wisdom

NEITHER HERE NOR THERE

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The secrets to success aren’t locked in the past, but they also aren’t waiting to be revealed in some crystal ball. History and context have plenty to teach us, and we ought to prepare as best we can for the future.

But success depends on our ability to move among the past, present, and future. That’s the key.

Imagine if we relied solely on the past. Human tendency leads us to believe current trends will continue. We are masters at spotting patterns and weaving details into coherent tapestries. (Those are the moves that kept us alive when our main job was to avoid predators and find sustenance.)

Today our brains try to do the same thing—to a fault, sometimes. Economic information surrounds us, and we want to find the story in it quickly. The brain wants to spot the pattern and react. When we learn that a company is finding some early success, for example, we want to conclude, “It’s a rocket ship, look at it go!”

Understanding the current trajectory is important, but the patterns of history are especially useful. Every age has fallen prey to some sort of mania. Tulips in 16th century Holland? Tech stocks in the 1990s? Not such different moments. There’s an edge in both knowing the history and being able to apply its lessons.

But what if that’s all we have, the wisdom of history? Well, we miss the big turning points, those moments of departure. We have to understand why and when a change might occur. The future will not be like the past: a proactive approach may keep us ahead of the pack.

In business, even when our past methods and processes have served you and us well, the world keeps spinning: we can expect change, which means we’d do well to keep an eye on potential opportunities, bargains, and possibilities.

My education includes a degree in history. When I was in college and developed a growing interest in business, I spent time on my own in the campus library with The Wall Street Journal and The Journal of Commerce. Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s tough to say which has been more valuable to clients—the history studies or the business reading.

How we got here and where we’re going are two different conversations. So the secrets to success are neither here nor there—literally. They’re in the wisdom in between, and we have to keep perspective.

Clients, if you would like to discuss this or any other topic, please email us or call.

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.