Changing Your Mind
I was recently interviewed by Jonathan DeYoe on the Mindful Money Podcast. He closed the interview by asking me, “What was the last thing you’ve changed your mind about?” After my response, he paused and then replied “That may be the best answer I’ve gotten to that question.”
As I reflected on the conversation, I realized:
- How profound that question is.
- How important (and rare) it is to have a process to guide when and how to change your mind.
As investors, and in life more generally, we must make decisions with conviction. One of the worst things we can do is go through life rudderless, shifting our opinions and actions like the directions of the wind.
Simultaneously, we must balance this truth with a competing one. The world is rapidly changing as are we as individuals. Our thought processes and decisions must not be so sclerotic that we can’t adapt.
As a society, the idea that you should change your mind is often discouraged. Social media and the internet make it easy to filter out opposing viewpoints, trap us in echo chambers, and make us more tribal. As a result we miss important messages because the messenger isn’t on “our team.”
Changing can be a sign of weakness or lack of conviction. You may be labeled, or label yourself, as a flip-flopper.
This is most obvious with regards to politics and cultural issues. However, even the world of personal finance is not immune from this propensity for group think. So this is a topic worth exploring.
Changing My Own Mind
How do we learn to think independently and remain open to new ideas? I am certainly not your guru, telling you how to think or live. I’m still figuring this out myself, and probably will spend the rest of my life doing so. However, I have put a lot of thought into this idea.
The answer I gave to Jonathan’s question rolled off the top of my head. I described changes I was making with regards to preventative medicine and cancer screening as I outlined deciding to make in a blog post earlier this year after reading Dr. Peter Attia’s book “Outlive”.
However, I could have just as easily given other examples. I made minor but meaningful changes to my asset allocation strategy a few years ago. Earlier this year I took a job as a financial planner after thinking I would never work for anyone else again and years of being a harsh critic of the industry (which to be fair I still am! 😉).
Intentionally Creating Mental Models
Whether we realize it or not, we all create mental models to help us navigate life. Not doing so would mean being overwhelmed by the countless decisions we each face every day.
This makes sense for many decisions. Should I brush my teeth today? You should! What route should I take to get to work? Probably the same one you’ve taken each of the past 100 times.
This is also a good way to rule out other decisions. Is today the day to try base jumping with no training, try smoking crack, or see if I can get away with murder? It’s not!
Those examples are obvious to the point of being absurd. However, many times our mental models lead to habits that drive our lives. These models and resulting habits often don’t serve us well.
Many people’s approach to managing money, diet, exercise, career, and relationships are built on faulty models. We do things because that’s how we’ve always done them… or how we witnessed them being done in our families, peer groups, or cultures.
Change is hard! This is especially true when going against the grain of those around you. It is also hard to change habits that we perceived as beneficial at one stage in life, but that no longer serve you.
Write It Down
An example of intentionally creating and codifying a mental model is writing an investment policy statement (IPS). I similarly have a specific process for thinking about maintaining my mobility and strength to prevent injury and keep me active as I age.
Writing this blog forces me to practice developing my ideas more thoroughly. I encourage you to develop a similar writing practice to sharpen your thinking and create accountability, even if you are writing a personal journal that will never be read by anyone but you.
Staying Open Minded
Intentionally creating mental models and developing systems and habits to implement them provides a framework with which to interpret new information as I encounter it. This helps prevent falling prey to every “next hot thing.”
However, we rarely ever have perfect information. Even if we did at any given point in time, the world is constantly changing with new information presenting itself. It is vital to be a lifelong learner.
But how do we expose ourselves to novel information? An even harder question in our current world is how do we filter out the noise to find relevant information?
My personal approach is to read (and when I’m on the go listen to podcasts) on a broad array of topics and from a wide variety of perspectives. As I take in information, I am always looking for concepts from one discipline that can be applied to another. This can help you find universal truths.
I try to seek out sources that are not driven by a specific ideology (or as that becomes harder in today’s society, are at least representative of different ideologies). Don’t underestimate how hard finding unbiased sources of information is!
A recent systematic review from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that positive spin, a term traditionally applied to politicians and their operatives putting certain information in a more favorable light, was present in 67% of cardiovascular papers with nonsignificant primary outcomes published in peer-reviewed journals. Now imagine how biased information published in the press or found on social media is.
