I should not have quit my job, she lamented for the tenth time. We had been speaking only for a little over an hour. She described in great detail how successful she was, and how accomplished and appreciated she was at work. And then she gave it up as she took ill. I did not ask the one question that was running in my head: but what stopped you for the 15 years since then after you became better? I was being nice.
But her voice remained in my head. How many of us live in the past! We can’t brush it aside easily. So many of us routinely like to reorder our lives, by rearranging some blocks in the past. If only I had studied this rather than that; or taken this job over that; or lived in this city than that. And so on. We make choices. All the time. It is unfair to ourselves if we went back and questioned that, because we can only choose one among the many choices we had then. That is how it is.
There is a mirage at play. The successful lives of accomplished people are portrayed gloriously in public. Many believe it is inspirational to know these stories. Only partly, I think. Where one stands today is known. And then we go back to fit a template on all those correct choices that person may have made. As if those were the only choices they had. How biased is that!
At every turn, one will face choices. Many of them will fail to deliver. A few will turn out to be right. And catapult one to fame. We selectively look at those things that went right. We make it look like those were the specific deliberate choices. As if those steps to success were so well known and so well laid out. Nope. Enough fumbling happens. Except that those stories that did not end well do not get that much attention and analysis.
The problem with these generalisations of success is not just this selective bias. But a dangerous oversimplification of decision making itself. Most like to believe that a path to success can be specified. We discard the reality that at every turn a choice was made, and that choice had the high probability of failing. We dislike the word luck, and we attribute success to deliberate choices, not made serendipitously but presciently.
Investing is tough for this reason. We choose a stock, a bond, a fund, a property or whatever else we like to invest in. If it turns out to be good, we are pleased with ourselves. We may have cracked the code, we think. It turns out to be bad, we look at all …….