Review – 1, 2, 3… The Toddler Years

1,2,3…The Toddler Years: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers 3rd Edition (buy from Amazon.com)

by Irene Van der Zande, published 2011

A friend had recommended “The Toddler Years” as a resource for continued learning and practice with regards to piloting RIE from infancy into childhood. And indeed, the book is similar in format, structure, tone and event content to works we’ve read previously and enjoyed such as Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect. Much of the material and insight in the book comes via childcare practitioners at a day facility in Santa Cruz, CA and the book has a preface by Magda Gerber. This is definitely “RIE-approved”.

As I was reading this book and noticing the similarities, I asked myself, “Why do we do what we do [as parents]?” When we first learned about RIE and NVC, it was easy to get overwhelmed with all the new DOs and DONTs in terms of behavior and lose sight of the goal. The goal is not to follow some set of rules, arbitrary or otherwise, or even to be Good Parents as some kind of exercise in living an ideal, but to live our lives in relation to our children a certain way– to treat them with the kind of respect we’d hopefully treat any other adult.

As I was reading the scenario-specific counsel in this book, I realized that “what to do” in any of these situations shouldn’t be mysterious. We can get to the answer quite easily by inverting the situation and asking ourselves what we’d do if an adult acted like a child? How would we treat that adult? With condescension, disgust, frustration, anger or worse, violence? Or would we practice patience, understanding, offer our assistance and respect their needs and choices as much as we could?

That being said, these lessons about commonly occurring parenting dynamics are indeed helpful pre-practice and may result in the thought processes and related behaviors becoming more intuitive and flow-y rather than flustering or rehearsed.

Choice

Just like all of us, toddlers are happier when they have some control over their lives. This also makes it easier for them to accept what they don’t have a choice about.

The first act of a child’s life, being born, is a set of circumstances the child itself had no choice in creating. Nor is the child aware of its lack of choice, in this situation or any others, for some time after birth. Nor even is the child capable of exerting any influence over the course of its life, via choice, even if it was aware of the choices that existed.

But over time the child’s life becomes increasingly defined by choice both in terms of awareness and in terms of action. It is no wonder then that “choice” is an important theme in the development of the life of the toddler and that we as parents and caregivers can render a great service to our children by giving them choices whenever we can and being understanding with them when they react against the situations where they lack choice but might like to have one for whatever reason.

One way to offer choice is via closed questions, that is, “Would you like to have an apple for your snack, or a banana?” versus “Would you like a snack?” The reason to offer closed questions is because it encourages the child to make choices we can live with. It can be easy to get bogged down in the subtle reality of how little toddlers have to choose about their life at times– we know they NEED a diaper change but they don’t WANT one, etc. Using closed questions frames the choice around taking a positive action the caregiver believes is necessary and hopefully avoiding fighting and antagonism over choices that don’t exist.

Similarly,

When there is no choice, we need to be careful not to offer one by mistake.

Saying, “We’re going to Grandma’s, it’s cold outside, do you want to wear your jacket?” might elicit a “No!” and a frozen child, when what we really meant was to offer a closed question such as, “Would you like to put your jacket on yourself or would you like me to help you put it on?”

Feelings

Spend a lot of time giving children names for their feelings.

As adults, we have a certain awareness of our feelings such that we can distinguish one feeling from another, the intensity of the feeling, its source and perhaps most importantly, we can label our feelings in order to communicate about them more clearly. (This is the ideal with adults, anyway… any student of NVC is aware of just how limited even many adults’ capabilities are in this regard!)

With young children it is different. Feelings might seem to come from nowhere and shock or surprise. They might seem uncontrollable. One kind of feeling of a high intensity might seem similar to that same feeling at lower intensity (ie, just “good” or “bad”, pleasant or unpleasant) and there is most of the time no sense of the character of a feeling and the name it carries. Talking about feelings with young children and repeating the names of the feelings we observe them experiencing can help a toddler start to gain mastery and awareness of their feelings.

Children need to understand their feelings. They need to know their uncomfortable feelings are just as important as their pleasant feelings. By accepting these feelings, we teach our toddlers to accept themselves and each other.

The goal of many parents and caregivers seems to be to raise a child who only experiences good feelings. Feelings of pain are warded off, “Oh you’re alright, nothing happened!” as are feelings of shame or fear, “Be a big boy, don’t cry!” Perhaps the motivation is to provide children with that ideal experience, “childhood innocence”, as long as possible and to protect them from reality which is sometimes disappointing, frightening, infuriating or just plain unfair.

But accepting some feelings and rejecting others leads to self-repression and a certain kind of schizophrenia. There is the “me” that has feelings which are acceptable to the adults and caregivers in my life, and there is the “not me” that has feelings which make them uncomfortable, which seems to pop up in my life at the most embarrassing times. Helping children to experience all their emotions as equally valid allows them to build confidence in the unity of their self.

