The ancient Masters didn’t
try to educate the people,
but kindly taught them to not-know.
When they think that they know the answers,
people are difficult to guide.
When they know that they don’t know,
people can find their own way.
If you want to learn how to govern,
avoid being clever or rich.
The simplest pattern is the clearest.
Content with an ordinary life,
you can show all people the way
back to their own nature.
Tao Te Ching, chapter 65
I must learn to unlearn.
I say this not with ignorance, but with humility. The most challenging conversations one finds themselves engaging in are ones in which the other party has taken a polarizing view on an issue that many see as grey. As with many things, I learn of my own faults while observing others. Having a brief conversation, listening to a podcast, or reading an article somehow entitles me to an opinion on a matter that arguably takes a lifetime to fully understand. This leads me to underappreciate true wisdom or expertise when I encounter it, rather than have an open mind and fully understand the limits of my knowledge. I see this in others and I see this in myself.
To quote a colleague, when asked about her expertise on a specific piece of international tax she replied, “if I don’t have the exact piece of information that is necessary to diagnose a client’s situation, I want to find the person who wrote the book on the topic.” Or, as a Silicon Valley executive once told me, “I am not about being the smartest person, I am about leveraging the smartest people”.
Seeking out wisdom when wisdom is needed requires the understating of one’s own limits. This may require one to unlearn.
Arthur Conan Doyle in A Study in Scarlet draws the comparison between a man’s mind and an empty attic. He describes the fool as one who takes in all kinds of lumber, not knowing when or if he is going to use it. This forces the knowledge that actually is useful to him to get crowded out. The skillful workmen, however, is very careful about what he allows in his brain-attic. Doyle describes him as one who only has the tools that are necessary for him to do his work. Point being, knowing what to avoid accumulating is crucial to have a neat and efficient attic, and this might require some occasional cleaning. Similarly, knowing what to avoid is crucial to having an efficient thought process, and this might require some occasional unlearning. This is why Nassim Taleb says in Anitfragile, “Keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise man.”
What unlearning means to me is possessing the modesty to recognize that additional education and experience does not make one an authority, it merely assists in being able to recognize authority. The anticipated result of this, the sought after goal, is to possess the ability to provide objective council (in my case this is referring to financial planning).
The hardest decision for a book-worm is not “what good book should I read next;" rather, it is making the more challenging decision of what not to read next. The identification of quality literature stopped being a problem for them long ago. The new problem is capacity.
“1. Good men are mutually helpful; for each gives practice to the other's virtues and thus maintains wisdom at its proper level. Each needs someone with whom he may make comparisons and investigations. 2. Skilled wrestlers are kept up to the mark by practice; a musician is stirred to action by one of equal proficiency. The wise man also needs to have his virtues kept in action; and as he prompts himself to do things, so is he prompted by another wise man. 3. How can a wise man help another wise man? He can quicken his impulses, and point out to him opportunities for honorable action. Besides, he can develop some of his own ideas; he can impart what he has discovered. For even in the case of the wise man something will always remain to discover, something towards which his mind may make new ventures.”
-Seneca, Moral letters to Lucilius, letter 109
In the financial advisory industry, this logic applies to professionals as well as clients, and we are all a bit of both. The ones who are least likely to seek out financial help are those who are confident that they possess the technical and emotional capacity to effectively produce the same product, with little or no monetary cost. The financial industry’s asymmetric distribution of information is almost certainly flattening; both sides arguably have access to the same information, leaving many to conclude that an outside professional is unnecessary. However, where I see the value is in the power of skepticism and the power of question. Through experience and study, the right financial advisor knows what questions to ask, what concerns to raise, and what direction to take the conversation.
Recognizing limits and identifying deficiencies are essential to produce mental clarity. The skill of the professional should not be having all the answers, but possessing the ability to procure what is necessary.
This is not a defense of the traditional financial advisor, this is a defense of traditional lifelong learning. And lifelong learning is achieved, in part, by recognizing what you have yet to learn.
My journey in this field has recently begun, it is therefore much simpler for me to acknowledge my deficiencies, as there are many, and eagerness for learning, as everything is new and exciting. I hope to always maintain the personal philosophy that I am a student first, and a teacher second.
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”