To maintain an accurate or effective grasp of reality one must undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with the environment geared to assessing its constant changes.
If you’re reading this, then you’re interested in the concept of volatility. Furthermore, I’d wager that you’re here because you want to find some sort of solution to the “problem” of volatility in your own life.
I don’t blame you for feeling this way. Every passing day seems to generate more complexity, rapid change and uncertainty than at any other point in human history.
You aren’t wrong — that’s exactly what’s happening. But below the surface of this chaotic ocean of volatility lurks useful knowledge.
Knowledge that will make you uncomfortable in many cases. Knowledge that will make you realize you’ve only taken a few steps down the rabbit hole.
But it will be knowledge nonetheless. If you’re the sort of exploratory person who enjoys endless journeys and moments of insight that make you feel like you’ve just unplugged yourself from one reality and jerked your nervous system into a new one…well, you’re in the right place, my friend.
The world we live in is intensely volatile. You know I don’t need to go down the standard laundry list of examples, because you’re living in it. Every day it feels like a new order is being shaped in one domain, while the old ways and traditions are somehow holding back progress in others.
Once again, you’re not wrong — this is exactly what’s happening.
Here’s the issue with such high levels of volatility: you weren’t designed to cope with it. Small bites of volatility are fine, you and every other human comes equipped with enough adaptive capacity to deal with some change.
We know how to respond to unexpected weather, changes in social relations, patterns of behavior in our rivals, and so on. These were all part of the deal for early humans who possessed the same brain you possess at this very moment.
What you and I were not designed to cope with were global pandemics, flash crashes, the overnight disappearance of long-standing institutions, and all the other seemingly insane changes that occur in our globalized world.
You might also be wondering what I mean when I say volatility. This is a fair line of inquiry, especially since the only people who purposefully use the word volatility on a regular basis are traders (usually options traders, but traders as a group tend to be interested in it).
For this crowd, volatility carries a specific definition (courtesy of Investopedia):
A statistical measure of the dispersion of returns for a given security or market index.
In more straightforward language: how much the price of a security deviates from some expected average price.
But what if we want to boil volatility down to its essence, right on down to the fundamental level so that it can be applied to domains beyond finance?
You’re luck! We can, in fact, do such a thing by restating the definition of volatility in more general terms:
Volatility is a high rate of change within a given environment.
Notice that this definition is free from value judgements — we’re not saying that volatility is either good or bad, it just is. We’ve reframed it from a phenomenon with specific characteristics, to a sort of measurement.
All you’re saying when you say “volatile” is “high rate of change” — nothing more, nothing less.
How You Feel
Volatility, like any other conceptual model, doesn’t care about how change makes you feel; such a concept is based entirely on our own subjective experience of volatility.
The reason I bring this up is important to focus on: most people speak about volatility in strictly negative terms. You can see it whenever the term “volatility” pops up in either the media or casual conversation.
A couple of quick examples highlights what I mean:
- “Greg has a volatile personality” is not a compliment. What is implied by the use of “volatile” in this context is that Greg is unreliable, untrustworthy and unpredictable. And we hate people who fall into those buckets.
- “The markets have been volatile” is, for most people with money in the markets, not a good thing. The average investor wants straightforward, predictable returns. Volatility ensures that uncertainty about those returns rules the day.
What is it that we want instead? Stability, aka safety, aka comfort.
We can define this complimentary concept of stability within our new framework of change measurement:
Stability is low rate of change in a given environment.
Stability makes us feel all warm and tingly on the inside. When we know what to expect and have removed uncertainty from a situation, we breathe easier.
It’s a natural human instinct. Knowing what comes next feeds into our intrinsic need to predict the future — and stability in an environment gives us that.
Much like volatility, the idea of stability has many affective properties built into our descriptions of it. Let’s see how stability makes our previous examples look:
- “Greg has a stable personality” is definitely a compliment. Greg’s the kind of guy you know will show up when he says he will, will complete the tasks he’s been assigned, and is a generally trustworthy guy.
- “The markets have been stable” is a positive for most investors. Stability (or at least our concept of it) implies a healthy, dependable economy that produces high, predictable returns.
It’s clear that we treat the idea of stability as a net positive nearly every time we utilize it. Stability translates to predictability, and predictability is what we’re all programmed to seek. Therefore stability is viewed as in intrinsically positive concept.
The contradictions that we generate as people are what I’m most interested in and what I spend much of my time reading and writing about. If you’re trying to understand the world you live in, you should do the same.
Contradictions are everywhere, and recognizing where they pop up is a critical skill you must develop — especially if you want to understand volatility.
This is where things start to get interesting, and now we take our first steps into the maze of complexity. Here it will start to become clear to you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.
For one, both high and low levels of volatility can be good or bad, sometimes both simultaneously.
Consider the subtexts of these statements:
- “Our marriage is stable.”
- “I have a stable career.”
- “My schedule is stable.”
What’s your first reaction when you hear someone say these?
While the surface context is positive, it’s not difficult to dig up the contradictory downsides within each one:
- A “stable” marriage can mean that two people get along very well, and it’s clear that they’ll be together for the rest of their lives. On the flip side, it can mean that they never speak to one another or have given up trying to work out difficult problems that have been festering under the surface for years.
- A “stable” career can mean that your trajectory up the corporate ladder is assured and there is nothing but blue sky and stock options ahead. It can also mean that you’ve been sidelined into the same role for a decade, or that you’ve gone as far up the ladder as you can get and still aren’t where you want to be.
- A “stable” schedule can mean you’ve discovered your ideal lifestyle and have the means to live it on a daily basis. It might also mean that you’ve been locked into a machine-like routine that you both hate and can’t escape.
