Optionality: An Amazing Superpower

Most people are familiar with the old adage “Fortune favors the bold”. Apparently this phrase goes back more than 2000 years, and is one common translation of a Latin proverb. A great related quip is “Fortune favors the prepared mind”. But I think we can do even better than that one, so here is yet a third gem of similar vintage:

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”

-Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (Seneca)

I absolutely love this quote because it says a lot in very few words. In my writing, I’ve acknowledged the role that good fortune plays in the success of many – including myself. We all understand the idea of “good timing”, right? But to succeed, you must be sufficiently prepared to take advantage of the situation when it arises. This element is often under-appreciated in my experience.

Today while hiking I got thinking about the related concept of optionality. This term comes up often on Two Sides of FI, most recently in an episode about market volatility. My show partner Eric and I love optionality. That is, whenever you can take decisions that enable you to have more options down the road, this is invariably a good thing. On my hike, I thought about all the times where I’d done things that enabled optionality and how that worked out for me. Here I’ll share just two of the disparate ideas which came to mind.

Building breadth is a powerful enabler of career optionality

While not explicitly described as enabling optionality, this idea came up several times in my previous Keys to Success series. This wasn’t initially a deliberate strategy on my part – I’m not so clever. But after a few jobs I realized the power that came from broadening my skills + experiences. On reflection, I understood how in each successive company and role, I was learning new technologies, developing new management skills, and understanding new industries. Each of those added new tools to my arsenal which in combination, could be leveraged to advance me in my future roles. They gave me more options!

One example of this was in a pivotal role in my career which I’ve written about before. In this case, I was offered a job which on paper I wasn’t even qualified for: running a customer support organization. I had never worked in nor led such a group before! Sure, I knew the technology area, had a solid scientific background, and had managed teams before. Why would they take such a chance? Were they just desperate?

My new boss confided to me a year later that it was my broad base of experience that got me the job. He’d hired me because with my diverse background, he’d determined I had the skills both for the job at hand and also provided the company options for how to use me for future, not yet identified needs. He was impressed that I’d had such broad experience and success in a variety of different roles. In his mind, that meant he was bringing optionality in the company. Over time this idea played out, as I moved through several different roles in the company. This was a turning point in my career, and I carried this important lesson learned into the roles that followed.

Optionality is essential for financial + mental health

In the Two Sides of FI show linked above, Eric and I talked about the merit of a fixed income allocation in your portfolio. That is, having sufficient assets that aren’t stock-based, such as bonds and cash. The latter are viewed by many (particularly younger) investors as unattractive, boring, or even “bad” ideas – even for those nearing retirement or who have already retired. While incorrect, their thoughts are understandable, since the only market many of them know is the past >10 years of a bull run. Cash (ugh, inflation!) and bonds look pretty boring compared to a booming stock portfolio.

Needless to say, as soon as the market started dropping, those comments fell off quickly. Why? Well, at least partly because those people are too busy freaking out about their net worth plummeting to comment on our videos. I like to think still others are acknowledging what we already know: along with a risk-appropriate asset allocation, having financial optionality is essential. This is particularly important for those who are already drawing down their assets, because they are no longer earning income from a job, and don’t want to run out of money. What do I mean by that?

Having an appropriate cash position means that you can fund your lifestyle without having to sell assets you don’t want to sell. Why wouldn’t you want to sell them? If the market is down, you’d have to sell more shares of stock or a mutual fund to generate the same cash vs. when it’s up. This is inefficient and effectively “locks in a loss” in a down market. Similarly, you’d rather refill those cash reserves by selling bonds, which would be expected to hold value better in a downturn vs. stock.

Having financial optionality is essential, because you don’t need to take actions you don’t want to take. You have choices because you’re prepared for contingencies. But wait – in a good year, won’t my portfolio return be lower than one 100% in stocks? Absolutely! But I don’t care, because I need to have appropriate options in place during a downturn, like now. I’m sleeping fine despite all this churn because I have optionality on my side.


There are a whole host of areas in which I feel optionality is incredibly valuable. I suspect with a little thought, anyone reading this could identify at least several ways in which they’ve benefitted from it. If optionality is not something you’ve deliberately thought about much to date, I’d recommend it. Leverage this superpower for yourself!

image credit: Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash