What I thought would be the most important event of the summer, my sixtieth birthday, turned out to be an afterthought. Starting off the chain of events that got in the way of my big day was the birth of our first grandson. He was named Dominic after his great-grandfather, although there was some discussion of naming him Otis after the manufacturer of the elevator he was born in. Needless to say, he became the center of attention. And as he settled in and the family settled down, the center of attention shifted to preparations for my youngest daughter’s wedding.
I thought there was a chance they could schedule a party for me between the events. But with the declining health of my wife’s mother and her eventual death the week of my birthday, that chance evaporated. The sum total of the attention I received was an unwrapped pair of shorts given to me by my wife with the comment that I could exchange them if they didn’t fit.
The lack of attention, while understandable, still hurt. That’s why I was so excited when my oldest daughter invited us to a party for the new baby in the lull before the next big event, my middle daughter’s wedding. It was obvious that this baby thing was just a ploy to setup a surprise party for dear old Dad. As the party approached, I kept telling myself to act shocked when they sprung the surprise on me. As it turned out, I was genuinely surprised because the party came and went without any mention of my birthday or me. It really was a party to introduce the new baby.
Maybe if I had read Dave Foster Wallace’s famous This Is Water speech, I would have had a more realistic perspective. The point of his talk was “that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see… Because, my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me.” In other words, we are hardwired “to see and interpret everything through the lens of self.” So, “a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”
Bob Seawright, who did read Wallace’s speech, takes his premise a step further in Finding What We’re Not Looking For, by saying “if you are automatically sure you know what reality looks like… you will miss out on… opportunities to learn…” And it’s not only “our default settings that conspire against us… [but also] our increasingly data soaked and algorithm-dominated world.” Amazon, Google, and the rest of the internet don’t challenge our defaults, they cater to them. They are “unparalleled at allowing us to find what we are looking for. [But,] if we are going to do better and be better we’re going to need to find what we’re not looking for.”
Finding what you’re not looking for is hard because you’re never sure if you have found it. You are always in an uncomfortable state of uncertainty. Certainty, on the other hand, may be delusional but it feels better. And that, explains Seawright, is why we look for investment professionals who show themselves to be “confident and decisive at all times… [when we should be looking for advisors] who show caution and humility in the face of uncertainty…” Why? Because when we invest with certainty, “we are usually wrong, often spectacularly wrong.”
“How can it be wrong when it feels so right?” asks Barbara Mandrell in a song with David Houston. The answer is that the feeling of certainty is based on a self-centered perspective we reinforce with handpicked facts, which may or may not be grounded in reality. So, Seawright is adamant that we need to be “curious, humble, self-critical, give weight to multiple perspectives, and feel free to change [our] minds.” But, even though we know he’s right, our default settings delude us into believing that it’s different this time and we can trust our feelings. And that’s why, contrary to the most obvious and ubiquitous realities, I still can’t believe the party wasn’t for me.