Hindsight Bias and Personal Finance

We’ve all heard the old nugget: hindsight is 20/20, right? From the perch we sit on right now, the mistakes of the past look obvious. Why couldn’t we have predicted it?

At the same time, we often look back at our past successes and see them as practically inevitable. That’s just how the story goes, right?

We often can’t believe it when others follow a very similar path but don’t see the same success. We also can’t believe it when people follow a similar path to our own and see far more success.

All of this falls under the umbrella of hindsight bias. Wikipedia says:

Hindsight bias, also known as the knew-it-all-along effect or creeping determinism, is the inclination, after an event has occurred, to see the event as having been predictable, despite there having been little or no objective basis for predicting it, prior to its occurrence.

In other words, we look back at bad events and think that we should have obviously seen it coming and we look back at good events and see them as basically being inevitable. We turn our past into a story where there are obvious causes and obvious effects and every event is foreshadowed.

That’s not how life works, though.

When I look back at my own life, it does look like a story to me. My career and financial history is made up of a series of events that, when I look back on them, look like they naturally and sensibly move from one event into another. The events that happened all seem obvious and the only obvious issues I see is that, well, I didn’t see some of those obvious things coming!

When I go back and look at my journal entries along the way, though, it’s clear that I just didn’t see many of those things coming. Just like today, I was usually left wondering what exactly the future held and just hoping for the best.

My hindsight bias tells me that life will just flow naturally – after all, that’s what the past looks like. Reality tells me that life is actually full of unexpected events and fits and starts and failures and setbacks and stumbles and mis-steps and unpredicted successes.

Moving forward from here, I should never expect a natural, smooth flow of life even though my intuition tells me that’s how life will be. When I allow myself to buy into a smooth path into the future with predictable events and no big surprises, I allow myself to get lazy. I make mistakes.

When I look back through my journals, every single time I’ve seen success in my life, it’s happened because I worked a ton to prepare for it. Then, unexpected events happened that my hard work had prepared me for.

In hindsight, that looks orderly. In reality, it’s not orderly at all. We have a much better chance at taking advantage of opportunities that we’ve worked hard to cultivate. We have a much better chance of handling problems that we’ve thought about and planned for in advance.

Don’t trust your memories. Don’t believe that you’ll always be able to handle the problems that come your way. Don’t believe that the right opportunities will just fall on your lap.

Instead, prepare for the unexpected in every aspect of your life. Have an emergency fund. Take time each day to build skills and relationships. Take on challenges and learn how to deal with them.

Your mind will fool you into thinking that this isn’t necessary and that your life is orderly and predictable. It’s not.

The unexpected will happen.

Be ready.