An Integrated Advisor Network firm

After watching A Beautiful Mind my wife said, “I finally get you. You’re always trying to connect the dots.”
While it might be true that my brain processes information in a similar manner to John Nash’s brain, there is no question that its mental capacity is drastically inferior to his. I would say, using a blind date stereotype, my brain isn’t beautiful, but it has a nice personality.

It’s a personality that is driven by Asperger’s to find connections. As a result, people like me “…tend to be very good at finding meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data,” writes autism expert, Dr. Kenneth Roberson. “[However,] …the pattern recognition… fails when it involves recognizing and
understanding how people operate. For some reason, non-human information is easier to recognize, sort out and understand than social information.”

This quirk in my thinking, which is connected to bottom-up thinking, is why you would be more comfortable engaging me at work than engaging with me over coffee. Bottom-up thinking, as explained by Samantha Craft in Bottoms-Up: The Innovative Thinking Style of the Asperger’s Mind, is the reverse of the norm. “The typical- minded [top-down thinking] person is taking in the concept before the details, based on collective memories; the autistic mind, due to a bombardment of sensory clues, is taking in the details before the concept.” And because my attention is on the details, it is hard for me to follow the gist of a conversation or understand context, which is why I am not a good choice for a chat over coffee. I would either irritate you with my inability to engage, bore you with details of an esoteric subject, or confuse you by going off on one of my many tangents.

On the other hand, Craft points out that you’d be more comfortable working with me than socializing with me because my bottom-up approach “…is indispensable to innovative thinking.” According to Martin Silvertant in Thinking Styles in Autistic People, “A top-down thinker sees a set of symptoms and fits it into a prior box. Thoughts and actions are contextualized based upon prior knowledge—and thus, are also constrained by this. The autistic mind is not similarly constrained, and is thus more prone to generating novel ideas, and finding innovative solutions.”

Renowned author and speaker on autism, Temple Grandin, says “being a bottom-up thinker keeps me
grounded in the facts; autism prevents emotions from clouding my judgment.” However, neuroscience has discovered that most decisions are emotional. There are no Joe Fridays who can stick to “Just the facts, ma’am.” The advantage of bottom-up thinking isn’t the removal of emotion, it is the putting of details before concepts. It’s like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without the box cover. We have to put the pieces together before we get the picture. This makes us far less susceptible to confirmation bias, which Colby College’s CogBlog says goes “hand in hand with top-down thinking [and is] …one of the most dangerous types of cognitive biases… [because it] affects our decision making by [drawing attention] towards evidence confirming what we already believe to be true… while ignoring conflicting evidence which may hold more gravity.”

In his iconic Stanford graduation speech, Steve Jobs stressed, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward;
you can only connect them looking backwards.” Believing you can is a misconception that top-down thinking often confirms. To avoid this bias, it is important to incorporate bottom-up thinking when making decisions. With a clearer picture of the situation more innovative and effective solutions can be found, which is why I prefer my questioning bottom-up thinking mind to a confident top-down thinking one. It’s not the mind of a genius and its personality is quirky, but because it follows the dots instead of its preconceived assumptions, it just might be a beautiful mind.

Mark Twain contemptuously quipped that New Year’s “…is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” While Twain’s assessment was based on unscientific anecdotal evidence, the most recent statistical data backs up his observation. A Forbes survey finds the average resolution lasts 3.7 months and only 6% make it a year.

If you are an optimist, you would be confident of success, whereas a pessimist would expect to fail. Elon Musk on the other hand thinks success has nothing to do with optimism or pessimism, a point he punctuated with a crude expletive when he was asked about his mindset in 2008 when Tesla couldn’t produce more than a couple hundred vehicles and every SpaceX rocket had exploded. For Musk, success requires the relentless self-discipline to never give up. As he vowed, “We’re going to make it happen. As God is my witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”

The findings of Peter Hollins, author of NEURO-Discipline, support the effectiveness of Musk’s determination. Hollins is an expert in the psychology of peak human performance – how to unlock our potential and create a path toward success. Unfortunately, our brains are wired to take the path of least resistance. As Hollins so bluntly puts it, “…our brains are simply programmed to do as little work as possible, seek maximum pleasure, and generally bask in the sun like a house cat…” His prescription for overcoming this tendency is self-discipline -- maddeningly simple to understand, but frustratingly hard to do. “You must give up what you want now for what you want most…”

In a paper, Short-Term Thinking Is a Long-Term Problem, Stelian Nenkov warns “Our brains are wired to think in the moment, [not long-term. So,] investing responsibly [and] saving for retirement… do not come naturally and will require us to suppress our short-term instincts if they are to have a chance at
succeeding.” Ironically, technology has made this more difficult. The copious digitization of information has led to the odd outcome that “Our problem is no longer a lack of information but the overabundance of it,” observes Nenkov. And all the information providers out there are fighting for our attention by
appealing to our “…dream of living in a world where we get everything we want without trying too hard or being scared or making any sacrifice,” warns Hollins. Therefore, he is adamant that “… a massive part of success comes down to self-discipline and self-discipline is at its core made of nothing but the willingness to endure discomfort.”

