It’s a rare person who wants to hear what he doesn’t want to hear. —Richard Cavett
A big part of almost every story in history is that expectations move slower than facts. People become vested in their views of how the world works. But the world can work one way for a long time and then … boom … abruptly lurch in a new direction. Opinions crawl while events leap. It’s a tricky little thing.
In the 1960s, before he was old, Warren Buffett joked of taking advice from old investors. “They know too many things that are no longer true,” he said.
The strongest opinions form when a trend persists for years or decades, and a narrative of “this is just how things work” is the path of least resistance. It gets reinforced when that narrative becomes part of your identity – where you work, or how you invest your money, or who you hang out with and discuss what’s true.
But things change. Technologies become obsolete and markets exploit opportunities and people get bored with what used to excite them. Regulations change. Generations evolve. Accidents and chance push the world in ways that are impossible to predict. One damned thing after another. Sometimes those changes happen literally overnight.
So what happens when the world lurches but opinions lag?
You get situations where what’s true sounds crazy because people’s beliefs haven’t caught up with reality.
A few examples:
The S&P 500 gained 27% in 2009 – a fantastic return. Yet when asked in early 2010, 66% of investors thought it fell that year, according to a survey by Franklin Templeton. The idea that the market was surging sounded crazy because “the market crashed” was such a powerful narrative after 2008. People just clung to it.
The lowest-income workers have seen some of the largest recent wage gains in percentage terms. And that’s not just a pandemic quirk – it’s been like that since 2018. “Recent growth for workers with low wages has outpaced that for high-wage workers by the widest margin in at least 20 years,” the New York Times wrote last year. That sounds crazy because it’s so counter to the long-held narrative that high-wage workers are booming while the bottom stagnates and declines.
China’s demographics are so poor it’s going to face labor shortages in the coming years like few other countries have ever dealt with. Its total population is already falling. That sounds crazy because it’s the most populated country on earth and synonymous with rapid growth and endless pools of cheap labor. But its working-age population will decline by more than 20% over the next 30 years.
ExxonMobil stock has doubled in the last year while Zoom stock is down almost 50%. That sounds crazy because the narrative of “less fossil fuel, more work from home” is so obvious. But when markets fully price in what’s obvious it only takes a little nudge in the other direction to trigger enormous moves.
And isn’t it always like that?
There’s rarely a time when the people who were right in hindsight didn’t sound a little crazy at one point.
That’s not to say you should pay special attention to people who sound crazy – most contrarianism is just attention-seeking cynicism. But when expectations move slower than reality you should always expect that whoever ends up being right believed something that at one point defied most people’s common sense.
Which is a problem, because while most people think they want good information, what they actually crave is information that confirms their vested beliefs.
Journalist Chris Hedges once explained what happens when you break someone’s belief bubble:
The nature of illusion is that it’s designed to make you feel good. About yourself, about your country, about where you’re going – in that sense it functions like a drug. Those who question that illusion are challenged not so much for the veracity of what they say, but for puncturing those feelings.
I think there are only two ways to survive a world when what’s right almost always sounds crazy at first.
One is to keep your identity small, as Paul Graham says. Once a view becomes part of your identity it’s almost impossible to see its flaws, when it needs to adapt, or has expired. The more you say, “I’m a …” the less capable you are of noticing big changes in the world.
The other is humility in forecasting things that impact you personally. Few things are as persuasive as predictions you desperately want to be true, and few things are as easy to brush aside as predictions that sound a little crazy. The best you can do in that situation is live in a way that doesn’t rely too much on a few seemingly obvious things coming true. If the world plays out in 10 different ways, I want to do OK in all of them.