Three Lessons

Published on September 30, 2023

I am a proponent of learning all that we can vicariously when it comes to unpleasant life experiences. The problem is that certain lessons are very difficult to communicate and, in some cases, seem counterintuitive and almost unbelievable. So, it is with some reluctance that I offer a few lessons based on observations over a half century.

Find Your Life’s Work

Until very recently, the vast majority of people struggled to achieve the first two or three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In traditional societies, a man’s work was heavily influenced by family and custom. His father might have been a butcher, a tailor, a blacksmith, a farmer, or a shopkeeper and chances were good that a man would follow in his father’s footsteps. Most women had their life mapped out for them from the moment of birth. Individual agency was uncommon if not unknown.

While the same is still true for billions of people today, those of us in the United States and other wealthy countries have the ability to chart our own course in life. The problem is that young people are put in a position of having to make career decisions long before they have any meaningful life experience. This has been particularly true in recent decades with children of middle and upper class families being sheltered from the world throughout adolescence and, in many cases, well into adulthood. 

One pernicious trap is to select a career based mostly on earnings potential. An even worse trap is to do so thinking that you’ll only have to work for ten or twenty years before having enough money to “do something else.”

It makes no sense to spend the majority of your waking hours during your twenties and thirties on activities that you do not find inherently interesting simply to amass enough money to do “something else” in your forties and fifties. As someone who has written about personal finance for many years, I am a proponent of reaching financial independence at an early age, but with an important caveat: you should do so in a line of work that you find interesting enough to happily do indefinitely, if needed.

I make this recommendation based on personal experience. It has been close to fifteen years since I was able to give up a paycheck doing work that I did not find interesting or enjoyable. I have no regrets regarding gaining financial independence, but I do regret that I was too myopic in my twenties to grasp what now seems obvious. 

Two Razors

A philosophical razor is a rule of thumb, or a mental heuristic, meant to be helpful in navigating life. A rule of thumb is a generality that cannot apply to all possible situations but can still be very useful when applied with a dose of common sense.

Hanlon’s Razor advises us to never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. In other words, we should give people the benefit of the doubt when they act in ways that we find objectionable. This principle is in keeping with the golden rule of treating others as we would hope to be treated ourselves. Human beings are flawed creatures and we should not automatically assume malice.

Occam’s Razor advises us to default to explanations that are simple rather than complicated when the simple explanation adequately describes a situation. This does not mean that the simplest explanation is always the correct explanation, just that our default assumption should start with the simplest explanation. 

In many cases, Hanlon’s Razor and Occam’s Razor coexist in harmony. The simplest explanation for the objectionable things that humans do can often be attributed to stupidity or ignorance rather than malice. However, there are cases where we must struggle with which razor to apply, as I observed a few years ago:

There is an interesting tension between Occam’s Razor and Hanlon’s Razor that is worthy of some thought. There are many events in life where one encounters a negative situation caused by another person and, often, the simplest explanation is that this person intended to do us harm, and perhaps this explanation is what we should adopt according to Occam’s Razor. However, human beings are fallible and there are more good people than evil people in the world. Hanlon’s Razor counsels temperance and the benefit of the doubt. 

How are we to choose?

Obviously, we must use common sense and life experience to view events in context. As we gain more information about a situation or an individual, we can refine our views and revoke the benefit of the doubt that we initially assumed. Much has to do with the potential cost of being wrong. 

In human relationships, whether professional or personal, one should give the benefit of the doubt when initially offended. If you believe that most people are decent, as I do, then you are most likely dealing with ignorance or stupidity rather than malice.

However, when a pattern of behavior develops over time that strongly indicates malevolent intent, our views must adapt along with the behavior. If someone is a habitual offender, then Hanlon’s Razor ceases to apply and Occam’s Razor takes over. The most likely explanation for malign behavior over a period of time is malice and we should recognize it for what it is.

Most people are good and decent but a significant percentage of humanity is not. Whether such individuals were born that way or developed due to their environment and upbringing is a good theoretical question. But there is no doubt that there are people in this world devoid of normal human empathy who fall along the varied spectrum of narcissistic, sociopathic, and psychopathic tendencies. 

Efforts to fix a situation should depend on the importance of the relationship but, past a certain point, the only rational action is to cut ties with people who have proven that they are operating with malice rather than ignorance or stupidity. Trying to change people with such tendencies is an exercise in futility. Unfortunately, most people must experience this for themselves at least once. It cannot be fully understood vicariously. 

The Futility of Hatred

Disliking/hating tendency is one of the psychological misjudgments that Charlie Munger has warned us about. The problem is that we appear to be hardwired to hate those who commit a trespass against us. It is natural to respond to an attack with hatred, but this usually results in just flailing about in a rage and resolves nothing. 

Even worse, hatred has the potential to boomerang and cause severe damage.

Consider the words of Richard Nixon as he left the White House for the final time after resigning the Presidency in disgrace:

“Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”

— Richard Nixon’s farewell address to White House staff, August 9, 1974

Every time I post this quote, I receive responses from people who either think that the comment was insincere or that Nixon is not to be quoted under any circumstances. Obviously, I disagree. If you want lessons on a topic, it’s best to go to those who know the topic best, and Nixon was ultimately destroyed by his own flawed psychology. 

It is easy to say that we should avoid hatred, but surely it is true that there are cases where people do horrendous things. Terrible crimes are committed every day. Many actions fall short of crimes but have awful effects regardless. In such cases, the first instinct might be to hate the person responsible for causing misery.

But it is possible for two things to be true at the same time: We might be “justified” if we hate someone AND it is still in our best interests to refrain from hating.

Rather than descending into hatred, we should strive to reach a state of indifference. The stoics tell us that our minds can be our refuge even in the midst of ongoing terrible suffering. But most people simply cannot achieve this sort of detached indifference while damage continues to be done. It is usually necessary to remove yourself from the immediate damage in order to move from hatred to indifference. This means disassociating from the object of hatred as quickly as possible.

While it may be possible to mold the character of young children or even adolescents, I believe that it is exceedingly rare to be able to “change” a fully formed adult, particularly those who exhibit traits on the sociopathic/narcissistic spectrum. If you find yourself in a job where you are dealing with such a person, find another job. In personal relationships, cut ties after an individual’s true colors are clear.

Remaining in toxic situations, whether personal or professional, only increases the risk of hatred and, ultimately, self-destructing. One reason financial independence is so important is that it makes it much easier to disassociate from toxic people. 

The passage of time does not automatically result in wisdom but experience does count for a great deal. In 1972, Charlie Munger was forty-eight years old when he convinced Warren Buffett to buy See’s Candies at what seemed like a full price. Sam Walton was forty-four years old when he founded Wal-Mart in 1962. For both men, years of experience, including many hard knocks, preceded massive financial success.

When it comes to financial compounding, you get most of the benefits in later years as the snowball gains momentum. The same is true for life experiences. Many of these experiences cannot be understood vicariously but some can, so it is worth trying to explain the pitfalls to those who might be inclined to listen.

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Three Lessons