Shooting Yourself in the Foot
The contradiction here is that when you’re always grasping for stability, you often shoot yourself in the foot and end up with more volatility.
Even though a stable environment sounds great on paper, in practice a lack of change usually provides results opposite to what you were looking for.
You could, in theory, achieve perfect predictability by locking yourself in a dark room and never leaving it. A prison represents a high degree of stability, as prisoners have mandatory routines that are defined for them.
But you have to ask yourself: what benefits come from such low levels of volatility? Is creating a prison (either mental or physical) really the best move? Does a zero-volatility lifestyle really sound so appealing if it means doing nothing?
For a certain type of personality, I suspect the answer is “yes.” The idea of being “institutionalized” by prison life is well-established, and many people leave prison-like conditions only to find themselves feeling lost as a result.
If that’s you, then you need to listen to what I have to say more than anyone else. Why? Because in a world ruled by volatility, an intolerance for change is a death sentence.
Stability requires us to make changes. This is the core of the contradiction of stability: our constant search for stability leads us into volatility.
Why do you think we call careers “the rat race”? We’re all scurrying around, desperate to latch on to stability in the form of job security, high pay checks, and a predictable path up the ladder.
But how do we accomplish this? By making changes, constant changes. We try out different clothes, take online classes, read books, join clubs — we can’t help but make dramatic shifts on a regular basis, hoping to finally hit that road to the paradise of stability.
Maybe someday, through all your racing through the maze, you’ll be able to reach that peak of zero-volatility: paid retirement, a carefree lifestyle and margaritas on an exotic beach. Then you’ll finally get what you want…when you’re old, and have spent the best years of your life drowning in volatility.
At the end of the day, you never escape volatility in a meaningful way. Change is a constant, no matter how hard you try to escape it.
What about somebody who always seeks volatility? A similar contradictory result shows up much of the time here, too.
I remember watching a show about prison a long time ago, and one of the prisoners described the reason he was always heading back to the big house in a way that I still think about:
“I just live life by the ‘balls-to-the-wall’ philosophy.”
In other words, he was always looking for excitement and that quest for peak experiences always took him down the path of prison time.
This sums up perfectly what happens to many people who live for a constant rush. Their quest for volatility at all times leads them to what they dread the most: indefinite stability.
The ultimate example is someone who puts themselves in harm’s way all the time and ends up dead.
What is death, if not the purest form of stability?
We’ve established at this point that there are two forces at play (stability and volatility), and that there’s a central contradiction between the two of them: seeking one out exclusively tends to give you the opposite of what you want.
Pure stability-seeking leads to high levels of volatility, and pure volatility-seeking leads to high levels of stability.
What is a fundamental, first-principles idea that can be gleaned from all of this? What is it about volatility and stability that burns deep into the very fabric of existence?
In short: what is the synthesis that bursts forth from everything you’ve just read?
This is my answer:
Volatility is a fundamental concept because it emerges from the contradictory relationships built into the complex systems and narratives we create.
Phrased differently, volatility is the unavoidable consequence of:
- The systems we create, which end up being complex because of how interconnected everything is now.
- The narratives we construct to explain those systems, because there is inevitably information asymmetry. The asymmetries exist between those who created the systems, those within the systems, and those who are outside of the systems.
This is why volatility is so critical to understand. Everything around us is complex, and everything around us has some narrative surrounding it. This means there will be contradictions, and in turn volatility will be present.
It’s a complete mind-fuck of an idea: we must expose ourselves to high rates of change, and we must be ready for the explanations we find to contradict each other. Conflict is a constant, there is no escape.
From all of this, it becomes clear that volatility isn’t just some concept for traders to toss around as a way to describe deviations from expected prices. It’s far more fundamental and important than that, and you should turn it into a central tenet of your thinking.
Some Semblance of Balance
Think of the relationship between volatility and stability as being like an inverted U shape. In the middle of the inverted U is the ideal mix of volatility and stability, but too much stability or volatility (either side of the inverted U) is counter-productive:
By seeking out this “sweet spot,” we can at least approach the contradictions of stability and volatility in a constructive way. Instead of the living death of pure stability, or the untenable chaos of pure volatility, we can probe the world for situations where different amounts of each are appropriate.
My goal is to live somewhere near this balancing point between stability and volatility. Throughout the years, I’ve found that this is a difficult task — sometimes it’s impossible.
In some ways, the concept of equilibrium falls into the same bucket as volatility: a contradiction that forces you away from your goals. If all you ever seek is equilibrium, you’ll be disappointed in how infrequently you find it.
Such is the nature of exploring complex topics. Sometimes (most of the time), there aren’t neat, easy solutions.
In many cases, you’ll find that ideas you hold sacred need to be completely rearranged, or thrown out all together. In some cases, you might get lucky and realize you were on the right track.
Either way, be ready for a long trek.
In the meantime, here are some guidelines that I use for thinking through the problems volatility presents:
- Embrace the fact that neither volatility or stability possess affective properties. They aren’t good or bad, they just are. Whether they have a positive or negative impact depends on the environment and the people involved.
- Utilize the Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis approach when looking at complex problems. TAS can be summarized as finding a concept, coupling it with a competing concept and then finding where the two antagonisms intersect. Utilizing this method will help you identify the contradictions within any given domain, recognize the crossroads between what people mean and what people practice, and see where solutions might lie.
- Do your best to embrace volatility and not spend so much time looking for stability. Consider the inverted U and ensure you have a mix of volatility and stability in your life. Pure volatility and pure stability are both poisonous, so as long as you aren’t too far in either direction you should be alright..