The Importance of Failing at Investing - It's Almost a Prerequisite to a Successful Long-term Investing Track Record
Failure is always unpleasant but a part of life that can teach. Not all things require failure - you can be a great academic and never fail a class and you obviously don't' want to be an engineer or an architect that ever fails. However, with investing, it's a whole different game - failure early on is almost a prerequisite to a successful long-term investing track record. It's not only that failure is ok, it's almost that utter failure early on (or possibly later on, but early on is better because you usually will have less invested early on).
Financial Markets are too Difficult to Predict
This is a pretty bold statement we're making - we're saying that not only is failure ok but that failure in investing is almost a prerequisite for a good long-term investing track record. This is the case because investing -- unlike so many other professions and activities -- involves intense levels of uncertaintly and potentially chaos. The markets are uncertain and can act in chaotic ways. Additionally, when they are chaotic, they are of the more complicated second order chaos variety - this means that not only is it hard to predict financial markets but that in attempting to predict them we influence them as well. The problem is that humans have a lot of deep-seated heuristics and cognitive biases that intensely cloud our thinking and prevent us from acting in rational ways.
Cognitive Biases and Heuristics Can Lead an Investor Astray
An engineer or an actor or an architect or a college student or an academic doesn't need to fail because their professions are (1) far less uncertain in terms of predicting outcomes and (2) rely on things that are less affected by heuristics and cognitive biases. For example, a bridge builder uses principles of physics to predict the behavior of materials in various situations - not only does this prediction not involve deeply complex or chaotic systems, but it can also be tested in small-scale environments before being implemented (something that's not really possible in a world where time travel hasn't been invented yet). Here's a brief list of some heuristics and cognitive biases:
Two Main Benefits of Investment Failure
Failure in investing does one of two things (and maybe both):
A Real-Life Example of Investment Failure
As an example, I failed big time when I was about 20 years old. This was right before the Great Recession and my friend was working at Washington Mutual as a teller while going to school - the now defunct predominantly- Western bank that was purchased by Chase after it's collapse. We were young college students interested in entering the market and we had no inkling that the Great Recession might come. We bought a significant amount of WaMu stock. Then the economy tanked and the stock went down. We were pretty heavily invested in this one stock at the time. He went to his job every day and he told me no to worry - after all, how could a big bank like this with so much real estate and so much branding and so many customers collapse? It wasn't going to happen. Then, the bank failed and we lost our entire investment.
That experience taught me a lot about investing:
Most people in history created their livelihood -- either by creating income or by actually producing the necessities of life with their own hand and toil -- within family or communal units. The idea of working at a job for a larger entity such as a corporation is extremely new in the grand swath of human history. In effect, almost all of the people who ever lived could in effect be classified as small business owners - this is even true today as most US employment comes still from sole proprietorships or small businesses.
Why is it useful to understand the history of work/labor?
This idea is very important to people living in modern societies because we have a view within our minds that is quite different from reality. Many people believe that:
Going beyond the present day and having at least a basic conception of the things our ancestors did to create substance and value in their ancient worlds will assist in opening up your mind to new opportunities, new ways of combining life with work, and new ways of creating value for others.
Hunting and Gathering - The First Sole Proprietorships
For most of our history, we hunted meat and gathered fruits and vegetables to feed our families and our very tight-knit communities. The lifestyle involved simply waking up with the sun, looking for food during the day, and resting in the evening. Bedtime was when it became dark and no hunter-gatherer had to plan very far ahead.
The first really interesting thing to think about when thinking about how hunter-gatherers provided for themselves is how there were almost never any intermediaries. Besides the possibility of occasional trade within tight-knit communities, hunter-gatherers had what can be considered a two-step method to getting what they wanted. In terms of purity of execution, this was the most basic/fundamental way of obtaining food and water - a hunter gather would literally expend energy in order to obtain the final product he/she sought.
The second interesting thing arises from the first - hunter-gatherers didn't create value for other human beings in order to achieve their goals. Of course, a hunter-gather might want to provide for his family and create value in that pursuit, but that's not what we mean here. What we mean is that hunter-gatherers either went to pick edible growings or killed animals in order to obtain sustenance. In that pursuit they did not serve any other human being in any way - they simply went out into the world and obtained what they needed from it. Contrast that with today's world where we almost exclusively have to earn our livings by creating value for other people, be they your employees or your customers (which are also your employers in a sense). We're not making a normative statement here - we're simply making a descriptive statement.
