Once, there were two boatmen who set out to sea, aspiring to catch some fish so that they could make a living by selling them at the wholesale market.
But the world of fishing is characterized by rough seas and unforgiving waves. Every journey out to sea is a dangerous mission, but there is big business in finding and selling a quality catch. The boatmen understand these risks but are also driven by its potential rewards. Together, they invested some money to buy a boat. The boat is not huge, but with some luck and effort, they believed they'd still be able to get a decent catch.
As they were preparing to set off, an older and seasoned-looking gentleman observes them, standing on the edge of the jetty. He looks on with envy while at the same time admiring the perseverance and determination these two boatmen have. Applauding their effort, he tells them,
“It's remarkable that you are venturing on your own, it will not be easy - I've been there - but you have my full support. And when you come back, together, we’ll go to the largest fishery in town together and sell the entire bounty.”
He then reached into his pocket, took out a pendant and passed it to them.
“Here, take this as a token of my support, as well as a good luck gift from me!”
The boatmen, encouraged by this comrade-in-arms, accepted the token in good faith, thanked him for the kind words and went on their way.
A week later, they return with a broken mast and a severely damaged boat. There had been a storm at sea and they barely survived, losing more than half of the stores onboard, leaving only a small bucket of anchovies, barely enough to sell and make ends meet. The old gentleman, seeing the state that they were in, tried to encourage them:
“Don’t give up yet! This is all part of the process, I've gone through this before. It won’t be easy. But persevere, all the hard work will pay off and the rewards will eventually belong to you!”
Exhausted but unbeaten, the two decided to pool more of their money to make repairs on the boat and subsequently set off to sea again.
Shortly after they had set out to sea, the man at the jetty erected a signboard that read “Fresh fish for sale”.
“How fresh are your fish? And how much?” a passerby asked.
“Very fresh! I’ve got two guys out there reeling them in as we speak!”, he replied. The banter and conversations started to draw many curious onlookers. Seeing the heightened interest from the crowd, the he started to take customer orders and payments.
Four weeks later, when the two boatmen returned to the same jetty, they were surprised to find themselves greeted by a group of impatient and frustrated customers. “Good grief! You guys are so late!”.
"Late?", the boatmen asked, with a puzzled look on their faces.
"The guy who was here some weeks back said you two will be bringing us our catch. It's grossly overdue!”
"We were delayed because we had to find more storage space."
"Great, you can pass it to us now then."
"Hang on, aren't you going to pay us?"
"What are you talking about? We've paid for these already!"
The boatmen were confused as to why these people were trying to take their hard-earned catch without paying. They looked around for the man at the jetty but was nowhere to be found.
"Where's he?" they asked.
"No idea, but that's his pendant you are carrying. You should be able to find him!"
Big guy says to small guy, "you are my best friend".
Best friend or not, what else is small guy to say except to agree?
Three "epic fails" nearly wiped me clean this year. Here are five things I’d learned from these painful lessons:
1) Despair and greed (both) drive people to do irrational things.
Financial distress usually forces your hands. But “sudden-wealth syndrome” is also a real thing. It results in misplaced optimism, arrogance, and impairs one’s ability to make sound decisions, leading back to distress. It is true that ‘success is the greatest imposter’.
2) Learn to block out noise and opinions.
Investing is a very personal thing. Most people I meet so far tend to be prescriptive about what they invest in. They believe what they expound is the ‘holy grail’ and want to tell you what they know best. Sometimes, this is a manifestation of their experience and background. Other times this is just pure ego talking. I have learned that disagreeing doesn’t work well. 99% of the time, it just pays more to nod and agree.
I think sometimes people forget that:
What applies to you does not apply to me. Ipso facto, what works for you does not necessarily work for me.
At the end of the day, it’s your money. Use your own judgement to act and execute.
3) Diversification is not about putting money across 50 different stocks.
Diversification is not about beating the probability curve and putting capital to work across 50 different businesses. It is about setting aside an appropriate amount of cash, and with the deployed capital, to selectively invest only in the businesses which you understand.
The quality of an investment portfolio - whether it comprises tradable stocks or shareholdings in private businesses - should never be judged purely on their ‘rockstars’. Media has a tendency to over-hype on successes than failure (cos' who wants to be associated with a cynic?). Be realistic and accepting that a portfolio will inevitably have winners and losers. In my opinion, people like to judge their “stock-picking” capabilities on the winners, and undermine too much the missteps they make on their losers.
Collective performance of the portfolio is ultimately most important. Diversification is about risk management. And risk management is not about eliminating the bad eggs, it is about reducing the number of bad decisions, over time.
4) Make data-driven decisions.
Information is a privilege especially in a digital age today. Anyone providing you with privileged information is either trying to show off, or has something to gain from doing so. Constantly keeping this in mind will enable you to make more data-driven evaluations and eventually the right decisions.
The worst thing is ever do when it comes to investing is to blindly follow the lead of someone else.
5) Money is made in the sitting.
Humans are gamblers at heart. There is money to be made from gambling but we are also excited by its thrill - the thrill of knowing that loads of money can be made overnight in a few minutes. Somehow, we seek that thrill and the world today has also grown so used to instant gratification. The reality is that no one grows rich overnight. You are a winner if you had been able to leave the gambling table sober with a pocket of slightly more cash than when you came in.
Reality is: Stock markets exist to create avenues and platforms for companies to raise capital, not for investors to grow rich overnight.
And lastly, "you are only as free as your last trade":
I recall once a threatening trader abusing a terrified accountant with impunity, telling him things such as 'I am busying earning money to pay your salary' (insinuating that accounting didn't add to the bottom line of the firm). But no problem, the people you meet when riding high are also the those you meet when riding low, and I saw the fellow getting some (more subtle) abuse from the same accountant before he got fired, as he eventually ran out of luck. You are free - but only as free as your last trade.
- excerpt from the book "Skin in the Game", by Nassim Taleb