‘History is just one damn thing after another.’
– Arnold Toynbee
Late last week, the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant in South Africa sent shockwaves worldwide, upending what had been a reasonably quiet week for the stock market. On Friday, a steep sell-off left the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq down 2.2% and 3.5%, respectively.
This 147th twist in the pandemic tale got me thinking about how much we think we know when really, we know nothing at all.
Nobody would have predicted that 2020 would have played out the way it did at the start of the year. Very few would have predicted that a 2021, promising vaccines and a return to normality would have represented so little change, but here we are.
Everyone loves to pretend like they fully understand what this all means and what will happen next. I get it; who doesn’t love the warm cozy allure of certainty. We all want to exist in a world where we know what lies around the corner. Unfortunately, the reality is, nobody knows what’s next, and the sooner you can discard any naive sense of conviction, the easier it will be in both life and investing.
History is a perpetual stream of mistaken opinions and unpredictable outcomes, but the predictions won’t stop. People will cast their views with deluded certainty about what to expect next by extrapolating the current conditions out into the future, but the current conditions aren’t “a constant’, and the game is always changing.
Remember, while it is important to have expectations and predictions, predictions are not fact, and you will be wrong. Not always, but you will be wrong, so try not to be overly tethered to your current version of the truth.
Accepting that nothing is certain can often be cast as an impotent statement in a world obsessed with knowing all the answers.
In an industry where uncertainty is the ultimate enemy, telling investors to submit to it is often met with disdain, but accepting the inevitability of uncertainty is so important if you want to avoid going stir crazy as you try and hold for the long term.
Of course, Simply discarding uncertainty is easier said than done. Worrying about factors beyond our control is an inherent part of the human condition. However, simply being aware that the game is not predictable and nobody truly knows the final outcome may help you reduce your craving for certainty.
Stop reaching for perfection in a world of constant uncertainty. Stop obsessing about making the right decision 100% of the time. Even the best investors in history have had their fair share of howlers. Ultimately you just need to be right more often than you are wrong.
Create an investment portfolio centred around what you believe to be the most probable outcome based on available information and incorporate enough diversification to function as a buffer.
In a world where anything is possible, all you can do is focus on what is most probable, allow for a margin of error to support you when your assumed outcomes don’t play out and simply let go of the rest.