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So, I was reading Basho the other day – as you do…

He is, of course, the most famous of the four great haiku masters. Haiku were originally hokku, the opening stanzas of collaborative linked verse poems (haikai no renga, or renku), which gradually evolved into independent poems – in the late 19th century, Shiki renamed them haiku. They have 3 main characteristics:

– Their essence is ‘cutting’ (kiru) – the juxtaposition of two images, separated by a kireji, a Japanese form of verbal punctuation. [There’s no specific English equivalent – a caesura is functionally similar, while Western haiku writers usually employ a dash or ellipsis]. This two-part structure, with the kireji prompting a mental leap, ideally links and contrasts two distinct (but related) images or ideas.

– They consist of 17 on, arranged in three phrases of 5, 7, 5 on. On are (uniformly short) Japanese sounds, which Western writers interpret as syllables. Since English syllables are generally longer & more varied, 12 syllables are about equivalent. Despite this, many English haiku writers adhere to a traditional 5, 7, 5 syllable format, while using three lines to reflect the three phrases of a haiku.

– They include a kigo. Again, this doesn’t translate easily – Western haiku writers often focus on nature, but won’t necessarily include a specific seasonal reference. Ultimately, the intent is to use objective imagery (show, don’t tell) to illuminate a feeling, a scene, or even the human condition…

Following in the footsteps of Ezra Pound, the mad old fascist himself, I decided to tackle some haiku – in English obviously, but otherwise in (fairly) traditional format. And just to complicate matters, I also chose to focus on investing as an underlying theme – arguably, just another reflection on the human condition:

Fear has my number –
How can I let you go now
Old and dying friend

Each day I shuck more
Tasting the briny sweetness –
Where’s that pearly gleam?

Ship takes on water
The best sailor takes the wheel –
The sea still swallows

I’ll resist commenting on, defending, or even explaining each haiku. But if you ponder them a while…they just might reveal a valuable investing insight, or two. Though beauty (& meaning) is obviously very much in the eye of the beholder! I’ll comment on the process though:

– I stuck with the 17 syllable format quite consistently, and I’m generally pleased with the juxtaposition of images & ideas. But striving to avoid repetition, while also honouring the true spirit of haiku, was a constant challenge.

– It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I’m pleased I didn’t corrupt these haiku with specific investing terms. [‘Diversification’ has far too many syllables anyway]. And I’m surprised I employed as many images from nature as I did. All in all, these haiku mostly seem to have ended up being about patience, and fear & greed.

– Who knew something so simple could prove so difficult? [Or is it just me..?!] To distil meaning in such a compact medium is a strange & mentally exhausting combination of action…and inaction. No wonder haiku go hand-in-hand with meditation – sometimes the harder you try, the less you achieve.

– But maybe the inverse is also true, that something so simple might actually yield so much more. I was surprised to discover additional images/ideas in certain haiku, which I hadn’t considered originally. Haiku are imagistic – to feel or picture them, might be a far better way to access meaning or understanding.

In the end, you can learn all the investment theory you need in a single day, but the most important investing lessons take years, or even a lifetime, to learn. So please, take your time here. As the translator RH Blyth observed, a haiku is ‘an open door which looks shut’ – so maybe there’s one which somehow begins to resonate with you. Write it out, pin it on the wall, tease it out, let it nag you…

A chorus of hate –
But I prefer the embrace
Of the neglected

Days spent just gazing
Clouds meander cross the sky –
A face winks at me

I hear what they say
I watch all the deeds they do –
My eyes are opened

More generally, you need to eschew the comfortable & the every-day in your life – instead, strive to embrace the strange, the challenging, even the downright incomprehensible. Not unlike weight-lifting, self-imposed mental pain stretches & builds that most important of muscles – the brain. Everything I shirk, everything I find difficult, everything I don’t understand, they are the tasks & challenges I know I learn from most.

