To make money in the markets, you have to think independently and be humble. You have to be an independent thinker because you can’t make money agreeing with the consensus view, which is already embedded in the price. Yet whenever you’re betting against the consensus, there’s a significant probability you’re going to be wrong, so you have to be humble.
Early in my career I learned this lesson the hard way — through some very painful bad bets. The biggest of these mistakes occurred in 1981–’82, when I became convinced that the U.S. economy was about to fall into a depression. My research had led me to believe that, with the Federal Reserve’s tight money policy and lots of debt outstanding, there would be a global wave of debt defaults, and if the Fed tried to handle it by printing money, inflation would accelerate. I was so certain that a depression was coming that I proclaimed it in newspaper columns, on TV, even in testimony to Congress. When Mexico defaulted on its debt in August 1982, I was sure I was right. Boy, was I wrong. What I’d considered improbable was exactly what happened: Fed chairman Paul Volcker’s move to lower interest rates and make money and credit available helped jump-start a bull market in stocks and the U.S. economy’s greatest ever noninflationary growth period.
This episode taught me the importance of always fearing being wrong, no matter how confident I am that I’m right. As a result, I began seeking out the smartest people I could find who disagreed with me so that I could understand their reasoning. Only after I fully grasped their points of view could I decide to reject or accept them. By doing this again and again over the years, not only have I increased my chances of being right, but I have also learned a huge amount.
There’s an art to this process of seeking out thoughtful disagreement. People who are successful at it realize that there is always some probability they might be wrong and that it’s worth the effort to consider what others are saying — not simply the others’ conclusions, but the reasoning behind them — to be assured that they aren’t making a mistake themselves. They approach disagreement with curiosity, not antagonism, and are what I call “open-minded and assertive at the same time.” This means that they possess the ability to calmly take in what other people are thinking rather than block it out, and to clearly lay out the reasons why they haven’t reached the same conclusion. They are able to listen carefully and objectively to the reasoning behind differing opinions.
When most people hear me describe this approach, they typically say, “No problem, I’m open-minded!” But what they really mean is that they’re open to being wrong. True open-mindedness is an entirely different mind-set. It is a process of being intensely worried about being wrong and asking questions instead of defending a position. It demands that you get over your ego-driven desire to have whatever answer you happen to have in your head be right. Instead, you need to actively question all of your opinions and seek out the reasoning behind alternative points of view.
This approach comes to life at Bridgewater in our weekly research meetings, in which our experts on various areas openly disagree with one another and explore the pros and cons of alternative views. This is the fastest way to get a good education and enhance decision-making. When everyone agrees and their reasoning makes sense to me, I’m usually in good shape to make a decision. When people continue to disagree and I can’t make sense of their reasoning, I know I need to ask more probing questions or get more triangulation from other experts before deciding.
I want to emphasize that following this process doesn’t mean blindly accepting the conclusions of others or adopting rule by referendum. Our CIOs are ultimately responsible for our investment decision-making. But we all make better decisions by maintaining an independent view and the conflicting possibilities in our minds simultaneously, and then trying to resolve the differences. We’re always in the place of holding an opinion and simultaneously stress-testing the hell out of it.
Operating this way just seems like common sense to me. After all, when two people disagree, logic demands that one of them must be wrong. Why wouldn’t you want to make sure that that person isn’t you?