In investing (and life), pretty much every decision you make has a nuanced outcome. That is to say, there is very little black or white when it comes to what resides on the other side of each of your decisions. More specifically, each decision made usually produces an outcome that sits somewhere on the shaded palette of grey.
Passive investing, buy and hold, isn’t the holy grail. It has costs, like bigger drawdowns, to give you the benefit you’d hope for in the long run. Active investing isn’t without cost either. Looking different than the crowd or market can have you feeling out of sorts and uncertain for periods of time for longer than you might feel comfortable. Neither decision offers a guarantee of success either. Universally, we play the odds of life with each of our decisions.
In all of it — a decision or non-decision — there’s bound to be pain involved. In either case, it’s important to remember that sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. In both cases, the race is long and only with yourself.
If you’re trying to change your behavior to become a better investor, concentrate on making the new behaviors habits.
I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to predict one’s behavior today or tomorrow is looking at what you did yesterday. Keep at it until you notice a change.
— Jim O’Shaughnessy (@jposhaughnessy) October 2, 2018
In my personal life, I’ve been reviewing the habits I’ve been carrying for the last 15 years. As a result, the habits I’ve been exercising had me carrying an extra 20 pounds. I have prided myself on being an athlete my entire young adult life. I’m not a young adult anymore, nor am I an athlete. I’m forty-four now.
Somehow in the last 15 years, I’ve become a desk jockey. I’ve made everything more important than my health; my work, my family, my friends, my sense of duty to others. I’ve invested my time in everything else but myself. Recently, I’d been waking up tired more often. I’d also been tired of looking in the mirror and not feeling so great about what I see at 44. I’ve been a passive investor in myself, making active, somewhat mindless decisions. So, thirty-five days ago, I decided to make an active decision about my health. I decided that I wanted to make a change. I decided to more actively manage the portfolio of foods I ingest and I started by removing sugar and alcohol from my diet.
I’m happy to report that the outcome has been pretty life changing thus far, in a good way. I’m more clear than ever. I’m more focused and energized than ever. My newly increased ability to concentrate has my work output through the roof. I’m also down 7 pounds.
My new decision hasn’t been without cost. The first week was hard. It was uncomfortable. My usual go-to’s for a stressful day or to relax were no longer valid solutions. I had headaches — dull, aching headaches for the first three days. I’ve also been around people drinking and felt the happy hour pressure to join the crowd. I’ve always prided myself in having the fortitude to stick to my convictions when I believe I’m right, but I can tell you even in that conviction it can get lonely. It’s not easy to go against the crowd in life or the markets. It’s not easy to be a contrarian to yourself.
It’s also not easy to push yourself to do more or be better. It takes an investment in willpower, especially when so much of what you’ve come to count on for most of your adult life is no longer applicable. It takes time, effort, and diligence to rewire yourself to do things differently, but it is possible because your brain is hardwired for changeability.
Synaptic plasticity, a property the brain exhibits, is something we’ve known about since 1966. It’s the ability of the brain’s synapses to strengthen or weaken over time, in response to increases or decreases in their activity. In other words, your brain in large part is shaped, formed, and reinforced by the river of reactions you have and choices you make. Some are mindful decisions, some are not. Either way, this changeability exists for the entire life of your living brain. Yet, while we know that our synapses are malleable and manageable, there are of, course, restraints on your ability to simply rewire your paths with your current hardwired state; namely you.
Making changes to your brain’s synaptic pathways takes awareness and focus. It takes maintenance. It takes diligence, intention, and purpose – as any lasting building project would. Your brain’s ability to shake the status quo, probably more often than not, is limited by your sense of satisfied stasis. Your stasis is nurtured by you, intentionally or not. Change is hard because it’s not comfortable. Another limitation is, of course, nature. The chemicals ping-ponging around in your brain are conducting a symphony of cause and effect reactions in your daily life. When someone cuts you off on the freeway, it’s easy to get mad. When someone you care about hurts your feelings — it’s easy to say, “whatever, I don’t care…”, even though you do.
I am here to openly admit that after a tough day, I looked forward to a glass of wine or two, or even three, at dinner “to unwind”. I also have a tendency to attack ice cream when I’m stressed. It works for the moment. The next day? Not so much. Even though I’ve satiated whatever it was that I was feeling before I ate that ice cream or had that wine to reach my stasis, the cost of the next day, standing on the scale or feeling a little dull, I can tell you now with certainty, far outweighed the hour or two of comfort I got from making my initial decision. In its effort to optimize things, your brain seeks the path of least resistance. After a while, your cause and effect mindlessness become the habits of the brain. If you feel stressed and eat sugar or drink alcohol, your brain and your mind tend to seek that out as the defacto solution. My new stasis involves tackling my Peloton for 30 minutes or jogging 3 miles with my trainer on the Nike Run App.
Understanding that input equals output, I realize, now, that not consciously participating in affecting my input/output machine has equated to minimum effort. Should I expect to get better results, when minimum input equals minimum output? I can tell you now, the answer is a very clear no. So, better decisions and outcomes are now going to be a much more active pursuit in my life.
In the following two to three weeks, I’m going to share more about some processes that have helped me these last 30 days and kept me sane during some really tough times over the last 10 years.
I would challenge you to take a look at your processes too, whether you’re an investor or an adviser. Maybe you’ll benefit from the same changes I’m making. There’s only one way to find out what’s on the other side — move forward. And, as Socrates once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
What I’m currently consuming:
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