It is normal for me to start out a round of golf with bogies or double bogies on the first three or four holes. “This is a story I have heard so often,” muses teaching pro Karl Moris, “that we could label this Poor Start Syndrome.” I label it something else, but since I only swear on the golf course, I won’t mention it here. Whatever the name, I always attributed the slow starts to stiffness, but recently have come to realize that it has more to do with fear than flexibility.
On the first tee I found myself worrying about all the things that could go wrong. “And for most of us [such thinking], creates an even bigger challenge in a game that is already very difficult,” says mental golf coach David MacKenzie. Talking with my 11-year-old granddaughter, Sally, I discovered that she faces similar issues riding horses. She said that horses can sense your mood and if you are fearful when approaching a jump, they will not go over it. To succeed she said, “You have to push through the fear and be totally committed to the jump.”
Just as Sally’s horse senses her emotions, my body senses my fear, releasing adrenaline, which tenses my muscles and over activates my brain. When that happens, my body does what a horse does and won’t do what it is supposed to do. Sports psychologist, Jon Stabler warns that “…when extreme fear is happening, we may lose touch with ourselves… It may feel like... our bodies are doing whatever they want [and] we have no direct control.” To control the fear, he explains that “your thoughts create the fear. Control your thoughts and you can stop the fear and resulting reactions and poor performance.” To accomplish this, Ellen Rudolph, an expert on the mental side of golf, says you must “…believe in your strategy [and] stay committed to the shot you’ve planned…”
Stepping onto the first tee or approaching a jump triggers reflexive fear. However, Jason Zweig in Your Money and Your Brain emphasizes that “Humans are reflexively afraid not just of physical dangers, but also of any social signal that transmits an alarm.” Stock market volatility and the resulting hysteria in the financial media will definitely trigger such responses. And “…when a potential threat is financial instead of physical,” he warns, “reflexive fear will put you in danger more often than it will get you out of it.”
It will get you in trouble because the odds are against you. That’s why after reviewing the statistics, Ben Carlson stated in a 2020 Fortune article, “Selling out and waiting for the dust to settle is… a horrible plan.” The statistics are not even close. According to Investopedia, “Nobel Laureate William Sharpe… concluded that an investor employing a market timing strategy must be correct 74% of the time to beat the [buy-and-hold] benchmark portfolio.”
However, even though the odds are against cutting your losses and running, I can’t help thinking of the lyrics to an Elvis song, “It feels so right… How can it be wrong?” Its feels right even though it’s wrong, says neuroscientist Daniel Kahneman, because in the unpredictable world of investing, human judgment is unreliable. His solution to the problem is “…to replace human judgment with formal rules that use the data… to produce.... a decision.” And that data suggests that prudent diversification and the discipline to stay the course is a better decision. In hindsight it may not turn out to be the best decision. But in an uncertain world there is usually no other prudent choice.
Fear creates an even bigger challenge for investors in an endeavor that is already very difficult. To rise to the challenge, you need to slow down your overactive adrenaline-fueled thinking. You do that by knowing the statistics, believing in a rules-based strategy, and staying committed to it. As Sammy Davis, Jr. said about dealing with fear, “You always have two choices: your commitment versus your fear.”
“Who are you and how do you know my name?” Those were my friend’s thoughts after two complete strangers greeted him at the Newark airport with, “Welcome back to the United States, Mr. York.” Without any explanation they asked, “Can you follow us?” It is at times like this that you wish you could be like Liam Neeson’s character in the movie Taken and say, "I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want… I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills… that make me a nightmare for people like you.” Or then again, you could be like my friend and quietly go with them.
My friend is Matt York and he had just returned from Guinea. It was the height of the Ebola crisis, and everyone was running for their lives to get away from the epidemic. Matt, on the other hand, risked his by racing into the middle of it. And while he didn’t look as imposing as Neeson’s movie character, he did possess a very particular set of skills that could help stem the tide of the Ebola nightmare in West Africa.
Matt is the founder and president of Videomaker Inc., a leading publisher on video production. He is also the executive director of illuminAid – a non-profit he founded in 2008 to educate the world’s poorest people through low-cost video technology. He takes no salary, donates his time, and uses his skills in video electronics to encourage positive deviation. Positive deviation is an approach that empowers people to break free from the constraints of ingrained traditional behaviors and to establish more productive ones that lead to better solutions to common problems in their community.