I learned this principle as a kid from my dad, as a teenager from my track coach, and as a young man from my mentor. Being active is important to me, so one morning I got up and did my exercises. And then I simply repeated it 20,000 times over the next 55 years. What’s interesting is not once in those 20,000 repetitions did I ever feel like doing it. I also applied this principle to investing. Once I learned the key to investment success was diversification and the discipline to hold steady in volatile markets, I repeated that practice every day since, especially in the times when it was most difficult to do. As Hollins explains, “Success in the bigger picture belongs to those who have mastered the ability to tolerate a degree of distress and uncertainty… there are no shortcuts, no easy life hacks, no
quick tricks.”

We live in an uncertain world, and we are predisposed to laziness and fear. Basically, we have two strikes against us before we even step-up to the plate in the morning. If we want better health, better finances, and better relationships (the three most popular New Year’s resolutions), we must do things that are uncomfortable. It’s not easy to “…master your mind and defy the odds,” says former Navy Seal David Goggins. “It's a lot more than mind over matter. It takes relentless self-discipline to schedule suffering into your day, every day.”

I love harmony, so I rarely sing along with the congregation in church. My singing is best left for the shower. The problem is my timing and pitch control. My lack of rhythm was made painfully clear to me in 5th grade when my band director exclaimed in frustration, “You tap in one time and play in another. And neither one is right.” And my singing is even worse than my playing because I can’t hit the right notes.

There are three basic components of music – melody, rhythm, and harmony. Melody is a succession of notes, and rhythm is their pattern and emphasis. Harmony is a different series of notes that binds the rhythm and melody together, creating a pleasing sound and an emotional connection with the listener.

Harmony in groups is similar. When it is achieved it is not only pleasing, but neuroscience has discovered it improves judgment and the discovery of truth. The research shows that on our own we often sing the melody of truth off pitch and out of rhythm. As Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind, “We should take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is… [it has] evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people… [We] are not after truth but after arguments supporting our views.”

Teaming up with someone else doesn’t necessarily improve the situation since, as Three Dog Night reminds us, “Two can be as bad as one.” According to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, groups can be worse than individuals if everyone is singing the same melody. In Noise, his book on judgment errors, he cautions that “…when individuals hold certain beliefs, they become more extreme in their beliefs when they interact with others who hold similar views… When group members drift in a certain direction, individual members will double-down on that perspective. This drives the group towards extremism.” According to Kahneman, such polarization is insidious because, in addition to making groups “…more extreme… [it makes them] …more unified, more confident and more …error [prone]…” So, instead of making it easier to find truth, Haidt says that group “…binding usually involves some blinding…”

This blinding can lead to a sense of moral superiority and arrogance toward those outside our group, which is why, as Haidt points out, the Bible calls us hypocrites and admonishes us to “…first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." Haidt tells us that can be done by bringing people together that are intellectually and ideological different but “…feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly…” Such groups allow “…individuals to use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others… [and thus] produce good reasoning… [instead of extreme views].” And the way to bring people together is to reach out with empathy – the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Author Brené Brown tell us, seeing empathetically is “…simply listening… withholding Judgment [and] emotionally connecting…”

When I get to heaven, I will sing with the angels. Until then I will keep silent because my singing sounds like hell. Silence is also the key to harmonious relationships that give us new insights in our quest for truth. It’s a choice. We can march to the beat of our own drum and justify our beliefs. We can become even more extreme and wrong by congregating in groups, singing the same melody. Or we can silently listen to and learn to harmonize with people that are different. It’s not easy, because we are divided into ideological teams of us versus them, unable to see that they are good people with important things to say. Instead of following the Biblical imperative to be “…quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger,” Haidt says “We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense…” In reality, we are all blinded by the melodious misconceptions we believe, and our team reinforces. However, there is hope in the message of Christmas – Truth came down from heaven, so the blind may see.