Limits

Limits can be stated in firm but respectful words. We can do this by using what is called an “I” message. That is, instead of saying “You must do this” we can make it clear that we are speaking for ourselves:

“I want you to be gentle.”

“I need you to help me get your clothes on.”

“I don’t like it when you run away.”

We can talk about what the child is doing rather than using blaming or labeling words.

Some people find parenting with respect challenging because they equate it with a kind of “anarchy” and the giving up of their authority even in matters of safety or in enforcing their personal preferences in their own home or life. It can be hard enough to adjust to living with a messy spouse, for instance, now a diabolical two-year-old is supposed to reign over me?

This is a false dichotomy. Respect is a two-way street. And imperative to having respect and giving respect is to be clear about who is respecting what. Using the “I” technique makes it clear that limits have to do with individual needs and don’t involve arbitrariness or authority.

Building Confidence

Children who are confident in their ability to learn through practice are more likely to grow into independent people… making things happen rather than waiting for things to happen to them.

We learn to be action-oriented in our lives or we learn to wait for a rescue that isn’t coming.

There are two models of failure and its significance that humans can internalize according to recent psychological research. One model is failure-as-feedback, in which failure indicates that an action was not performed properly to achieve the desired result with the possibility that it could be performed properly with further practice.

The other model is failure-as-wrongness, in which failure indicates that a person is not appropriate to a task at hand in some existential way and their inability to achieve success in this instance is evidence of their wrongness or lack of completeness as a functioning person.

It is imperative that children have opportunities to practice actions, to experience occasional failure, and to be encouraged to try again in order that they build confidence in themselves and in the model of failure-as-feedback. Without internalizing this principle, they are apt to experience a life of growing self-doubt and confusion on a fundamental personal level.

Presentism

Toddlers live in the here and now. Yesterday is ancient history and tomorrow might as well be next year.

How wonderful that toddlers can remind us that the present is all we ever have! As adults it is so easy to live with regret, or to drift through the present ever-anticipating the future.

Of course, they may serve us these reminders in unpleasant ways with their seeming impatience, or their repetitious requests or insatiable demands for things they’ve already been given before. But it’s important either way, for our own sanity and enjoyment of life, that we remember that they only behave this way because the present urge is the only one they know at this moment in their life.

Sleep

Give warnings before bedtime so the child has a chance to finish playing.

Not only do small children seem to sleep fitfully at times, but they also go to sleep fitfully. And sleep seems to creep up on them and snatch them when they aren’t expecting it. One moment they are playing with their toys and screeching with gaiety, the next they are rubbing their eyes and ears and about to topple over with sudden onset of wooziness.

Adults can help children anticipate the future, and their own need for sleep, by following bed time rituals which include buffer time and light warnings that sleep is coming and it is time to begin winding down.

The “S word” – Sharing

Toddlers do not learn to share by having grown-ups make them do it. Having to give up a toy makes a toddler feel angry, not loving.

Why do adults think sharing is so important? Is it simply mindless repetition of their own childhood experience? Is it a social or cultural imperative tied to recent historical developments? Is it a way to feel equal while ignoring that we are not?

Sharing is not in the vocabulary of small children although, curiously, property rights are! The individual child’s property right, at least. While there are many ways to respect small children by thinking of them and treating them as capable of something they have not yet mastered, sharing seems to be one of those things that does not lend them respect or enjoyment when it is expected of them.

In our home we don’t care for sharing as a principle. So avoiding the “S word” will be relatively easy for us!

Tantrums

If a toddler finds out that having a tantrum is a way around our limits, the child may start throwing tantrums all the time.

Another idea that is interesting about tantrums is that they belong to the child, not to the parent. It is easy for the adult to assume a tantrum is a demonstration of a critical failure in their parenting, rather than a critical failure in the emotional regulation of the child. Of course they often come at the most inopportune times as well, right before trying to leave for an errand, or out in public amongst a bunch of gawkers.

Even during a tantrum, the child is experiencing an emotion they are truly experiencing and it’s worth it for parents and other caregivers to practice patience and understanding in these moments, validating the emotion even if it is disagreeable and talking through it with the child, along with giving them space to express their emotion, to exhaustion if necessary.

Toilet time

The time to start toilet learning is when our toddlers show signs of being ready, like:

  • having dry diapers for longer periods of time
  • letting us know that they’ve pooped or peed in their diapers
  • showing interest in sitting on a toilet or potty chair
  • wanting to wear underpants
  • disliking wearing wet or soiled diapers

The book does not call it toilet “training” for a reason. This is not a rote memory behavior or even a reflex. It requires conscious effort and it has a psychological root. Being ready to use a toilet for elimination is an egotistic decision and like many other similar experiences in life we can help the child by waiting until they’re ready rather than expecting to do something they’re not yet capable of or don’t see any benefit in themselves.

