Note: I gave this talk to a group of friends working in Silicon Valley during my recent trip to the US. Surprisingly, they liked what I spoke and wanted me to share the transcript, which I am doing today in a deeper and more refined form.
Thanks for inviting me to speak to you today. I have nothing intelligent to say. You guys score much higher than me on the IQ charts. And it’ll be for the benefit of us all that I speak less and that you keep your expectations from me low. In fact, very low.
So, given that I have been given the freedom to talk whatever I want to today, I have smartly avoided intelligent stuff because I completely believe in what Mark Twain said and I quote, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it.”
Instead of talking intelligent stuff around stock market, investing, human behaviour, etc., let me focus on a few important questions I have tried to seek answers to at various stages of my life, and that have helped me tremendously in choosing a path that, when I look back at, I am glad I chose.
The first question that has helped me in defining the course of my life so far is – Who am I?
While I understand that it’s better to devote time to experience the unfolding process of life than to engage in the complexity of understanding ourselves, this has been a question that has played a very important role in helping me define the kind of person I am, where I have come from, and where I would want to go.
When we do not stop to answer the question of “Who am I?” we keep on creating new identities for ourselves, which takes us farther away from our true self. In fact, what I have realized from my limited reading of the scriptures and through personal experiences is that most of our suffering in life is because we are never sure of our true identities.
Like, when it comes to investing, George J.W. Goodman – who used the pen name of Adam Smith – wrote this in his wonderful book The Money Game –
If you don’t know who you are, this [stock market] is an expensive place to find out.
Now, when we do not stop to realize our true selves, we often see life treating us unfairly. Of course, life is unfair. Children die, innocent people get killed in the war of arrogant fools, and we often don’t look as beautiful or are as rich as others. But when we try to answer the “Who am I?” question, we stop looking at life as being unfair just to us and instead accept unfairness as part of our identities. This is because we start seeing ourselves as an insignificant part of the bigger scheme of things that this Universe is. And that thought is truly liberating.
“Life,” Naval Ravikant says, “is a single player game. And so, the only person you must try to better, is the person you were yesterday. The “Who am I?” question has often led me to contemplate whether I am trying to be better than others, or just better than my own version of yesterday. Buffett calls this living with an Inner Scorecard.
The sooner we realize our true capabilities and the sooner we start playing the game with an Inner Scorecard and not based on the fancies of the world, the happier we would be and the better our decision making would become.
Consider this story that Dale Carnegie shared in his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living of Admiral Robert Peary who…
…startled and thrilled the world by reaching the North Pole with dog sleds in 1909 – a goal that brave men for centuries had suffered and starved and died to attain. Peary himself almost died from cold and starvation; and eight of his toes were frozen so hard they had to be cut off. He was so overwhelmed with disasters that he feared he would go insane. His superior naval officers in Washington were burned up because Peary was getting so much publicity and acclaim. So they accused him of collecting money for scientific expeditions and then “lying around and loafing in the Arctic”. And they probably believed it, because it is almost impossible not to believe what you want to believe. Their determination to humiliate and block Peary was so violent that only a direct order from President McKinley enabled Peary to continue his career in the Arctic.
So, if someone like Admiral Peary who achieved something amazing and praiseworthy can still be criticized, perhaps his story can give us comfort the next time we’re attacked by unjust criticism.
If, in your heart, you know who you really are and what you did was the right thing to do, unjust criticism should be considered and analyzed whether it truly has any merit, but not be given permission to belittle what you are trying to achieve.
Also remember what Carnegie wrote in his book…
…unjust criticism is often a disguised compliment. The more important a dog is, the more satisfaction people get in kicking him.
Thriving in the real world requires the mindset of knowing who you are and working with an Inner Scorecard. It’s not about a religious devotion, but a commitment to the work as opposed to the rewards.
Even if we do everything right, the reaction we receive from others might be that of annoyance, disrespect, and jealousy. If we’re not living with an Inner Scorecard, such a response will crush us.
I’ve seen it happen a hundred times to myself. I’ve done it myself too. And, yet, far too many of us only feel strong enough to pursue our dreams when we have a team of people cheering for us in the background. That’s living with an Outer Scorecard. The problem is obvious. You fall to pieces when people stop cheering you.
You see, the world is indifferent to what we often want. What can go wrong, will. And we will be left with misery and disappointment. But if we can find joy and satisfaction in our work, because we are living with an Inner Scorecard, we don’t need to look anywhere else for happiness but within.
Anyways, the second question that has helped me is – How much do I know?
The answer that has kept me grounded is that I know nothing. In his book, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, physicist Marcelo Gleiser writes this –
Consider, then, the sum total of our accumulated knowledge as constituting an island, which I call the Island of Knowledge. A vast ocean surrounds the Island of Knowledge, the unexplored ocean of the unknown, hiding countless tantalizing mysteries.
As the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance—the boundary between the known and unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination — whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyways — but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.
