Having been a pessimist much of my life, I’ve recently been forced to face the possibility that maybe, just maybe, everything is going to be OK.
And, quite possibly, a lot better than OK.
This means considering upside scenarios that I never used to dare think about.
In other words, what if everything went horribly right?
The Escape Artist has recently returned from his annual field trip to Latitude festival. At festivals, you have plenty of time to sit around drinking, enjoying the sunshine and chatting with your mates reflecting on the fact that, right now, everything is fucking marvellous. And that we can’t rule out the possibility that things will get even better.
I recognise that the use of the word “everything” is problematic for some. There are obviously lots of problems in the world, which you needn’t bother to list out in the comments section below. That’s an over-served market elsewhere on the internet and the mainstream media (which is biased towards pessimism to grab our attention).
We are hard wired by evolution to pay attention to threats. So most of us are well able to imagine things going wrong. We need to think a bit more on how much is going right. And then to focus on what we can control to make things even better.
The more time that passes since my escape, the more I realise that The Prison Camp had squashed my optimism. Humour and optimism are like canaries in the coal mine. Their decline signals that you may have allowed yourself to get run down.
Our perception of the world is often inaccurate. It’s not just me. It was Mark Twain (and not The Escape Artist) that originally said that he’d lived through many terrible things in his life, none of which actually happened.
In particular, to name a few of the most common fears around financial independence, I haven’t yet had any of the following problems:
- I haven’t run out of money
- I haven’t run out of interesting things to do
- I haven’t been deserted by my wife
- I haven’t been cast out of polite society (you have to be in it first)
Like I said: yet.
If you enjoy comedy and teasing pampered middle class people (I’m allowed, I am one), going to a festival like Latitude is like going to heaven. There are all sorts of people there and generally they like a laugh.
One of my favourite random conversations was the one with the very funny young hippy woman that had just graduated from her creative arts degree. She was now looking for a job that didn’t involve effort, workplace clothing (i.e. bras*) or ever setting foot in an office. She memorably described such buildings as being places where she imagines Sauron The Dark Lord is inside and, like, totally training his army to destroy the world…yah?
As well as being in fits of laughter, The Escape Artist was somewhat conflicted at this point. Should I sternly wave my finger and hector her into getting a “proper” job and enduring 10-20 years of office politics and breast confinement whilst maintaining a savings rate of 50 – 70%?
Or should I keep it light and agree that, in my experience, Sauron was indeed at work inside those office buildings but in general his ambitions were limited to plotting ways to get Sky TV, a bigger parking space and the corner office? It’s all a bit of a let down really.
If nothing else, festivals are great place to remind yourself that there are many different ways of making a living and enjoying life. And, like festivals, financial independence is a process by which you decompress and chill out over time.
With 20:20 hindsight, I can see that I could have escaped several years earlier and earned money outside a full time office employment environment. The reason I didn’t do that is because I was a) pessimistic and b) totally focussed on my job. We all have blind spots and I didn’t even know whether financial independence was a real thing that was possible for normal people. Or for me.
One subject that seems to have stirred up quite a lot of good old fashioned British pessimism recently is the EU referendum. At the festival, there was the occasional reference to “Brexit”. I was told by one posh lady that her main reason for going to Latitude was because they wanted to get as far away as possible from any of those ghastly people that voted Leave. And, in dark tones, that she knew it wouldn’t end well.
But I also had some conversations with smart people that recognised there’s a sporting chance that we end up doing some sort of deal that keeps us drinking EU Lite with a side order of fudge…or we get a similar deal to Norway or Switzerland, the other socially awkward countries of Europe.
Having helped raise 3 children, I never rule out the possibility that things end in tears. But in general being a good parent involves keeping your shit together and not panicking. Or so my wife tells me.
Most people at the festival seemed unworried about the potential implications of Brexit. Obviously there were some concerns that the drop in the value of sterling might increase the cost of household essentials such as friendship bracelets, Mojitos and glow sticks. But in general people seemed to be coping pretty well.
Old habits die hard though, so there was a little trepidation when I got back and checked my portfolio. What if Brexit or terrorism or bracelet inflation had started the inevitable slide into the financial abyss?
Not yet. If like me you have a touch of puritan work ethic in you, there is something that feels odd about having just spent the best part of a week engaged in irresponsible drinking and coming back to see your net worth has gone up by a lot more than you spent.
Now it’s possible that The Escape Artist is living in a fool’s paradise. You don’t have to tell me that share prices have been boosted by the possibility of more central bank intervention. Or that import prices may rise in response to a lower £ : $ exchange rate.
Nor do you have to tell me that The Escape Artist may be struck down by a vengeful and puritanical higher power for having the sheer temerity to leave cubicle nation and generally get ideas above his lowly station in life.
We humans cant resist a bit of schadenfreude, so it would be a rich source of comedy were The Escape Artist to run out of money and be forced to go back to The Man and “bend the knee” as they say on Game of Thrones. But as time passes and my portfolio continues to grow like a weed, that’s looking more and more remote.
One reason I avoid internet debates about the safe withdrawal rate is that people arguing for a low rate (like there is one magic number that is “correct”) seem to believe they have a monopoly on pessimism (they would call it realism). Not true! The Escape Artist has an active imagination and can beat anyone at pessimism. So bring it on!
You say: What if a recession pushes share prices down 20%?
I say: What if hyperinflation wipes out 95% of the value of “safe” cash?
You say: What if the Federal Reserve were to raise interest rates?
I say: What if an alien civilisation invades the Earth and start digesting us as a source of bio fuel?
You say: What if global stock markets deliver poor returns over the next 10 years?
I say: What if my retinas detach from my eyeballs before I finish typin…
I could go on….but hopefully you get the idea.
The reason you don’t have to tell me what could go wrong is that I have already imagined thousands of ways myself. But I don’t let that stop me.
The stoics called this a premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils) whereby they imagined everything that could go wrong and then divided up their worries into things that they could control (which they focussed on) and things that they couldn’t (which they then ignored). All this about 2,000 years before Stephen Covey wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Optimism and pessimism are, to a large degree, based on the thoughts that we choose. So you might as well choose the state that helps you get shit done.
By all means prepare mentally for the worst. But then give your best and kick ass doing your job or something else that is (hopefully) constructive. And remember that most people are more effective when optimistic rather than gloomy. Optimists chase bigger goals, get sick less and get paid more. This is The Magic of Thinking Big.
Ironically, I suspect that my gift for visualising disaster has helped my investing returns. A bias to pessimism, together with having seen plenty of stuff go wrong in companies, means I’ve been able to avoid turkey investments.
So pessimism in investing has helped me. But for health and happiness, we need optimism in the rest of our life. And so now my focus is on what happens if everything continues to go horribly right.
* her joke