Misoponos Michel Pireu     | Business Day Tuesday, November 20, 2018
What follows is the retelling (the full version) of a true story first told (only in part) by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their book, The Coddling of the American Mind. How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure … We take up the story where Lukianoff and Haidt, who had travelled to Greece for enlightenment, came to a fork in the path where a sign said MISOPONOS, with an arrow pointing to the right. The main path, off to the left, looked forbidding: it went straight up a narrow ravine, with an ever present danger of rockslides. The path to Misoponos, in contrast, was smooth level and easy – a welcome change. It led, through a pleasant grove of pine and fir trees, across a strong wooden bridge over a deep ravine, to the mouth of a large cave.

As Lukianoff and Haidt go on to recount …

Inside the cave we saw a strange scene. Misoponos and his assistants had installed one of those take-a-number systems that you sometimes find in sandwich shops, and there was a line of other seekers ahead of us. We took a number, paid the 100 euro fee to have a private audience with the great man and waited our turn.

When our turn came, we were ushered into a dimply lit chamber at the back of the cave. “Come on in guys,” said Misoponos. “Tell me what you seek.”

Jon spoke first: “O Wise Oracle, we have come seeking wisdom. What are the deepest and greatest of truths?”

Misoponos sat silently with is eyes closed for about two minutes. Finally, he opened his eyes and spoke.

“This fountain is the Spring of Koalemos. Koalemos is a Greek god of wisdom … So I will give you three cups of wisdom.”

“This is the first truth,” he said: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. So avoid pain, avoid discomfort, avoid all potentially bad experiences.”

Jon thought there must be some mistake. “Excuse me, Your Holiness,” he said “but did you really mean to say ‘weaker’? Because I’ve got quotes from many wisdom traditions saying that pain, set-backs, and even traumatic experiences can make people stronger.”

Did I say ‘weaker’? asked Misoponos. “Wait a minute … is it weaker or stronger? He squeezed his eyes shut as he thought about it, he then opened his eyes and said, yes, I’m right, weaker is what I meant. Bad experiences are terrible, who would want one? And pain … who wants that? Now, can I finish?” Suddenly his eyes widened. “Oh, hang on a minute,” he said, and this is the part Lukianoff and Haidt don’t tell you, “I may have made a mistake.”

“You mean it might be stronger?” asked Jon.

“No,” answered Misoponos, with a groan, “it’s just that I may have dipped the cup in the wrong fountain. I may have dipped it in Niko’s fountain. Niko is the Greek god of financial wisdom, and what he’s advising is to avoid all potentially bad experiences because set-backs in the markets are definitely going to make you weaker.”

“No one’s going to argue with that,” said Jon. “Any advice on how to avoid discomfort and pain?”

Misoponos took another swig from the cup … “Niko says some discomfort, along with underperformance, is inevitable, but you can avoid a lot of the pain. For a start, don’t day-trade. Not only is the failure rate sky-high but who wants to spend all day looking at a screen? Beware of forecasts and predictions. Remember, what everyone knows is usually wrong. Markets can always go higher. Understand the serious disadvantages you have as a retail trader. Don’t trade with ‘scared money’. Never assume present conditions will continue. Don’t rely too heavily on history or data; the one doesn’t always repeat, the other is difficult to analyse correctly. Nothing works for ever. Focus on the long-term. Investing off the news is like taking out your eyes because you trust a blind person to drive you somewhere. Diversify. Don’t let failure bring you down.”

“Wow, thanks,” said Jon.

Misoponos filled the cup again and drank from it. “Second,” he continued: Always Trust your feelings. Never question them.”

“Are you sure that’s what Niko said?” It was Greg’s turn to recoil. He had spent years following behaviourists who give the opposite advice; that feelings so often mislead us when it comes to investing that we should learn to free ourselves from them.

“No, that’s what Koalemos said,” retorted Misoponos with some annoyance. “Why would I make the same mistake twice? But, ask yourself: Is a subconscious desire to avoid the pain of potential future loss really such a bad thing? You might not be able to time the markets but should you really ignore that "gut" feeling that it’s been way too high for way too long? Or that this one, or that one, or that lot over there are just out to nail you? If intuition’s good enough for George Soros why wouldn’t it be good enough for you?”

Misoponos refilled the cup. “Third truth: Life is battle between good people and evil people.”

“O Great Oracle of Koalemos,” Greg began haltingly, “can you explain that one to us?”

“Some people are good,” Misopos said slowly and loudly, as if he thought he hadn’t heard him, “and some people are bad.” He looked at Lukianoff and Haidt pointedly. “You can just see how wrong some people are,” he sighed.

“But don’t they think the same about us?” asked Jon. “How can we know that it is we who are right and they who are wrong?”

“Are you sure this is coming from Koalemos and not Niko?” asked Greg.

Misoponos looked at the cup, the two fountains … then the cup again. “Oh shit…” he whispered.

“But, have you learned nothing from me today?” he thundered. “Do you feel you are right, or do you feel that you are wrong or don’t you know? Imagine all the ways you could be wrong. Add the idea that all your theories are, at best, provisional and quite possibly wrong and you will be better able to listen with curiosity and empathy to those whose theories contradict your own. As Kathryn Schulz put it, ‘you will be better able to pay attention to those anomalous bits of data that make your picture of the world a little weirder, more mysterious, less clean, less done.’ And you will be able to hold your own beliefs a bit more humbly, in the knowledge that better ideas are almost certainly on the way.”

Jon and Greg looked at each other approvingly; their quest for knowledge felt justified.

“In the meantime, my feeling is that this is over,” said Misoponos. “Now, get out.”
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