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What was the happiest day of your life?

By Sam Instone - March 23, 2023

I recently returned from a trip to Mt Kilimanjaro with my 12-year-old son.

The plan was to ‘make memories’ in the precious little time before he starts boarding school.

Things rapidly went wrong...

Altitude sickness forced us down early, so we decided to rethink...

And ended up spending the rest of the time on safari.

The initial plan was gone, but the week quickly evolved into one of the most fun experiences of our lives.

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Happiness and prosperity are central to conversations I have with clients.

What was the happiest day of your life?

The documentary How to Live Forever asks that question to a centenarian who gave a fantastic response.

“Armistice Day,” she said, referring to the 1918 agreement that ended World War I.

“Why?” the producer asks.

“Because we knew there would be no more wars ever again,” she says.

World War II began 21 years later.

One of the most dangerous mental traps is the ‘appealing fiction’.

This is something you want to be true, and which is backed up by data, observation, or reasonable common sense. But, that data only goes one level deep on a highly complex topic.

In other words, it’s something that’s false or uncertain but you want it to be true so desperately you believe it as fact.

Appealing fictions happen when you don’t apply wisdom to intelligence.

You're intelligent and can calculate answers, but you stop considering other possibilities and draw conclusions as soon as you hit something you want to be true.

Let’s look at the infamous marketing blunder of ‘New Coke’ from 1985, as an example.

In testing and focus groups, the new Coke formula was a hit. People said it tasted better. They liked it better than both ‘old Coke’ and even Pepsi. Great result!

But the data only went one level deep. More was brewing beneath the surface, about to explode like a coke can shaken up.

The new recipe failed spectacularly because of the complexity surrounding the power of a familiar brand. Quality (or tasting better) didn’t matter to anyone. People craved their old, familiar drink back. Cue rejection en masse, which was baffling to Coke marketers who had the data to prove it tasted better. But that quick conclusion was an appealing fiction.

I often think about this trap with long-term optimism – blindly believing things will be better in the future than they are today. This can be dangerous – potentially an appealing fiction – because it’s easy to accept without asking further questions.

I consider myself an optimist. I want our clients to feel optimistic.

I know things will generally get better over time even if the path to get there is full of setbacks, chaos, surprises and disappointment.

The possibility things get better will likely be driven by two things.

The power of human ingenuity

Most good things happen (my safari) because of a reaction to a bad thing (my son getting sick). I know there will be problems that push people into fixing what’s wrong with the world.

That’s why the Great Depression unleashed a surge of productivity, and World War II produced a staggering number of technological breakthroughs, from nuclear energy to jets to penicillin.

The biggest innovations don’t occur when everyone is content; they happen when there’s enough stress force people into action and creative problem-solving.

As Nassim Taleb says,

“The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates!”

The constant human desire to one-up past successes

If you want to qualify for the Boston Marathon today, you need a time that, a century ago, would put you within nine minutes of a world record.

Today, a first-year medical student probably has more medical knowledge than an experienced senior doctor did 50 years ago. My son knows things about technology that a computer science professor 30 years ago would find bewildering. Innovation and advancement tend to compound.

Charlie Munger says,

“The world is not driven by greed; it’s driven by envy.” You see someone accomplish a new feat and think, “I should be able to do that too – and even better.”

There is always something to be pessimistic about. Maybe it’s a bank collapsing, erratic inflation, or short-term market volatility.

But they will never go away.

If you stay in your seat and remain an optimist, you’ll get to your destination.

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