The third very interesting thing about thinking of the working hunter-gatherers performed is that they had a direct understanding of how their efforts and skills translated into the final product they obtained. Of course, hunter-gatherers likely had some sort of quasi-religious beliefs where they imbued objects, the weather, etc. with spiritualistic aspects and they might have relied on them to provide. However, that doesn't detract from the simple physics of hunting and gathering - every hunter-gatherer must have understood how it was their own physical efforts out in the world that were the proximate cause of their gain. They could have thought the ultimate cause came from the skies or from the tree spirits or elsewhere, but they surely understood that the proximate cause was their own effort - they surely understood that without themselves leaving their cave, picking growing, or killing an animal and dragging it home, their families would not have food to eat. Contrast that with today's modern corporate worker who works in a corporate office or campus and who has
These complex factors can include things such as
Yes, a person's well-being still depends on themselves and everyone must take responsibility for their lives - you must work hard and well so that you're able to do well in your job and in life. However, it is abundantly clear that the level of mental control that a person feels over his or her method of meeting wants/needs should have been far greater in the past than in today's complex and interconnected environment where so much of the economy is not visible or understandable by a single individual.
This understandability of relationship between soil and result could be psychologically beneficial to human beings on many levels. This isn't a psychology website and we're not purporting to have any theoretical or empirical underpinning for these statements, but it does seem to make sense that an individual who has a clear "a leads to b" understanding of the relationship between toil and result -- as opposed of "a to b to c to d to a BLACK BOX to e to f to g" understanding -- would have greater psychological comfort and less psychological stress.
In no way is above supposed to make you envy a hunter-gatherer - we live in a far richer world (both physically and mentally) than our ancestors and anyone who would want to give up today's peace, today's luxury, and today's comfort for a hungry dangerous life of basic subsistence and survival is a quite unusual person.
Agricultural Revolution and Farming
After many centuries of foraging, humans ended up farming. This happened gradually over the course of centuries as well, but the end result was the literal transformation of human life from a nomadic existence to a settled life that would be far more familiar to the modern person.
Although life transformed as well as the approach fro providing for it, humans still operated at a family or communal level - humans still remained in effect small business owners. The business changed, of course humans went from hunting and gathering to
Humans mainly operated as family units after the agricultural revolution according to current historical data with larger family-based communities existing for things that went beyond the family. In effect, each household ran a small farming business that employed the entire household from a relatively young age by today's standards.
Here people had a bit more complexity - their toil no longer immediately translated into value creation (eg. food to eat) but had to go through the intermediate step of waiting for the seeds to grow into plants. The same is true for livestock - farmers and heard had to wait for livestock to grow and spend time and energy on breeding instead of just going out into the wild to kill game.
We can see that from hunting and gathering to farming -- things which make up by far the vast majority of human existence -- we operated in very small-scale communities and were in effect creating our livelihoods within our family units. In effect, all hunter-gatherers and farmers until the Industrial Revolution turned farming into big business can be classified as small business owners in the very broad sense of the world. These individuals worked primarily for themselves and their families. Farmers in certain eras might have had to pay taxes to lords or barons or other elites, but these can be thought of as quasi-taxes. Almost all of humanity did not know the meaning of providing your labor (either in the form of physical or mental exertion) to another individual in return for some sort of payment - this was the case for many reasons, one of which was an economy that was so poor that it could not sustain such interactions in a meaningful way.
Artisans and Craftsmen - Sole Proprietors Throughout History
Beyond farming, there have been at times in history a class or artisans or craftsman. This class developed after the Agricultural Revolution as settled communities were needed in order for this class of people to arise. They mainly operated in larger cities and they ran what can be considered small businesses. The words "artisan" and "craftsman" is too narrow, however, as these individuals operated a large variety of business. These businesses including:
All of the above can also be classified as small businesses. They are more like the small businesses we think of today - instead of directly producing their own livelihoods, these artisans and craftsmen would set up shop and serve their communities. They would very likely have most of their family involved in the business and live either close by or directly above their shops.
The Modern Working World
Although the majority of US jobs still come from small businesses, most people think of work as something you do in a large-scale setting such as a corporation. Most people even aspire to such work.