Dutch philosopher Spinoza suggested that wisdom is seeing things ‘sub specie aeternitatis,’ that is, ‘in view of eternity.’
What I understand of this is that a fundamental principle of wisdom is to have a long-term perspective, to see the big picture, to look beyond the immediate situation. That’s a great advice that has helped me in the pursuit of wisdom and as an investor – to have a long-term perspective, to see the big picture, and to look beyond the immediate situation.
But them, wisdom requires humility. I must start with the assumption that I know nothing, and then I must be teachable.
The third question that has helped me immensely is – How much time do I have to get things done?
In moments of life outside investing, I do things as if there is no tomorrow. That guides me in how much time I spend with my family and kids, how much I strive to learn, and what I want to do with Safal Niveshak.
Starting Safal Niveshak in 2011 was one such decision that I did not want to push to the long term, like when I am forty, but wanted to get on with as soon as I had the essentials in place. Like a desire to do something of my own and an understanding that I possessed some skills to be able to survive, a house of my own, zero liabilities, sufficient finances to take care of my family for two years, and most importantly, my priorities in the right order. And once I started Safal Niveshak, I shifted to the long-term gear.
That applies to how I look at investing too. For me, the most important variable in the compounding formula is “time,” and this is the only thing I realize I have under control.
In fact, one of the reasons I spend less and less time on investing and more on more on more important things in life, like time with family, reading, teaching, and traveling is that I understand that my time with high-quality businesses that I’m invested in will take care of the wealth that I would need to meet my financial goals, and without worrying about the speed at which it is going to come.
When you stop chasing a 26% CAGR, and you are fine with a 20% CAGR, a lot of your anguish disappears as an investor and you can sleep peacefully at night.
Time heals, and time also solves a lot of problems. Investing isn’t such a big deal anyways.
Let me now move to the fourth question that has helped me maintain sanity over the years. And it is – How much is enough? (Oh, what a beautiful question this is!)
After being rejected at a few leading management colleges in India in 2001, I joined a second-rung college in Mumbai (thanks to my “first MBA, then job, then marriage” promise I had made to my to-be wife).
Life was tough, as prior to Mumbai, I had never lived in a city with population more than a few lacs. Plus, to save myself from the guilt of having my father pay a lot of money for the stay in Mumbai and also for buying the books I needed, I stayed in a chawl in Mumbai (the room behind the chair you see below) that my father never came to know about (until recently).
I now realize how important that lesson of prioritizing the use of money was for me, and how important it has come to be for me to answer this question – “How much is enough?” And the answer is – “Not much.”
When I look around, I see people living their lives always running behind time. I see parents who, in the race to move ahead in their careers, have left their children’s childhood behind. I also find people who have ruined their relationships because they were chasing “something” in the future – because it wasn’t enough – while not having time to live and love people around them in the present.
Rushing is rarely worth it, my dear friend. Life is too short to be wasted in the fast lane and is better enjoyed at a leisurely pace. I can vouch for that, from the experience of running in the fast lane during the first eight years of my career and the slow lane during the next seven.
Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, has listed the trappings of a lot of wealth, stuff like “a golden roof, purple clothes, marble floors.” He has described the life of someone who has been blessed mightily by fate and fortune as having imposing statues, the most brilliant art, teams of servants.
“What does having all these things teach?” Seneca asks. “All you learn from this is how to desire more stuff.”
We are always on the hedonic treadmill, which simply means that as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. Isn’t that ironical?
When we have X, and we think it should be sufficient to live a happy life, we see others having 2x and think that is what would make us happier. And then we raise the bar to 3x, 4x, and 10x.
It goes without saying that this is a path to bankruptcy, personally if not financially. The more you stay on this treadmill, the more it breaks you down. And thus, it pays to get off while you still can.
You don’t have to quit your job to get off the hedonic treadmill. You do that only when you stop to ask this question – How much is enough?
Anyways, after these questions that have helped me define my life over these years, let me leave you with an important lesson that I wish I had learned earlier in life.
That lesson is that for all the long-term thinking and doing that we indulge in, it’s important to realize that life is exceedingly brief, especially because we don’t know how to use it.
Seneca wrote and I quote –
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.
So, while there’s a huge mass of time ahead of us, it passes much faster than we think. Our kids grow up fast. We get gray hairs before we’re done getting our bearings on life.
You see, it’s ironical that it often takes us a lifetime to learn to live in the moment.
We seem to think that we’ll live forever. We spend time and money as though we’ll always be here. We buy stuff as though it matters and is worth the debt and stress of attachment.
We put off “living happily ever after” for another year, because we assume we have another year. We don’t tell the ones we love how much we love them often enough because we assume there’s always tomorrow.
I have these words from Steve Jobs on a post-it pasted on my work desk – “Remember – You will be dead soon.”
Jobs said this not very far from here, at Stanford University –
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
There’s nothing better that a dumb guy like me could leave you super-intelligent guys with.
Thank you for listening!