In Guinea, traditional burial behaviors affected the Ebola crisis because the virus isn’t spread by sneezing or coughing but by direct contact with body fluids. So, the funeral ritual of everyone drinking from a cup that had been pressed against the decedent’s lips was a problem. The positive deviation desired was the replacement of this harmful practice with the removal and cremation of the body. To facilitate the
change, Matt and his team taught local leaders how to create videos and provided them with the solar powered cameras and projectors needed to shoot and show them. However, the content and messaging were left to the local leadership because information alone is not enough to change behavior. It must be presented and communicated in ways outsiders would fail to grasp and only locals could understand.
The researchers at The University of Chicago’s Financial Education Initiative discovered that traditional financial education suffers from the same problem. Financial behaviors aren’t significantly changed by teaching objective financial facts because people’s “behaviors are shaped by what students bring to a financial education course and the deeply personal lens through which they approach financial literacy.”
As an advisor I must be aware of such ingrained behaviors in my clients that are the result of how our brains are hardwired for financial failure and exacerbated by poor role modeling. To encourage change, clients need education about such things as debt, spending, risk, return, compounding, taxes, gifting, and more. But it has to be done in ways they can understand and relate to. It must address their hopes and fears, their learned behaviors from life experiences, and the environment in which they live.
It turns out the two suits in Newark were there to escort Matt to an isolated area for Ebola testing. They knew their mission (to prevent the spread of Ebola to the US) and they knew that Matt had been to West Africa. The key to affecting positive deviation is similar – knowing the objective and knowing your audience. That way you can make and implement an effective plan to change ingrained behaviors for the better. For Matt that means providing local leaders with the video equipment and training they need to effectively speak to their community. As an advisor that means knowing my clients and personalizing my approach based on individual behaviors and the factors behind those behaviors.
You can donate to IlluminAid at www.illuminaid.org/donate
“Why is this person calling my dad William?” was the question my daughter was asking. We were at the
Sheraton on Kauai for scuba lessons. The plan was for my daughter, her two older children, and myself
to finish a two-day in-water certification program while her husband watched the younger girls.
Unfortunately, I was scrubbed at the last minute because of a surgery 6 months earlier. So, my son-inlaw took my place diving and I was left babysitting the 8- and 10-year-old girls.
After a few hours hanging around the pool, I got bored. Going through the list of activities at the
resort, the only things currently available were ukulele and hula lessons. Having nothing better to
do, I signed us up for both and headed over to the recreation area. The same Hawaiian women
taught both classes. I told her that her name sounded like “Ooh Eeh Ooh Ah Aah Ting Tang Walla
Walla Bing Bang” to me. She said the first syllable was similar, so I opted to call her “Ooh.” She was
struggling with my name as well and decided it would be easier if she just called me “William.” And
that is why when she saw me hangingout at the pool with my daughter she yelled, “William!” and I
waved and yelled back “Ooh!”
I found out 20 years ago that the IRS will occasionally do something similar to what Ooh and I did
when writing regulations to interpret complex laws enacted by Congress. One such example is Section
401(a)(9)(B)(i)(II) of the tax codes which says if an IRA owner “…dies before his entire interest has
been distributed to him, the remaining portion of such interest will be distributed at least as rapidly
as under the method of distributions being used…” In their first attempt to interpret the “at least as
rapidly” clause, the IRS in the 1987 proposed regulations required the IRA owner to make an
irrevocable election on their required beginning date regarding the choice of beneficiary and the
calculation method to be used when distributing their IRA over their lifetime and after their death.
The rules, while a faithful interpretation of the law, were extremely difficult to understand and the
outcomes could be dramatically different, depending on luck and the choices made. IRA owners were
confused about their choices and IRA custodians were confused about the required payments.
Into this mess, I stepped with software that helped IRA owners make decisions based on the best
odds and allowed custodians to easily calculate the amount of the required minimum distributions
(RMD), even in the most convoluted cases. A good example of how simple it was to use occurred in
1999 when I was in Portland consulting with an attorney. I told her that the information in the RMD
report her firm had paid a few thousand dollars for was wrong. And I bet her that a local friend’s 11-
year-old daughter could get the right answers, with no help, in less than 10 minutes, which she did.