Eating and weaning

Toddlers will eat when they’re hungry, but might not eat much.

Toddlers need to eat more often than we do. Their stomachs are smaller.

Toddlers like to have choices.

Meals are served outside whenever the weather permits.

One thing I thought could’ve been added in this section is the observation that sometimes toddlers will eat quite a bit! In fact, too much and too fast if you keep putting food in front of them. We are learning to offer one piece of food at a time and waiting until our Little Lion requests more (with reaching, grunting and looking for the food). Even then, we try to pace things as his belly is bound to fill up quicker than his brain gets the signal that it’s time to stop.

Successful parenting

It helps to remember that, just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect parents or children. There are no perfect families either, even if they look that way from the outside. It’s not our job to be perfect, but to do the best we can.

I’ll let that one settle in on its own.

It’s healthy for our children to see us having interests besides our families.

It’s also healthy for our children to see us acknowledging their needs without actually fulfilling them, instantaneously or at all. New parents often forget that it’s okay to use the bathroom, even if it means a crying child. And these kinds of over-permissive decisions can extend beyond those first few months to picking the child up whenever it beckons, interrupting a rhythm or flow in some household chore to immediately respond to the child’s request, etc. The child isn’t always going to get what they want in life and it’s okay to model that now, in toddlerhood. Just realize you may hear a bit more crying and whining as a result of your decision.

Being polite by acknowledging people socially is an adult need, not a child’s.

Teaching children to wave hello and goodbye, to high-five, to smile or “be nice” to strangers who greet them and to say please and thank you may seem cute but it is not necessary and it may even be unsafe (why undermine a child’s instinctive apprehension of strangers?)

Some people who do not understand that children are individuals and not objects can find it frustrating and demeaning to deal with an “aloof” child. Why is it so important to this person to be acknowledged by a tiny toddler who is more interested in drooling over their toys? What does their need for acknowledgement and validation-in-existence truly imply?

Guilt keeps us looking backward and feeling bad about what we should have done instead of looking forward and feeling good about what we’re going to do next.

This idea is tied to the failure-as-feedback model. If we are always learning and growing, as the toddler is, and we want to model this as normal, we would do well to focus on what we’ll do next and not to obsess about the past.

Enjoying your child

Childhood passes quickly. And it never comes back. “They won’t need me as much as they do now.”

A truly bittersweet thought. To acknowledge that the pain, discomfort and disruption of being always needed is ephemeral; but so too is the joy, confidence and excitement of being the center of a young person’s world.

4/5

 

Review – Essentialism

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (buy from Amazon.com)

by Greg McKeown, published 2014

This past year I’ve been exploring topics related to the concept of mastery. It is so tempting for me to try to be interested in everything I come across and consequently it’s a real challenge to be selective and commit to being a master of only a few things. Essentialism was recommended to me by a friend and it’s a great concept inside of an okay book.

The key to essentialism, which is a combination of the ideas of prioritization and mastery, is to be conscious of tradeoffs. One has to develop a habit of asking, “What will I NOT do in order to get this done?” Progress in one aspect of life can only be made at the expense of denying progress in all the others.

The author teaches at Stanford and implements the empathy-based design thinking approach in his essentialism advice. In this case, he offers several techniques for building empathy with yourself– to gain clarity about your purpose, to acknowledge physical limitations (primarily sleep) necessary to making sustained progress and to engage in free-spirited play to unlock creative thinking and avoid self-reproach. And like a design thinker, he advocates a kind of Minimum Viable Product approach to making progress on your priorities. Don’t set your sights on one big effort, or assume that you can define the endpoint of your efforts before you get there; start with a rough idea of where you think you want to go and think of the next tangible iterative step you could make to progress. In so doing you’ll develop confidence and motivation to keep moving forward.

One thing I enjoyed most about the book were the numerous pithy quotes at the masthead of each chapter and sprinkled throughout the text. I might copy a few of them into the blog after I finish writing this. On the other hand, the book is also another disappointing amalgamation of pop business and productivity stories, name-dropping and “stuff my friends did that I thought was worth including in my book” that deny this book a chance to enter the pantheon of classics, aside from the fact that it really offers nothing new on this subject other than the marketing of the idea.

The four-part structure of the book, Essence, Explore, Eliminate, Execute, has the clear “focus-flare” cadence of the Design Thinking toolbox’s Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Essence sounds like Empathize, Explore sounds like Define, Ideate sounds like Eliminate and Prototype/Test sound like Execute to me.

In thinking about the message of focusing on what’s really important, I made a note in the margin on one page which said, “if it feels like I can do anything I want with my life, it’s ironic because I will in fact only do one of those things.” If that’s true, and I think it is, it would be better to figure out what that one thing is sooner rather than later lest I risk wasting a lot of my time on what turns out to be non-essential.

