Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Interlude: "Behind the Scenes" Philosophy

Behind every investor is a person--a "real life" human being with experiences, emotions, desires, motivations. As we have all heard many times, the most successful investors are those who are able to match their investment style to their personality. So, as I blog on about investing, an occasional interlude taking us "behind the scenes" to see "what makes me tick" seems fitting.

For me, investing is a way to carve out a new phase in my life. Here in American society, people's lives have three basic stages: school, work and retirement. Through our schooling, we learn, largely by being spoonfed tremendous amounts of information, with the outcome being letter grades on a report card, positioning us for venturing out into the working world. In our work, the measuring stick for success quickly changes from "who's smartest?" to "who's richest?" A "good" job is synonymous with a high salary, and those who are able to earn enough in their careers to grow their bank accounts often reach retirement a little sooner.

Now, if you take a moment to think about it, "retirement" is an odd concept. What are we retiring from? Well, work, of course. But, doesn't that give "work" an unduly negative meaning? After all, no one would ever choose to retire from work unless retirement were somehow better than working, right? Also, what in the world are all of the so-called "retirees" trying to achieve. In school it is grades, and while working it is money. But, in retirement, what is it? Golf? Or lying on the beach? (Not that I have anything against golfers or beachgoers) It's just that I really do not like the word "retirement," since it carries images of lounging around and lazily watching the world go by. Oh, and lest I forget to mention it, the term "active retirement" is really no better, being more of an inappropriate oxymoron than anything else.

Last night, while reading a storybook with my younger son, I happened to run across a sketch of Siddhartra's life. As history tells us, Siddhartra, a prince, had a very comfortable upbringing (stage one), before going out into the world and experiencing the harshness, pain and suffering of life (stage two), and later reaching Enlightenment and becoming the Buddha (stage three). Interesting, I thought as we read, since Siddhartra's transformation into the Buddha parallels the standard life path (school-work-retirement) of American society--even though Eastern philosophy and Western consumerism couldn't be more dissimilar.

Being neither very religious nor very spiritual, I find that "enlightenment" doesn't really work for me. So, as we read, I told my son that I prefer the term "wisdom," i.e., I would just say that Siddhartra became a wise man. Later, when I told my wife about the story (which she already knew), she mentioned for comparison's sake the Shinto belief that each person's "purpose" in this world is to find his own "essence," an endeavor that really runs along the continuum from birth all the way through death, without the artificial "stages" along the way. Hmm, maybe kind of like what the French call raison d'etre?

Please allow me to mention one more view: I like to think that I will live to be 100 years old, a century being a nice round number to work with. Back to the three stages of life, if we think in terms of decades, we end up with a convenient Fibonacci 2-3-5 sequence:

20 years of schooling + 30 years of work + 50 years of . . .

. . . doing the next thing.

Investing is that "next thing" for me.


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