Growing, deliberately

coffee muse

I’m not sure about you but when I was young, I always wanted to grow up more quickly, to have more independence, to be able to decide things for myself rather than have the adults call the shots. And even when I am grown-up, I never quite regretted, as intimidating as the big decisions of life might be, I wasn’t too worried about ‘adulting’. I’m not sure if I’m last of my kind amongst the millennials – whom I don’t naturally identify with though by most definitions, I seem to fall into that generation.

The thing about being in the education system, following the mainstream, you’re like going downriver, the currents keep pushing your boat and you’re just trying to catch up with sights and sounds of both shores before they pass you by. And we all go through the various milestones almost naturally. From toddler to young child, you learn to see, hear, smell, taste, feel, then walk, talk, dance (albeit badly, in my case), relate to others. And then there’s school, subjects, outdoor activities, friends, rivalry; there’s science, arts, religion, politics, economics. And huge aspects and domains of life just opens up to you when just a while ago they seemed to all just fall into a single category: ‘things the adults would talk about’. There’s then the adulting stuff: jobs, finance, mortgage, marriage, careers, etc.

I realised though, I was a bit more deliberate about picking up the ‘adulting’ stuff and that it didn’t just come by as naturally as other things did. When my subjects went from ‘Science’ to ‘Physics’, ‘Chemistry’, ‘Biology’, it seemed natural and like a progress just flows. But to be honest, there was much more effort to go from ‘saving my pocket money’ to ‘managing personal finance’ or jumping further into things like mortgage, insurance, taxes. On one hand I think our education system made knowledge acquisition easy (though as kids we might think it was almost a chore to learn things); but on the other hand, it also didn’t prepare us for the non-linearity of the real world (this is a topic I intend to revisit again some day). That means that whilst we were in school, things had more clear-cut ‘right answers’; and we were more focused on learning answers than on learning the questions to ask.

When we were in school, the teacher throws up a series of questions, and we figure out the answers as we interrogate the body of knowledge we’re given to master. Teachers, study materials, and resources around us will be put together to help us answer those questions. We learn to engage those materials to answer the questions. But in life, we need to identify the questions and figure out what we’re trying to solve. This is because of the greater dimensionality involved in life, and the interplay of more factors (ie. no more ‘Ceteris Paribus’). More than half the battle is won by asking the right questions.

To take an example from insurance, we ask the questions like: ‘What is the best insurance policy? How much do I need to cover myself for? How does the coverage of this policy compare to another?’ Those are good questions, but they only deal with solving the superficial question of ‘which insurance policy should I get?’. There are other problems present – for example, isn’t the insurance agent just going to try and push me to select something that earns him the most, and which I’d most likely buy? Won’t he obscure any information? I realised it is more important to see the problem as ‘how do I get my agent to really work for me?’, bearing in mind that beyond optimising within your choice set, you’ve to solve a principal-agency problem as well. You need to flip the choice around and ask ‘how do I get the agent to sell me an insurance policy that works best for me and not himself?’

Examples of such questions I’d ask are: ‘How are your commissions aligned to my premium payments? How much of the money I’m paying goes into distribution costs? What are the mechanisms for the insurance company to return funds to the insured when the claims fall short of what you provisioned for?’ This is because, within the choice set you’re offered, there will always be a nudge towards some option that benefits the party offering you; getting the best deal is not always about just choosing between the options but questioning the choice set itself. Nevermind if your agent doesn’t know the answer to those questions, it challenges them to recognise conflicts of interest and to tread carefully, elicit greater empathy. In any case, if he tries to hand-wave these questions away, you should start doubting his sincerity about helping you.

I have had to be more deliberate about growing up now that I’m grown-up because the system doesn’t help me with knowledge acquisition anymore. In fact, the economy has a myriad of incentive misalignments that encourage parties to obscure information from one another, generate false ‘knowledge’ to influence people. Realise now we’ve passed the river delta and reached the sea; the flow of the river is no longer pushing you along, now you have to adjust your sail and watch your surroundings. Where you want to sail towards is up to you. But sail you must, or you’ll be stagnant. Or you’ll be just going the way of drift wood, get beached or shipwrecked.

Age itself may imply more experience, but the worse thing that can happen is that age passes you by and you failed to grow. We ought to be more deliberate about our growth, deepening our thinking about what problems and challenges we are really trying to solve in our lives.