This work is quite different than operating a small business because it involves providing your labor to a larger entity that you do not control and likely can never fully understand (not even the CEO of a large firm fully understand what's really going on). This creates a sort of "black box" effect where you provide your labor into a "black box" and then some income is given to you. You aren't totally sure about the actual value you're creating for the firm and you don't fully understand how your labor fits into the bigger puzzle.
There are of course many benefits working in jobs - most of these benefits come from a certain stability that is not always present in running a small business. However, there might be some psychological costs that affect a person in the following ways:
Working in a job might make a person blind to other small but very profitable opportunities where their skills might be used. They might not ever consider opening their own business, running their own website, consulting on their own, or providing value on a small scale. This is unfortunate because it is in such small setting where you are able to capture the full value of your efforts (instead of the employer capturing most of the value). This is really how people get rich today - most people will never get rich working for a job and saving a large portion of their income; the vast majority of people in our world get rich in entrepreneurial activities.
Some Examples of Employment Throughout History
Although most people worked for themselves throughout history, there were some interesting examples of employment throughout history. Here are a few:
If you're invested in the stock market -- be it with an individual portfolio, through an IRA, through a robot-advisor, or through a 401k -- you should know that markets will decline, economies will suffer, and your portfolio value will decrease. You can try to create a situation for yourself where you won't be exposed to the volatility of the markets, but the only real way to do this is to not be invested in equities at all - by entering the markets you're implicitly accepting a certain amount of short-term volatility that could cause you to see your portfolio drop by quite a bit. It's how you handle this drop that determines your resiliency as an investor and, in the long-run, that determines whether or not you're a successful investor.
Recessions Will Occur and Markets Will Decline
First, it's key that you understand that market will decline - you can't hide from this unless you're not invested in equities. If you only hold cash or fixed income securities (eg. bonds), you can safely ignore market prices on equities. In the case of cash, you don't care about the market either way. In the case of bonds -- although bonds can of course rise and fall in value based on credit worthiness and interest rates -you generally are more concerned with the ability of the borrower (eg. sovereign government, municipality, or firm) to pay as the agreed-upon schedule. If you hold stocks, however, you are exposed to two key factors:
Exiting the Stock Market at a Macroeconomic Downturn is One of the Greatest Mistakes an Investor Can Make
Imagine you own your house outright in 2007 and then in 2008 through 2010 the housing market starts to decline as it did in the US. Would you sell your paid-for house after seeing a drop in real estate prices of 30% or more? Clearly, that would be idiotic if you didn't need the money for something specific. Why, then, do so many investors feel so inclined to sell their stocks after a market drop? Just as with a paid-for house, you own your stocks outright unless you bought them on margin (highly unlikely for most retail investors).
Adding a mortgage on the house makes the situation riskier and it is, therefore, more understandable that you might need to sell your house in an economic downturn (eg. income loss). However, people are still far more inclined to sell losing stock positions in a macroeconomic downturn than they are to sell their mortgaged house. This doesn't make any rational sense and it represents a fundamental flaw in the way most people approach their portfolios.
Now, if something fundamental changes - meaning one of the following:
THEN you can be justified in existing a position. In this case, you'll be exiting, not because of a macroeconomic decline, but because of a macroeconomic change to your world of the stock you're holding.
In other circumstances, however, existing a previously good position is just foolish and will lead you to underperform the market over the long term. Additionally, you'll be effectively shooting yourself in the foot - you will be purposely selling off at the worst possible time instead of holding out a bit for a far better market scenario where a more fair value can be obtained for your investing.
Play Mind Games With Yourself to Prepare for the Inevitable Market Decline
One of the greatest ways to prepare for the inevitable market collapse (if you still think that this won't happen you need to go back and diligently study investing history before you proceed any further into the markets) is not use the same tactic elite athletes use to prepare themselves for competition - mental visualizations of game day with a focus on the desired outcome and the challenges that will likely be faced.
Elite athletes focus on the win, but they also visualize and understand the pain and the suffering that game day will likely entail. Instead of being optimistically naive, they in advance fully understand how difficult game day will be, they accept that difficulty fully, and they commit to persevering in spite of it.
Applying that same theory to your investing life you might want to visualise the goals you want to achieve (eg. the return you want to obtain over time or the number you want to hit in your portfolio) but you also will want to sit down and imagine how a 10% market drop will feel, how a 25% market drop will feel, and how a 50% market drop will feel.
