19 Jun 2020 Contagious Diseases, Vices, and Virtues
In my annual late-December reading of Charles Dickens’ delightful short story A Christmas Carol, one of my favorite lines is this: “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”
My sons have never read A Christmas Carol (though I did read part of it aloud to Charlie when he was in the NICU a few Decembers ago), yet they know the truth of that statement personally. Let me explain:
Amy and the boys have been on dozens of walks over the last few months, enjoying the incredible weather and getting some exercise. On one of the first walks they took, they found three or four rocks painted with cool designs hidden around the neighborhood. Afterward it seemed every time they went out for a walk they found a new rock, and other neighborhood kids began reporting similar findings. Pretty soon we were re-hiding rocks, and it became a big project to paint our own rocks and add to the neighborhood treasure trove. I don’t know who painted and hid the first rocks, but in a matter of days their goodwill spread like wildfire.
Around the same time we caught the rock contagion, Miles had the brilliant idea of starting his own infectious neighborliness by taking two five gallon buckets on their walks and filling them with trash. At face value a four-year-old with a picker and two five gallon buckets is not a very efficient manner of dealing with trash, but of course, “face value” lacks imagination! It really should have been obvious, but we were surprised when on Miles’ third trash walk, two different neighbors came out and told us they had noticed his initiative and joined in. Maybe one four-year-old isn’t efficient on his own, but a four-year-old’s neighborliness is as contagious it gets.
In a moment when quite literally the entire world is dealing with the contagious nature of Coronavirus and racism, it can be easy to forget that our virtues are inherently contagious as well, and I’m on the side of Dickens: I think the virtues spread faster, if we’ll let them. Whether it’s painting rocks or picking up trash, cheering for healthcare workers at the 7pm shift change or voicing and walking toward social reform, planting a vegetable garden or simply wearing a mask, we nearly always underestimate the power of simple, consistent, communal, often anonymous acts of virtue.
Perhaps nowhere is the contagious nature of behavior more obvious than personal finance and investing, and maybe the vices are most obvious at first blush: People gathering around water coolers (or in chat rooms, as the current case may be) talking about hot stocks and trading strategies, that’s contagious. People obsessed with keeping up with the latest trends in cars and homes and clothes, that’s contagious. People, not talking about money at all because it’s “private,” that’s contagious. People rushing into the stock market when it’s nearing the top and rushing out at the bottom, that’s contagious. People attempting to be dependent on no one, even when interdependence is one of humanity’s greatest gifts, that’s contagious.
But you know what? I think financial virtues are even more contagious—if less obvious—and I think we would all be surprised at the impact of a community of people committing to them. So what are some of the many financial virtues that we can spread? Here are my top three:
Community. I said above we’d be surprised at the impact of a community of people committing to good financial behavior, and it is that community aspect itself which I think is the first key virtue for us to commit to. For many and complex reasons we are most of us fiercely independent and private about our finances, and I strongly believe that’s to our detriment. Being part of a community is in part about simply not being wasteful—about sharing! There was a time not so long ago when you going out and buying something that you could have borrowed from a neighbor or family member would have been viewed as incredibly short-sighted and even cause for offence.
But community goes beyond being better stewards of what we have (or don’t have). It’s also the thing which really sets off the spread of the other financial virtues, for it’s through the lens of what is best for the community that we make our wisest decisions about what is best for ourselves. Without a community devoted to what is good, the other virtues cease to make sense.
I’m really curious about the idea of a group of 3-4 families getting together and beginning to have serious, transparent, open conversations around money. What part of your financial situation are you most scared or ashamed to share? What part of it are you most proud of? Making space to be honest with each other, to listen and notice–I think that would create a contagious level of freedom and real financial progress.
Humility. Perhaps you’ve noticed this, but there’s not exactly a surplus of humility floating around in our culture. And what is humility, exactly? I think it’s the act of giving up our desire to be in the center of all things. When we’re not in the center of things, we don’t have to have an opinion on everything, we don’t have to be right all the time, we’re okay with saying “I don’t know,” and we’re on the lookout for ways to serve the community.
Humility is particularly valuable in the world of investing. It’s the antidote to the water cooler/chat room nonsense and the gambling-adjacent desires many of us feel when trying to make tactical bets in the market. Humility is what allows a person to say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the stock market, but I do know I can cut my expenses to nearly zero, I do know I can keep taxes down by not trading all the time, I do know I can stick with my financial plan of educated best guesses. And no matter what happens, good or bad, I will move on with humility, continuing to take the next best step, one at a time.”
Imagine if you and your community started not caring what was on CNBC, not obsessively looking at daily market moves, not chiming in on discussions about what’s going to happen next with this company or that sector. It would be weird, sure, but I think your drastically dropping anxiety levels would be contagious.
Patience. Economists have coined the typically cryptic term intertemporal substitution to describe the universal difficulty we humans have delaying gratification. We like the idea of saving for that nicer car, for that bigger house, and especially for retirement, but it’s the passage of time—the waiting we must do while we are saving—that gets us. Because while we are saving to buy something in the future, we are at the same time of course not spending on something today. And so we often take on consumer debt debt, or find ourselves ill-prepared to fund a retirement lifestyle anywhere close to our working lifestyle, or some combination of both.
But patience is essentially contentment happening over time. It is contentment moving forward toward some end. And when we choose patience, we discover that not only are we in better financial health today, but also that we have more clarity around what our priorities actually are for the future. This stands in opposition both to immediate gratification and to perpetual frugality, in that it keeps us from needless accumulation (of stuff now, or an unused pile of money at death). And when you combine humility and patience in your portfolio, you’ve really got something going on.
Is patience contagious, though? Sure it is, assuming there’s a Community of people attempting to live in Humility. The simplest examples of this are the long fasting seasons of Lent and Ramadan, which at the very least are exercises in patience. There’s no way millions upon millions of people around the world would participate in those fasts without Community>Humility>Patience. It’s contagious.
Talking about virtues in 2020 is difficult because we’re surrounded by those who pay lip service to the virtues while betraying them with their actions and simultaneously by those who deny that there are common virtues while lamenting the natural consequences of such a position. We have a lot of work to do! But I know from Miles that if we do the work, our neighborhoods will be cleaner, and I believe that our financial lives will be cleaner, too.