WWATA: 6 Lessons After 6 Years

What We are Thinking About Memo (001). May 15, 2020.


6 Lessons After 6 Years

We noted last week that AEI’s first blog post was posted six years ago. This “birthday” corresponded with the public announcement of AEI Premium and the Ag Forecast Network (AFN). With these milestones came reflection. And with that reflection, we decided to share six key lessons we’ve learned along the way.

  1.  The Best Ideas Have Come from Readers
    Between emails and speaking events, we’ve had the chance to meet a lot of readers along the way. From ideas for future posts to typos, formatting issues, and the occasional critic, we have appreciated all the feedback. Along the way, we have learned the best ideas have come from questions we’ve received from you, the readers. Keep your comments and ideas coming.
  2. Social Media Is Wily
    There are many benefits of social media, but one should occasionally pause to consider how the “attention economy” impacts their thinking. Especially if (when) these mediums behave as an echo chamber and only connects us with people and content that confirm our preexisting biases. This hit home for us in 2017 when Twitter and Facebook pictures seemed to show a huge part of the Corn Belt facing dry weather and disastrous crop conditions. A below-trend national yield seemed inevitable, but the USDA’s yield projections kept coming in above-trend. One of the first lessons any farm kid learns is to never extrapolate conditions in your backyard with what’s happening across the entire county, but in the world of Twitter, how many backyards should you consider? This led us to look to the data and realize that, on average, an Indiana-worth of corn acres have pretty crummy yields on any given year. This gave us pause: if an algorithm-generated social media feed of droughty corn skewed our thinking so much – on something we monitored pretty closely – how else is our thinking inadequate for processing the endless stream of posts? Over the last six years, it’s been interesting to see the ebbs and flows of social media. Broadly speaking, public opinion appears to have swung from praise for “democratization information and knowledge” to criticism for spreading fake news and/or censoring the truth.
  3. The World is Noisy (and Probably Getting Nosier)
    “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.” -E.O. Wilson.
    While this quote comes from a book written in 1998, it is a good summary of the world today. On the surface, it’s hard to imagine that the internet- initially dubbed the information superhighway- would exacerbate this issue. But with additional access and faster connections came spam, clickbait, and sensationalism. It turns out that highway – built to whisk you around town effortlessly – feels more like eight lanes of rush hour traffic with an infinite number of exits and billboards to lure and confusion you. While the internet and technology have, without a doubt, made certain aspects of our jobs and lives better, what aspects have been made more difficult? Has more information created more knowledge and insights, or more confusion and meaningless datapoints?
  4. Writing Has Challenged and Improved Our Thinking
    One aspect of Ag Economic Insights that most people don’t realize is that we (Brent and David) don’t work in the same office. In fact, our offices are about 914 miles apart. The nature of writing weekly blog posts and predominantly communicating through emailing means most of our communication is in writing. That much writing over that many years has challenged and improved our thinking process immensely. There is a huge difference between replying to emails and articulating an idea. There have been many benefits of the blog; one of the underappreciated benefits was creating the habit of writing. Finally, writing is a great, if not humbling, reminder of what we were thinking. Our memories can be very generous and flattering about the quality and clarity of our earlier thinking. Writing it down is the only way to ensure we don’t confuse the details – timeline, what we knew, what we didn’t know, our expectations, etc.
  5. The Future is Unknowable, but We Can’t be Complacent
    When we started the blog in 2014, a global agricultural oversupply situation was clearly underway. The situation seemed a bit paradoxical as just a few years earlier everyone was asking, “how will we ever feed 9 billion people by 2050?” Now, fast-forwarding to 2020, it is even harder to believe U.S. agriculture is dealing with the fallout of two adverse demand shocks – the two-year trade war and a global pandemic. These adverse demand shocks were not only unknowable in 2014, but they were also unfathomable. While it can seem like the uncertainties faced today are greater than ever before, that doesn’t mean decision-makers can shirk their responsibility. If anything, an environment with increased uncertainty is likely to highlight or rewards those with sound and disciplined decision-making processes. “Making intelligent decisions when future events are uncertain is one of the greatest forms of skill.”  – Howard Marks
    We could spend a lot of this on this point, but, in conclusion, remember that skills can be acquired and improved over time. Skills are not genetic traits.
  6. “The Most Important Investment….”
    “The most important investment you can make is in yourself.” Warren Buffett.
    We’ve each been endowed a level – or quantity- of intelligence; it’s up to us to leverage that endowment with the tools and skills that wring out every ounce of capacity. Perhaps the highest ROI activity any individual can make is in improving their thinking.