The accuracy and ease of use of my software caught the attention of some of the country’s top estate
attorneys, a number of the largest financial publications, the biggest IRA custodians, and even the IRS.
I was counting the millions I was going to earn when the IRS decided to change their interpretation of
the “at least as rapidly” rule to one that significantly deviated from the wording of the law but was
easier to understand and apply. It was also much friendlier to IRA owners and especially to their
beneficiaries, who were almost guaranteed the ability to stretch inherited IRA payments over their life
In the new proposed regulations in 2000 and the subsequent final regulations, the IRS did what Ooh
and I did: arbitrarily substituted ease for accuracy. Instead of faithfully interpreting the law, they
basically said 'the law is whatever we say it is.' In 2020, Congress, in the Secure Act, trumped the IRS
and legally changed the meaning of the “at least as rapidly” rule and this time made it very clear that
in the majority of cases it means 10 years. For those beneficiaries of inherited IRAs who will no
longer have the opportunity to stretch payments over their lifetime, “Ooh! That hurts.”
Just north of Monterey on Highway 101 there is a time warp. The other day I entered it as a 70-year-old in a 2018 Camry, and for a brief moment in time became a 20-year-old in a 1970 Barracuda with a surfboard on top. It didn’t just feel like I was 20, I really was 20. On describing the sensation to my sister, she immediately knew the spot: a grove of eucalyptus trees with a sandstone monolith marking the entrance. It is a surreal experience that begins with an inner tympanic pounding that builds to a 2001 Space Odyssey trumpet fanfare as you round the bend and glimpse the magical forest.
There are two explanations for this sensation. Either I entered a wormhole through space and time, or my memories were so vivid they seemed real. Determining which alternative is right is not easy, because the workings of the universe and of our minds are far more bizarre and surreal than we can imagine.
Neuroscientists are looking inward for answers and physicists are looking outward and they’re both having their perception of reality blown inside out. Neuroscience tell us that what we perceive to be real is actually our brain’s best guess interpretation of information provided by the senses. However, In The Case Against Reality the authors write “On the other side are quantum physicists, marveling at the strange fact that quantum systems don’t seem to be definite objects localized in space until we come along to observe them.” Contrary to common sense, the experimental evidence suggests that physical objects do not exist independent of an observer. The logical conclusion is totally illogical -- what we observe is our perception of an object that does not exist unless we observe it.
What’s real and what’s perceived is a question I have grappled with since I first heard it postulated in my freshman philosophy class. And, while my search for answers has exponentially expanded my level of questioning, I still cling to my original simplistic answer, which ironically is a question: “What difference does it make?” My enjoyment of morning walks on the beach does not depend on the accuracy of my mind’s interpretation of what I am seeing and sensing. Likewise, every object that is launched into space uses Newtonian calculations irrespective of the fact that Einstein has unequivocally proven the theoretical laws behind those calculations are based on a wrong perception of gravity.
As an investment advisor, I take a similar pragmatic approach. What difference does it make if an economic theory is wrong if it works? My investment strategy is based on Eugene Fama’s efficient-market theory. It is a very “simple hypothesis,” says Fama. “Prices reflect all available information.” And, since he assumes investors rationally evaluate this information, the prices are right. Therefore, it should be very difficult to beat markets – a conclusion he discovered is very well supported by the data.
His colleague and fellow Nobel laureate at the Chicago Booth School, Richard Thaler, doesn’t disagree with the difficulty of beating markets. He just believes the efficient-market theory “…happens to be wrong.” To which, Fama responds, “Like all theories.” Eventually, even Einstein’s theory will be replaced by a new, more encompassing one. And maybe it will provide us with more useful calculations than Newton’s. In the meantime, Newton’s Laws are useful for practical applications because they work, even though they are wrong. Similarly, whether Fama’s theory is wrong is irrelevant, since there presently isn’t a better model for pricing securities and for developing investment strategies.
The most likely theory is that the grove of eucalyptus trees along Highway 101 triggered very vivid memories. However, it is possible that I entered a wormhole. To quote Rhett Butler, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” There are many instances when knowing which is the right or wrong answer isn’t as important as knowing what works. And that might be an insight worthy of a small trumpet fanfare.