In the Spotlight

An Affinity For Acorns

By Brian Haendiges

Metaphors can be useful to explain things that are hard to understand. Take the financial markets, for instance. The image of a muscular bull charging ahead, mouth snorting and eyes bulging, is often used to depict a market climbing ever higher. It’s equally simple to picture a recently awoken grumpy grizzly, irascibly thrashing about, as a metaphor for a careening market that destroys wealth.

Painting the financial markets in those terms has an additional advantage that you can’t get from numbers alone: conveying the inherent emotion and behavior of a reckless buyer, or of an angry and panicked seller.

For a financial advisor or individual investor, speaking in metaphors can be a valuable tool to better understand the strength of market-driven emotions and to make better decisions. Similarly, taking the time to observe natural phenomena can provide insights that let you interpret complexity.

I had one of those environmental epiphanies this week upon seeing a squirrel, acorn stuffed in his cheeks, dash across the road and narrowly avoid my front tires. I pay attention to acorns. One saved my life a year ago. Or so I thought.  

The acorn revelation that resulted from the darting squirrel was about how hard it is to connect cause and effect, and to distinguish skill from good fortune.

At the very moment the squirrel zig-zagged past me, a radio story noted an unusually high number of chipmunks and squirrels this year. I had interpreted the phenomenon as a certain predictor of a harsh coming winter. The much simpler explanation was that last year’s winter was mild, and more small animals had survived it than normally would have.

Nature, like the markets, has a way of balancing things out. Without the benefit of the story, I might have interpreted a tough winter that often follows a mild one as confirmation that my astute observations of wildlife made me a meteorological prophet.

That awoke me to the realization that maybe the acorn hadn’t saved my life after all.

Last Thanksgiving Eve, walking down a steep hill to the road to see if the sleigh and reindeer were centered in front of the house, one leg found a hole, and the other slipped on frost-covered grass. I heard something crack, and fell to the ground.

Not realizing yet what had happened, I briefly, and unsuccessfully, tried to stand. Excruciating pain finally hit, and I began yelling that I’d broken my leg and needed help. No one heard.

I don’t remember exactly the thought process, but having been exposed to hypothermia risk years ago, concluded that I’d better get up to the house before freezing or going into shock.

During the 45 minute crawl, I came across an acorn cap, and remembering a childhood trick (all this before MacGyver returned to television this fall), whistled through it. My wife, inside preparing for next day’s feast, poked her head out to see if I was trying to scare away the bear that occasionally lumbers through the yard.

She called 9-1-1, and my subsequent visit to the emergency room enabled me to enjoy turkey dinner the next day, resting my elevated leg, replete with a new surgically implanted titanium rod.

Would I have been OK if I’d merely stayed by the road instead of crawling? Maybe. I still prefer to think that the acorn saved my life. It makes a better story.

Are the decisions you’re making based on cause and effect, or are you just telling a story to yourself?


 More from MassMutual

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Duct Tape for Financial Wellness

 Acorn Cap Whistle: A Potential Life Saver

On the Lighter Side: Fun Creepy Squirrel Art