Regretting my decision not to invest in Bitcoin

Michael asked:

About 14 years ago a couple of friends were talking about Bitcoin when it was about $1 or so and saying it would probably be a good investment. I had already become interested in an Australian start up called Permodrive — a regenerative braking system that saves fuel for heavy vehicles. I bought 30,000 shares for $42k. They went broke and I lost every cent. Recently Bitcoin hit $6k Aus dollar, my $42k investment would be about 240 million.

Not happy about my decision. I often think about the life I could have had if I made the right decision. How should one think about this? I don’t want to be regretting it for the rest of my life but I think it is quite possible I will. What would a wise philosopher be thinking if it happened to them?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Michael, you have my sympathies. If it were me, I would regret my judgement call that failed so dramatically, and go on regretting it. There are incidents in our life that we can put behind us as we move forward, and other things whose effects spread forward in ever widening circles.

This is about regret, how we judge our past actions, and also about the value of money. Let me deal with the money aspect first.

As a philosopher, how much do I care about money? Not at all, provided I have sufficient to live on. There’s nothing I want that money can buy. If someone forced me to go on a luxury holiday cruise, I would fret every day that I was away from my computer, doing things like answering questions on Ask a Philosopher, or posting entries in my Glass House Philosopher blog, or working on my next book.

I remember a TV interview where the inventor of Bitcoin said something similar: all he wanted to do was work. People wouldn’t leave him alone. What torment!

What money represents is the ‘ability to do’. With 240 mil, I would be able to do a lot of things for other people. That has a good and bad side, because with that amount of cash it’s a full-time job just deciding where the money goes. I would be the last person to say ‘it’s only money’.

Let’s look at judgement calls. From your account, it seems perfectly reasonable to me that you would be sceptical about the prospects for Bitcoin, but enthusiastic about the Australian startup. It is only in retrospect that you judge that your judgement call was wrong. It annoys me intensely to see in the News people being blamed for failed judgement calls, where they could not possibly have known at the time that they were doing something ‘wrong’.

That said, a good gambler hedges his/ her bets. You could have put 1 per cent of your stake aside as a side bet on Bitcoin, and today you would have 2.4 mil. People who make their living out of playing the stock markets have an ‘investment portfolio’. You never put all your eggs in one basket. So that error of judgement is down to you, and something to regret. But then again, how many dubious-seeming prospects could one put a side bet on? The answer to that is moot.

Lastly, regret. I said earlier that there are ‘incidents in our life… whose effects spread forward in ever widening circles’. Let’s say you are in a hurry to get home, stone cold sober, but driving 10 mph over the speed limit when you knock down and kill a pedestrian. I wouldn’t trust, or like, a person who told me that they had gotten over that regretful incident. We all live with the foreboding that something like that could happen to us — a psychic injury, no less permanent than the loss of a limb.

You are hurting. I would kick myself every day for doing what you did, but it would be a kind of token ‘kick’. We mustn’t let these things defeat us. And keep a look out, because worse things can happen.

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