Same as Ever: A Guide to What Never Changes by Morgan Housel
In a world driven by expiring soundbites and noise, writer Morgan Housel’s Same as Ever is a refreshing plunge into timeless truths about people, societies, and the world at large. In a series of 23 punchy stories, Housel covers everything from the universal desire for certainty to the nature of risk, why ideas spread, when growth goes too far, what drives progress and innovation, and how to see your rich neighbor more clearly. By the end of the book, you will have a solid foundation for understanding what will never change.
Expectations influence happiness
If you want to be happy, lower your expectations. That’s because happiness does not come from your objective conditions; it is created by the gap between expectations and reality.
Imagine a celebrity who has everything — money, status, talent, friends, adulation. You would expect this person to be happy and grateful. But if they think they deserve more fame, wealth, and praise, they can end up miserable even under relatively wonderful conditions.
This dynamic can play out in reverse as well. A poet with low expectations who lives in relatively modest conditions can be unbelievably happy despite having much less than the celebrity.
The difference between the celebrity and poet is their expectations, which are a core driver of how they feel about their lives.
Calm plants the seeds of crazy
Good times don’t lead to more good times. They lead people to become over-optimistic about their abilities, financial futures, and the general rosiness of the future.
This optimism often leads to behaviors like taking on more debt and taking more risk in markets. With enough reckless behaviors, the party comes to an end and the hangover sets in. The calm and optimistic good times transition to stormy times filled with fear and doubt. And that change in sentiment may fuel the next recession, default, or general panic.
This relationship between calm and crazy exists in other domains as well. California, for example, had a long drought in the mid-2010s. Then in 2017, large amounts of snow and rainfall ended the drought. People cheered a little too soon.
The heavy rain of 2017 led to record vegetation growth, turning even desert towns into plush green places. All was well until a dry 2018 led the vegetation to die off and become dry kindlings. Not long after, large wildfires swept across California.
What seemed like a good thing (rain that ended the drought), eventually turned into wildfires that caused a state-wide emergency.
The takeaway is that the world and its many dynamics often swing on a pendulum of calm and crazy, fear and greed, optimism and pessimism, and so on. This is not abnormal; it’s simply the way the world works.
And one way to avoid getting swept up in the neverending pendulum is to recognize the power of enough. In investing, relationships, and other domains, don’t keep drinking until the lights come on. Know your limits and learn to recognize when you have enough.
Stress and urgency create innovation
“Militaries are engines of innovation because they occasionally deal with problems so important—so urgent, so vital—that money and manpower are removed as obstacles, and those involved collaborate in ways that are hard to emulate during calm times.”
When everything is going well, striving and ambition give way to complacency and over-optimism. Why work so hard when you can relax and let the good times roll?
Things change when panic, shock, or worry sink in. People begin to innovate to chart their way through the muddy waters. That’s why some of the highest stakes parts of the world (like military work) and dark and difficult periods (like the Great Depression), have led to the many innovations and programs that have made the world a better place to be for most people.
People band together during difficult times to get creative about how they can make things better. These turbulent times may not be pleasant, but on the other side of the darkness is the light that drives the world forward. That’s how the world got the internet, jets, antibiotics, digital photography, synthetic rubber, and many important parts of the modern world.
This lesson does not mean that you should wish for hardship; however, it is a reminder that challenging situations are not always bad. In fact, they are often the source of motivation that you or the world needs to find a better path forward.
Why progress is so hard to see
“Good news is the deaths that didn’t take place, the diseases you didn’t get, the wars that never happened, the tragedies avoided, and the injustices prevented. That’s hard for people to contextualize or even imagine, let alone measure. But bad news is visible…It’s the terrorist attack, the war, the car accident, the pandemic, the stock market crash, and the political battle you can’t look away from.”
Bad news gets more attention than progress because it’s more visible. Progress is the current that moves us forward, and it’s often hard to see or measure because it can come in the form of all of the bad things that never happened. You get more eyeballs if you report on the tragic death of 10 people today rather than the millions of lives saved by small innovations over the last 50 years.
Another thing that makes progress hard to see is that it happens more slowly than destruction. While bad events — like the sudden collapse of the 100+ year-old institution Lehman Brothers — happen quickly, progress is often a slow, almost imperceptible march up a hill.
