Hindsight, now that it's 2020

Updated: Jan 9, 2020

It’s amusing to see the parade of “Best of the decade” lists coming out in the last few days of 2019. It's like the “best of the year” lists for the last 9 years - only ten times more groan inducing.

But these lists serve a purpose for me. Especially on a 10 year timeframe, it’s very easy to forget where we started from, what our hopes, expectations and fears were, and how many of those did we confront or realize along the way. Having done this a few times, I think this is a very humbling exercise. The best laid plans of mice and men - may last for a year, but not for ten.

So ten years ago, at the end of the first decade of this century, I was falling in love again. My first marriage had ended three years prior at about the same time as the global financial crisis had made the jobs of bankers like me less boring. As amicable as the divorce itself had been, I still needed to go through the various stages of self-destruction and rebuilding, and eventually landed up at the beginning of what would be my second marriage. I wasn’t home yet, but well on the meandering path which would lead me there. These ten years have been an adventure - rarely proceeding in a straight line - along what my to-be wife and I set in motion then. Two kids, two dogs and us.

As rocky as the road has been, that’s one of the few things that’s worked out pretty much to plan.

I was also rebuilding my career after what had been a tough few years post the financial crisis. I had held the same job for 14 years with a large global bank. The crisis had hit when I was in year 11. Along with several teammates, I lived under constant threat of being fired - a sensation that’s familiar to many bankers. Interestingly 2009 had turned out to be a bumper year for a number of reasons and I got one of the largest payouts I have ever had in 2010. I remember cycling between weeks of misery where I was sure that I would get fired, to feeling good about the idea of not working in the same place anymore, to a few more weeks of getting energized as a deal closed at work and then falling once more into despair as a dry spell hit.

My way to deal with this was to convince myself that I would quit. But I didn’t. Especially when I started down the road of building a family, quitting a well-paying job was out of the question.

And here I am ten years later having quit the same job earlier this year.

It's not like I can afford to retire - the expenses are just getting started and I don’t have F U money [1]. But I find myself in the mirror image of the world I was in 10 years ago. The only path which leads to my vision for my family leads away from the job I was in.

Some of that has to do with the way the world itself has changed (and I believe will continue to change).

Ten years ago, the USA was still bogged down in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but Obama was on his first term and would fix the world. The Russians were cooperating in drafting a new nuclear treaty. Britain was seeing the first signs of chaos with a coalition government coming to power. Europe was firmly one entity - sure with some bickering going on - but still a centre of gravity into which more nations would fall into, not leave. Literally the only dark cloud was the one from the Icelandic volcano. In Asia you had to look at Thailand to see any domestic unrest - the rest was a reasonably peaceful Emerging Markets fairy tale. China (and maybe India) were going to take over the world economically and militarily.

If the last ten years have proven anything, it's that this is not an Asian century [2]. It’s still an American world - the Columbine Empire is getting smarter and smaller but it's still in the position of dominance it was in prior to the Asian powers retaking their position of importance at the world stage. To the extent that this is a zero-sum game, Asia's gains have come at Europe’s loss not America’s.

Ten years later, today, it should be clear that American dominance will survive for my lifetime. The details are a topic for another longer post. And for me it's the basis of moving back to the US from Asia.

Still more has to do with my view of the world at large. Especially regarding the elephant in the room - Climate Change. Ten years ago there was some hope that the world could avoid the worst of the disaster unfolding before us. The US was still part of the Paris Accord and nations like China and India were considered the stumbling blocks in getting to a workable agreement. Through a cruel twist of politics, the developing nations are now at the vanguard of the switch to renewables while the largest consumer of energy in the world continues down a reckless path to destruction. This would seem illogical but isn’t. The biggest losers in the battles to come over resources will be the weaker, resource poor nations not the richer ones. There are asymmetrical incentives at work here.

At an individual level one can only do so much to reverse the large trends. It’s not to say inaction is the only option. We need policy changes and are more likely to succeed if we make our voice heard via the political system rather than as revolutionaries. At an individual level we need to prepare for what lies ahead - likely a very tough period in human history. One reason behind a move to America is that it’s better to be behind the walls of a strong, resource rich nation when the conflicts really start.

Ten years ago, most people looked at Silicon Valley favorably. Social media was, at best, a way for people to reconnect, and at worst, a waste of time. Cars would go the way of the elevator - fully self driven and rarely privately owned. Billionaires were mostly ignored or idolized - rarely reviled.

Today there are strong countertrends to all the above. Information Technology has peaked in its role of “savior” and is well on its way to the “utility” view we have of other technologies that came before it (think electricity, TV and telephones). Social Media is now reviled as an addiction and has the power to sway elections - classic recipes for more regulation and government ownership. Like general AI and fusion, the closer we seem to come to self driving cars, the further the solutions recede.

And socialism is back in America as a mainstream ideology. It’s not ok to be rich anymore. Ok maybe it's ok to be rich but not super-yacht, private-jet, multiple-mansions, family-office rich. Didn’t see that one coming for sure! But in hindsight not surprising given the rise of the ultra-right across the last decade.

On a personal level, ten years ago, I had just finished a fairly long process of training for a full marathon. Along the way, I had climbed to the EBC and Mt Fuji and completed two half marathons. It seemed like I was a lifelong runner/hiker. I was planning a few ultra marathons after I had done my first 26 miler.

And here I am today - never having run over 7 miles at a stretch over the last ten years. I recently restarted running and found it tough to run 3 miles.

On the plus side, I have learn to swim albeit at a basic level. I barely knew how to get into the pool ten years ago.

If there is some usefulness to this looking back, this hindsight, it lies in realizing that we are unlikely to get it right. In fact, it’s likely that we won’t. But that is hardly a reason to stop thinking about where we want to be and trying to get there. The popular military quote is Eisenhower’s “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable” [3]. Thinking through to the end of this decade and how it will be at a social, political, economic and personal level would be a good exercise to get into in this year. If nothing else, imagine how good you will feel at getting one thing right in your prediction for 2030.

For me I know what that will be.

Flying cars.

[1]: Long read here (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1993/03/29/the-king-of-the-deal) - you’ll find the definition roughly 2 minutes in.

[2]: In fact in an 1988 meeting with Rajiv Gandhi, Deng said that “in recent years people have been saying that the next century will be the century of Asia and the Pacific, as if that were sure to be the case. I disagree with this view.”

[3]: A longer but historically more important quote would be the one from Moltke’s Uber Strategie:

“The material and moral consequences of every major battle are so far-reaching that they usually bring about a completely altered situation, a new basis for the adoption of new measures. One cannot be at all sure that any operational plan will survive the first encounter with the main body of the enemy. Only a layman could suppose that the development of a campaign represents the strict application of a prior concept that has been worked out in every detail and followed through to the end.

Certainly, the commander in chief will keep his great objective continuously in mind, undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign, he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but on the contrary are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy.”


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