The Book in Three Sentences
In this summary of Same as Ever, Morgan Housel focuses on the things that stay the same in a world that’s always changing. The author argues that to move forward in life, we don’t have to speculate about the future, but we have to look at the past and identify the things that never change. The book features a series of stories to illustrate that there’s a part of the world that’s permanent and unchanging.
Same as Ever Book Summary
Throughout history, there have been numerous surprising events that nobody could have predicted, but there’s also timeless wisdom. Hundreds of years from now, a lot of things will change, including technology, medicine, world order, and language. That said, other things will stay the same, such as tribal affiliations, overconfidence, or people’s relationship with greed and fear. Change is captivating and exciting, so we tend to focus on it more than we should. Some of life’s most powerful lessons though are timeless and nobody should overlook them. Focusing on the latter helps you make sense of the world, at the same time it gives you a glimpse of the future.
Hanging by a Thread
The world hangs by a thread. Some changes are the result of random and unexpected events. Some of the decisions we make have no explanation and they can be the difference between success and failure, or life and death. Without realizing it, every day we could be making the most important decision of our lives, but it’s impossible to notice it in the moment.
Similarly, the entire world depends on small things we never consider. Every major event that happened was the result of something that took place before. Every event has its own ramifications, making the future hard to predict. What seems obvious today, can be completely different tomorrow.
Risk Is What You Don’t See
The future is hard to predict because there are always surprises. Since the biggest risk is the thing that nobody expects, by definition, nobody’s prepared for it and its consequences can be disastrous. When planning something, don’t fear what you expect to happen, fear what you don’t. The inconsequential thing you’re not considering could ruin you. The author defines risk as the thing that remains when you think you have prepared for everything. In other words, risk is what you don’t see.
The biggest events in history (examples include COVID-19, 9/11, and the Great Depression) have something in common: nobody expected them. Throughout history, every boom is followed by a bust. In hindsight, all of these events seem obvious. How is it that something unavoidable wasn’t predicted by anyone? The author provides two explanations:
- Everyone was blinded by delusion then
- Or everyone is fooled by hindsight now
The biggest risk is impossible to define because if anyone knew, they’d do something to mitigate it, and doing so would turn it into a smaller risk. Put simply, the biggest news story of the next decade will be the one nobody’s talking about today. That’s what will make that event so terrible, the fact that nobody’s prepared for it or even considering it.
Our view of the world is more limited than we’d like to admit. While we don’t know a lot of things, we underestimate how much we don’t know. The world is such a vast and complex place with so many moving parts that it’s impossible to know everything.
Furthermore, there’s not a lot we can do about risk because it implies there’s something surprising and unexpected. That said, the author offers two suggestions. First, expect the unexpected. Know that something will happen and be comfortable having no idea when, where, or how bad it’s going to be. Second, prepare in an excessive manner. Save more than you should and have a smaller debt than you think you can handle, for instance.
Expectations and Reality
One of the most important life skills a person can learn (and the most difficult) is that happiness depends on your expectations. For most people, things get better all the time, so understanding what’s enough is an important lesson. If, as your life improves, you also improve the quality of your life, so will your expectations. Soon, you’ll be pursuing a goalpost that’s always moving ahead, but you never seem to reach. The problem is that we’re constantly comparing ourselves to those around us, so we confuse luxuries with necessities. According to Charlie Munger, greed isn’t the main factor that motivates people, envy is.
This has always been the case, but it’s now worse than ever because, thanks to social media, we can compare ourselves to anyone in the world. People ignore that the social media feeds they see have been heavily curated by the people behind them. Envy can motivate people to make progress, but when the default becomes more, you’ll never be happy.
To be happy, have low expectations. To be unhappy, have unrealistic expectations. So have reasonable expectations and accept what happens because it’s largely outside of your control. When you expect nothing, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with whatever you get. As easy as this sounds, it’s one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow.