Typically a 10% market decline will occur once every couple of years, a 25% market decline will occur once every decade or two, and a 50% market decline will occur up to a few times in your investing life. Failing to prepare for this almost inevitable circumstance could cause you to sell at a 50% market drop - clearly a very unpleasant outcome if waiting just a few years would allow you to recover all of your gains as has been shown via a study of US stock market history.
When you're playing these mind games with yourself it's key to really visualize the scenario and get that negative feeling in your gut you would get on the morning fo the crash. You will likely not have as intense emotions as you would actually staring at your dropped portfolio, but you should definitely feel that nasty feeling in your stomach. If no feeling accompanies this exercise you're doing it wrong and you should continue doing it over time until you really get that unpleasant gut feeling.
Once you have that gut feeling, let it wash over you and don't try to make it go away as humans tend to do with all emotions. Let the feelings stay with you and explore it a bit. See what that feeling is telling you to do. Realize how your emotions are ruling over you instead of anything rational - this is dangerous because investing is very unnatural to human beings and only rationality will help you do well. Tell yourself
It's important to not underestimate the power of such mental exercises. It's easy to dismiss this and argues that imagining things during a bull market won't help you when things really go bad and you actually are sitting in front of your broker's website looking at a number that is 50% less than it was yesterday. Of course, the two things aren't the same, but the power of visualizing is far greater than meets the eye at first. A lot of mental resilience to making foolish moves can be built up using the exercise above and be doing it once a quarter will over time create a healthy mental discipline against acting like a crazy person when things really go bad int he stock market.
The stock market has proven a great investment over the last century - investing prudently and in a disciplined way in the stock market would have yielded great results in every two-decade-long period in the US. This means that no matter where you start in the last 100 years (even a day before the collapse that started the Great Depression), if you invested wisely (meaning you diversified and dollar cost averaged into the market), you would have been far better off by investing in 20 years than you would have been holding the money in cash instead.
If this is the case, why are so many people so afraid of buying stock? Here are 3 reasons why:
1. You Don't Understand What a Stock Actually Represents
If you're afraid of investing in the stock market, you might simply not understand what a stock actually represents - you literally don't know what it is. Of course, you've heard of stocks and you know they are some sort of financial instrument or products, but if pressed you probably can't give even a basic definition that would clearly define what a stock is.
If you're in this camp of people, it does make a bit of sense that you're hesitant to invest in equities and delve into the stock market. People are often (and often rightly) afraid of what they don't understand - human nature keeps us safe by making us a bit frightened of the unknown. If you don't really know about something, how can you know if it's good or bad? Just as importantly, if you don't know about something, how can you know how to deal with it in productive and effective ways? Maybe it's better to just stay away from those things you don't know?
Staying away might be a good idea for some things in life, but it's a bad idea when it comes to delving into the equities market in your financial life - by not investing in companies around the world through the purchase of shares on the stock market, you are denying your financial self and your portfolio one of the best ways regular individuals can have a piece of the global financial pie and ride the wave of global growth over the long term. Without investing in stocks, you're not going to benefit when global GDP increases - you're going to have to rely either solely on your own labor income or a bit of interest income you'll earn by letting other people use your capital. Buying shares of good firms around the world, however, will allow you to literally have an ownership state in the global economy.
So, if you don't know anything about stocks today, it's time to learn. Fortunately, you're already ahead of many others because you're here reading this on this website - you've already taken a crucial first step. Next, you'll want to pursue around Pennies and Pounds a bit more in a free-form way to just get a feel of the kind of stock-related information that is out there. Once you've got a general conception, a book or two will prove quite useful in helping you delve deeper and learn more about personal finance and the stock market. Never underestimate the importance of learning about personal finance - your financial life is a key part of your overall life and not spending any time in studying up is as foolish as not going to school but expecting to do well in the job market.
2. You've Invested in the Stock Market in the Past, but You've Been Burned and Remain Scarred
Maybe you do know about stocks. Maybe you've even ventured out into the equities market in the past. And maybe you've been burned by it. Maybe you've
If the above happened to you, it's no surprise you're hesitant to go back into the stock market. You probably feel like
Although it's understandable that you feel this way, it's totally wrong - you're wrong if getting burned in the past has fundamentally created a negative outlook of the stock market for you. You got hurt in the past not because there are fundamental flaws in the stock market or that investing in stocks is simply not for you - you got burned because you made incorrect decisions.
