Total, utter bewilderment. You find some sources, start reading, and tinkering and experimenting, and some of the bewilderment seems to lift, only to come back in spades when you run up against a scenario you didn’t anticipate, or a major technicality which you’d overlooked. It can be frustrating; it can become a huge time-sink. I absolutely love it.
I’m talking about jumping feet-first into a new area of knowledge or expertise, and trying to “climb your way up” through torrents of information, advice and opinion so that you build your own “world view” of the domain in question and possibly, if you invest the right time in the right places, become an expert (or at least a competent amateur) in the field in question.
I think most people have done it at least once in their lives – if only when studying at university or learning a trade. I can immediately think of 3 times that I’ve done it – getting used to the realm of literary criticism at UCL, first learning my way around the internet, perl and linux around 1998, and properly acquainting myself with the rich and impossibly complicated world of independent music, starting last year.
The reason I’m writing about this feeling now is that I’ve just embarked on a new “problem domain” – money.
I’ve not had a stellar track record with the Green Stuff in my life so far. Nothing completely disastrous, you understand (no bankruptcy, no unrecoverable debt, no defaults on bill payments), but I have considerably less to my name right now than I’d like.
Involvement in various startups with bad luck (or bad judgement) and a mildly expensive “life reset” move to America have seen various debts and setbacks which mean I’ve never really got the headlong push down the “savings chute” that I’ve always hoped for in the back of my mind. After some hard work, that situation is finally coming to a resolution and (barring any further disasters), I’m just a few months away from 100% debt-freedom, and a chance to start putting some money to real work for me.
So, as I see it, now is the time to sit down and look at really making that work – finally get an idea of how all the different sharp-toothed cogs of the economy fit together, and how best to squeeze them for a decent return on any money I can set aside in the future. Hey, I’ve got some catching up to do!
As to the Bewilderment Zone, being in the throes of it again is giving me a chance to analyse it, and compare my current loose-footed stumbling with strange financial concepts with my loose-footed stumblings, a year and a half ago, with a slew of interconnected musicians, labels, styles and local music scenes I couldn’t fathom.
Bewilderment is a powerful foe to battle, and I believe it’s the reason that a lot of people aren’t better acquainted with areas like money and investment. Standing at the bottom of Mount Information, staring skywards to the rarified peaks occupied by people who Get It, you wonder how you’re ever going to make it up there. After all, you’re wearing battered Tennis Shoes and you forgot to bring a coat. At this point, another foe – Procrastination – joins the fray. “Climb the mountain tomorrow”, he whispers. “You don’t need to get involved in all that now. You might hurt yourself.”
The thing to do at this point is to turn and look back across the landscape of your life. Look at the other hills and mountains you’ve scaled before this one – it might only be Algebra at age 13, or it might be linux or indie bands – the point is, you’ve almost certainly been here before.
Two years ago, I would have looked at you blankly if you’d said the name Sufjan Stevens. Now I can enthuse on the high points of his work, and that of all the other artists connected to him who are now emerging into their own bright careers.
I made it up that particular mountain, and although the process once seemed daunting I found that as I progressed, it was enjoyable. Not only did I find a bunch of music I loved, I also reveled in each new revelation and the feeling of increased insight as I made it another few inches skyward.
The risks in this new area are, of course, rather greater than in others. Make a wrong turn on the American indie scene and the worst you’ll end up with is a few unlistenable albums languishing in iTunes. Make a wrong turn investing and you can lose thousands of dollars. But there are tools which can help. You can build experimental portfolios on Yahoo! Finance, for example; see how they fare and learn from the mistakes. Utimately, the issue of money is just too important to be laissez-faire about. I’m not looking to be the next Warren Buffet, but I’d sure like to retire comfortably at a reasonable age, and I’m far more likely to do that if I’m a bit clever with my cash while I’m still young enough to benefit.
So here I go again. Sure, I keep forgetting exactly what ETF means (and how ETFs work), but I now at least know it’s a type of fund. A week ago, I wasn’t even aware of subprime mortgages, much less why they matter and why they’re threatening various areas of the American economy right now.
Already, I’ve taken a few steps, and the whole thing is fascinating – the movements of markets, the complicated effects of financial events on other parts of the markets; step back and they become weird insights into human nature and society in general. I may share more on what I learn once I’m a bit further up the mountain. In the meantime I’ll be avoiding Bewilderment and Procrastination and trying not to stumble too much.
The image used at the top of this post is by Klobetime on Flickr, and seemed… eerily relevant