Everyone is an idiot, especially me

Growing up, I had Asian parents so I was taught I was an idiot. Objectively, as a 4 year old, this is true. A 4 year old’s model for the world is woefully inadequate for the reason that many probably want to be giraffes and think the meaning of life is to pick one’s nose. Fortunately, this mentality has stuck with me through life and I find it a useful mental model. 

In the summer of 2010, the iPhone had been out for ~3 years, the mobile boom was starting, Uber had just been founded but at the time had not been ubiquitous. Along highway 101, Cisco advertisements, Intel’s headquarters and the shining California sun. It was really my first time spending any serious time in the US (I am Canadian). At the time I was an electrical engineering student and I had looked up to all of the world changing history that had been made there. The industrialization of the transistor, the invention of the mouse, user interfaces… there are quite literally millions of innovations that have been made in this one ~2000 square mile space. As someone who did not have very much self esteem at the time, my thought was I didn’t belong. I wasn’t good enough. My colleagues had graduated from some of the most famed universities: Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Berkeley, MIT, and so on. So you can imagine, at the time, I had a great deal of imposter’s syndrome.

I did all I really could do: work very hard. Long story short, I came away with the conclusion that I was a pretty “good” engineer and that I did indeed belong. However, fast forward just over a decade later, I’ve gotten to work at names like Nvidia, Microsoft, Amazon so I feel I have something of a reasonable sample set. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s so much room on the table for the world wide bar for engineering to go. The reason: even among elite institutions, I find many engineers make incredibly large mistakes, say dumb things, etc. As humans, even among our best, we are still woefully fallible. 

The words “good”, “amazing”, “smart”, “intelligent”, “genius”, “brilliant” imply a standard. Typically, they are used to describe someone or something relative to others. However, when it comes to many endeavors in life, increasing the standard for oneself is almost always a good thing. What would it mean to be a better engineer, husband, human being?

These days, I spend my time investing. Most of the time that means looking at companies, attempting to ascertain what “fair value” is, and trying to buy $1 for $0.50. In investing, you lose money when you are wrong and you make money when you are right. There is an objective scoreboard and that is your profit/loss so there’s a huge incentive to have a correct world view. This is something that I personally love about investing because it is brutally honest. However, everyone, even investing geniuses, are humbled and wrong at some point. As an example, in 1962, Warren Buffett’s ownership in a troubled textile company, Berkshire Hathaway, was originally an investment done out of anger as the Berkshire Hathaway management team wanted to cheat Buffett out of a few cents a share. At the time, Berkshire Hathaway was a doomed business as textile mills in Asia had a structural advantage: a lower operating cost. In 1985, Buffett was forced to close the textile mills. If the Picasso of investing makes mistakes, you had best believe you and I make mistakes as well.

In the investing world, there tends to be a reverence for the market. That is, there tends to be a belief that the market is mostly right. This could be correct, however, I find the psychology of that reverence to be counter productive. The reason is sometimes, investors skip over very obvious mispricings. Anchor bias is the name for the bias where humans will tend to rely on information received early on in the decision making process. So, for example, if we see the price of a stock, we will tend to base our judgments relative to that price of the stock. The psychology of thinking everyone is an idiot I find helpful in fighting that bias. The starting assumption I tend to have is that the price is incorrect. However, when you have the belief that everyone is an idiot, there is also a tendency to be overconfident. As we are only human, this is obviously a dangerous belief; we are all incredibly fallible. The psychology I use to combat this is the knowledge that I too am an idiot. Just like when I had impostor’s syndrome in 2010, I find that belief incredibly motivating. All you can do when you’re an idiot is to work hard. 

This psychology exists in a lot of Asian parenting, but it’s not the only place where I think this psychology exists. In many religions, there is the belief that we aren’t good enough. In Christianity, the standard is God and against that standard, we will never be good enough. Regardless of whether you are religious or not, I find that mentality incredibly motivating because there is always something to strive for. The endless pursuit of attempting to be a better human being is probably a worthwhile one.

This seems to fly in the face of modern western thought. In modern western parenting, management, and so on, as of late, I notice there is a tendency to coddle and lower the bar. As if our children are delicate snowflakes that should not be truly challenged. As can be seen by Canada’s PISA results (most OECD countries have the exact same graph), this seems to have a devastating effect on the educational standards. 

As of the time of writing, my wife is pregnant. I think a lot about what kind of upbringing our spawn will have. One criticism I see of the traditional tiger Asian parenting is that it can be extremely harsh. To that I would say, I do not intend on raising our kids in exactly the same manner. If everyone is an idiot including me and my child, in a way, it should be normal and acceptable to be inadequate. It is simply a framework to set an unobtainable standard by which we should aspire to rather than an expectation that we actually achieve it. There is ultimately an objective logical standard and the emotional implication that this has. Objectively, since we are human we cannot achieve this standard. But we should still shoot for it. Emotionally, however, it is important to know that it is completely ok to be human and imperfect. I hope our future kids know how much we will care about them and that we will support them in every way. That is, I hope we can both set the bar astronomically high (ie. perfection) and have kids that know that they are loved no matter what.


Popular Posts