3/5

An Investment Confessional

Since the market low in March of 2009, I have not managed to keep pace with the passive return of the S&P 500 index. In no year in the last 8 have I met or exceeded the return of the index on a portfolio-wide basis. I would’ve been much richer by now if I had just turned my capital over to Mr. Market almost a decade ago and spent my time and energy worrying about anything but investing.

And I managed to do this primarily by being uninvested throughout this time period. I have not gone back and done a trade-by-trade and year-by-year study of my portfolio returns over this time period (I am including here my personal accounts as well as other accounts I manage) but just eye-balling it I think it’s safe to say the most exposure I’ve ever had to equities over this time period was no more than 25% of any of the portfolios and probably a lot closer to 20% on a gross capital basis. In essence, I sat out one of the biggest bull markets in history and missed an opportunity to capture a 271% total return through passive management. That’s something like 18% a year, an impressive long-term rate of return by most standards.

How did I manage to let this happen? And what have I learned from this experience? More importantly, what do I plan to do differently going forward?

The story of this mishap is complicated in my mind and is over ten years in the making. I was aware of the stock market as a concept since my early teenage years. On Friday nights after dinner my family would watch a battery of shows on PBS including “Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser.” I learned nothing about investing from watching this show other than there was this place called a stock market and people had a lot of opinions about what was happening there. My father was no investment guru and my clearest memory of him with regards to the stock market (aside from watching this show beside him) was him coming home during the Tech Bubble — which I did not know it as such at the time, nor did he — and saying things like, “Wow, I can’t believe it, my AOL stock doubled again today” as he set his briefcase down and went to change for dinner. He did not work to understand what was going on with the companies he owned and he did not encourage me to be curious about it.

In high school I never took one of those “business” classes where everyone plays the “stock market game” and creates a fantasy portfolio. In retrospect, this is a terrible way to introduce young people to the idea of common stock investing as most learn from it what I learned– it’s “fun”, it’s “random” (the winner was inevitably some kid who got lucky betting on things that happened to go up during the course of the game) and there are no costs if you’re wrong because everyone was playing with funny money. But I remember being disappointed I didn’t get to play, and excited when I realized I could find the website on my own and play on my own time, although I quickly gave up when I realized I had no idea how to pick a stock and was basically just rolling dice.

When I began working over the summers in between school years and accumulating some savings I began looking for yield beyond my bank account. This was during a time where a “safe” money market fund was yielding just over 5% a year. I put my savings with Vanguard’s MMF and felt quite wealthy watching it grow at 5%, not knowing what a money market fund was or why it offered more than a bank account and not knowing that with a little elbow grease I could earn much more than that as a proper stock investor.

Fast forward to sometime in college and I was much more interested in this idea of investing as a discipline. I was becoming aware of the world of finance, likely in part due to my proximity to the global center of it (“Wall Street”), in part because many classmates and friends were talking about it as a career opportunity and in part because my readings and interests and slowly taken me there. I became aware of the hedge fund industry and the idea that people made their living making investments all day long. I decided that sounded pretty interesting to me (much more on this topic in a future post I plan to write) and might be something I’d like to pursue as well.

And somewhere in there I came across a recommendation to read The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham. Which I proceeded to do, but, despite reading the book from cover-to-cover, including the end chapter commentary by Jason Zweig that many people detest but which I think actually adds some value and can even be enjoyed as a standalone reading, I really did not understand much of what I read. And the even greater sin was that I failed to apply what little I understood.

I did not begin searching for Ben Graham stocks. I did not use his principles of risk management in constructing my own portfolio. I did not look for opportunities to spite Mr. Market and buy stocks when he was panicking and sell them when he was giddy. I did not begin looking at stocks as ownership certificates in real businesses. I did not even do any investing beyond my Vanguard MMF! For whatever reason at this stage in my life investing was a purely academic interest.

This began to change as I neared the end of college and was seriously considering a career in finance. Around this same time, I had been reading deeply of Austrian economics and had become convinced, like many who had, that we were on the precipice of a global economic calamity that would start with the housing sector and quickly come to overwhelm the banking sector. I was obsessed with this End Times prognostication and spent most of my time working to understand what was coming and thinking about an investment strategy that would stand to benefit from macro disruption. I was finally ready to take some action and I ended up doing two things.

The first thing I did was to sow doubt about my parents’ equity holdings in their mind, particularly their heavy concentration in the financial sector (prime offender: Citibank), which their broker was convinced was one of the cheapest parts of the market and thus he had increased the total exposure in their blue chip portfolio. I told them the end was coming and they should liquidate everything and go to cash. I was initially unsuccessful, but when the first hiccup in the markets occurred, my dad got worried and decided to at least follow my advice to sell all his financial stocks, including Citibank, his largest position, which the broker bleated about painfully for weeks afterward.