And they invariably offer a higher degree of self-awareness & understanding, often about what you (think you) already know. Perhaps most of all, they teach humility – usually, trying something new is to experience a strange mixture of success & failure… Don’t under-estimate the challenge here, these haiku might just be the best lesson & the greatest mental work-out I’ve experienced all week.

Long past midnight now
Beasts lurk in the moon’s shadows –
He fears what he owns

Lonely mountain peak
City lights shimmer below –
He wakes to the dawn

He tumbles to earth
Wax melted and wings clipped –
But oh how he flew

Now, while I admire the beauty of haiku, I have to confess the means impress me as much as the end… It’s quite amazing such a rigid (& limited) format, when properly observed, can yield such arresting insights & creativity. But abstract art reveals the same underlying formalism. Over a century has passed since artists turned decisively to nonrepresentational art, but visit a museum & you’ll still hear some philistine opine: ‘I could bloody paint that!?’. Which is, of course, ridiculous…

Because every great artist has absorbed and mastered the rules & lessons of their craft, and such knowledge & experience is inevitably required to create any great work of art (abstract, or not). Only by embracing this foundation – the structure & formalism of art – can most artists ever hope to ultimately break free & transcend it to produce a genuinely original masterpiece.

The same is true of investing. Like all great artists, investing super-stars make it look all too easy… And unfortunately, many of us think this grants us a licence to plunge right in & break all the rules. Nothing could be further from the truth – clearly, most investing stars are free & original thinkers, but I guarantee you there’s a consistent and rigid framework to their valuation & investing processes. [As I’ve said, stock selection may be art, but stock valuation is most definitely a science]. And their long-term records prove it – their ability to minimise mistakes, to avoid losses, to always survive, is what grants them the freedom to truly exploit their winners…

There’s no short-cut here. And no, you can’t just bloody paint that… You have to construct, and always observe, a formal & rigid structure for your investing process – mostly from bitter & hard-won experience. And the more regimented you are the better. [I’ve written about this before, The Checklist Manifesto is actually one of the best investing books you could read]. Only then, can you hope to actually escape & have the freedom to out-perform the indices – or better yet, the freedom to simply focus on absolute returns.

Watch the falling knife
It draws blood all too often –
While the hero boasts

His pockets are bare
He knows he has been cheated –
Cruel road home again

I have seen oceans
Mountains kingdoms behind me –
Horizon beckons

Ultimately, our worst investment errors aren’t really analytical – dig a little deeper, and inevitably you’ll discover they’re emotional. Fear & greed are, of course, the worst culprits… Checklists may help, but unchecked emotions have a sneaky way of short-circuiting logic (& process). So the idea you can silo your investing life, and keep it separate from your actual life, is mostly an illusion. I’m reminded here of Guy Spier’s recent book, ‘The Education of a Value Investor’, which could usefully be described as a Checklist Manifesto – Part II.

But after reading it, I was struck by a realisation – it’s really a table-pounding Existentialist Manifesto… It isn’t a how-to invest manual, it’s actually a how-to live your life as an investor manual. [Of course, the ‘how-to’ will be different for each of us]. Go back and read your Sartre (& the rest of the existentialist canon) – total freedom requires total self-awareness & responsibility. And that’s not a price most people are prepared to pay in life…or in their investing life.

I believe that’s what truly distinguishes investing superstars – an existential approach to investing & life itself (how do you differentiate them?). They’ll ruefully admit to still making (far less) mistakes, but always take responsibility for their own failings. They also possess the self-awareness to direct their laser-focus inwards – to actually analyse and address their mistakes & weaknesses. [While the bad investor always has a scapegoat – the dodgy CEO, the evil market-maker, the iffy economy, etc. – and finds strange comfort in repeating the same mistakes over & over again].

So, what price are you prepared to pay..?

Yes, that’s quite a daunting question – the answer may well hold the key to your future investing career (& performance). But investing & life can be harsh, and Sartre provides cold comfort… In the end, for most of us, Samuel Beckett (with his typical sense of the absurd) is far more prescient in his description & encouragement of our striving:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.