Returning to First Principles
All of this information needs to be processed. Before I change my mental models in response to new information, I try to return to first principles. Author James Clear desribses this as “the act of boiling a process down to the fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there.”
A good place to start is to ask, “Can I be certain this is true?” Then keep asking that question as you break a problem down to its most fundamental elements.
Changing My Own Mind on My Investment Philosophy
I wrote our investment policy statement (IPS) when Kim and I fired our financial advisor and took control of our own investments in 2012. We followed it religiously for nearly a decade.
In 2020, our personal circumstances were changing and our plan called for us to get more conservative, shifting some of the money we had allocated to stocks into bonds. At the time, I was paying attention to the economic response to the COVID pandemic that drove interest rates to approach 0%. Since creating our IPS, I also gained a better understanding of bond duration and interest rate risk.
As I returned to first principles, I questioned whether the three “truths” about bonds that guided our IPS were still correct given the circumstances. Clearly, two of the three were not.
So instead of blindly following our plan, we made slight modifications of shifting some of our money to I Bonds, gold, and cash. While the results of our decision were mixed, I am comfortable that our decision making process was sound.
Changing My Own Mind On Health Strategies
Returning to the earlier example from the podcast, my mental model for my health is to focus on healthy lifestyle and to avoid medicines and unnecessary tests or interventions at all costs. Reading Attia’s book challenged my thinking.
In particular, he discussed how the practice of medicine is driven by the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm. Attia pointed out this is a vast oversimplification of risk which always involves a series of tradeoffs. I recognized a universal truth from other aspects of my life.
This is true with investing. Avoid the risk of the stock market volatility and keep all your money in cash. This guarantees your purchasing power will be eroded by inflation.
Avoid all the risks of outdoor adventure by choosing safer activities. This guarantees missing out on all of the physical, mental, social, and spiritual benefits of doing hard things in the outdoors.
Where was my mental model wrong? I had become so dogmatic in my negative view of traditional medicine that I only focused on the costs and risks of interventions while ignoring the potential rewards and the risk of doing nothing. In reframing risk and reward, as I do in virtually every other aspect of my life, I saw opportunities to make changes.
Taking a statin involves minimal financial cost and has little serious risk of adverse effects. It can create an asymmetric reward of preventing a future heart attack or stroke. Change made!
Cancer treatments are largely ineffective and the ten year mortality rate for most cancers is high. Early detection increases your odds of success. You have a smaller number of cells, they are less differentiated, and they are more localized. Screening does come with financial cost and risk, but it can provide asymmetric benefits by potentially saving your life. Change made!
Subtle vs. Wholesale Changes
Note that in both of my examples, I didn’t abandon the solid foundation that my mental models were built upon. Massive change may make sense if you were unconsciously following a faulty script.
That was certainly the case when I first took control of my own investments and made wholesale changes. In the cases outlined above, the changes were more subtle and made around the edges.
An example of a recent large change I made was taking a financial planning job. I started blogging to be a critic of the financial industry and advocate for consumers. After retiring, I declared that I would never work for anyone else again.
However, over time I’ve realized that a lot of people do need personalized financial help. I can still be a critic of the industry through my writing while being a part of the change I want to see in my financial planning work.
Also over time, I’ve realized my desire to have an impact on the world. This is possible as a solopreneur. But I certainly haven’t figured out how to do it while maintaining the lifestyle I desire. Being part of a team through my work at Abundo Wealth enables me to have a larger impact than I could imagine having on my own.
Related: Finding Purpose In a Long Retirement
What Have You Changed Your Mind About?
How about you? What have you changed your mind about recently? What was your process? Did this involve wholesale changes or were they more subtle? Let’s discuss it in the comments below.
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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. After achieving financial independence, Chris began writing about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. Chris also does financial planning with individuals and couples at Abundo Wealth, a low-cost, advice-only financial planning firm with the mission of making quality financial advice available to populations for whom it was previously inaccessible. Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He has spoken at events including the Bogleheads and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants annual conferences. Blog inquiries can be sent to email@example.com. Financial planning inquiries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org][Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. After achieving financial independence, Chris began writing about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. Chris also does financial planning with individuals and couples at Abundo Wealth, a low-cost, advice-only financial planning firm with the mission of making quality financial advice available to populations for whom it was previously inaccessible. Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He has spoken at events including the Bogleheads and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants annual conferences. Blog inquiries can be sent to email@example.com. Financial planning inquiries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org]
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