My mother used to read bedtime stories to me when I was young. While she read the usual children’s books of the day, she also sprinkled in a good dose of folklore, fairy tales, and mythology. I was particularly fascinated by Greek mythology and have kept that interest up over the years. Recently, I reread the story of the god Apollo who was so infatuated by the priestess Cassandra that he gave her the ability to see the future to gain favor with her. However, when she didn’t return that favor, he could not revoke the gift of foresight, but he could nullify it by cursing her so that no one would believe her.

You might think it would be difficult to manipulate people so that they don’t believe someone who is consistently right, but it actually isn’t all that hard. All you have to do is change the perceived credibility of a person by making them unlikable.

Research by Pilditch, Madsen, and Custer (published in the National Library of Medicine) explained, there are “…two main routes to determine veracity; the perceived credibility of the source, and direct evaluation via first-hand evidence, i.e. testing the advice against observation.” Their overwhelming conclusion was that the veracity of information is “…interpreted in light of the perceived credibility of the source, such that beliefs from high trust sources are taken up, whilst beliefs from low trust sources are treated with suspicion and potentially rejected…” And once a source is perceived as credible (or not credible) it is difficult to change that perception. As the researchers discovered, “…sources accompanied by a high trust cue not only get away with communicating falsehoods, but see their perceived credibility increase, whilst sources accompanied by low trust cues not only have truthful communications rejected, but have their low trust penalized even further.”

The reason for this odd outcome is because we perceive credibility emotionally, instead of factually. According to Professor Isabelle Jia of Claremont Colleges, there are “…two main components [of credibility]: 1) expertise and 2) trustworthiness.” However, there is a third factor “…related to credibility, likability…” And while it “…is not considered to be a component of credibility…” likability is a factor that significantly influences our perception of a person’s credibility. As a matter of fact, Robert V. Levine in Persuasion: So Easily Fooled emphasizes that “More than any single quality, we trust people we like.”

I first became aware of the power of likability from “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Daniel Kahneman writes that “…when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” So, when an executive was asked the difficult question (should I invest in Ford stock?), “…the answer to an easier and related question (do I like Ford cars?) came readily to his mind and determined his choice.” Similarly, when evaluating the ability of experts, we subconsciously substitute likeability for credibility, because it is so much easier than finding answers to questions about expertise and trustworthiness. What’s even more alarming, says Philip Tetlock (an expert on experts), is we “…don’t demand evidence of accuracy [from trusted experts] …Accuracy is seldom determined after the fact and is almost never done with sufficient regularity and rigor that conclusions can be drawn.”

Politicians know what Apollo knew, we don’t believe people we don’t like, which is why negative campaigning is so pervasive. Conversely, advertisers are aware that we trust people we do like. In other words, we judge the messenger instead of the message and we judge the messenger on the wrong criteria. As a fiduciary (or other times good judgment is needed), I can’t substitute likes for observable evidence. I need to diligently evaluate the veracity of information I use and the credibility of experts I trust, instead of accepting or rejecting messages and messengers based on likes and dislikes. By the way, the likeability bias is a curse we all share. It’s not avoidable, but it is manageable if we’re aware of it.

I was having a conversation with my wife about the explosion of knowledge, when I heard
myself say -- “Just because we are more knowledgeable doesn’t mean we are less ignorant.”
While it isn’t unusual for me to express thoughts out loud, this one caught my attention
because I deal with knowledgeable experts all the time and I am supposed to be one myself.

To connect the dots, I looked to Daniel Kahneman’s new book (Noise: A Flaw in Human
Judgment), in which he explains that objective ignorance stems from “…intractable uncertainty
(what cannot possibly be known) and imperfect information (what could be known but isn’t).
And as theoretical physicist John Wheeler counterintuitively informs us, ignorance is growing
because “We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge
grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” However, Kahneman says the real problem isn’t
ignorance, it is that experts “…underestimate their objective ignorance.” They are strikingly
oblivious to their limitations, which affects not only their “…ability to predict events but even
their ability to understand them.” So, when it comes to political or financial events, where we
really need to know what to do, the answers from the “…experts are stunningly unimpressive.”

My qualifier about “political and financial events” is important here because objective
ignorance has qualifiers. The reliability of expert judgment has everything to do with the
environment in which an expert is operating. In what Kahneman calls high validity
environments there is regularity, so cues and patterns can be learned. He gives examples of
physicians, nurses, athletes, and firefighters as experts in “…complex but fundamentally orderly
(high validity) situations.” On the other, he notes that political and financial environments have
such low validity that he refers to them as “wicked” – noisy environments with lots of random
variables. In such environments the limits on expert judgment “…is set not by the cognitive
limitation of forecasters but by their intractable objective ignorance of the future.”

