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The Brilliance of "I Don't Know"

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

"We cherish not only answering every question, but also being quick-witted. The answer has to be produced in the shortest amount of time with the snappiest of declarative performances. That kind of quick response is taken as a measure of supreme intelligence." Omid Safi, Duke Professor

We are taught from a young age that answering a question with "I don't know" is unacceptable. It's lazy and dismissive. Surely, we can apply some competitive thought and come up with a logical answer, right? Heck, making something up that sounds good, even though we are blowing smoke, is a passion hobby for some people.

I too used to think "I don't know" was a sign of weakness, maybe even stupidity. In 2020, I think it's brilliant.

My reverence of "I don't know" came about by accident. It happened during a Saturday morning round of golf. Prior to tee-off, I was hitting a few practice putts. This was my usual routine. I overheard several charged up conversations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Each person had a more dramatic proclamation than the last...

Real Estate guy: "This is nothing. Everything will bounce back stronger than ever."

Pharmaceutical sales guy: "I might move out to the country. This is going to get really bad."

Paper Salesperson: "You guys are idiots. COVID isn't even a thing. The whole thing is made up."

I'm noticing these types of conversations with greater frequency. At the golf course, on social media, conversations with friends and neighbors. Seemingly, everyone has anchored to an opinion on a variety of topics: the economy, stock market, and what happens next.

I wonder to myself if I’ve ever been that sure about anything.

To clarify, I'm not saying we shouldn't share our opinions. But there's a difference between a qualified, humble opinion with the acknowledgment that one is likely to be wrong, and a statement presented as fact (even better, anyone that disagrees is an automatic idiot).

My job is to pay attention and have an informed opinion. I share my opinions freely through my weekly writing, but I can't pretend to know what the post-COVID world looks like (here's my best guess, which is likely wrong). No one can. 2020 might be looked at in history as the year humans found out they don’t know $*&^ about anything.

Howard Marks, one of the most respected writers and investors in the world, said this about the post-COVID economy (you can read the full article here, there are many gems on the fallacies of forecasting):

"Yet I recognize that not only is my opinion of little value, but I also don't have the expertise required to know for sure whose opinion does count."

Stanley Drunkenmiller, a famous hedge fund investor, when asked about the timing of a vaccine during an Economic Club of New York virtual meeting, said something to the effect of:

"You might as well ask my dog. I have no clue."

These are two men whom I greatly respect, both with a long track record of investment success. If they can tell millions of people "I don't know," how do I reconcile that with the plethora of intense amateur opinions?

We insure our homes, cars, health, life, etc. in case something bad happens, in case we are on the wrong side of luck. How do we insure or protect ourselves from extreme beliefs or opinions?

For the bullish investor, we could insure our stock portfolio with bonds and gold.

For the bearish investor, we could add some equity exposure in case things bounce back quicker than expected.

The longer I invest, the more humble I become. I don't want to anchor to my narrow view of the world. I don't want to anchor to anything. I want to have an open mind that allows me to pivot and change my mind (an underrated skill) when the facts change.

The next time I'm asked how the post-COVID world shakes out, I can confidently say "I don't know." It's the one thing I've ever been sure about.

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