What Have You Changed Your Mind About?

[ Mon. Dec. 31. 2007 ]

This year's Big Question at Edge from John Brockman, et al., is this, What have you changed your mind about?  This is, at least, an interesting question, so I'll start by saying that what I've changed my mind about is whether, in general, the Edge's annual question is worth reading. Okay, sometimes it is.

That said, are any specific answers to this year's Big Question worth reading? Somewhat surprisingly, yes. Granted, some of the answers are just wankery, scientists and others saying that they used to think we wouldn't solve Problem X, and now they think we will, someday, etc. Or, worse yet, there is a passel of up-with-the-environment puffery, where the previously unconverted become carbon holy-rollers.

Forgive me, but I don't care about answers that show how you are getting smarter and smarter, every day. I want to know about real and relevant -- and, ideally, embarrassing-- things about which you changed your mind, and why. Because how smart people convince themselves to do dumb things -- or at least wrong things -- is too important to be turned into an onanistic exercise. And don't even get me started about the number of people who turned this into an exercise in extolling the merits of changing one's mind.

Something that struck me in doing a quick read of the contributions is that one large group who changes their mind all the time is not represented. And that is, of course, anyone to do with capital markets. Imagine asking a question like the above to a successful fund manger, to Jim Rogers, to Philip Carret, Michael Steinhardt, or to Jim Simons. Instead of a long and ponderous answer about a decade-old inconsequential change of heart on an academic inanity, you would get a litany of things, some within the last few hours, of material matters on which they had been dead wrong -- with, sometimes, many millions of dollars in consequences. Investment pros are, in a sense, among the world's foremost experts at changing their mind. I remember talking to Andy Kessler a year or so ago about this, about how important it is to remain totally flexible and uncommitted in capital markets.

So, what would I say in response to this question? Well there is the cutesy grad-school essay-ready response I gave above about the question itself. And there is, of course, the age-old dilemma about whether ballad bands can do speed metal music, as opposed to vice-versa, but I'll leave that aside momentarily.

There are so many things I've changed my mind about I've lost track, and the pace is picking up. I don't even know where to begin. For example, I was dead wrong about Apple stock for years, to the point that early on I called iPod a fad and said some silly things about how if Apple's share price was above the then level I would eat my column. That was stupid, and I changed my mind and publicly flipped a year or so later, in time to ride along with Apple on its current advance. Why was I wrong? Because, in short, I got stuck using the past as a lens -- a mistake, as Warren Buffett has said, because if the past were such a good predictor all the best investors would be librarians -- and assumed that Apple CEO Steve Jobs would always fumble new product launches, forgetting that a context switch had happened, with Jobs' Apple finally going from weakness (business sales) to strength (consumer products).

I used to take much more pride in working things through, coming to a firm conclusion, and sticking to it. No longer. Like Billy Pilgrim, I feel increasingly unstuck in time, with everything more tenuous, and with it much more important to change my mind, and to do it quickly and with less overwhelming data than I might have tried to obtain in the past. At least as importantly, it's easy to wander from firm convictions to utter inflexibility, and, at least as a prophylactic to the latter, it's better to err on the side of flexible convictions.

Sadly, however, what I have not changed my mind about is citizens of this planet's capacity to do the same. In particular, the current political season in the U.S. is utterly depressing, with horrible, pandering, unthinking views getting more play than anything even remotely rational. If anything, people feel more fixed in unfalsifiable world views, whether built on faith or superstition or pride or ignorance, the result is the same: A planet of people who should all change their mind about important things much more often, but don't.

Here are a couple worth reading. Feel free to add more.

And who do I wish was on the list? Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Lloyd Blankfein, Stan O'Neal, Angelo Mozilo, Jim Cramer, Rupert Murdoch, and many, many others.