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Pursuing a personal boondoggle

With thanks to Carl Richards

In October 2001, the Joint Strike Fighter program was made official with the announcement that the Defense Department would buy 2,852 airplanes. The goal was to replace multiple aircraft models across all arms of the military with one new model, the F-35. The cost was estimated at $233 billion, and the first aircraft should have been “combat-capable” by 2010.

But as Adam Ciralsky reported in a recent article for Vanity Fair, this program didn’t go quite as expected. It’s seven years behind schedule, and with budget overruns into the trillions, it’s clear that this is a classic example of a government program run amok.

Now, I’m not highlighting this story for the reasons you might expect. Instead, I want to focus on how this program that started out with the best of intentions went off the rails and the invaluable lesson that it teaches us about the search for perfect, whether it’s new airplanes or investments.

For instance, previous plane models had used a heads-up display, which was invaluable to pilots who needed information fast. Think of it like having the speed of a car and other performance metrics projected on a windshield. However, that wasn’t good enough for designers. Instead, they created a helmet-mounted display that takes images from exterior cameras and projects the view right in front of pilots’ eyes via their helmets. Think of it like a version of X-ray vision.

As cool as this sounds, it turns out that it creates something called “spatial disorientation” in some people. It makes it incredibly dangerous for pilots by causing them to lose their sense of what’s real and what’s not. Then there’s the issue of what happens if the helmet malfunctions (not an unknown issue with new technology). Pilots will be forced to look down at their gauges, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when seconds count, losing that heads-up display could cause serious problems.

Plus, the F-35, has other limitations:

“…the squadrons at Eglin [Air Force Base] are prohibited from flying at night, prohibited from flying at supersonic speed, prohibited from flying in bad weather (including within 25 miles of lightning), prohibited from dropping live ordnance, and prohibited from firing their guns. Then there is the matter of the helmet.”

At the heart of many of these issues lies a simple, but difficult, problem that comes from the best of intentions. In the pursuit of something that sounds like a perfect solution, it’s easy to overlook that it might not be possible to execute. It turns out that wanting something to work isn’t the same thing as it actually working.

While we aren’t trying to build a new fighter plane, I see people making this same assumption way too often when it comes to money. Everything from trying to time the market to finding the perfect investment sounds great in theory, but it’s highly improbable in practice.

Like the F-35, we’ll think we’ve come across the perfect solution to our investing uncertainty. We’ll think that this time we’ve discovered a guaranteed way to take the risk out of investing. But then when we attempt to execute this supposed solution we only to end up disappointed and frustrated because we can’t make it work.

It’s a cycle that gets repeated over and over, and it won’t stop until we recognize that perfect isn’t a real option when it comes to our finances. The perfect investment or the perfect investing strategy are the personal version of a government boondoggle.

Of course, you’re welcome to keep pursuing perfection, but we can’t close our eyes to the high probability that we won’t be happy with the results.

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