Some of the people you admire think in ways you like. At the same time, they also think in ways you don’t like. We should try to keep this in mind to determine what we want to emulate and what we don’t. Successful people operate in an extreme manner. Having abnormal traits is part of what makes them successful, but not all of those traits are positive and you can separate the two sides. When looking for role models, you either want to be that person or not. Most people want someone’s success, money, or personality, but they don’t want everything that comes with it.
We want to be certain in a world that’s anything but. Don’t see the world around you in absolute terms because things are rarely “right or wrong” or a “yes or no”. People see the world as “black or white” because it’s easy. What we want, though, isn’t accuracy is certainty. Thinking in probability is rare because people don’t want to accept the fact that the future is almost impossible to predict.
Best Story Wins
To win, you need the best story. You could have the best idea, but without a great story to support it, you won’t win. Stories are important because they catch people’s attention and you need to be able to craft a great story in a world where there’s an overwhelming amount of information. Having the right answer isn’t enough, you need a powerful and persuasive story to get ahead. Having the right answer and a good story is a powerful combination.
Good stories inspire and elicit positive emotions. In a world where everyone’s bored, impatient, or emotional, good stories thrive. The best part about stories is that you can use them to explain something complex in simple terms without much effort. In the end is not what you talk about that matters, but how you present it to people.
Does Not Compute
Some things in life are hard to explain yet they happen again and again. Humans are among the most irrational beings in the world. This human element doesn’t make sense most of the time and you can’t turn it into statistics or a chart. The problem is that the things that are hard to measure are the ones that can make a difference. Never assume that because something can’t be measured it’s irrelevant. The opposite is usually true.
If you look at the economy, for instance, you’ll notice that emotions are an important component of it. Emotions are impossible to quantify because humans are irrational by nature. Likewise, other areas in life can be equally absurd, confusing, messy, or imperfect.
Calm Plants the Seeds of Crazy
There’s a cycle to situations that involve greed and fear. We see good news as permanent, so we ignore bad news. Eventually, we accept bad news and see it as permanent, but we ignore good news in the process and the pattern starts anew. This is a never-ending cycle that repeats itself again and again. As much as we want the world to be stable, we need it to be unstable. If the stocks always went up, they’d be so expensive nobody would buy them. Also, the moment the market is supposed not to crash, that’s the moment it’s most likely to do so. Stability causes destabilization or as the author puts it: “Calm plants the seed of crazy.”
To illustrate this with a more recent example, the reason COVID-19 hit as hard as it did was that people didn’t think an infectious disease could impact their lives in 2020. We were woefully unprepared for a pandemic because we didn’t see it as something that could happen. We must embrace that crazy is normal and recognize the power of enough.
Too Much, Too Soon, Too Fast
Some processes you can’t speed up. Everyone would like to have things faster once they discover something valuable. This makes sense, but it can backfire. Things don’t scale in the ways we expect them to. Everything works optimally at a different size or speed. The moment you mess with the variables involved, the more chances you have of ruining something. Trying to do too much can lead to all sorts of problems. Growth for its own sake is meaningless. Most things in life benefit from two things: patience and scarcity. That said, most people run in the opposite direction and chase things that are faster and bigger.
When the Magic Happens
The biggest innovations happen during times of crisis. Stress is when the magic happens. A lot of big innovations happened during wars, for instance. Radars, atomic energy, the internet, cars, planes, microprocessors, antibiotics, and GPS are but some examples. The military came up with some of the most meaningful inventions in history because it needed to solve big problems as fast as possible. When your future depends on coming up with a big innovation, the stress is so powerful that you’ll be able to focus intensely.
The 1930s, for example, was one of the darkest times of America. The economy collapsed, but at the same time, technology and productivity rose. In a way, the decades that followed were prosperous because there was a crisis before them. During the 1930s, roads were built, transportation blossomed, more people had access to electricity, the first supermarket opened, and laundromats were invented. As painful as it is to admit, without the Depression, some of these social leaps wouldn’t have been possible. People were so desperate to fix the economy that they were willing to put time and effort into anything.
