When, not if

Sonnie Bailey

27 November 2020

New Zealand has had a pretty good run in relation to COVID-19, especially compared with the rest of the world.

After more than three months of being free of COVID-19 in our community, it appeared again. Instead of the entire country going into high-level lock-down, the second time around it was localised to Auckland.

It looks like community transmission has been popping up once again.

In some ways, it feels like a surprise. But realistically, when it comes to a situation like this, we should be operating on the basis of when, not if.

When, not if

One of my central philosophies, which informs the way I look at planning (financial planning or otherwise) and life in general, is that the future is uncertain.

Realistically, to talk about “the future” in singular terms is misleading, because there are lots of possible futures (plural), and any one of those possible futures could occur.

To the extent we plan, a central tenet is that our plans will need to change, to accommodate any one of a million things changing as we progress through this journey in life.

More succinctly: the value isn’t in the plan, but the planning.

There are lots of things we can’t know ahead of time. Over the long-run, for instance, we can’t predict the interrelationship of social, technological, economic, environmental, and political factors that will shape what the world will look like over the next few decades.

We can’t know for sure about the contours of our career. For younger Kiwis, we can’t know for sure whether we’ll receive NZ Super (and when and how much). We don’t know what investment returns we’ll generate.

But there are things we can know.

Or at least, there are things we can know with a pretty high degree of certainty, even if we don’t know the specifics, including the timing of these events.

Very narrowly, community transmission of COVID-19 is a good example. I consider this to be pretty likely, no matter what measures we take to contain it. A virus is patient, it doesn’t get bored, and when the opportunity to spread arises, it won’t make a mistake. (In a sense, I’m anthropomorphising the virus to illustrate that it doesn’t pay to anthropomorphise it.)

At the higher level:

  • We’re likely to die at some point. (Who knows – maybe the anti-ageing researchers will find a solution to the seeming inevitability of ageing and death. Maybe cryonics might save the day. But for all intents and purposes, this seems inevitable.)
  • We will lose the physique and mental agility we had when we were younger. We might be able to make up for this in other ways, and might benefit (and be harmed) from decisions we made in our youth, but at the very least, we’ll change.
  • People we love will die. The older we get, the faster this will start to happen. This is a morbid exercise, but you can map out the ages of your loved ones and have a pretty good sense of who you might lose in the next 10 to 20 years.
  • Your children will grow up. Most likely, they will become less dependent on you, and the period of your life when you are front-and-centre of your children’s lives is likely to be just a short chapter in the longer story of your life.
  • There will be share market crashes, similar to what we experienced in March this year.
  • If you’re lucky enough to live a long, full life, there will be a day when you stop generating earned income. In other words, you’ll eventually retire – whether that is voluntarily or involuntarily.
  • You, or someone in your inner circle, will suffer a major accident or illness. I can’t tell you who that will be, what the nature of the accident or illness will be, or its timing and fallout, but it’s extremely likely.
  • Your goals and your deeper values will change. Think back to who you were five, ten, or twenty years ago. The same changes that have occurred since then, are likely to occur to you as you get older.

Everyone will have their earthquake

Someone recently commented to me that “everyone will have their earthquake”. That’s a Cantabran reference to the earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011.

The Christchurch earthquakes were unexpected events, in terms of the specifics. But unexpected events are inevitable.

Extraordinary events are rare, which is why they’re extraordinary. But what would be really extraordinary is if someone managed to get through life without experiencing a single extraordinary event.

I’ve just finished reading a novel titled Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick. As the name implies, it’s irreverent and over-the-top. But as with anything written by its author, it mixes comedy with insight. The following excerpt seems apt:

“something will happen in your life that will slice right through it, an inflamed wound separating everything that comes after from all that came before. The end of a career, the loss of a limb, the death of a spouse. And I’m not talking about some breakup in college, before you’ve even figured out who you are yet. I mean something that will hit you after you’ve come to believe the world is solid under your feet, thought you knew the shape of your life. It’s like if one morning the sun just didn’t rise… After that day, after that red gash across the timeline, you look at your old photos and see a stranger looking back.”

For many people, that might be an exaggeration. But the difference for most people is of degree, not type. If we live a rich life, we’ll end up with scars.

Why focus on these things?

From one perspective, consider it to be a version of applied stoicism.

From another, it’s a reason to be grateful: every day you don’t have to deal with one of these negative events.

It also provides something to plan for. If you know that something will eventually happen, then it creates a significant amount of motivation to be prepared.

To put a more positive spin on it: there will be moments in your life where opportunities will present themselves. When they do, it’s best to be in a position where you can see and seize them.

The question isn’t if. The question is when.

In terms of COVID-19, it seems pretty likely to me that we’ll see community transmission again, which will necessitate future high-level lock-downs before a vaccine is widely available. I could be wrong (and hope I am!), but I think it’s healthier to have a mindset of when, not if.

This perspective might seem like a fatalistic approach to life. But the more I accept that these sorts of things happen (for bad and good), the more confident and comfortable I become in my own skin. The truth is usually better than the nightmare.

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