Hunters, Farmers, And Financial Independence

Hunters and Farmers

A couple of years ago, I happened to attend a social event hosted by Lance Uggla.

For those of you who haven’t heard of him, Lance is the founder and CEO of a business now known as IHS Markit, an S&P 500 constituent with a market capitalization of over $30 billion.

As expected of an individual who can scale up a business like that from literally a backyard shed, Lance is also a captivating storyteller.

After the formalities of the event were over, a group of us were chatting over beers. This is when Lance touched upon the topic of “hunters” and “farmers” in his company (which, back in the day, was still in the “Markit” incarnation).

For those who haven’t come across the definition before, it goes along the following lines:

Hunters are the “chasers”. These are the folks that go after big, high-profile opportunities. Seizing the initiative, they disappear into the wilderness, relentlessly stalking their prey until they come back with a trophy-like contract win or another milestone business achievement.

In contrast, farmers are the “nurturers”. Taking a long-term view, they focus on building trusting, lasting relationships. It may all seem boring and a bit pedestrian, but their efforts are ultimately rewarded with the loyalty of clients and other stakeholders.

Ultimately, the farmers achieve their goals as well – albeit in a far less exciting manner.

The point Lance was making was that both types of individuals were equally valuable to an organization, as long as you leave them alone and let them get on with things.

But is that really true?

Lions vs… Losers?

In today’s environment, farming is hardly flavour of the day.

Everyone lionizes star entrepreneurs who look to do things like “disrupt email” and “build the next Amazon”. Sometimes both at the same time – and ideally in the next year or two.

The same applies to corporate employment.  Farming may be highly effective – but hunting certainly captivates all of the attention.

In a world focused on growth hacks, “failing fast” and hitting the next set of quarterly numbers, toiling away in a cubicle for months and years on end doesn’t have many fans. It doesn’t pay well either.

And incidentally, the whole setup creates somewhat of an image problem for the FIRE community.

By definition, planned financial independence is a process that farmer-type individuals are particularly suited to.

Plant the seeds. Tend your garden portfolio.

Make small tweaks – and watch the results compound over years and decades. Finally, slowly harvest the crops – and live off them. In other words, a sequence of events that will drive any hunter up the wall.

Is it really a surprise that both the media and the public at large are so keen to paint the FIRE community as a bunch of penny pinchers with boring lives and depressing spending habits?

Blind Spots

I won’t like – hunting sure is exciting. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the reasons this self-identified farmer has stuck around investment banking for almost a decade. Few experiences compare to the thrill of a chase.

There is also no doubt that some hunters do well for themselves. As a category, however, they may well find it tougher to build wealth.

When you are always on the lookout for the next big thing, you don’t think about planting seeds with a 10+ year horizon in mind.

The whole predictability bit may well be the spoiler that puts a hunter off financial independence in the first place. Who wants to think about what life will be like when you are 60?!?

Then there’s the feedback loop. Hunters sometimes run the risk of losing steam without a positive feedback loop. In other words, they are not the type to keep buying VTSAX as the economy grinds through a multi-year downturn.

Which is fine – as long as you bounce back and make the next big kill. But one day, life smacks you in the face.

A new crop of hunters appears, literally eating your lunch. Even worse, your prey may have disappeared – and you haven’t got the ability to re-tool yourself.

But that doesn’t mean that us farmers have it any easier. Far from it.

Calculated Risks

The long-term perspective sure helps, but it’s just a part of the equation.

In addition to ceding the limelight (and some of the associated rewards) to hunters, farmers face a host of other challenges on the way to wealth.

They are slower off the starting line. They are also generally less aggressive – and slower to ditch a strategy that isn’t yielding results. There’s also a tendency to solve for minimizing losses rather than capturing maximum upside.

But the biggest one is not taking enough risks.

Early on, it’s not a problem. The start of a journey finds pretty much everyone with a blank slate. By default, progress means experimenting with things.

But then, a funny thing happens. People get comfortable with the progress they are making – and start to avoid what I call the uncomfortable unknown.

It’s not necessarily a losing strategy. After all, once you’ve got a good thing going, you shouldn’t just give up on it. But the moment you stop taking chances is the moment you slow yourself down.

In my career so far, I’ve changed jobs three times. Making each change was uncomfortable as hell – but every single moved paid off ­in spades.

Same goes for that time I’ve had an unsuccessful stab at entrepreneurship. Dove into my first real estate transaction. And uprooted my entire life (and that of my fiancé) to move to the US to go back to grad school.

In every single instance, my farmer brain cried for mercy and tried to talk me out of it.  And to compensate for that natural handicap, I have always tried to force myself to take more risks than I’m comfortable with.

