Insights: Back to the Basics

SARAH SWAN, CFP®, VICE PRESIDENT, WEALTH MANAGER​

As I’ve gotten older, I have liked the idea of setting intentions for myself, deciding to grant mental real estate to things I’d like to spend more time doing or trying. These aren’t New Year’s Resolutions about abstaining from alcohol or getting my heart rate up 5x per week (or other new habits that die quickly about this time of year). These are… bigger than that, but also simpler than that. And that is what makes them challenging.

Mountain landscape with child in a field of wheat looking up in amazment

There’s no secret sauce or trick to making them happen. They’re age-old answers, I believe, to finding peace and fulfillment in life, and that’s what makes them exceedingly difficult to focus on day in and day out. They’re often crowded out by small, menial tasks that offer us a sense of short-term accomplishment, and they’re abandoned in favor of heuristics and efficiencies that make us better and more productive at the game of school, the game of work, the game of society. But as I age, and as I devour more and more memoirs and reflections on the human condition and modern society, and frankly, as I am lucky enough to see the world through my children’s eyes (that hover between 2-3.5 feet off the ground), I am struck with the absolute vitality of these notions I’ve focused on below. I’m resolving to remember their importance in 2024, despite all of the noise out there.

On hope

n today’s world, it is both easier and safer to be a “downer.” Bad news sells and fear is the most effective clickbait… and to make an optimistic call or prediction and be wrong can be career-ending folly—and you might even be considered stupid. But call for the end of the world as we know it because “this time”, “this era”, “this generation” is different? Some of the most respected voices in economics and politics have falsely made such predictions over and over, and yet followers wait patiently and loyally for a sign of fruition that often never comes. This was probably always true to an extent, that people love a tragedy and can’t look away from a car crash, but the difference now is that pessimism is all around us. Bad news on your street or in your neighborhood might be an anomaly in reality, but where are the boundaries of a neighborhood anymore if news travels around the globe within seconds? Evidence of the darkness is seemingly everywhere, all the time, with nowhere to hide.

But there are two other parts of the story that doomsday-ers neglect to talk about in America today: all that is exactly the same (more on this later), and all that is actually better, than it was however many years or generations ago. 

Here’s a short list of common conveniences that didn’t exist when Howe & Rusling was founded in 1930: Tylenol, Velcro, airbags, credit cards, ATM machines, nonstick pans, Tupperware, and calculators. And yet! The internet, GPS, email, Google Search, and the iPhone are all inventions that have entered the scene since 1990, which may as well be yesterday to any adults today. The percentage of women with bachelor’s degrees at age 18-33 nearly doubled from the Baby Boom to the Millennial generation. Rates of dementia for Americans over age 60 have declined by more than a third in the last 30 years. The same notion can be applied to rates of automobile fatalities, heart disease fatalities, workplace fatalities, infant mortality—all are down compared to prior generations. Average life expectancy today, close to 80, is 10 years older than what it was in 1950. New houses are on average, more than 1,000 square feet larger than they were in 1973 and contain more of every kind of room: more bedrooms, more bathrooms, more laundry rooms, more living rooms, more rec rooms, more garages. Air travel, arguably one of the more agitating experiences for those of us fortunate enough to do it with any regularity, is an easy luxury to take for granted: in 1900 it took four days to travel from New York to Los Angeles; today it takes less than 19 hours to get from New York to Singapore. Bank failures in the early 1930s caused people to lose deposits equal to $396 billion in today’s dollars. With FDIC insurance, this is effectively not a worry of people today if they have less than $250,000 in a given bank. 

Writer Morgan Housel describes a concept he calls rational optimism: acknowledging that history is a constant chain of problems and setbacks, but crucially, understanding it’s that very fact that allows progress to take place. Hope, or the belief that things will get better tomorrow, is not folly; it’s a critical component of forward movement. 

As you’ve heard us say many, many times, including in last week’s Insights piece, it’s not easy to be an optimist, and too often, negativity is associated with intelligence. To understand the value in anything or anyone around us, we have to believe in tomorrow, or at a bare minimum, our ability to influence what tomorrow will look like.

On mujo

Author Brene Brown about the idea of “dress rehearsing tragedy.” As someone for whom this really hits home, digesting the words almost takes my breath away—dress rehearsing tragedy is an awful psychological trap, and it’s a battle I fight often, more so after becoming a mother. I read a quote that has changed my life on the blog  Cup of Jo. “Once I became aware of it [dress rehearsing tragedy], I realized it stole joy away from my time with my kids. I would think: ‘I love her so much, I would be lost if something ever happened to her,’ or I would say, ‘Careful on that branch or you will break your arm…’ I have learned to turn my ‘what ifs’ around. What if she grows up healthy and confident and we stay friends our whole lives? Or what if she doesn’t fall and feels an amazing sense of accomplishment from climbing that tree? Because, after all, what if…everything turns out wonderfully?” It doesn’t get you any further ahead in life to try to beat tragedy to the punch. You won’t be any more prepared or any less sad or broken by tragedy or hardship by practicing for it. Instead of letting the whispers of tragedy take over, allow gratitude in. More wonder, less fear. There is a Japanese and Buddhist word, mujo, that means impermanence, or the inevitability of change. It is the idea that everything is in a constant state of change, and therefore there is nothing but the present moment. I can’t think of a more difficult concept to accept in practice, but one we’d all benefit from leaning into a bit more: gratitude for, and focus on, this moment we are in.

