“Good morning, Sir,” I called out to a man walking just ahead of me during my morning walk yesterday. Like me, he was a regular at the walking track and we often crossed each other exchanging smiles and wishes. I had heard good things about him from others, and so I thought of engaging him in an interaction.
“How are you doing today?” I asked him.
“Great, as always!” he replied with a smile of a ten-year old. He, by the way, looked ninety years of age but healthy enough to be walking at quick pace.
“I have been observing you for the past many days,” I said, “And you always wear a nice smile on your face and look so healthy. It seems you are living a great life.”
“Yeah, it’s always been wonderful,” he replied, “No regrets at all.”
“That’s wonderful!” I said, “But you’ve been lucky,” I murmured, which he could hear, “Else life is so full of adversities and regrets.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” he replied. “It’s adversity all the way, but that’s what life is supposed to be, isn’t it?”
“Maybe, but then that’s not a life you seem to have lived, right?” I asked. “I can see that you are happy and healthy at ninety years of age, and I know that you are financially free. In other words, you seem to have everything that is missing for most of us going through mid-life.”
“Well, you may be right here, but I have had my own share of adversities. But that’s not the point here. The point is how do you cope up with such situations and not allow them to weigh you down.”
“That’s easier said than done, Sir,” I replied.
“I understand that, but here I am reminded of what I read in this brilliant book from Viktor Frankl…”
“You mean Man’s Search for Meaning?” I interrupted.
“Yes, the same book, where Frankl chronicles his experiences at a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. So, Frankl wrote something like when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“Again, easier said than done,” I replied. “Frankl wasn’t living in today’s world where situations change so frequently. How do you change yourself in such quickly changing times?”
“It’s all about the attitude, son,” he replied. “The world may not be changing so fast for Frankl, but he survived a near-death situation at the camp. And what helped him, as he wrote in his memoir, was the constant belief that everything can be taken from a man but one thing, and that is the choice of one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“That’s a nice thought, Sir,” I said, “But again easier said than done.”
“Who said life is easy?” he replied. “But the only thing in your hand, as you go through difficult times, is to recognize that you cannot control, influence, or affect in any way the adversity you may be going through…but you still have the power to choose your attitude in such times. You may engage in self-pity or feel victimized, but that’s not going to turn the adversity on its head. In fact, you will become even more miserable. But the only way you can come out of such situations and remain sane and happy is by having the attitude that however bad it is in anyway, it’s always your fault and you just fix it as best you can.”
“That’s an eye-opener of a thought,” I replied. “I can so well relate it to how I invest my money in the stock market.”
“So, you are an investor?” he asked.
“Yes, and I also teach people how to do it sensibly.”
“That’s wonderful! Teaching is such a beautiful profession.”
“True, I have come to realize that,” I said. “And what you just talked about in terms of not regretting the past but choosing how we must deal in the present is actually one big emotion tussle most of us investors deal with often.”
“How?” he asked. “Can you explain please?”
“Yeah, so we will often not sell our bad stocks because we cannot bear the pain of regret associated with a bad decision we may have made. And we will often sell our good stocks too soon, again because we cannot bear the regret of a possible loss of money we have already earned from that stock.”
“It seems investing is just an extension of how we live our lives,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
“You are right,” I replied. “It’s all connected. And it doesn’t end there. Because we as investors often want to avoid regrets. So instead of knowing how to choose well, most of us commit this huge sin called envy. Just to avoid the future regret of not becoming richer fast like others around us, we start making thoughtless decisions. We start copying others without much thought, because we are more driven by what others are doing than by what is right for us.”
“Oh envy!” he exclaimed, “It’s so dreadful! I have seen so many men and women around me fall for this sucker of a sin. But I am sure what differentiates good investors from others is their ability to not let envy drive their decision making, and also rebound quickly from failures and disappointments, without much grief. After all, what’s important in life is not what happens to you but how you react to what happens to you.”
“You are right,” I said. “But isn’t grieving over bad situations a basic human nature, whether it’s life or stock market investing?”
“Of course, our brains are wired that way,” he said. “And so, when life knocks you over, and it often does so, you may allow yourself a modest amount of grieving. But then, you must gather yourself, get up, dust yourself off your regrets, align yourself with reality, put yourself back in the saddle of the horse called life, and get going with it.”
“I must frame what you just spoke,” I said. “These are words worth their weight in gold!”
“Oh, I am just speaking from experience I’ve had in my long life.”
“A happy, beautiful life all through the way, right?”
“Well, almost…except that I was divorced and broke by the time I was 31 years of age, and had also seen my nine-year old son die of cancer. And then later, I faced a horrific operation that left me blind in one eye.”
“Oh God! I am sorry I never knew that!”
“You shouldn’t be sorry for it. I myself have not spent much time regretting my past, once I have taken lesson from it. I don’t have any feeling of terrible regret.”
I was still numbed by the revelation this gentleman had made, and so he continued.
“You see, life is a whole series of opportunity costs. You lose other alternatives when you choose one alternative. So, you must choose the best alternative, and regretting what has happened in the past or what may happen in the future isn’t the choice worth making.
“Life will have terrible blows in it … horrible blows, unfair blows. And some people recover and others don’t. And there I think the attitude of Epictetus is the best. He said that every missed chance in life was an opportunity to behave well, every missed chance in life was an opportunity to learn something, and that your duty was not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion. That is a very good idea.”
“That’s indeed a very good idea,” I said as I hugged this gentleman for the guide to happy life he provided me on a beautiful Monday morning.
I felt the earth move under my feet. “Is this an earthquake?” I asked him.
But before he could reply, I heard my wife’s voice, “Get up Vishal. I understand that you got very tired after your workshop yesterday, but it’s already 10 o’clock, and we need to go to the market to buy groceries.
“Oh, I just saw a beautiful dream, where I met an elderly gentleman who gave me a mantra to living happily.”
“But wait!” I exclaimed. “I think the guy I met in my dream resembled someone I have known for many years. Who could be that?”
“Oh, knowing the kind of dreams you see, it must be Warren Buffett,” she replied, “Or Charlie Munger.”
“Charlie … yes, yes … he was Charlie Munger!” I exclaimed with a smile on my face, as I got off my bed feeling no tiredness despite the previous full-day of standing and talking with my bad throat and a very bad back.
It was a beautiful dream after all, with the potential to completely change how I looked at life, adversities, regrets, and investing.
P.S. While my dream was fictional, what that elderly gentlemen, I mean Charlie Munger, talked about his life and experiences is reality. As you can read in his biography, Damn Right: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger, Charlie was indeed broke and divorced by 31 years of age, was living in dreadful conditions, and then learned that his son, Teddy, had leukemia. Rick Guerin, Charlie’s friend, said Munger would go into the hospital, hold his young son, and then walk the streets of Pasadena crying. One year after the diagnosis, in 1955, Teddy Munger died. And if that was not all, later in life, Charlie faced a horrific operation that left him blind in one eye.
But most of us don’t know about this “once upon a time” aspect of Charlie’s story. All we know is that he “happily lived ever after.”
- Damn Right!: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger ~ Janet Lowe
- Man’s Search for Meaning ~ Victor Frankl
- How Does Charlie Munger Recommend Dealing with Adversity?
- If Charlie Munger Didn’t Quit When He Was Divorced, Broke, and Burying His 9 Year Old Son, You Have No Excuse
- Munger’s USC Law School Commencement Speech