Let me share two quick stories that have nothing to do with investing.
I want to convince you of something important and overlooked: Investing is a broader field than it looks, and there is so much to learn about it outside of the narrow lens of finance.
The first comes from forests.
Most young tree saplings spend their early decades under the shade of their mother’s canopy. Limited sunlight means they grow slowly. Slow growth leads to dense, hard wood.
But something interesting happens if you plant a tree in an open field: free from the shade of bigger trees, the sapling gorges on sunlight and grows fast.
Fast growth leads to soft, airy wood that didn’t have time to densify. And soft, airy wood is a breeding ground for fungus, disease, and ultimately a short life.
“A tree that grows quickly rots quickly and therefore never has a chance to grow old,” forester Peter Wohlleben writes.
Which is exactly how it works in business and investing, isn’t it?
There’s a graveyard of companies and investors who tried to grow too fast, attempting to reap a decade’s worth of rewards in a year or less, learning the hard way that capitalism doesn’t like it when you try to use a cheat code.
Chamath once put it:
“The faster you build it, that is the half life. It will get destroyed in the same amount of time.”
Another story, this one from medicine.
In 2013 Harold Varmus, then director of the National Cancer Institute, gave a speech describing how difficult the war on cancer had become. Eradicating cancer – the National Cancer Act’s goal when it was signed in 1971 – seems perpetually distant.
There’s a paradox that we must now honestly confront. Despite the extraordinary progress we’ve made in understanding the underlying defects in cancer cells, we have not succeeded in controlling cancer as a human disease to the extent that I believe is possible.
One of the missing pieces, he said, is that we focus too much on cancer treatment and not enough on cancer prevention.
If you wanted to make the next big leg up in the war on cancer, you had to make prevention the top priority.But prevention is boring, especially compared to the science and prestige of cancer treatments. So even if we know how important it is, it’s hard for smart people to take it seriously.
MIT cancer researcher Robert Weinberg once described it:
If you don’t get cancer, you’re not going to die from it. That’s a simple truth that we sometimes overlook because it’s intellectually not very stimulating and exciting.
Persuading somebody to quit smoking is a psychological exercise. It has nothing to do with molecules and genes and cells, and so people like me are essentially uninterested in it – in spite of the fact that stopping people from smoking will have vastly more effect on cancer mortality than anything I could hope to do in my own lifetime.
Breakthrough drugs are amazing, and we should cheer them. But few things are as effective at fighting lung cancer as the boring advice of telling people to quit smoking.
And the same irony hurts investors, doesn’t it?
The solution to 90% of financial problems is “save more money and be more patient.” Nothing is more powerful or more capable of moving the needle.
But it’s so boring. It makes you sound like a kindergartener. Smart people don’t want to devote their careers to it. They want derivatives, high-frequency trading, offshore tax shelters and The Lightning Round.
In both cancer and investing, things that are boring but effective are discounted relative to things that are exciting but knowingly less effective.The point of these is not to just tell a neat story. It’s that you can learn lots about investing by reading things that have nothing to do with investing.
Greed, fear, risk, opportunity, and scarcity – the most critical topics in investing – reveal themselves in all kinds of fields.
More important is this: If you find something that is true in more than one field, you’ve probably uncovered something particularly important.
The more fields it shows up in, the more likely it is to be a fundamental and recurring driver of how the world works.
Photo credit: Patrick Weissenberger on Unsplash