You seem to be stressed out today?" asked my Yoga teacher, an elderly gentleman in his seventies.
"Oh, not really!" I said.
"No, you look a bit stressed. Are you unwell?"
"Not at all. Just feeling a bit confused."
"May I help?"
"Knowing you, I think you can."
"You see, I have been a stock market investor for many years now, and now also don the role of a teacher trying to help people make saner and better investment decisions. But I am often faced with a dissonance."
"And what's that?"
"Well, while I teach people to behave sensibly with their money, be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful, I personally realize how difficult it is to practice such sensibility when everyone else around you is walking in another direction. I mean, it's so difficult to move against the crowd and do the inverse even when your mind says that's the right thing to do."
"Great that you realize that, Vishal. I mean most teachers believe that what they teach, if practiced with complete dedication by his or her students, will lead them to success. So every teaching is looked by the teacher and students as a gospel truth."
"True. Even I think my teachings as a gospel truth while I am teaching, only to realize in the quiet that the reality might not be so. Every human behaves differently in different situations, especially when the situations change so drastically and so soon as in the stock market. So what I am teaching about good behaviour and good investing habits may not help most people because they may not be able to practice them when things get really funny out there, which they often do in the stock market."
"Very true, Vishal. And thus I wish to leave you today with three iron rules I have practiced in my life and that have helped me stay happy and make better decisions, including my investment decisions."
"And what are those iron rules?"
"Peace, detachment, acceptance."
"Oh, that sounds spiritual."
"Yes, it does. But my experience suggests that most good decisions in life are marked by peace, detachment and acceptance. And I am speaking from more than thirty years of experience."
"I think I am getting what you are saying. My friend and fellow investor Shyam Sekhar also told me this when I met him in Chennai sometime back. He said that the biggest cause of all our problems as investors is that we are constantly looking, always acting. And he also told me that for most great investors, the masterly inaction they practiced had to do a lot with other activities that they did to keep themselves busy. It's not inaction. It's action outside of investing. There is so much action outside of investing - reading, understanding, and thinking. The intellectual pursuits basically dominated their work. That's why investing could be left only when it was required. They had to do it only when it was needed. That's detachment, right?"
"Yes, in one way. So what you just said is that if you want to make better investing decisions, it pays to make fewer decisions and rather spend more time not making decisions. That is detachment."
"Yes, you simplified it further. Thanks!"
"You see Vishal, investing in the stock market is certainly risky. We know that truth, although sometimes we like to deny it and especially when we are teaching others. I am sure most investors like to believe they can enjoy stock market gains without losses. And that denial is what causes them stress and conflict. They feel disappointed when the harsh reality doesn't align with their rosy expectations, and what they may have learned from teachers like you."
"I completely agree with that, Sir."
"And then such investors feel helpless, which further magnifies their disappointment. After all, most of what happens in the stock market is outside of our control. We can't stop the market from falling and crashing, nor can we call up companies or the stock market regulator or the central bank when our stocks tumble."
"Ha ha, that's right."
"So I am sure, through my experiences in life, that investing peace comes from being at peace with the risk, accepting our lack of control and letting go of the outcome, whatever it may be."
"Despite that the risk is real?"
"Yes, despite that. Many people will work tremendously hard to earn great returns from the stock market only to see them disappear into the thin air. And that's okay. Investors should learn to relax. Because making and losing money is just the nature of investing, and often outside your control. So just do your work well, and then let it go.
"So what you are saying is exactly what Alfred Tennyson said that when you meet triumph or disaster, treat these imposters alike."
"Exactly! Tennyson described detachment with success or failure in those great words. And I think this should be the mantra for investors too. Investors must focus solely on the amount they invest each month and where they invest (in their control) rather than the performance of those investments (outside their control)."
"Sadly, most investors are only focused on returns that are outside their control, and not on doing their work of selecting good investments intelligently and with complete honesty, something within their control."
"Right, Vishal. And that is why people end up with the compulsion of checking their stock portfolios again and again as if they control what they see in those portfolios."
"I can vouch for that because I was once in that situation myself, that is, keeping track of my stock prices daily as if I controlled them. So Monday, when the stock prices started moving, was the best day of the week for me, and Friday, when the stock prices stopped moving, was the worst!"
"That is true for most investors, Vishal. But I have personally followed a very simple plan in my investment life, and it has worked wonders."
"And what's that?"
"It's so simple that you may laugh at me."
"No no, please share. I believe in simple plans."
"So, first, try to earn and save more. Minimize your expenses without compromising your life or that of your family. Second, identify investments with risk levels you can tolerate. Like if you cannot withstand losing a bit of your money, please stay away from stocks. But if you are fine with the risk of losing some money in the short run in return of good wealth creation in the long run, choose good stocks and/or good mutual funds. Third, once you have chosen good investments, just get going with other more important things in life like family, work, and self-development… and let go of the outcome of your investments. Accept that whatever happens, happens."
"Wow, that's a great process Sir. How I wish every investor can follow that."
"Wait Vishal, I am not yet done. The fourth thing that I have done that has brought me a great amount of sanity is that I have never discussed my investments with anyone other than my wife, or mentor or a trusted fellow investor. Thank God we did not have social media in our days so we were not busy in 'social media investing' and that helped."
"You have raised a very valid point, Sir. When you are talking about your investments publicly like on social media or stock forums, people would make a hero or zero out of you solely based on what your stock prices do. And more often, they would lead you to panic or over-excitement depending on how they are feeling that day."
"True Vishal. And you should do neither, panic or get over-excited just because your stock prices are moving in a given direction. It's so important to embrace detachment from the outcome. That is the only way you can be at peace, and make better, saner investment decisions… saner investment decisions…. saner investment decisions."
I heard an echo here, and then a tap on my head.
"Wake up Vishal!" I heard my wife. "It's already 8 AM, and you missed your Yoga class."
"Oh!" I said rubbing my eyes. "But I already did a wonderful Yoga session in my dream, so I am happy I missed my regular class today. You know what, today the class was different and I learnt about practicing peace, detachment and acceptance in my life."
"Wait till you hear this," said my wife. "Your son has broken the watch you gifted me recently."
"Peace… detachment… acceptance!" I told my wife with a smile. "It was just a watch."