At the end of the day, your type is your type. You shouldn’t fight it and try to join a tribe that isn’t yours. Life just isn’t worth going through with that kind of cognitive dissonance.

Instead, embrace your type – but be aware of the shortcomings. You don’t want to be a farmer with nothing but a bunch of weeds in the proverbial garden.

And you certainly don’t want to be the hunter with a bunch of kills – and nothing to show for it.

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Banker On FIRE is a London-based M&A (mergers and acquisitions) investment banker.  I am passionate about capital markets, behavioural economics, financial independence and living the best life possible.

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20 Comments

  1. Saw a lot of this back when I was working. Farmers were not appreciated at all. Consequence was a lot of new commercial strategies started with much enthusiasm and fanfare – and then died a quiet death as the hunters as you call them moved onto the next exciting thing…if you ever got both to work together, you had a winner.

    I think it’s the same personally, if you nurture a bit of both – it’s easier to get the balance right. You can’t pretend to be what you aren’t for sure – but just knowing it gives you an advantage.

    • Hah, nothing like a grand new initiative that fizzles out into oblivion two months later. More often than not it’s replaced by an even grander initiative with even more enthusiasm!

  2. Very interesting, this is a new concept to me. I am definitely a farmer (literally: my grandfather was a farmer!) and the long-term approach is actually what draws me to FI. I have always been more future oriented than others, which can be both good and bad.
    That said, I did get too ‘comfortable’ with my life and it took a global pandemic to make me have another look at my career path an re-evaluate.

    • Same. I come from a family with a rural / farming background.

      Need to constantly remind myself to overcorrect in the other direction to maintain the balance.

  3. Did my comment about being content last post inspire this? 😊

    I think the comment above and your post are both correct. In my organisation I am definitely seen as a hunter and held in high esteem as its quite rare in our profession (insurance broking) . I do have my own clients but even they I approach with a hunter mentality treating every renewal as if it was new business. I think it’s one of the secrets of my success in terms of client retention

    . My farmer colleagues are encouraged time and again to try and fit this model but it’s not in their nature and I really don’t think the business is going to get what they want from them.

    I also think your comment about hunters struggling with fire is also true (and where I differ) most hunters I know live well to their means. They rely on the big bonuses coming in every year and struggle when they have down years

    • Let’s just say reader comments serve as a big part of the inspiration for new posts 🙂

      I’m in a similar boat. Enjoy the hunt at work even though I’m a farmer at heart, which helps with FI. There are some other drawbacks though which I haven’t mentioned above. For example, I absolutely loathe tight deadlines, a common theme for farmers. Hunters don’t seem to mind them as much.

      And your last point is spot on. I’ve come across an inordinate number of bankers who have nothing to show for literally decades in this industry (aside from expensive holidays and extravagant spending habits). A bad year or a stretch of unemployment is enough to send them deep into debt.

  4. I’m not so sure there’s its an either or hunter or farmer, I identify with aspects of both…
    What I take from this article though, and the above comments, is that its very important to know oneself and to work / invest in a way that suits your personality type.

    There’s not too much written within F.I. circles about how different personality types could manage their finances differently but to the same end. Perhaps little tricks like “hunters” viewing their investments as the trophies of their hunts rather than something else to be pushed could be an example of how to manipulate that types psychology?

    The Lao Tzu quote “He who conquers others may be strong but only he who conquers himself is truly mighty.” springs to mind.

    • That’s an interesting perspective. I am a big fan of “tricks” that fool our brains into the right course of action.

      Along those lines, my personal rule is to always say yes to any opportunity where the (objective) pros outweigh the cons, no matter how uncomfortable it may seem.

      Love the quote too… though I do wonder if tricking yourself into doing the right thing counts as “conquering”!

      • Good rule, I like that and would hope to do similar myself.

        We are terribly complicated things aren’t we? Full of layers with different parts of our brains trying to pull and push us in different directions. I viewed the conquering as being able to cut through that and quieten the self sabotaging, fear driven parts. Listening to them but acting in a calm clear manor.

        My most used “trick” is re-framing, as the hunter with his investment trophy cabinet. A good example personally is how I view my investments. I am a bit of a spender, never problematic from debt point of view but it did prevent me from saving / investing seriously for a few years. I overcame this by starting to view my investments as buying something. My freedom from having to work, or a money making machine. Now investments are another line on my monthly budget spreadsheet and if there’s anything left at the end of the month I’m keen to add to it. I’m not sure how this strategy will work in drawdown but its working during an my accumulation phase.

        • Very interesting. At one point in the past, our group of friends got to talking about what our wives / significant others would get for their respective 30th birthdays (this is now a few years ago).

