You take a seat in a black, swivel office chair. The kind that a young child would twirl around in circles until she tumbles over with dizziness and laughter.
Then someone places a blindfold over your eyes. And they begin to spin you, slowly, in the chair.
What do you make of it?
When the chair slows down, you will believe that you have stopped. And when the chair has actually stopped, you’ll think that you have begun to spin in the opposite direction.
This “mistake,” author Maggie Shipstead reveals in her novel Great Circle, “happens deep in [your] ear.”
She creates this demonstration to tell a story about pilots in the 1920s. They often made errant – even deadly – decisions with their airplanes after they lost sight of the horizon due to clouds or fog.
The sky is full of traps and temptation. Pilots report that their instruments went haywire in clouds, though of course they didn’t – the pilots’ own bodies are lying, not the dials. Your inner ear gets comfortable in a spiral. Even after you’ve extricated yourself, when the instruments say you are flying straight and level again because you are, your ear begs to differ. You’re the blindfolded man in the rotating chair. …Your ear begs you to throw the controls over, to make the spinning stop. Sometimes pilots listen, put themselves right back into a spiral. An oblivion of mist hides the earth, the truth.
It’s difficult to believe the gauges, that array of soulless little dashboard windows, over the insistence of the body, which is as sure as you live and breathe that you are funneling down into death.
But you’re not. You’re dizzy inside a cloud. That’s all.
Our own bodies are lying about money, too.
We have plenty of indicators to confirm we’re making prudent financial decisions. Yet, our minds still beg to differ.
Our investment decisions, for example, regularly feel like they’re going haywire. When the stock market jumps in value, we’re sure that a steep decline lies ahead. So we hold off on investing, and then miss out on future gains. And in times of economic crisis, we become certain that the market has further to fall. So we abandon our investments, locking in losses that could have been temporary.
But it was only that uncomfortable feeling of an uncertain outcome that made us want to “throw the controls over, to make the spinning stop.”
The fog of uncertainty hides the truth about other aspects of our financial lives, too. We convince ourselves that earning more money will make us happier. So we sacrifice finite time with our family and friends even when money is not what we lack in life. And we come to believe that a bigger house, more exotic vacation, or the most elite private school are needs. So we spend our money in ways that don’t actually reflect who we are and what we actually want.
It’s always difficult to believe in the rationality of less conventional or less visible financial decisions. This is especially true when we allow our neighbors, friends, or social media accounts to dictate our actions.
In the 1930s, an artificial horizon instrument began to come standard with airplanes. Amid clouds or fog, pilots could now counter their body’s protests with intuitive equipment. Even under duress, they no longer felt uncertain about their airplane’s orientation relative to the earth.
Our personal values are the artificial horizon instrument for our financial decisions.
We’ll never quite achieve the same degree of certainty. But we don’t need to settle for flying by the seat of our pants, either. Our beliefs, priorities, and interests empower us to counter the deceiving inner dialogues we have about money.
Most often, whether you’re in an office chair, in the clouds, or staring at your bank account, you’re not actually in a downward spiral.
You’re just a little dizzy. That’s all.
About the author: Kevin Mahoney, CFP®
Hi, I’m Kevin. I’m a financial advisor in Washington, DC. I’m also the founder of Illumint, an independent financial planning company in the District that specializes in financial planning for Millennials like you. I empower our generation with the confidence to invest an inheritance, financial gift, or extra savings. If you’re new to Financially Well, welcome – you now have access to the leading finance podcast for Millennials. I encourage you to read, watch, or listen to the ideas I’ve shared about making your money work for you. And then when you’re ready, please send me your thoughts & questions!