I’m Just Now Realizing How Stupid We Are

Some things I've learned.

Jun 11, 2014 at 4:55PM

This is my 3,000th column. I've learned a tremendous amount in writing about investing and the economy. Here are a few of the big lessons. 

I've learned that changing your mind is one of the most difficult things we do. It is far easier to fool yourself into believing a falsehood than admit a mistake.

I've learned that people are terrible at predicting their own emotions. You will be more fearful when the market is crashing and more greedy when it is surging than you think. 

I've learned that strong political beliefs in either direction limit your ability to make rational decisions more than almost anything else.

I've learned that short-term thinking is at the root of most of our problems, whether it's in business, politics, investing, or work.

I've learned that debt can cause more social problems than some drugs, yet drugs are illegal and debt is tax deductible.

I've learned that finance is actually very simple, but it's made to look complicated to justify fees.

I've learned that self-interest is the most powerful force in the world. People in unethical, predatory, and nonsense jobs will do mental gymnastics to convince themselves they're doing the right thing. Those who criticize the behavior of "greedy Wall Street bankers" underestimate their tendency to do the same thing if offered an eight-figure salary.

I've learned that people are twice as biased as they think they are, which is precisely why biases are dangerous.

I've learned that unsustainable things can last years, even decades, longer than people think.

I've learned that those who think "it's different this time" are the four most dangerous words are wrong. It is always different this time, as no two recessions, recoveries, or market cycles are alike. What's dangerous is assuming the future will perfectly resemble the past.

I've learned that journalists' need to write far exceeds the number of things that need to be written. No writer can say to their boss, "There's nothing important to write about today," although it is the truth most days.

I've learned that no one cares how accurate pundits' forecasts are. Those who listen to pundits are most interested in having their own views confirmed. Accuracy is an afterthought.

I've learned that there's a strong correlation between knowledge and humility. People who spend 10 minutes on Google studying monetary policy think they have it all figured out, while people with Ph.D.s and decades of experience throw up their hands in frustration. The more you study economics, the more you realize how little we know about it.

I've learned that what looks like tomorrow's biggest threat almost never is. Most of what people worried about over the last five years -- inflation, rising interest rates, a double-dip recession, stagnant markets, Greece leaving the euro, a government default -- never occurred. The biggest actual risk for most of us was something few talked about: excessive pessimism.

I've learned that data can do more harm than good. There is so much data available today that you can convincingly prove almost anything by cherry-picking with industrial strength. This breeds confirmation bias, as people start with an answer then find data to back it up.

I've learned that a willingness to wait longer than other people is your biggest natural edge. If you can think about the next five years while everyone else is fixated on the next five months, you have an advantage that makes high-frequency trading, insider tips, and corporate loopholes look like a joke.

I've learned that we can't tell the difference between luck and skill. Out of millions of investors, a few will be phenomenally successful due to luck alone, yet no one is willing to admit they are one of the lucky ones.

I've learned that there's no such thing as a normal market or a normal economy. Some people spend their lives "waiting for things to get back to normal" without realizing that stocks and the economy are always in some state of craziness.

I've learned that when it comes to earning high investment returns, market volatility is like an entrance fee at an amusement park. But few investors want to pay the market's entrance fee. They'd rather sneak in the back door, hop the fence, and outsmart security -- all of which is stressful and likely to fail. At both the amusement park and in investing, they'd have a better experience if they just paid the damn entrance fee.

I've learned that Winston Churchill was right when he said, "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing -- after they've tried everything else." Congress is a basket case 99% of the time, but when things are truly at the precipice it gets things done.

I've learned that people's expectations grow faster than their wealth. The country is richer than it's ever been. I don't think it's as happy as it's ever been.

I've learned that how you reacted to past bubbles is a good indication of how you'll act to future ones. The same people buying dot-com stocks in 1999 were buying Miami condos in 2006 and gold in 2011. 

I've learned that "do nothing" is the best advice for almost everyone almost all the time.

I learned that Godwin's Law is totally accurate.

What about you?

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics. 

Free 30-day trial: The Motley Fool's flagship service
Tom and David Gardner founded The Motley Fool over 20 years ago with the goal of helping the world invest...better. Their flagship service, Stock Advisor, has helped thousands of investors take control of their financial lives and beat the market. Click here to sign up today.

Contact Morgan Housel at mhousel@fool.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

1 Key Step to Get Rich

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better. Whether that’s helping people overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we can help.

Feb 1, 2016 at 4:54PM

To be perfectly clear, this is not a get-rich action that my Foolish colleagues and I came up with. But we wouldn't argue with the approach.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich" rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

"The Motley Fool aims to build a strong investment community, which it does by providing a variety of resources: the website, books, a newspaper column, a radio [show], and [newsletters]," wrote (the clearly insightful and talented) money reporter Kathleen Elkins. "This site has something for every type of investor, from basic lessons for beginners to investing commentary on mutual funds, stock sectors, and value for the more advanced."

Our mission at The Motley Fool is to help the world invest better, so it's nice to receive that kind of recognition. It lets us know we're doing our job.

Whether that's helping the entirely uninitiated overcome their fear of stocks all the way to offering clear and successful guidance on complicated-sounding options trades, we want to provide our readers with a boost to the next step on their journey to financial independence.

Articles and beyond

As Business Insider wrote, there are a number of resources available from the Fool for investors of all levels and styles.

In addition to the dozens of free articles we publish every day on our website, I want to highlight two must-see spots in your tour of fool.com.

For the beginning investor

Investing can seem like a Big Deal to those who have yet to buy their first stock. Many investment professionals try to infuse the conversation with jargon in order to deter individual investors from tackling it on their own (and to justify their often sky-high fees).

But the individual investor can beat the market. The real secret to investing is that it doesn't take tons of money, endless hours, or super-secret formulas that only experts possess.

That's why we created a best-selling guide that walks investors-to-be through everything they need to know to get started. And because we're so dedicated to our mission, we've made that available for free.

If you're just starting out (or want to help out someone who is), go to www.fool.com/beginners, drop in your email address, and you'll be able to instantly access the quick-read guide ... for free.

For the listener

Whether it's on the stationary exercise bike or during my daily commute, I spend a lot of time going nowhere. But I've found a way to make that time benefit me.

The Motley Fool offers five podcasts that I refer to as "binge-worthy financial information."

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. It's also featured on several dozen radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable ... and I don't say that simply because the hosts all sit within a Nerf-gun shot of my desk. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers contain timeless advice, so you might want to go back to the beginning with those. The other three take their cues from the market, so you'll want to listen to the most recent first. All are available at www.fool.com/podcasts.

But wait, there's more

The book and the podcasts – both free ... both awesome – also come with an ongoing benefit. If you download the book, or if you enter your email address in the magical box at the podcasts page, you'll get ongoing market coverage sent straight to your inbox.

Investor Insights is valuable and enjoyable coverage of everything from macroeconomic events to investing strategies to our analyst's travels around the world to find the next big thing. Also free.

Get the book. Listen to a podcast. Sign up for Investor Insights. I'm not saying that any of those things will make you rich ... but Business Insider seems to think so.


Compare Brokers