If something is getting 1% better every year, it will compound to enormous improvements over 50 years. But in any given year, it’s hard to feel that 1% improvement, and is easy to discount how wonderful things may be if things keep improving a little bit every year.
Value of wasting time
Many people strive to be as efficient as possible, and in doing so, they forget that wasting time can be a good thing.
Especially in domains that require a lot of creativity, you cannot brute force your way to the solution. You need to give yourself time and space to find the right path forward. If you don’t give yourself that time, you may miss the simple or elegant answer that you would have discovered if you had simply puttered around without trying to maximize every hour.
That’s why many great researchers, inventors, and writers have spoken about the value of long walks or regular periods of solitude in nature. These free periods allowed the magic to happen, even if they were a little inefficient or imperfect. A lot of life works this way.
Everything has a price tag, it’s just not always visible
“A simple rule that’s obvious but easy to ignore is that nothing worth pursuing is free. How could it be otherwise? Everything has a price, and the price is usually proportionate to the potential rewards. But there’s rarely a price tag. And you don’t pay the price with cash. Most things worth pursuing charge their fee in the form of stress, uncertainty, dealing with quirky people, bureaucracy, other peoples’ conflicting incentives, hassle, nonsense, long hours, and constant doubt. That’s the overhead cost of getting ahead.”
Most of the good or enjoyable things in life come with a cost. A thriving career cannot exist without hardship or setbacks. Neither can a good marriage. And neither can a financial portfolio that performs well over 50 years.
When you pursue difficult, but valuable things in the world, it’s helpful to remember the costs of getting those things. If you don’t, you may fall into the trap of thinking that hardship, unfairness, injustice, or the many other inevitable roadblocks are not supposed to exist.
These roadblocks may be unpleasant or unwanted, but they are often a part of the path to getting from where you are to where you want to be.
Long-term thinking is smart, but difficult to operationalize
Long-term thinking is often the best strategy for investing, careers, relationships, and anything that compounds, but operationalizing long-term thinking is harder than most people imagine.
In investing, for example, staying invested for a long period of time requires you to endure recessions, bear markets, memes, meltdowns, and changes in your personal circumstances.
Unless you’re an automaton, these short-term events may compromise you psychologically, but they are the unavoidable costs of taking a long-term view in investing. And even if you remain steady during downtimes, you still have to convince the other people in your life (like a spouse) to remain on board.
As part of taking the long-term path, you must also recognize when you’re being stubborn instead of patient and keep enough slack in the system so that you can weather periods of uncertainty and changing conditions without deviating from the plan.
To truly be “in it for the long haul,” you need to set yourself up to be able to deal with all of the setbacks, nonsense, and unwanted surprises that will inevitably come your way. It’s far easier to say that you will do this than to actually do it.
Permanent vs expiring information
Permanent information, like understanding what will never change about markets, human nature, and the power of incentives, is more useful than expiring information, which focuses on what’s happening in the short term.
The problem is that permanent information is in shorter supply than expiring information. While expiring information fills most headlines, media, and articles, permanent information is often buried in books that take more time and effort to consume. However, if you can find a way to orient your information diet toward permanent information, there are big advantages.
Permanent information is the foundation for more resilient long-term thinking and strategies. Not only are you not consumed by day-to-day noise that won’t matter 10 years or even 6 months from now, but you are learning about how the world works in ways that compound over time.
Instead of knowing “what” happened, you know “why” and can act more appropriately.
Wounds heal, scars endure
“People tend to have short memories. Most of the time they can forget about bad experiences and fail to heed lessons previously learned. But hard-core stress leaves a scar. Experiencing something that makes you stare ruin in the face and question whether you’ll survive can permanently reset your expectations and change behaviors that were previously ingrained.”
The big, painful events of your life — financial ruin, sudden loss of a loved one, a world war, and so on — stick with you and inform how you see the world. And because these “scars” are different for everyone, they explain a lot of differences in the way that people see the world.
So when you encounter someone who believes something entirely different than you, it’s possible that they may be selfish or uninformed, but it’s also possible that you and the other person have had wildly different scarring experiences that have led to fundamental differences in your beliefs and behaviors.
Reminding yourself of the power of scars will help you better understand yourself and other people in ways that improve your communication, relationships, and decision-making.
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