Downside Protection January 2018 • 2 minutes

Something I talk about often is downside protection. I think it has a specific definition in investing, meaning a hedge against a potential for loss. The way I use it means how trajectory decisions you make or ways of allocating your resources that can prevent downside. The opposite would be upside potential, or the factors affecting something that result in growth or positive outcomes. My assertion is that too much downside protection leads to stagnation.

Pursuing higher education would be a good example of something that is sold on the basis of upside potential but in practice implicates downside protection. Being a doctor is more interesting because their earnings have a floor, than it is because of their earnings having a ceiling. If people knew what the ceiling was, they might choose sales or starting a company instead assuming they were after upside. What they really seek is downside protection, which is what those programs really offer.

Another good example is the way people navigate their careers. Few people are willing to take a hit to their income in order to change jobs, it is mainly about increasing your income. The reality though is they are protecting themselves from the downside of having to downsize their lifestyle. Having a job with a steady income is the most dangerous form of downside protection, because people become willing to do almost anything (be unethical, waste their life) for it.

The important benefit that becoming aware of how downside protection affects your decisions is shifting your viewpoint on risk to be more in line with your values. Having a protected profession (that you sacrificed some of the best years of your life for) is great if that profession stays protected, but ends up horribly if change or innovation happens. Earning a stable income is easier to manage from a cash flow perspective, but also creates a single point of failure.

People should worry more about real downside protection than they do about protecting themselves from merit-based contests of will or struggling. By that I mean protected professions and stable employment make your income fragile and only meet some requirements of downside protection. Starting a business makes you fragile in the early days, but the worst case scenario (the downside) usually just looks like getting another job if you fail. It is much easier to fire one customer when you have a hundred than one boss when you have one.

The whole point of self actualization is to live a life that is true to the things that you want and value. Most downside protection ensures continued acceptance by your community, at tremendous cost to how enjoyable your time is and how much you control your own life. That trade is not worth it, and disparities in the value of downside protection are being priced in everywhere they used to exist (higher education, so called stable jobs, unions). You cannot, in practice, downside protect from something unless you have insider information. If something seems generally accepted, the value is priced in. Run, and find the secrets while you can.