Investing in stocks well requires a certain amount of basic knowledge. Things such as
If you got burned in the past in the stock market you probably bought a single stock or just a handful of stocks - this is foolish unless you're a Warren Buffet and for most people proper diversification is key. If you invested in Lehman Brothers or Pets.com or any other hot stock pic, you would have gotten burned - you invested without diversification and you invested in the wrong thing.
If you're going to stock pick, then make sure you pick the right stock. is not possible for most and, therefore, stock picking should be avoided like the plague. Instead, diversification via the use of mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) should be utilized with a few stocks here and there if you're willing to take on the risk. Additionally, a robust (but not too robust) cash position (that is separate from your emergency fund) would provide liquidity and help reduce the overall volatility of your portfolio.
You also might have gotten burned because you invested at the wrong time (eg. the Dot Com Bubble or in 2006/7) and then sold at the wrong time instead of waiting for the market to recover. Instead, you should have:
Instead of going in at once, a dollar cost averaging approach where you invest a bit every month or every quarter allows for less risk because instead of investing at a single time, you can take advantage of market drops by having your money purchase more stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs. Additionally, you must be disciplined enough to not sell in a market panic - this is very hard and this is what kills most investors. You need to study the history of the stock market and keep that history in mind in order to temper the craziness that will arise in your mind when you see your portfolio going down. A good investor that is invested in a strong and diversified portfolio will not sell at a panic - this investor will understand how foolish it is to liquidate positions at a market drop and will instead keep disciplined and follow through with his or her investing strategy.
3. You've Heard too Many Stock Market Horror Stories
Maybe your dad or your uncle got burned investing in stocks. Maybe a high school teacher told you about her venture into the stock market and how horribly it turned out. Maybe your grandparents' told you stories of the Great Depression and how they only hold cash and bonds. Maybe you've watched one too many news episodes during the Great Recession. Maybe you grew up in a house where there was a lot of misunderstanding and fear about the stock market.
Whatever or whoever go this fear into your head - it's not rational. Stocks have created tremendous amounts of wealth for both rich people and middle-class people over the last century. The Great Depression, the Great Recession, Black Friday, the Dot Com Bust, and all of the other horrible things that happened in the financial markets would not affect an investor that was properly diversified and dollar cost averaging (instead of going all in at once). It's normal that hearing of other people's failures when investing in stocks would make you cautious, but it doesn't have to be that way - you can easily succeed in the stock market if you take a disciplined and prudent approach. More importantly, if you're going to really build wealth and not simply rely on your own income, the stock market is one of your best bets.
The modern world is the epitome of security when taken from a historical perspective. We have taken a rough, difficult, dangerous, and unpredictable existence as human beings and, over many centuries, transformed it into a far more predictable, calm, and secure way of life.
Now, by security and insecurity I don't mean the modern definition of the term - I don't mean confidence or lack of confidence in yourself. I mean something much deeper and more universal when I use these terms in this context. I'm talking about being truly secure and being deeply insecure as a human being in relation to the world around you.
To better illustrate what I mean by these terms I'll provide an example:
Be the Mouse?
So, if a mouse is the epitome of an insecure creature and a lion is the epitome of a secure creature, why would I imply with my title that insecurity is somehow good - why would I imply that you should somehow be insecure? Because you're not a lion.
You're not a lion - you're a fragile human being that has to be concerned with far more than his or her place in the animal kingdom. You have to be concerned not only with your survival today in a physical sense, but with your survival in a financial, career, emotional, and mental sense. Life more difficult for us human beings - we're competing on more playing fields.
Security = Death
Although being too deeply insecure will cause you mental trauma, the only way to truly have security in any of the places where it is important is by being constantly insecure. The moment you are too secure you're dead meat. The moment you're content with your situation or position or the moment you let your guard down you give room to the cold and harsh world and those in it to destroy you. Don't give the world or any person that room - be constantly vigilant and never feel sorry for yourself for it.