The second thing I did was to follow Peter Schiff’s strategy regarding the Great Decoupling of the United States from the rest of the world, and what better way than to open an account with Schiff’s firm, Europacific Capital, to buy all these great foreign stocks (especially commodity companies and infrastructure businesses) at rich commissions? I put essentially my life savings to date into this account, naively trusted my broker when he told me he’d help keep an eye on the portfolio and recommend trades to me at appropriate times, and chose five companies (“that should be plenty of diversification!”) from a list of about 15 or 20 he pulled for me on a basis that was then entirely arbitrary and is now completely unmemorable for me. All I know is I did not use any of Ben Graham’s principles or ideas and I think I feigned a knowing approach by saying the P/E ratios of the companies I was about to buy out loud, almost like an invocation, but beyond that I had little idea what these companies did, what valuation I was buying them at and how big my Margin of Safety was.

The way the story turned out is my parents were grateful and I was obliterated. I saved my parents a lot of money with the move to liquidate the financial stocks as that blunted most of the pain that was to come. After the markets had tumbled some 20-25% (and maybe about 30-40% of the total move down) they ended up liquidating the rest of the stock portfolio and held on to their high quality bonds, something that I had no opinion on despite reading Ben Graham and being pretty opinionated about most other credits in the market (I could talk your head off about CDOs and what a danger they were long before Michael Lewis wrote any books on the subject) which was a good move as interest rates went ZIRP. They really thought I was a genius and neither of us knew I just happened to be lucky. I should’ve been more clued in by what happened in my own portfolio.

My own portfolio lost a lot. At one point I was down about 70%. America did not decouple from the world and the world did not decouple from America. Everybody rode the coaster down together and because I picked economically sensitive businesses at near peak valuations it was indeed a painful ride. I had no idea what to do other than to just hold on (actually, not a bad response and much better than the typical mistake of panicking and selling to Mr. Market at the worst time). But after about two or three years of waiting after the crisis, my portfolio was still down about 50% and I decided it was time to admit I had screwed up and realize my losses. If I had just been more patient, I might have been down at most 20-25%– a bad drawdown, for sure, but much different in terms of wounded pride and sucked out capital than a 50% permanent impairment; even my crappy picks which had amounted to little more than throwing darts at a stock table would’ve caught a bid like everything else during the Great Global Reflation.

Being massively right in my parents’ case and massively wrong in my own should’ve been a good indication I didn’t know what I was doing. Instead, I took away the lesson that macro investing worked and I might actually be good at it if I could learn how to do it consistently well, and stock picking on the other hand didn’t seem to work because I had picked stocks and that went poorly for me. It was embarrassing, particularly because I had told a lot of people ahead of time what I was doing and why, but I found myself still interested in the subject and wanting to explore it more.

That was hard to do as a career because the aftermath of the global financial crisis made getting a job in the industry almost impossible. I went to work for another large company and made more idiotic macro bets while I bided my time. Somehow I was able to stifle the cognitive dissonance of reading Security Analysis at my desk at work (covered wrapped in a brown paper grocery bag, and only when I had gotten my paid work finished for the day) while buying things like the 3X leveraged short financial ETF in what was left of one of my personal accounts. I have no idea why I was reading Ben Graham’s magnum opus analyst handbook at this time or how I had even heard of it and once again I understood little of what I read despite going cover-to-cover, and applied none of it. I scraped some short-term capital gains on these stupid trades and then gave it all back and then some when my luck ran out. I finally threw in the towel and swore off “investing” for awhile as a personal practice while I continued to be interested in getting into it as a career.

After months of pestering a small global macro fund I had heard about in Texas about an analyst position, they agreed to hire me and suddenly it seemed my dreams were coming true. I was convinced this was just the beginning of a long and successful career as a professional investor and despite my initial failures at investing I was excited to come on board and learn what it was really all about.

It turned out not to be so. I learned little about financial analysis or portfolio management in a positive sense although my time spent with this firm armed me with an abundance of lessons in what not to do. The gentlemen I worked for were extremely intelligent, talented and honest and had made out like bandits during the crisis with their own successful predictions and even more successful operations, but like me they had been fooled by luck and had failed to appreciate that successful investing is a practical exercise, not a moral one. They could not let go of their critical view of economic events and the connection they had to the market and they became as embittered as they were emboldened to soldier on against the forces that be in hopes of teaching the world a lesson in folly.

That they did, but the folly was their own. Sadly, it was my folly, too, because despite seeing that it wasn’t working, I was also rather gung ho about it. I couldn’t figure out HOW to invest like that in my own portfolio, so I was mostly inactive as an investor. I also began work on another project in cognitive dissonance. This time, I had managed to figure out that Ben Graham had a student, Warren Buffett, and that there was all kinds of information out there about Buffett, his life, his investment record and his method for investing and risk management. I began drinking heavily at this fountain while taking another turn at the writings of Ben Graham. I was beginning to wonder if maybe the macro stuff was a dead end and there wasn’t something to this value investing concept. I was thinking about doing it in my own account. My timing was again almost impeccable, but I did not know it!