Fear is a powerful motivator. Having everything you want would be dangerous because without a purpose, life’s devoid of meaning. We all want to be happy, but if that means giving up the fear, the pain, or the struggle, we will never reach our full potential because we won’t feel the need to do anything.
Overnight Tragedies and Long-Term Miracles
While good news takes time, bad news happens immediately. This is the case because good news is the result of compounding, but bad news is the result of a single, catastrophic error. When improvement happens slowly, nobody notices. Small, incremental improvements have been happening all the time for years. This is the compound effect and as important as it is, we ignore it.
Bad news, on the other hand, is hard to ignore. Once it takes over your attention, it won’t let go. There’s a simplicity to bad news too. Hundreds if not thousands of things have to go right for good news to happen. For bad news to occur though, one error is more than enough. This is the idea of “complex to make, simple to break”.
Tiny and Magnificent
Most catastrophes are the result of small risks that compound into something big. Likewise, most amazing things are the result of small things that compound into something great. Tiny mistakes add up to an immense one. Little changes, on the other hand, compound and lead to extraordinary results.
Elation and Despair
Pessimism captivates our attention because we need it for our survival. Optimism is also essential because we need it to keep pushing forward. These mindsets seem conflicting, but we need both of them. Ideally, all your plans would have a healthy dose of pessimism and optimism. This sounds counterintuitive, but it can be a powerful combination.
Pure optimism and pure pessimism aren’t healthy, but if you find a sweet spot (or what the author calls “rational optimism”), you can thrive. Rational optimists are aware of potential setbacks but still remain confident about what the future holds. To enjoy long-term growth, you need to survive short-term problems. There’s a time and a place for both optimism and pessimism.
Casualties of Perfection
Pursuing perfection seems like the right thing to do, but this leaves us vulnerable. By trying to perfect a skill, we neglect other things and this can backfire. In nature, every species is a little imperfect. Being good enough is the best decision because you don’t have to compromise a skill by focusing too much on another.
We all want to be efficient, but we’ve forgotten the importance of wasting time. Giving yourself some free time seems inefficient, but this is useful to be creative and solve problems. In other words, there’s value in doing nothing. Ironically, people do more work when they take time off than when they focus intensely on it.
It’s Supposed to Be Hard
There are downsides to taking shortcuts. We all have to learn that in life, we won’t always have access to a shortcut and when there isn’t one, the only thing we can do is endure the pain. Most things in life take time and effort. We all want a shortcut, some form of hack that leads to fast results. These shortcuts are alluring because they promise a prize without putting in the effort that it demands. The people we admire have one thing in common, they achieved something that’s remarkably hard.
Whatever it is you pursue comes at a price. That price comes in the form of stress, uncertainty, or conflicting incentives. The better the rewards, the higher the price, and whether we like it or not, there’s no way around this. Find out the optimal level of inconvenience you’re willing to withstand and embrace it. In other words, identify the price and pay it without complaining.
Gaining a competitive advantage is hard, but not losing it is also hard. There are many stories about companies that dominated the market and eventually fell (Sears, General Motors, Chrysler, Kodak, and so on). This is what happens when you gain a competitive advantage:
- You get overconfident.
- You can’t expect the same success you got when you were small, now that you’re much bigger.
- People work hard to get bigger. The goal is to stop working hard once they’re big
- A skill valuable when you first start might not extend to a new era.
- Success is the result of being in the right place at the right time.
In evolution, the species that wants to survive has to keep running. This is also how business, products, careers, countries, relationships, and most areas in modern life work.
The Wonders of the Future
When a world-changing new technology comes out, people always respond in the same way. They ignore the technology at first, but it gets to the point where they can live without it and then it gets so big that it has to be regulated. This is often the case because minor inventions lead to major ones. Due to this, innovation is hard to predict and most people underestimate it. Future innovations will be a combination of existing ones. A series of small things will compound into something enormous.
