This article originally published in The Northern Daily Leader on 30 August 2014.
Some years ago I offered to give my father a few lessons in using a computer. Dad had never worked in an office and home PC’s only became commonplace after my sister and I had left home, so he had very little familiarity with computers. I knew we were in trouble however, when I switched on the computer and gestured to the screen, saying “This is your desktop, it’s where you keep shortcuts to programs”. Dad looked strangely at me and said “That’s not a desktop, that’s a computer screen”. Things got worse when I handed over the mouse and got him to navigate around the desktop. He ended up with the mouse on the edge of the table, about to fall off onto the floor and the cursor jammed against the far right of the screen. “What are you doing?” I said. “It’s stuck!” he said, “I can’t move it!” I gave him a withering look and told him to pick it up and put it back on the mouse pad. “What do you mean?” he said, “I can’t just pick it up. What will happen to the small arrow on the screen if I do that?” At that point I decided we had had enough for one day and ended the lesson. Some challenges in life are just too great to be conquered and teaching my father how to use a computer fell into that category.
Truth be told, he didn’t really need to learn how to use a computer. Dad’s speciality in life was playing golf and it was something he was very good at. Some people become lawyers or accountants or professional sportsmen (or women), and others become IT experts. Modern society allowed my father to specialise in his field, giving him the resources to hire a computer expert if he ever needed one. The same can be said of any profession or occupation. The surgeon offers her services to people who know little of surgery, but is more likely to hire a builder than try to build her own home. The builder in turn might be extremely efficient at building houses, but probably pays an accountant to do his taxes. And so on and so on. And as you would expect, the same principles apply to investment advice. It’s sometimes hard to tell, given the ongoing stories of bad advice, fraud and irresponsibility, but investment advice is its own specialised field. The real problem is that the barriers to entry are too low – as pointed out recently in The Sydney Morning Herald, hairdressers require a greater level of training than the minimum level set for financial planners. A bad haircut is only going to matter for a few weeks, but the impact of bad financial advice can last a lifetime.