First though, I decided to pitch my bosses on value investing. Maybe we could balance out some of the short exposure in the portfolio with some of this Ben Graham stuff? There seemed to be a lot of opportunities out there based on some quick screens I ran. That’s when I got the dumpster diving speech.

Value investing is a lot like dumpster diving– every once in awhile you come up with a Picasso, but most of the time you come up smelling like garbage!

And besides, everyone knows Warren Buffett is an asshole and just lucky, he’s been on the side of the establishment which has put the wind in his sails, he got a bailout when his house of cards almost came tumbling down in the crisis and no one has been able to replicate his success, likely because he is working some kind of fraud. You don’t want to go there, kid, and neither will we!

My confidence was completely shot! This turned out to be the second best time to get into value investing besides the March 2009 low itself, but I had just been told this was basically the stupidest idea a person could come up with– and since I hadn’t managed to learn much from them, this was about the only idea I had. I was burned out on them, burned out on my broken dream and burned out on how bad I seemed to be at investing in general. So I called it quits.

I ended up joining the family business while I licked my wounds, egotistical and otherwise. The idea was to have a hideout while I figured out where my next heist would be. I was trying to figure out how to go be an analyst somewhere else but I didn’t know where. It seemed like I needed an education, so I began what I came to call my “Personal MBA” program, an intense, year-long effort of reading everything I could get my hands on about business, finance and investing. I’ve written about that earlier on this blog.

Buffett talks about value investing as something that a person either takes to immediately or rejects outright. While I hadn’t yet successfully employed the concepts in my investment practice, it had clearly infected my mind. The macro thing did not make sense to me at a conceptual level but the idea of studying stocks as businesses and looking for indications of cheapness that lent a margin of safety did. I think this is why I kept pushing on and went through my Personal MBA despite having no track record otherwise.

A few interesting things happened during this time period and shortly thereafter. First, I began doing real research and analysis on individual companies– I built spreadsheets and collected operating data, I read SEC filings and books about industry and company history and began to appreciate what it meant to approach the process of investing like a businessman. Second, I actually made some investments– some net-nets in the US (what remained at this stage in the game), some good companies at great prices and even a wonderful company at an un-fair price and later, a basket of foreign net-nets (my JNet strategy), along with a few special situations and some capital structure arbitrages I was coattailing on with another investor friend. While there were a few flops that either went nowhere or I lost a little on, for the most part my results on an individual investment basis were good to great and a few were even outstanding. Third, I continued believing I had some kind of crystal ball as far as market timing was concerned and I let that dominate my overall investment program– as described at the beginning of this essay, I took small, almost meaningless positions in most of the companies I invested in (aside from the JNet basket) such that when they worked, they didn’t have much of an impact on my portfolio overall and when they failed, they also didn’t have much of an impact. It was an excellent way to have nothing to show for the effort I put into it!

While this exercise helped me to build intellectual confidence, I was still not matching it with practical confidence and I doubted myself a lot along the way. What’s worse, my obligations in the family business continued to compete with my interest and efforts in investment management such that they were not only a serious distraction at times from a more meaningful and concentrated effort in this space but they were also a suitable rationalization for why I couldn’t just go all-in and really commit to my investment activity.

At one point I changed operational roles within our business and finally had no bandwidth to spare for investing. I went functionally inactive on investing for almost two years and decided ahead of time that it would be irresponsible to have the portfolios exposed even the minor amount they were at that point in time (especially because I kept not liking what I was seeing as I gazed into my crystal ball!) while I wasn’t paying any attention to them so I liquidated to concentrate on operational issues full time. Incredible, given that sitting on one’s hands is said to be the hardest part of managing a well-constructed portfolio and I missed out on even more returns, meager as they were, with this decision.

Recently I have returned to a more strategic role in the family business and it is more clear now than ever that we need someone to be working on sound capital allocation for us. The most logical person to do this is me, in part because I was the person to point out the need and in part because I’m the only person with that kind of knowledge base. But do I have the experience?

This is where we come to some of the learnings I have taken away from my journey to date. As I mentioned before, I made some grievous errors early on in my investment career. I violated the first rule of investing countless times and I am lucky to still be standing thanks in large part to my extreme propensity to save which has allowed me to accumulate savings faster than my early rate of depletion. But since that time period, when I have actually applied the value investing framework knowingly and cautiously, my results have been good and within expectation. If I had not been so lacking in confidence and tried to make up for my initial indiscretion by being over-conservative, my investment operations at scale would’ve yielded an agreeable rate of return on the capital employed. Just as I must be honest with myself about my initial mistakes, I must be honest about some of my virtues and I think I can count these decisions as part and parcel.

