We need real and broad engagement.
- We need careful argument, which – quite naturally – requires actively listening to one’s opponents rather than merely pausing to figure out your next attack.
- We need understanding. If we assume the other side has nothing substantive in its favor, there is no basis for connection and, in all likelihood, we do not understand the other side or its positions.
- We need equanimity. As Tom Nichols argues, “Confirmation bias has to be worn away by a steady plodding refusal to accept the mistaken assumptions of other people.”
- Read. Widely and deeply.
- Write. If you cannot articulate your arguments on paper clearly and cogently, with good supporting evidence, you do not understand them well enough to be able even to have a very good idea if you are right or not.
- Think. We would all benefit from taking more time simply to reflect and consider.
- We need to demand evidence as a matter of consistent routine.
- Although the distinction between them is finer than we tend to think, we need to focus more on facts and less on interpretations, opinions and beliefs.
- We need to slow down. Measure twice. Cut once.
- We ought to simplify our lives and our processes.
- We need well-aligned incentives: “skin in the game.”
- We need to consider – really and truly – that we might be wrong.
- Encourage diversity (of ideas and people as well as in portfolios). Bill Bernstein provides a nice summary on this from an investment context. “Say to yourself every day, ‘I cannot predict the future, therefore I diversify.’”
- Emphasize empowered teams with people who do not all think alike and foster adversarial collaboration.
- We need to be accountable. That means allowing people to hold us accountable (and demanding that they do so) as well as building in accountability structures.
And there is one more, courtesy of Mary McGann: Please do not forget the poor. Happy New Year!