rationality

Rational Optimists

Many businesses are weathering the pandemic by staying agile. Factories are retrofitting their equipment, computer-bound workers are getting more flexible working conditions, and food services are thinking outside the dining room. 

We recently read about how one brand we love is coping with COVID-19. The company Life Is Good has been slapping their cheerful slogans on shirts and coffee mugs for more than 20 years, and they had some tough decisions to make this spring. 

We had the pleasure of hearing from co-founder Bert Jacobs a few years ago. What struck us was that their flavor of optimism embraces life for its messy beauty. 

After 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing—moments when it would’ve been easy to fall into despair—the company responded. They sent the proceeds from special themed products straight to charity. Today, they’ve transformed their production process to make space between workstations and to be able to print shirts on-demand. 

Their core belief that life is good hasn’t wavered, and it’s served them well. Jacobs explains that their community is one of “rational optimists.” These are people who like to say, “Life isn’t easy, and life isn’t perfect. But life is good.” 

(And for whatever it’s worth, as of early July, they report zero COVID cases among employees at Life Is Good.) 

That idea has served us well, too. Life has not been easy, but here we are today. Life is good. 

Clients, if you want to talk through this or anything else, call or write. 

Modern Rationality and Ancient Wisdom

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The modern age is largely a product of the Scientific Revolution. Scholars date the beginning of that period to the 1543 publication of the Copernicus treatise, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

Developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry changed our view of the world. It seemed that all the secrets of the universe could be unlocked by the scientific method. The idea of reason or rationality arose from this: an objective reality may be discovered by observation, experimentation, and logical thought.

It is comforting to think that everything can be figured out—and probably wrong.

Modern philosopher Nassim Taleb has argued that the role of randomness in our world is underappreciated. There is much that cannot be known until we find out: whether a company will struggle or thrive, whether a market will advance or decline, which bird of two sitting on a branch will be the first to take flight.

Before rationality, going back to ancient Greece, there was wisdom—expressed in the word sophrosyne. This ideal of character included traits such as moderation, prudence, and self-control. Think of it as wisdom.

It strikes us that wisdom helps investors fill in the gaps where rationality fails us. The idea of diversification is a way to deal with uncertainty: if we could rationally determine which holding was going to go up the most, who would need to diversify? And self-control plays a role in our methods. “Avoiding stampedes” takes quite a bit of it, for example.

We are big fans of quantifying the things we can quantify. Doing the math is a large part of our work. Reason—rationality—is key. But it also makes sense to exercise moderation and prudence when facing uncertainty—which is nearly always.

Modern rationality and ancient wisdom are a powerful combination. Clients, if you would like to discuss this or anything else on your agenda, please email us or call.


There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.

No strategy assures success or protects against loss.