One standard I tried to live by in my earlier investing was perfection. I often failed to act because I could not be sure of absolutely safety and I had determined that if I ever made another mistake in my investment operations, particularly with regard to the macro environment and crystal-ball gazing, that these mistakes would be unforgivable and would reveal how I was in actuality no better, in a moral sense, than any of the other petty mortals plying this trade.

This is, after much contemplation, an unreasonable standard to try to live up to because it is impossible to act at all under this standard. To be a successful investor, one does not need to be the best– one needs to simply act prudently according to sound methods. But, as my re-reading of Benjamin Graham’s classic text recently helped me to appreciate, one must act. Facing this fact, what can I do? The best I can, is the only answer I’ve found. Given that I know how I made my earlier mistakes, and I believe I understand how I succeeded the few times I did, there is really little risk for me of reprising the role of the vaunted “fuck up artist”.

I’ve also decided to give up my crystal ball and related esoteric knowledge I don’t actually possess. In exchange, I will accept Ben Graham’s portfolio maxim of the 25/75 split, ie, that the maximum exposure to stocks or bonds in one’s portfolio at any one time ought to be no more than 75%, and the minimum exposure ought to be no less than 25%. (And I read “cash and cash-like instruments” as part of the bond allocation, which I think of as “cash yield”.) Having more than 75% exposure suggests a kind of enthusiasm which is, short of a few specific scenarios, likely to involve a speculative-gambling attitude about the future and its risks. And having less than 25% exposure (specifically to stocks) makes it hard to even consider oneself an investor and seems to be evidence of falling prey to crystal ball reading.

This part is really hard right now. “But aren’t we at all time highs for the market?” Yes, we are. It’s very painful to consider that and I feel very nervous about taking the plunge now, so to speak, only to find myself suspended in mid-air as I see the plug being pulled from the pool. I comfort myself a bit by realizing that I am not making a timing “call” in trying to follow this approach, ie, the water is fine, come on in! In fact, I am trying to do the opposite, to resist the temptation of thinking I know and to allow myself an opportunity to take risk, prudently, regardless of what I think of the “market.” The other thing I remind myself is that I will not simply start making investments to achieve some arbitrary portfolio exposure level as quickly as possible. Instead, I now have granted myself “permission” psychologically to invest up to 25% of our capital in appealing opportunities if I should find them. Before, I would’ve had to stop and ask my crystal ball for directions first.

Another thing I’ve learned is that successful investing takes patience no matter what. Even the ideas that worked out well for me on an annualized basis took several years to play out or ripen to their full value. Part of the pressure I used to put on myself in this space was figuring out how I was going to generate X% a year, that year. I didn’t know where to find such an opportunity that was that quick and that safe. It doesn’t exist. Another investment chimera. If I pick safe ideas with a strong upside option and can wait patiently fortune will favor me in time.

There are many people, value investors especially, who have outstanding long term track records who are not Warren Buffett. They are unlikely to be doing something corrupt and they do not have his unique genius. They never seem to have set out for themselves the goal that they must be the best or perfect. They’ve all made mistakes. And they’ve all continued investing in a variety of market conditions, with the wind in their face and the wind at their backs. If they can do it, I can, too.

There are also many obviously lesser people trying their hand at this. They are the gambling fanatics who aren’t even trying to hide it, and the weak minds who have donned the clothing and the diction of the sage investor but do not realize they’re only engaging with the methods at a superficial level. These people are bound for disaster, and yet many of them manage to practice as investors and even confuse other people into letting them run their money. It would be a shame to let the world be dominated by those types and it boggles the mind why they should live with confidence and cheerfully go about their business and I should not.

It has been a long, odd journey to get where I am today. Of course I wish that I had learned these lessons earlier, or in some other way and in so doing to have been spared this trying ordeal to manifest my own confidence. But one of my goals is to learn to live my life without apology or regret and I’ve come to realize that taking the path I took is simply one of the data of my life. I’ve accepted it and I am ready to make good on what I’ve learned by putting the lessons learned to work today, not “when the time is right.” The best time to live life as wisely as one knows how is always today, not tomorrow.

Review – The Acquirer’s Multiple

The Acquirer’s Multiple: How the Billionaire Contrarians of Deep Value Beat the Market (buy on Amazon.com)

by Tobias Carlisle, published 2017

I received a free copy of this book from the author.

I spend a lot more time thinking about the best way to introduce people to the world of value investing than I actually get requests for such information, though I do receive occasional requests for advice. The reason is not just because I am a pedantic thinker but because I spent a very long time acquiring my own knowledge on this subject, with many wrong turns and wasted efforts and I have always wondered, “Is there a better way?”

