When Faith Kills – Life, Death and Your Finances

by Darwin on October 27, 2011

I watched with surprise the 60 Minutes interview this weekend with the Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson on how Jobs’ “faith” in himself and how special he was allowed him to accomplish incredible things, but also likely accelerated his demise. Some key points of the interview which are outlined in detail in his #1 Best-Selling book, “Steve Jobs” include the following points:

  • Steve Jobs was abandoned by his father. Upon learning about being adopted, not only was he initially distraught over being abandoned, but he also derived strength from the notion that he was also “chosen”. After all, his adoptive parents did choose him. That reinforced in him the belief that he was in fact special.
  • Various stories were recounted where Steve would show up and demand some feat be accomplished by his employees which was deemed impossible. He seemingly arbitrarily picked a timeframe and an accomplishment like, “complete all the coding for X by the end of this month.” When questioned, he would shout them down and say it must be done and it will be done. As impossible as it seemed, people would toil away at all hours trying to make it happen and in the end, it did. This type of success further reinforced his belief that he was able to accomplish unimaginable feats if he wanted it to happen badly enough.
  • Fast-forward to his cancer diagnosis. While physicians, friends and family all implored him to undergo surgery to remove the cancer in his pancreas, he declined. Instead, he relied on quack pseudo-science pursuing various concoctions of roots, berries, a vegan diet and other “alternative” medical approaches, none of which had any proven benefits. In the end, he waited too long. He eventually did have the surgery, months later, but it was too late. The cancer had spread outside the initially diagnosed area and he was then terminal. He did lament his delay in some parts of the book and confessed to his biographer that he shouldn’t have waited.

Steve Jobs thought he was special.  He had faith. He thought he was so blessed and had such gifts that nothing could possibly happen to him that he couldn’t control. He was always the smartest guy in the room. As a kid, he tested off the charts and accomplished incredible and brilliant things throughout his life. But he had faith in alternative medicine and quack diets over proven medical procedures with reams of historical data to back them up. Instead of taking his chances based on the odds (which were quite favorable at the time of his initial diagnosis), he went with the black box of no data based on “faith”.

There’s no way to prove one way or the other whether alternative medicine did in fact hasten his demise, but most legitimate physicians would concur that the course of treatment he initially chose did him no favors. I’m no doctor, but this doctor does a damn good job of explaining the dangers of quack science (termed woo).


What’s Faith Have to do with Finances?


Well, quite a bit. There’s one school of thought that you make financial decisions and investments based on historical data, diversification, and likely outcomes and another based on, well, faith.

Madoff and Faith-Based Affiliation Fraud – The most prolific Ponzi scheme in human history was pulled off because people had “faith” in a scam artist.  Not only did Bernie Madoff hold prestigious positions and network with all the right people, but he had a large Jewish following, the perfect “affiliation fraud”.  People trusted him.  This isn’t relegated to any particular religion of course, here’s a whole litany of affiliation frauds in faith-based organizations.  Basically, when you are part of the same belief system, especially one in which a judgmental god is watching your every move, you naturally let your guard down.  This is not unexpected, but this is how scam artists increase their chances and pull off incredibly brazen frauds for so long.

A “Different Type of Religion” – The goldbugs.  People who believe gold is the only true currency bristle at the word goldbug.  But, for those people at the extreme spectrum of conspiracy theories, doomsday beliefs and pessimism you couldn’t even contemplate, there are those that eschew all forms of fiat currency and have plowed every penny they have into gold, along with some guns and arable land.  Sure, it’s hard NOT to be cynical and concerned over the indebtedness of western economies; about a quarter of my articles reference my concerns with sovereign debt (CRITICISM).  But I don’t have 100% of my money in gold.  To these people, it’s religion.  To me, it’s one asset class with some unique features.  But one that has also declined precipitously over certain periods, pays no dividend, has carrying costs, a higher tax rate, and well, no guarantees.  While a growing contingent of Americans are converted into true believers, it’s important to maintain some skepticism and objectivity.

The deities of CNBC – The cable news cycle has become adept at bringing on purported “experts” who show up with prepared sound bytes and seemingly prolific predictions and platitudes on why their “hidden gem” is about to take off.  I’ve been there.  I’m the first to admit that I’ve heard a compelling guest come on and give this incredible rundown of a stock I’ve never heard of and then I go and research it and buy it.  Shame on me.  In retrospect these have been my worst investments.  Jim Cramer is a compelling personality.  But his hedge fund days are behind him (thankfully); he’s no better than monkeys throwing darts at the ticker symbols in the business section stapled to a wall.

I could go on.  I’ve had friends succumb to the virtual cult-like beliefs of MLM scammers (I hate MLMs), people who glorify naturo-quack doctors that make a name for themselves bashing conventional medicine while simultaneously prescribing unproven and often dangerous remedies for their patients; heck the priest that married my wife and I was later convicted of stealing 6 figures from the congregation.  He stole for years (after being “transferred” from his prior church actually…hmm, wonder why?) while hundreds of people dropped money in the hat each Sunday. But this isn’t just a religious phenomena.  To the contrary, often times, people put too much faith in other people – the living, mere mortals.

We are surrounded by blind faith.

Take off the blinders.

Do your homework.

Ask questions.

Be skeptical.


Have You Ever Fallen Prey to Faith-based Decisions That Cost You Money?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

PKamp3 October 27, 2011 at 9:27 am

Gold bugs aren’t 100% in gold – they also invest in canned food and arms.

Agree on the Steve Jobs bit, although so much has been said already. Here’s the thing: even if diet makes a difference in cancer (and I actually bet it does), it took years for your old diet to cause cancer in the first place. It would take years to eat your way back to health in any scenario you could come up with.

Assuming that’s the timeframe, you should get the surgery anyway (perhaps while continuing the diet?).


krantcents October 27, 2011 at 10:50 am

No, I am naturally cycnical and sketical of anything that seems too good to be true. Perhaps, it is genetics! My parents were like that too or was it growing up in New York City? Maybe a little of both.

I still rely on mainstream medicine and only use doctor’s doctors. My wife (RN) is a great sounding board for medical issues. If I had his money, I would have found the absolute best surgeon and discuss my options. Perhaps a second opinion at one specialty hospitals in New York.


Jeff @ Sustainable life blog October 27, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Great point – it’s always important to be skeptical with your fiances because usually things involve someone trying to separate you from your money (and they get to keep some or all of it) so obviously it is in their best interest to get you to say yes, no matter what the call or cost. Do your own research – there’s nothing wrong with betting wrong after sound research, but it sure stings when you lose a couple g’s and say “well, I didnt see that coming”.


AverageJoeMoney October 28, 2011 at 11:55 am

I am not worthy! I am not worthy!

This is an absolutely fantastic post. I love the overarching message: Stop trying to hand your success off to someone else and take the reins. No voodoo. Just homework.

This is better than pizza and beer, and I love pizza and beer.


Andrea October 31, 2011 at 11:28 pm

Great article, question everything. (y)


Ken Faulkenberry November 2, 2011 at 6:04 am

Darwin – Great article! People are just too trusting. I believe most people should make the effort to manage their own money. Thanks for submitting the article to the Self Directed Investing for Retirement Carnival on the AAAMP Blog. It will definitely be included in the next issue and I will promote it on Twitter as well.


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