Harder Than It Looks and Not as Fun as It Seems
Most people aren’t honest about their fears and insecurities. We hide behind masks to avoid looking vulnerable to others. In a way, we want to convince others that we’re special while we conceal everything that suggests we’re not. As painful as this is, you have to be aware that you aren’t the only one doing it, others are doing it too.
Everything is sales. This applies to companies but to other areas as well. The image you present to the world helps you sell yourself to others and we’re all playing that game. You can choose to play the game consciously or subconsciously. But whether you like to admit it or not, you’re part of it. There’s a filter in the way you present yourself. You promote your skills, but you hide your flaws. Things look a certain way from the outside, but that doesn’t make them true. Some things you only get to experience when you’re inside, but there’s a large portion that’s invisible. When you’re on the outside, don’t look at your heroes as invincible or superhuman. The people you admire are humans who have leveraged their unfair advantages. They’re experts in some areas and clumsy in others.
Incentives: The Most Powerful Force in the World
Incentives are powerful, so powerful, in fact, that people are willing to behave irrationally to get them. We’re more susceptible to them than we’d like to admit. If the incentives are right, people will justify or defend anything. The thing you want the most can make you act irrationally, so don’t be blind to your own faults. When the incentives are strong enough, honest and well-meaning people can engage in bad behavior. Incentives can come in many forms too, but the most common are financial, cultural, or tribal.
Now You Get It
The most persuasive thing is the one you’ve experienced firsthand. Reading and studying something can make you feel empathy, but it doesn’t replace firsthand experience. In other words, people don’t know how they’ll react to something extreme unless it happens to them. When people are under stress, they welcome ideas that once seemed unthinkable. Some ideas make sense in theory, but that doesn’t mean people will behave that way during a time of crisis.
Long-term thinking is easy to believe yet hard to accomplish. Thanks to the magic of compounding, this is the right strategy in most areas, including investing, business, relationships, learning, etc. We all know that’s the case, but saying it doesn’t make it true and the real test comes later. Everything that’s meaningful has a price and that price is easy to minimize now, but there’s a reason why most people can’t sustain certain things over a long period of time, it’s incredibly difficult to do so.
There are a couple of reasons why long-term thinking is so hard:
- The long run involves putting up with a series of short runs
- You might have to convince partners, coworkers, spouses, or friends to join you. Nobody’s as patient or understanding as you. Being right is important, but so is convincing those around you.
- Changing your mind is crucial, but this is one of the hardest things to do. Identify when you’re being patient and identify when you’re being stubborn.
- Learn to be flexible
Question how long-term thinking affects the information you consume. Will the books you read or the videos you watch be relevant in the future? Information can be permanent or expiring. Expiring information is attention-grabbing because there’s a lot of it and we often chase it down. Permanent information is hard to find but leads to exponential benefits.
Trying Too Hard
Humans want to be challenged intellectually. That said, never ignore things that are simple yet effective and replace them with things that are complex and ineffective. Simple yet effective things are often boring, so even when we know they’re important, we ignore them. Complex things are ineffective but we favor them because they stimulate us intellectually.
When you approach something for the first time, identify the core principles that rule that field and learn them. Here are some examples. Finance is about spending less than you make, saving, and being patient. Health is about giving your body enough sleep, moving, and eating real food in small quantities.
Complexity is appealing because:
- Complexity gives you the illusion of control
- Complex things make people look and sound smart
- Length signals effort and thoughtfulness
- Simplicity feels easy and complexity feels hard
Wounds Heal, Scars Last
When something bad happens, people adapt and rebuild, but their painful experiences last forever. Different people have had different experiences and those experiences shaped them and turned them into who they are. This explains why we all possess different goals and values. People who experienced the Great Depression changed how they viewed money afterward or people who experienced the dotcom crash of the 90s see technology differently than those who didn’t, for example.
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