Toby Carlisle’s “The Acquirer’s Multiple” may just be that better way.

But first, let me explain the most up-to-date advice I have been vending, and keep in mind, this advice is not intended as “how to be a good investor/make good investments” because I am not a registered investment adviser nor would I attempt to impersonate one– this is just my opinion of “how best to learn about investing”. I think I can dispense that advice as an opinion without running afoul of the authorities because I am just talking about ways to acquire certain knowledge. At least I hope so!

My suggestion is to read the following titles, in this order:

  1. The Richest Man in Babylon: Now Revised and Updated for the 21st Century (Paperback) – Common
  2. The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy
  3. Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist
  4. The Accounting Game: Basic Accounting Fresh from the Lemonade Stand
  5. The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, Fourth Edition (or more specifically, Buffett’s Shareholder Letters from Berkshire Hathaway, and his private partnerships, available on the Berkshire website)

Perhaps at a later date I will spend some time writing a post explaining in greater detail why I recommend these resources in this order to an aspiring student of (value) investing, but for now I will simply say that the first two explain how to save and how to develop the psychological discipline and personal habits that permit one to save money, and you must have savings if you want to fuel an investment program. The second lesson is in inspiration, to study the life of the greatest master of investing in the modern era to understand both what is possible, and what it takes, to be great at investing. The third lesson is a rudimentary knowledge of accounting, “the language of business” because if you’re going to be investing in businesses you ought to have a clue what is going on.

Only then, young grasshopper, are you ready for your fourth (but not final) lesson, which is to learn the methods and principles of (value) investing itself. And I can think of no greater expositor of these principles than the great master himself once again, Warren Buffett, especially because you can read along as his company develops and see the wondrous workings of these principles in “real time”.

But even this can be an overwhelming introduction for a noobie who doesn’t realize what a deep pool they’re wading into in asking the question. For the action-oriented, then, I offer a 3-Point Plan of Investment Attack which includes:

  1. The Richest Man in Babylon
  2. The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns (Little Books. Big Profits)
  3. The 2013 Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter, “Some Thoughts About Investing”

This short list will teach you how to save money so you have fuel for your investment machine, and then it provides the basic knowledge needed to decide if you want to be a humble Sunday-driver investor and do passive index investing, or if you want to be a more racy investor and pick your own businesses to invest in the way a true value investor would.

Pedantic as I am, where the heck does Toby’s book fit into all of this?! Well, I think now I can whittle my 3-Point Plan down to 2-Points: The Richest Man in Babylon, and The Acquirer’s Multiple. And I might be able to turn my original 5 item foundations into a 3 item list, using Richest Man, Accounting Game and The Acquirer’s Multiple as the set of texts. Here’s why.

Toby has done something incredible with this book. He has boiled a deeply studied, highly opinionated, multi-trillion dollar field of human endeavor down to its most essential, best researched and expertly practitioned concepts and he’s done it all in simple language that I am convinced even a complete neophyte would find approachable. He has included a number of delightful graphics that help to illustrate these simple concepts about how typical market participants behave and where investment value comes from that, for the first time in my life, I actually found increased my understanding of what I already knew rather than confused me (note: charts, data tables, etc., usually just distract me and I skip them, I am a mostly verbal knowledge acquirer). You really can’t go wrong jumping in this way.

The best part, however, is that he has curated some dramatic and action-packed biographical stories demonstrating how successful billionaire investors have put these ideas into practice. This checks the “inspiration” box I mentioned earlier because it helps the reader see how these ideas were translated into action and it gives confidence that you, too, could stand to benefit in this way.

And finally, he repeats (yes, the book is repetitious) all the neatly summarized concepts into one final summary list at the end of the book that involves 9 rules for a value investor to live by. I am confident that if a new investor referred to this list again and again at each point in his investment research and portfolio management process and asked himself, “Am I living true to this list?” he would be very satisfied with himself over a long period of time if his answer was “Yes”. And if the answer were “No”, then he’d understand exactly what he needed to do to get back on course.

I know Toby personally. He is a highly intelligent fellow, his passion for these ideas and the subject are intense and, if you ask me, he lands firmly in the “Graham” side of the “Graham-Fisher” spectrum of value investing (discussed a bit in the text) that all value investors and followers of Warren Buffett debate endlessly. And that is why I was so pleased that the conclusion of the book included an admonition to “check yourself before you wreck yourself”, so-to-speak. The Acquirer’s Multiple principle itself couldn’t be simpler, but Toby knows, as do all great investors in the Grahamian-tradition, that true risk lies in the behavior and biases of the investor himself, particularly an investor who can’t follow simple principles he knows to be true because he insists on trying to outsmart them.

Don’t try to outsmart what can be simple (though never easy!)… like reading 5 books on the art of investing when you could maybe get away with just two or three. And I am now convinced that Toby’s book should be one of them.

4/5