Don't feel bad for being insecure - the modern world we live in makes us think that a sense of security is one of the ultimate goals in life. In today's world too many people feel that we should have a constant sense of peace and calm and security - we want to feel like everything is ok and that there's nothing to worry about. Stop wanting that and realize that the game will never end and the struggle will never cease - the moment you overcome something, there is something else waiting for you. The moment you achieve some sense of security, there is something else to be on guard against. You must stop putting so much value on being in a calm state - a calm state means nothing and is nothing. A state of vigilance and security in everything you do is another state and it's not less good - it's the natural state of a creature as fragile as us.
a. an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion
b. a strong and unusual need or desire for something
In today's modern society (modern western society at least) we seem to fetishize consistency. We call politicians who change their minds on issues or change their views "flip-floppers." Who among us hasn't defended an opinion we no longer held simply because we held it before and discussed it with others? Both externally and internally in our own minds, we seem to have this unusual and intense desire to remain consistent with our past thoughts, beliefs, actions, words, and desires - we seem to have an irrational and unfounded fear of admitting that we've changed our minds on something or that we've grown up a bit and now see the parts of the picture that we didn't see before.
It's not clear where this fetishism of consistency comes from. It could arise from without (an external influence on us by the media or the education system) or it could arise organically from within (many individuals valuing consistency and see it as a vital trait). Regardless of where it comes from, today's intense devotion to consistency has likely gone too far - some consistency is important, BUT putting consistency above all else (including growth, education, and flexibility) is a foolish thing for a person to do and a foolish thing for a society to exalt.
If you believed X in the past but now believe Y, you must not be afraid to admit either to yourself or to others that your position has moved. Of course, if you consistently change positions or can never make up your mind on issues, that's a problem of its own, but when you move from X to Y because of personal growth, because of education on the topic, or because of an increased internal flexibility, you are acting in a very human and correct way.
In short, it's ok to change your mind when
But, your mind really hasn't changed if
It seems that in most things in life that we try, we quit right before the big payoff. Just like a tiny plant that is about to break the surface of the Earth, our life is about to change but we seem to get frustrated and stop trying. Sometimes we look back in hindsight with regret that we didn't continue on just a bit further - we ask ourselves why we stopped watering the plant at exactly the wrong time?
This phenomenon seems to hold true with investing. Many people attempt to invest their savings in a wise way. They want to make their money grow and I’m sure they do their best to invest well and invest properly. Most of the time, however, we’re all really bad at actually accomplishing that goal. I’m not quite sure why that is, but I'll postulate.
One problem might be that we pick the wrong stocks at the wrong time. Instead of buying based on the fundamentals of a company, as traditional investment theory would advise us to do, we buy a stock because we got some hot tip or the financial media seems to be covering the company more.It also might be because of a general lack of financial knowledge, which causes us to not fully understand the risk-reducing benefits of proper diversification. Maybe it's because we’re trigger happy, too quick to buy and too quick to sell on impulse and not able to stick with our investments over a relatively sufficient period of time for momentary market fluctuations to not matter much.
But when you think about it, it doesn’t seem to be in human nature to think for the long term or to be calm and collected in the face of mass hysteria or bad news. It seems like it’s more in our nature to go with what the whole pack is doing. It’s also in our nature to minimize worst-case or catastrophic scenarios, however, slight the chance of them might be. That may be why we’re sometimes too quick to sell. If we just wait a month and then rethink it, maybe we wouldn’t sell. But we don’t wait the month because we don’t want to lose our entire investment. It’s better to leave with a small loss than lose everything we’ve invested. A big win isn’t the equivalent of a big loss in our minds. A big loss holds more weight.
We can’t escape the inner workings of our minds, minds that have been shaped by thousands of years of evolution and minds that aren't equipped to handle the concept of patience or to perform a logical analysis of risk. Knowing that, it’s pretty amazing that we’re even as good at investing as we are.
I guess, when it comes to it, we have to admit that we weren't meant to be investors. If you believe current science, we were meant to run on the plains of Africa, eat, sleep, and have sex. The deepest parts of our minds have not placed for what is required to be an excellent investor in today's artificial world. Some of us are great investors, however. Why is that? I postulate that the greatest investors are able to be so successful not due to their ability to fully embrace their human nature and potential, instead of trying to fight against it. But, that's a story and a discussion for a different day.
I went to the orthodontist today to get a fixed retainer removed. It was put in about a decade ago, when I was a teenager, right after I had my braces removed. It was supposed to keep my bottom teeth in place, but after a decade in my mouth it started wearing out. Last week I had to get it repaired and more recently another part of the retainer broke off, making repair impossible and requiring the removal of the entire fixed retainer.