          Amongst the talk of fancy bags, cars and holidays, I raised quite a few eyebrows when I said “an investment property”. It didn’t work out exactly that way, but in our minds, the best way to spend a meaningful amount of money was to put a down payment on a flat.

          Incidentally, quite a few folks in that group of people have come round a long way and are now quite good at accumulating investments. Perhaps it’s just us but I do think you value materialistic possessions less the older you get.

  5. This is such a fascinating article! I’ve never considered the reasons behind the vaguely negative view of FIRE, and the point of slow growth vs get rich quick schemes hits the nail on the head. I’m definitely a fan of slow-growth attempts to wealth, they’re safer, less effort and overall can be more enjoyable.

    I do think, however, that the inspiration filled ‘hunting’ approach can bring a personal thrill, and through tempering one approach with the other, it might be possible to strike gold. I’m currently reading a book called ‘millionaire fast lane’ and while I’m not focused on riches to the extent of the author, he makes a good point.

    A lot of the book boils down to the fact that – for a lot of people – getting rich slowly is one way to guarantee that you’ll never enjoy your money. It’s through balance and moderation that we reach our goals, but we also have to be able to enjoy both the destination and the journey!

    I really enjoyed this article, and I think I’ll probably keep mulling over it in the coming days, whilst I finalise my medium-term strategies. Coronavirus has shaken it up a bit – so I’ve done some shuffling and I need to think it through more before I follow the plan to a T.

    • I think most people will find themselves somewhere on the spectrum and not on the extremes. I can certainly see how a pure “hunter” will be depressed by the concept of farming and a “farmer” will be terrified of hunting.

      By the way, my gut instinct is to ignore any books titled along the lines of “millionaire fast lane” which is probably a pity because I am sure there are some gems in the rough there.

      Glad to see you are enjoying it – is this one you’d recommend adding to the reading list? Perhaps I’m being too much of a farmer by ignoring titles like that! 🙂

      • I’m not sure I’d necessarily “recommend” it – but it goes further than the bog standard “put it in an ISA and leave it” advice, and I think it’s refreshing that it goes against the grain.

        I don’t think I’ll follow any of the advice as it’s not my style, but it was an interesting read, albeit a very “bloke-y” with a focus on Lamborghinis and bikinis.

        • I see – appreciate the colour! Think I’ll leave it off my list, though the poet in me appreciates the rhyme in “Lamborghinis and bikinis” 🙂

  6. I like this analogy. Pre-discovering FIRE I was always trying to be the hunter and look for the next big thing. I’ve taken some big risks career wise and put myself in very uncomfortable positions! I grew a lot and learned a lot doing so.

    What FIRE taught me was taking the long term view is often the best way. It’s not exactly playing it safe by dumping most of my money into equities, but it’s not madness like bitcoin either.

    The long wait until FI is something that both frustrates me, and excites. I don’t think I’m a farmer at heart, and in the past always thought the path to FI might be achieved through a series of major victories (God knows what). However the realisation that a planned steady plod of investing will get me to the same destination in a calmer and calculated way, is comforting. Patience!

    • The ideal set up is a combination of the two approaches, amplifying some of the hunter tendencies when making money and switching back to “farm” mode when investing.

      Alas, it takes a real chameleon to do that. Would think very few people can master the trick – the rest of us will have to tweak on the edges.

  7. Thought-provoking piece. I wonder how much is nature and how much is nurture? Let’s say you’re somewhere mid-spectrum and you take your first big swing at the fences and fail. Perhaps a Harmer (farmer with hunter tendencies) will retreat to lifelong farmer-hood, while a Funter (Hunter with farmer tendencies) will keep trying.

    Seems like a hunter is like a leveraged 100% equities portfolio. They’ll shoot the lights out given a good run but have got a greater chance of failing catastrophically.

    I’m a farmer all day long but I work with a hunter. It’s like Yin and Yang.

    • I would think nurture is a bigger part than people think.

      In the US, Great Depression-era folks were notorious farmers, taking on little risk (and debt), frugal, and generally living below their means. Boomers – not so much as we well know.

      I’m certainly closer to the farmer end of the spectrum myself. Enjoy a good hunt once in a while but certainly don’t live and breathe it, hence it helps to have some coworkers to help calibrate the balance.

      • Agreed. Though it took me a long while to get used to them, I came to realise I needed the hunters in my tribe – they compensate for my weaknesses and biases. To some extent I can hold them back when they attempt anything too reckless.

        The imprinting of events on an entire generation is interesting. Thatcherism then fall of communism / end of history for Gen X? Great Recession for Millennials? Growing up in the social media bubble / helicopter parenting / coronavirus for Gen Y?

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