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What’s Your Why?

A personal reflection.


I come from a family that does not speak the language of investing but has been quietly shaped by it nonetheless. As a young kid, I moved around—first from Virginia, then to Texas, and finally to the suburbs of Chicago, where I spent most of my youth. Throughout that time my parents used V.A. loans to purchase homes with less money down than their peers, riding the wave of ever-falling interest rates. Much of this was made possible by circumstance. Not everyone is so lucky.

My dad worked odd hours. In the summers he would take us to the horse racetrack near our home. At the age of six, I was handed the daily program and was asked what I thought of the next race. I looked at the numbers, I looked at the odds, and I made a judgment call. Sometimes it was the right one, and sometimes it was not. But I learned to listen to the numbers and let them guide my decision, and how to calibrate my judgment with the knowledge that my opinion mattered and that it had consequences.

I was still in school when the 2008 financial crisis hit. Very quickly I learned what a recession was, and was shocked when my peers hadn’t heard of it. I realized that it didn’t hit home for them the same way that it did for me. “Hitting home” is not a figure of speech—each week it seemed the letters from our 529 plan landed in our mailbox, informing us of some new disappointment that caused my college savings to winnow down even further. We didn’t talk about it.

Eventually, the markets came back. (They usually do.) I was able to attend college, though of course I had no idea what I wanted to do. But I had an economics teacher who told us colorful stories of his upbringing in Vietnam and how markets functioned even when societies broke down. He believed in us and got up every day motivated to explain how the world worked.

I had an English teacher, too, who taught us the power of communication. Words shape people, and people shape the world. If you can communicate with your words (and the words you don’t use), you can move mountains.

I got to college unsure whether I had chosen the right path. I didn’t know what investment management was—all I wanted to do was figure out why the stock market went up one day and down the next. Swirling around me were all these conversations about terms that I had never heard before, like EPS and PPS and P/E and P.E. I had someone tell me to just put $1,000 in an IRA and it would be the best thing that I ever did. It probably would have been, but I didn’t have $1,000. And I didn’t know why the Irish Republican Army needed my money.

I learned what these terms were, day by day. I had professors who broke it down, batting 19-year-olds’ egos aside like a cloud of gnats. They made it make sense because they asked us what we thought. Often I was wrong, publicly, in front of my peers. And they let me know. Accountability, after all, is the best teacher. And humility is the most important lesson.

It was equally informative to learn from professors whose disciplines are far different from my own. Most things that seem like they matter in the short term really don’t in the long run. A technology management professor taught us what long-term truly means. He showed us what it meant to stay focused and think ahead.

He also taught me the power of personalization. On day one, I walked into class with 54 other students. He called on us each by name.

I have benefited enormously from good advice, from people far smarter than me who nonetheless wanted to see me succeed. I liked sitting across the table from them, liked asking them questions. I admired their patience with a clueless upstart because they had faith in their vision and enjoyed articulating how they thought about the world. I tried to thank them. They always found a way to one-up me. They wanted to help me achieve my goals, and there was nothing I could do to repay them other than to get out there and do it.

It hasn’t always been easy. Along the way, many people have very graciously and professionally told me that I’m not smart enough. They were right, of course. Nobody is. We’re all trying our best anyway.

Even so, I am in the uncomfortable position of getting to tell other people what I think, when I’m much more dispositionally suited to absorbing the thoughts of everyone else around me. If you must know (and you must, because you made it to the bottom of this article) what I think, it’s this: There’s no secret trick, not really. Time, diversification, and compounding are the only friends you’ll ever make in investing.

But in the meantime the markets go up, the markets go down, and still I try to figure out why. Every time I sit down to evaluate an investment I remember the animal spirits of those first highs and first lows, and try to acknowledge both. I try to help other people avoid the painful piles of envelopes. Mostly I try to remind people that if we get knocked down, in 15 years it probably won’t matter anyway, as long as we keep getting back up again. In the meantime, what really matters is getting the right guidance and keeping your ego in check.

But that’s enough about me. Tell me about you.

The views expressed here are the author’s.

The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.

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