Admitting that the future is unpredictable, Kahneman asserts, “…might seem to be stating the
obvious… However, the obviousness of this fact is matched only by the regularity with which it
is ignored…” The reason for the blindness is that experts (as do the rest of us) trust their
intuition, when “…the facts deny them the sense of understanding they crave.” Interestingly,
the experts with the clearest theories of “…how the world works were the most confident and
the least accurate.” So, it appears that the cautionary advice of poet Alexander Pope is as
pertinent today as it was 300 years ago – “Be sure yourself and your own reach to know, How
far your genius, taste, and learning go; Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet, And
mark that point where sense and dullness meet.” Ruminating on this, I realized that knowledge
without humility leads to overconfidence, increasing ignorance instead of decreasing it.

In the “wicked” world of finance, where a noisy environment conspires with confidence to
make even the best experts ignorant of their ignorance, it is important to be humble and admit
mistakes. As scholar C. S. Lewis advises, “If you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an
about-turn and walking back to the right road.” And that is why when I know I am on the right
road, I consider I could be wrong because confidence is a feeling that stems from both
knowledge and ignorance, but you never know the point where one ends and the other begins.

Recently I gave two different women diamond engagement rings. I even got them together in the same
room, so they could compare rings. Not only was there no jealousy, but they were also both absolutely
thrilled for each other. Since I’m neither the world’s biggest jerk (debatable) nor the greatest lover
(laughable), what gives?

What gives is one ring is a memory and the other is a promise. The first ring belonged to my wife,
Barbara. It was a symbol of our love and lifelong commitment to each other. When I put it on her finger
45 years ago, I promised to take her as my wife “…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better
or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.” The
chorus to a White Lion song says, “All through your life, I’ll be by your side, till death do us part.” And
that was where I was, by her side, when death parted us two and a half years ago.

That ring is now a family heirloom that will be passed down for generations to come. It is a reminder, to
paraphrase Proverbs 13:22, that through a life well lived, Barbara left an inheritance for her children and
for a thousand generations to come. My oldest granddaughter is now the keeper of Barbara’s ring.

The second engagement ring is on the finger of my wife, Jill. It is a promise to love her and a
commitment to stand by her. On the Handmade Engagement Rings website, it is noted that “in antiquity
it was believed that the ring finger had a direct connection to the heart and so the partner put the ring
on the left hand of his fiancée - the side of the heart – as a sign of infinite love and eternal connection.”

Love may be infinite and eternal, but Ecclesiastes reminds us that life isn’t. It is short, fleeting, and
meaningless. As the Message version so graphically describes, “…there’s neither work to do nor
thoughts to think in the company of the dead, where you’re most certainly headed.” While this might
not be encouraging, it is realistic. I know full well after watching a spouse die and then three weeks later
being diagnosed with kidney cancer that death is an impossibility that suddenly becomes a reality.

However, accepting this reality is not morbid or depressing. In a strange way, it is quite freeing because
you start thinking about how to live. In Living Life Backwards, David Gibson mentions that “We tend to
live as if the one thing that is certain will never come… [but] my death is certain… it is the timing… that is
uncertain… So, what should life in the meantime look like?” His answer, which he gleaned from
Ecclesiastes, is to “enjoy the gifts God has given you, the simple things that give you pleasure.”

Gibson says that “Gift, not gain, is your new motto. Life is not about the meaning that you can create for
your own life, or… that you can find in… your work and ambitions. You do not find meaning in life simply
by finding a partner or having kids or being rich. You find meaning when you realize that God has given
you life in his world and any one of those things as a gift to enjoy.”

That’s why Ecclesiastes directs us to “Enjoy life with the woman you love. Cherish every moment of the
fleeting life which God has given you under the sun. For this is your lot in life, your great reward for all of
your hard work under the sun.” And that’s why Gibson urges us to “…cherish and protect the person
God has given you… If you are too busy to enjoy the life you have together, then you are too busy.”

I gave two rings. One reminded me life is short and the other that a spouse is a precious gift. Based on
that reality, I changed the way I live. I see my life, wife, family, and friends as gifts to be enjoyed for as
long as I have left. This Christmas, if you love someone, I encourage you to -- in the words of Cody
Johnson -- “Hold 'em as long and as strong and as close as you can, 'til you can't.” Merry Christmas