The Sketchbook of Wisdom: Did you get your copy?
This is in continuation of the previous post on my single biggest advice to a 26-year-old investment analyst on what she should be doing to do well in her career as an analyst and an investor.
My advice to her was this – Play games that you can win.
After reading the post, she came back with a follow-up question – But how do I know which games to play where I can win?
This was another important question. And since I knew this would come, I was better prepared this time.
But again, I made it easy for myself by directing her to this beautiful, thought-provoking lecture from the British philosopher and writer Alan Watts who told the audience this (emphasis is mine) –
I always ask students the question, what would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?
Students say, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers, but as everybody knows, you can’t earn any money that way. When we finally get down to something which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him: you do that and forget the money. Because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing, which is stupid.
Better to have a short life full of what you like doing, than a long life, spent in a miserable way. After all if you really like what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is, you can eventually become a master of it. The only way to become a master of something is to be really with it. And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is…
Therefore, it’s so important to consider this question: What do I desire?”
When I had come across Watts’s lecture a few years back, it was like a jolt.
I find Watts’s question – What would you like to do if money were no object? – a powerful mental model while deciding on things I would want to spend my time on, and the people I would want to spend my time with.
This is certainly not an easy question to answer, because “what I like?” is not an easy question to answer, especially in the early part of our careers. There are too many things that excite us, and many other things that catch our attention. Among all the games we think we can play and win, it becomes a task to find out which games to even start playing.
My understanding that a way to get past this question is to tinker a lot early in your career. Do a few things that excite you, maybe 2 or 3, and then gradually you will gravitate towards the number one out of those 2 or 3.
Another element that can help you identify which games to play that you can win is luck. Like it happened with me. I came to the stock market 20 years back completely accidentally. Into my MBA, I was interested in the foreign exchange market and spent a lot of time devouring books and other materials to learn about the same in my college library.
But the only job that came my way then was equity research. I took it reluctantly, but as time progressed, that is what I started loving, and thought I could get better at. Things happened, I evolved, and gradually gravitated towards teaching about value investing and behavioural finance.
In hindsight, I realize our careers are like rivers. If we can just flow with the flow, while maintaining our characters, like a river does, we will find our way to the oceans that await us.
Anyways, another reason Watts’s question is difficult to answer is because money is a powerful driver in the careers we pursue, especially in the stock market. But what I understand of Watts’s idea is that it should not become the summum bonum or the highest purpose for the games we want to play in our lives.
Like he said near the end of his lecture –
…if you really like what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is, you can eventually become a master of it. The only way to become a master of something is to be really with it. And then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is…
Even Warren Buffett, who wanted to become a millionaire by the time he reached thirty, wrote in his 1989 shareholder letter, “We enjoy the process far more than the proceeds.”
Now, one may cast aspersions on this quote of Warren saying that it’s easy for him to consider money (proceeds) less important than his work (process) after becoming wealthy. But if that was really the case, he would not have bothered to tap dance to work daily, even at a ripe age of 92.
One of the most important secrets of Warren’s life and of so many other successful investors and other such people is that they found their ‘games’ early – one they knew they could win at – irrespective of the money those games paid, and they kept playing those games joyfully for the rest of their lives.
So, sticking to careers in the stock market, if value investing is the game you desire to play, play it. If money management is what you want to pursue, pursue it. If investment banking excites you, so be it. If stock trading, try it. And if you are one who is still unsure about which game to even start playing, just get into any game you like and are reasonably good at, and then tinker around. Keep learning, keep exploring, and you should find that one game that would become the only that you would like to be in.
I remember this beautiful poem composed by Harivansh Rai Bachchan, titled ‘Madhushala’ (tavern or house of wine) and which I first read many years back. A passage from the poem reads thus –
मदिरालय जाने को घर से चलता है पीने वाला,
‘किस पथ से जाऊँ?’ असमंजस में है वह भोला भाला,
अलग-अलग पथ बतलाते सब पर मैं यह बतलाता हूँ –
‘राह पकड़ तू एक चला चल, पा जाएगा मधुशाला।’
The translation is as follows –
Seeking wine, the drinker leaves home for the tavern.
Perplexed, he asks, “Which path will take me there?”
People show him different oaths, but this is what I have to say –
“Pick a path and keep walking. You will find the tavern.”
What Mr. Bachchan advised was essentially the next step after you answer Watts’s “What do you desire?” question.
Pause, reflect deeply, take your time, and you should find an answer. And once you have found what you really desire, or the game you should play (the path you should take), start playing, get better at it over time, and you should win – not against others but along with others who are also playing that game.
That win, I believe, would be your madhushala.
In fact, over time, you will also realize, like I have, that your game itself will become your madhushala, your summum bonum, your highest purpose.
This may sound a bit philosophical, but you will realize its importance only while walking on your path and playing your game, that you can win.