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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Zen, Investing, and the Maintenance Guy

What I like about Zen philosophy is that it has these wise sayings expressed in the simplest terms; they just make you think duh! and really change the way you look at things. For example, Zen philosophy tells you to be happy for things you don't have. Not feeling happy? Take a deep breath (deep breathing is really important in Zen philosophy) and tell yourself you can be happy because you don't have a toothache! Now you know why monks walk around smiling all the time.

Of course, your grandmother said the same thing but in a different way. She liked to remind you that there is always someone worse off than you. Somehow this didn't make you feel as good. I guess it's all in how it's put.

Another Zen saying I like has to do with the idea that people can search the world for something and yet it can be right under their nose. This has to do with peace and harmony, of course. Against my best judgment, I'm going to use the word I swore I'd avoid - Nirvana (a state of being, not the band). Now this is where Zen philosophy goes off the deep edge, in my opinion, and gets frustrating; in fact, it starts to negate the other sayings. As you become familiar with the philosophy, you come to understand that Nirvana is the ultimate goal. But the only way to achieve Nirvana is to try to not achieve it. I know. I'm going to stop right there.

Let's go in a different direction. Zen philosophy also says that, when you are ready for a teacher, the teacher will appear. I like this one. It makes you want to get into a flowing robe, make some exotic tea, and burn some incense. Since we are not always in school, it implies that teaching happens outside of school. This is good. This is a revelation for many people. In fact, Zen philosophy teaches us, if we get far enough into it, that teachers can be inanimate objects (the wind, rocks, trees, etc); but again I'm starting to get lost.

Let me present an example to hammer home this "teachers are everywhere" idea. Many, many years ago, in graduate housing at the University of Maryland, we had a problem with our dining room light. One of the benefits of graduate housing (not appreciated until I became a homeowner) was that when things went wrong, you called up maintenance. Sure enough, they sent up a guy who looked the part--ladder and all--although he really didn't need the ladder. We moved a couple of cinder blocks from a bookcase for him to stand on.

Anyways, he whipped out his screwdriver from his back pocket and started taking the receptacle down, as I observed. He chatted away about all the things he fixed in the last 24 hours, and thankfully he quickly spotted the problem - a loose wire - and proclaimed he would tighten it up and it would be good to go. I asked him if he didn't think it wise to turn off the electricity, and he scoffed at me. He assured me that he worked with electricity all the time and it was no problem.

I consider myself a fairly observant guy and noticed that he had two fingers missing at their joints on his left hand and a scar on his neck that would have done Frankenstein proud. After his job was completed, I asked him about these deformities (I dared not ask him while he was working!) and, sure enough, they were all the results of mishaps of one sort or another with electricity.

I learned a lot from that maintenance guy. I would guess that he taught a lot to a lot of people.

Everyday in the investment arena, I talk with people who continually make the same mistakes over and over. I see their scars in their portfolios. I notice and point out that failure to diversify is what hurt them, knowing that the message is only temporarily understood. I point out that they are continually selling at the bottom and buying near the top. I point them to teachers such as Malkiel, Ellis, Buffett, etc. that they can learn from. For some it is more basic and requires an introduction to "The Millionaire Next Door". In fact, I've even been known to mention "The Miracle of Mindfulness" by Thich Nhat Thahn.


  1. Some people just never learn from their mistakes! Although I would think losing a finger would be enough of a constant reminder for some.

  2. Some of my favorite sayings are:

    If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.

    The world is like a mirror you see? smile and your friends smile back.

    He who asks a question is a fool for a minute; he who does not remains a fool forever.

    Water and words... Easy to pour impossible to recover.

    Your Treasure House is in yourself, it contains all you need.

  3. Great thoughts, and agree with the Grouch, too. I'm trying to become more zen in my own life, and one thing I've also learned is that while we can adapt our environments to ourselves, sometimes it's better to adapt ourselves to our environment. There is always something to take joy from, and there is always something to learn from. We can be thankful for having the gift of life.