Why focusing too much on the future and too little on the present can be dangerous.
In this episode you’ll learn:
- What you can learn from ancient writings.
- What is the extended disorder family.
- How to play not to lose in investing.
- How to deal with uncertainty
- What is the law of mutability.
- How do we balance preparing and saving for the future with living in the present
Winning By Not Losing
One reason Twitter and Facebook are fascinating is the juxtaposition of completely unrelated content that flows by on one’s stream or news feed.
A friend’s vacation photos, followed by another friend’s political rants, followed by a link to a cat video, followed by a sponsored ad for a product that one searched for online earlier that day (thanks to the magic of privacy exploiting techniques used by websites known as cookies).
There is a form of literature that invokes this same random spontaneity by placing unrelated topics one after the other.
Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks with their jumble of left-handed mirror writing, sketches and diagrams are a great example.
Essays In Idleness
Another favorite of mine is Essays In Idleness by Yoshida Kenko, a Japanese Buddhist monk who lived in the late 13th and early 14th centuries in Kyoto, Japan.
“What strange folly, to beguile the tedious hours like this all day before my ink stone, jotting down at random the idle thoughts that cross my mind,” he writes as a prelude.
Later he insists, “these pages deserve to be torn up and discarded, after all, and are not something others will ever see. “
Fortunately for us the pages survived and they are packed with wisdom.
Essays In Idleness is filled with vignettes, aphorisms and advice on love, leadership, personal habits, food, gardening, etiquette, aesthetics, medicine and finance.
There is much I disagree with such as his views on women and the aged.
But his advice on financial matters and getting our priorities straight is as sound today as it was 700 years ago.
Here is a sampling.
How To Win
Kenko once asked a skilled player of sugoroku, a board game similar to backgammon, for hints on how to play better.
“`Don’t play to win,’ he said. `Play not to lose. Consider what moves would make you lose most quickly and avoid them. Choose a method that will make you lose after your opponent, even if only by a single square.’ This lesson from one who knows his art equally applies to the arts of governing both self and nation.”
In investing, we win by not losing by minimizing investment fees and taxes through limiting our trading and using low cost ETFs and index funds.
On Dealing With Unpredictability
Kenko also knew the folly of trying to predict the future.
“The progress of each passing day is quite unlike your anticipation of it. And the same goes for a year and for a life. Yet if you assume that everything you will anticipate will go awry, you find that in fact some things don’t, which makes it all the more difficult to plan. The only certain truth to learn is all is uncertain.”
Kenko’s solution to our inability to anticipate what will happen is to build a margin of safety, a buffer to protect us from the unexpected.
“Maintain a clear space on either side and nothing will obstruct you; keep open before and behind you, and you will be unimpeded. If you let yourself be hemmed in, you can be squeezed to the breaking point. Without care and flexibility in your dealings with the world, you will find yourself in conflict and be damaged.”
Emergency savings and insurance are ways to keep a clear space so we are not obstructed.
The Law of Mutability
More than anything, Kenko reiterates we need to understand what he calls the law of mutability. How things are constantly changing, particularly humans as we slowly progress towards old age and death.
Kenko relates the tale of a merchant who sold an ox. The buyer promised to come in the morning to pay and retrieve his purchase. Unfortunately, the ox died during the night.
A bystander remarked, “The owner did indeed loose on the transaction, but he profited greatly in another way. Let me tell you why. Living creatures have no knowledge of the nearness of death. Such was the ox, and such too are we humans.”
“As it happened, the ox died that night; as it happened, the owner lived on. One day’s life is more precious than a fortune’s worth of money, while an ox’s worth weighs no more than a goose feather. One cannot say that a man who gains a fortune while losing a coin or two has made a loss.”
The bystander goes on, “Well then if people hate death they should love life. Should we not relish each day the joy of survival? Fools forget this — they go striving after other enjoyments, cease to appreciate the fortune they have and risk all to lay their hands on fresh wealth. Their desires are never sated.”
“There is a deep contradiction in failing to enjoy life and yet fearing death when faced with it. It is because they have no fear of death that people fail to enjoy life—no, not that they don’t fear it, but rather forget its nearness.”
Seize the Instant
Live each day as if it is our last is a consistent theme in Kenko’s writing.
“Imagine someone comes to you and announces that you will die tomorrow. How will you spend your last day? What entertainment could you find? How would you busy yourself? And how is this day we are now living different then the final day.”
Given how fleeting life is, Kenko admonishes us “when it comes to the essentials, both in religious and in worldly life, you should not wait for the right moment in what you wish to achieve, nor dawdle over preparations. Your feet must never pause.”
“People know they will die, but death will surprise them while they believe it is not yet close. It is as if we gaze at the far-off ebb tide-flats while even now the sea is rising to flood the rocks we stand on.”