On perspective

Most people reading this understand the power of compounding interest. I can say that because I have to assume it’s a reason that you believe in the importance of investing. But the part about compounding I’m not sure people (myself included) accept enough is the fact that the magic of compounding is in time, not just the rate of interest or growth earned. What do I mean? I mean that you need to hang in there for a really long time for compounding to start to look and feel extraordinary. Week 1, Month 2, Year 3, Year 4—compounding will take place, mathematically speaking, but it’s really in the late stages of the game that the numbers become extraordinary. However, measuring time takes time. It’s easier for investors to obsess about the growth rate they’ve achieved each month or each quarter because it is frequent and easily measurable. But prolific investor Howard Marks has shined a light on this as well. He has said that his investing philosophy was deeply influenced in part by a conversation he had with the head of General Mills’ pension fund decades ago. The man told Marks that in his 14 years in that role, the fund’s stock performance had been between the 27th and 47th percentile of peers; i.e., solidly second quartile returns. To anyone entrenched in this business, that doesn’t sound very impressive, as you’ll hear managers aim to be in the top quartile, or top 25% of their peers, in order to believe they’re adding value. However, taking a step back and measuring time from further away revealed a different lesson: over the full 14 years, the fund’s performance was 4th percentile—better than 96% of peers. This is both striking and critical—steady returns over a long time period matter more than short-term outperformance over arbitrary calendar-driven date periods. Said another way, with enough time, you do not need extraordinary rates of return to achieve extraordinary growth. Have you heard of Warren Buffett? We’ve touted the importance of long-term perspective countless times, but the application of this lesson not only helps with the emotional toll taken by peaks and valleys of the stock market, but of relationships, politics, jobs, parenting… the list goes on and on.

On discomfort, nuance, and ambiguity

I once heard that new experiences are the one thing that makes time slow down. Move to a new city, and time slows because there is no routine yet, no innate sense of same-stuff-different-day. Something I witness with older people in my personal life, as well as many clients I work with, is that discomfort becomes not only more common as we age, but less tolerable, as well. Physical discomfort is one aspect, but so, too, is emotional and psychological discomfort. When you’re young, discovery and new experiences are everywhere, and the power of them is drilled into us. Mantras and quotes cover posters and notebooks, are shouted in gym locker rooms at half-time and in graduation speeches, and line the halls of schools: Shoot for the moon and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars. Be Yourself. Go outside of your comfort zone. Pain is gain. Dare to be different. And while a truly beautiful thing about aging and slowing down is that one no longer has to pursue future goals with the same amount of dedication and sacrifice, there is so much value in recognizing that the same equation for growth exists, regardless of life stage: discomfort + learning = growth. As I feel myself becoming more discomfort-averse, I am trying to remember that challenging things, scary things, new things, and confusing things are keeping my brain healthy and my spirit awake. Just as mujo teaches us, change is the only constant in life, and most situations are not black and white. And that is OK.

I recently told my four-year old daughter, Grace, that I was nervous to go to work that morning because I had a presentation with people I didn’t know. She said, “Mom, don’t be nervous. Just say hi to them and ask them about their day.” It didn’t exactly help with the imposter syndrome that so many of us often feel, but it reminded me of a basic truth that, at this point, she understands better than me. All of life is relationships and relationship-building. It doesn’t matter what you’re an expert on or how much you know that other people don’t know. People aren’t robots or computers. They’re people. They make decisions and assess situations based on how they feel, whether rational or not. Don’t discount that in your approach to any problem, issue, or challenge, and don’t discount that in your approach to seeking fulfillment of your own. 

And one last thought on the all that’s better, and all that hasn’t changed notion I mentioned above: I’m going to go out on a limb and make the call that I believe fulfillment is virtually the same. To an almost ironic degree, as the world morphs at warp speed, the brass tacks of what leaves human beings fulfilled has literally not changed. Aside from (or arguably linked with) purpose and enlightenment, deep, meaningful connection is at the heart of human fulfillment. 

I remember my husband asking me when Grace, the four-year-old mentioned above, was approaching her first birthday if it made me scared or sad that our daughter was going to grow up in a world so different from the one that we grew up in. I thought about it (and spend a lot of time thinking about it). No, I said then, and still believe today. Because the greatest joys of my life have revolved around the people I’ve loved, and Grace will be able to have that. She’ll be able to experience laughter and genuine, overwhelming, heart-swelling joy with people she loves and who love her back—it doesn’t matter what the world looks like otherwise. She’ll have that.

Sarah Swan

As a Wealth Manager and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, Sarah focuses her time on working with clients and is passionate about helping them achieve their financial goals

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