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Embracing Uncertainty This Holiday Season

By David Booth - Founder & Chairman, Dimensional Fund Advisors

Some people say that money or investment talk should be off-limits at family gatherings like the holiday season because it’s too stressful or causes conflict. I think it depends on how you talk about it. Life is about making decisions in the face of uncertainty, so stories about how we deal with uncertainty in life can offer helpful parallels to how we deal with uncertainty in investing. In fact, you may be talking about the principles of investing without even realizing it.

I’m looking forward to this Thanksgiving with my kids and grandkids. It will be a great time for conversation. I’m asking everyone to bring a story about dealing with uncertainty. When was a time in their life when they or someone close to them succeeded in the face of uncertainty? How did they make their decision? And how did they succeed?

Sharing Stories to Connect with Loved Ones

The story I plan to tell this year is about how my parents dealt with the uncertainty of sending me and my siblings to college. When I was 13, my family lived in Garnett, Kansas, population 3,000. (For my parents, Garnett was “the big city” because they grew up in nearby Lone Elm, which had a population of 29.) My mom and dad knew that their kids should go to college to have a good life, but they didn’t have enough money. How could they get us there?

They decided to pack up and move 50 miles to Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas. This way, we could live at home while attending school, eliminating the most expensive piece of the college financial equation. Mom could teach, Dad could work for the Kansas City Star, and we could attend college for $116 a semester. It was hard for them to move away from the support of family and go to an entirely new place. It required sacrifices, but it really paid off. I’m so grateful and proud of my parents. I don’t know if I would have been equally strong and able to do what they did.

Sharing Stories to Connect Life and Investing

I see clear parallels to dealing with uncertainty when investing. I’ve distilled my investment philosophy down to a set of principles I call Life, Invested—because they also apply to life. Here are a few of them:

Embrace Uncertainty

My parents knew that moving to a new city was a big risk, but they felt they could handle it. People tend to shrink away from uncertainty, but it’s uncertainty that creates opportunity.

Control What You Can Control

My parents couldn’t predict what would happen in Lawrence, but they had a sense of the range of potential outcomes and believed they could manage them. In investing, we don’t think you can control markets, but you can control the amount of risk that you take. You want to make investment decisions that have a range of outcomes you’re comfortable with.

Stick to a Good Long-Term Plan

My parents had the goal of sending their kids to college. They made a long-term plan they could stick with. My parents’ decision worked out well for our family. The same logic applies to investing. Don’t try to time the market’s short-term movements. Instead, have a long-term plan you feel comfortable sticking with and recognize that you may have to make adjustments because your life will change in ways you can’t predict.

As you gather around your holiday table this year, consider this: In the midst of heartfelt stories, laughter, and gratitude, you might also be sharing valuable lessons that echo the principles that help guide a sensible investment approach. Here's to a holiday season filled with deeper connections and a greater understanding of how the decisions we make, both in life and investing, shape our futures.