Why am I telling you this? I'm telling you this because I had a really interesting insight during my orthodontist visit, specifically as he was removing the excess adhesive (which bonded the retainer to my teeth) and polishing the back of my teeth after removing the retainer.
I am not afraid of going to the dentist at all, but I do understand that dental work performed with no anesthesia can be excruciatingly painful. My parents, who grew up in the former Soviet Union, tell me how painful such work was as they did not have anesthesia then (or they did not have access to it). Obviously, with no anesthesia, people likely neglected dental work. Additionally, I experienced dental drilling when I was a young child with relatively little anesthesia (I am not quite sure why) and I remember that it was very painful, even though some anesthesia was used. It is a very unique and particular type of pain and it is extremely uncomfortable. So, I knew that drilling teeth with no anesthesia at all is extremely painful from stories and a past experience with relatively little anesthesia. With this knowledge and with this past experience I sat down to get my retainer removed.
The orthodontist told me that he wouldn’t use any anesthesia because he wouldn’t be drilling into the teeth or doing anything that would hurt. He told me he would just be removing glue from the surface of the teeth after he removed the retainer. He removed the retainer and then he began removing all of the excess adhesive with a dental tool that looked very similar to the tools that dentists used on me when I had fillings in the past. I am a layperson when it comes to dentistry, so I assumed it was the same tool and I assumed it was capable of drilling deep into a tooth.
As he began removing the adhesive from the back of my teeth I felt a tiny bit of pain. I wouldn't even call it pain. It was more of an annoyance, but I knew very well that the minor annoyance could turn into excruciating pain should the dentist go deeper into the tooth. I thought to myself, what about when he finishes removing the adhesive? Then the drill will be touching the actual tooth and there will no longer be a layer of adhesive between the drill and the tooth. Will that hurt? It will likely hurt!
I didn't say anything while he was drilling because I trusted the orthodontist, but the annoyance increased and I felt a very slight tinge of pain. Now I was a little nervous, but I still trusted the orthodontist because I knew he worked with children and that he likely had an abundance of anesthesia. He would likely use it if he felt that there was even a chance of pain as medical professionals are overly cautious when it comes to these things today.
When he took a break from the drilling and the adhesive removal, I took the opportunity to ask him about my concern because I was pretty curious. I told him what I thought would happen and he told me that it wasn't possible. He said that what he was using was a rubber drill tip, not a metal drill tip capable of lacerating and drilling into the tooth. He said that even when the tip touches the tooth with no adhesive, which it would do soon once all of the adhesive was removed, it still wouldn't hurt. My outlook on the entire procedure immediately changed in an instant and I was shocked at this.
When he began drilling again the minor pain went away completely. Obviously I still felt the same sensation I felt before, but now I knew that it would never be different than it was now. I knew that the drill was not even capable of causing the pain which I was afraid of and that made the entire thing not just a little bit more tolerable, but turned the whole thing into a completely different experience. I now wanted him to continue with the procedure despite the light discomfort because I wanted the back of my teeth to be as smooth as possible and for all of the adhesive to be removed.
I know this is a simple example, but I cannot ignore what it has taught me. My assumptions played an enormous role in my experience at the orthodontist. I felt the same sensation (maybe even a greater physical discomfort after I found out), but something changed. The sensation in the beginning was combined with a certain fear that it would increase and an assumption that the tool that was being used could also grind deep into my tooth. After I learned about what was going on, my old assumption died and was replaced with a different assumption, this time a more accurate one. That accurate assumption allowed me to understand that the tool had a rubber tip and was incapable of drilling into the tooth. It was not the same tool that dentists use to drill into teeth to fill cavities.
What can we learn from my experience? We learn that assumptions matter a lot. I've always felt this before, but my experience at my orthodontist really brought this home for me. It was an almost profound experience in terms of how quickly I learned and internalized something pretty important. We won't always be able to change our assumptions and when we get more educated and our assumptions do change, we might realize that our original assumptions gave us more peace of mind. However, whenever we're suffering in one of endless ways we can suffer, we should take a minute to think about whether or not our suffering is caused in part by an assumption that we have. We should then seek to understand why we have that assumption and really do our best to understand whether or not it is rational, correct, and true or whether it is only based on ignorance and our own limited past experiences. An assumption can act like a pair of glasses that color everything else we see in the world. Change the glasses and you can change your view of the world.
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