Reality is out of reach

There’s a Chinese proverb in which several blind men are summoned to court to answer the question, “What is an elephant?” As each man grabs a hold of one part of the elephant, the men in turn make their estimations:

“An elephant is a round pot.”

“An elephant is a thick tube.”

“An elephant is a large leaf.”

After some time the men begin arguing with one another about the nature of an elephant. Each of them is right, but only partially right. They only have access to one perspective of what is a very objective reality.

We can all agree that there is a thing called objective reality. In so far as our coaching practice is concerned, we have to acknowledge that we only see the portion of reality that we’re privy to. And that lot only represents a portion of the portion that our coachee/client/colleague is privy to. It’s a portion of a portion of reality.

The only remedy for this condition is curiosity. To stay curious in our coaching response keeps questions flowing, keeps options open, keeps the blind man running his hands down the elephant hide, searching for more information about the true form of the thing under examination.

Making Poetry and Politics

Right around the end of each school year I piece together a reading list for the summer, then I go to my school and public libraries and start clearing the shelves. COVID forced me to amass a summer reading list out of the books on my shelf at home. As a result, I managed to read several books that I have owned for months or decades. Some were better left on the shelf, but some have been a delight.

Even though schools and libraries are now open, I’m continuing the trend and recently picked up “The Buried Mirror” by Carlos Fuentes. Part history book, part Latin American polemic, I first read the book in its native Spanish (“El espejo enterrado”) in 1998. Some time later I bought the English version, put it on a shelf, and never looked at it again. Until now.

Fuentes opens the book with reflections on the relationship between Spain and the New World. Above all else, he characterizes the relationship as “a debate with ourselves.” In the process he evokes a W.B. Yeats quote:

And if out of our arguments with others we make politics, advised W.B. Yeats, out of our arguments with ourselves we make poetry.

Fuentes, p. 15

The original Yeats quotes is as follows:

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.

Let’s not let slip the opportunity to quarrel with ourselves. Let’s, in every occasion possible, make poetry.


My favorite tweet from the last few days:

We’ve turned the page on “Tuesday, Part 5,” and Joe Biden was officially projected to be the 46th President of the United States on Saturday, November 7. All the news networks showed footage of Biden/Harris supporters spilling into the streets. Jubilation and affirmation from the side that won, silence and disbelief from the side that lost. It has always been thus.

One thing that is distinctly different in the current scenario is how the Market reacted. In the days leading up to the election you can expect fits and starts. We mostly got starts with several +1% days for the S&P and or NASDAQ. Once Election Day came and went without a clear winner, we could have all expected the Market’s reaction: selling.

The Market abhors uncertainty. The Market more often than not reacts to an unwelcome situation more favorably than an uncertain one. So, the fact that the Market remained positive during the week of the post-election ballot counting is truly incredible. It happens that Election Day overlapped with 3rd quarter earnings season, so in a fit of uncharacteristic rationality, the Market actually did what it is supposed to do–move in relation to market-specific inputs rather than exogenous events such as elections or Twitter feuds.

Why me?

When friends learn of my interest in geology and my experience teaching outdoor ed summer courses, their first comment sounds something like, “I thought you were a Spanish teacher.” Within a minute or so, they acclimate to the fact that I have pet projects and I work at a school that nurtures those passions so long as they result in meaningful learning experiences for our students.

When they learn about my passion for investing, the acclimation period takes a little bit longer. That’s when the “J word” creeps in. Just. “But, you’re just a Spanish teacher.” “Aren’t you just a teacher?”

The world of investing has developed such a thick patina around it, that many assume that it requires as much training and deliberate practice as, say, a medical degree.

The consequence for me is meaningless; they assume I gamble on meme stocks and trends du jour. The consequence for themselves is quite a bit more severe; they assume that learning to invest is and will always be out of their reach.

What a costly assumption.

Investing may be the ONLY practice, be it institutional or retail, in which formal training is not only not required, but may actually harm your chances for success. I’m not allowed to litigate so much as a zoning violation in Georgia courts, and woe is the hapless acquaintance that allows me to remove their spleen from their torso because I watched a few YouTube videos.

But investing really and truly is an exercise that we can learn by doing. So long as we take a measured approach and reflect on the outcomes of our decisions, you and I can become as successful (if not more successful) than those that have received formal training and earned themselves the imprimatur of a CFA or RIA designation.

If for no other reason, efficient market hypothesis and modern portfolio theory. I rest my case.

However, even though investing truly is within the grasp of anyone willing to extend their hand, it does beg the question, “Why me?” “Why am I (you, your friend, your friend’s friend, etc) qualified to manage my own portfolio?”

I can only answer that question for myself. So, here goes.

Two phone calls

I finished my Masters in Spanish Literature from The University of Georgia in 1998. By early summer I had my first teaching assignment in a rural Virginia public school system near the Chesapeake Bay.

Shortly after signing the contract with the school district, I got two phone calls. The first was from my mom, calling to congratulate me and to tell me how proud she was of my hard work and of the person I was becoming. (I won the Mom lottery.)

The second call was from my grandfather.

At the time Earl (his nickname in the family was “The Earl of Curmudgeon”) was an 80-ish-year old hermit that was fired from his lobbying job in 1975 and used his severance to invest wholesale in the stock market. His two rules (1. It has to pay a dividend and 2. Sell it when it doubles) worked well for him over the course of 25 years. And although he had amassed a laudable retirement fund, he and my grandmother lived much as the Depression-aged generation tended to live—simply and only with complaints they weren’t inclined to do anything about.

Earl was a prickly sort, and I’m not sure that he knew my actual name. He only called me “#3,” as I was the third grandchild by birth order. The 1998 phone call that started my investing journey went as follows. This is almost a verbatim retelling:

Number Three, this is your grandfather. I hear you’ve managed to secure gainful employment and will soon begin receiving a paycheck. Before you hand any of that money over to the Barons (his term for fund managers), come up to Chevy Chase. You’re going to learn to invest.

We grandkids tended to do what Earl told us to do. So within a few weeks, I found myself sitting on my grandparents’ scratchy sofa in Maryland, learning to invest like an 80-year old man.

I reference my mom in a previous post. She, too, became an investor and as a result turned her life of narrowing possibilities into one of near limitless opportunity.

Mom and Grandpa became my primary interlocutors as I fumbled through my first years in the market. Fortunately, that time period included the dot-com bubble and the Great Financial Crisis. The lessons I’ve learned have served me well over the last decade or so.

If you’re going to ask “Why me?,” you should also ask the following questions:

  • Why Earl? (Because he did.)
  • Why my mom? (Because she did.)

Rather than asking “Why me?,” try this question on for size.

Why not me?