Well, faithful readers, I’ll be giving you a break next Thursday thru Sunday. No morning notes, no quotes of the day, no macro update, etc., to take in, as I’ll be attempting at least to force upon myself a rare few days of disconnectedness.
Friday, August 6, 2010
God’s Greatest Work
Forgive me, but for some reason (you’ll gather in the first line of the next paragraph) I was feeling unusually sentimental when I wrote the following. Therefore I must warn that the excerpt below from my next, yet to be completed (or edited) book is not what you’ve come to expect from my commentaries. It’s a personal story, one that many would find of very little, if any, relevance to their investments. Others perhaps may find it, in one way or another, metaphoric. So if you normally click the link hoping for something specific to current events, please don’t waste your time on this one. I mean really, please don’t! However if you’re a sentimentalist, a fisherman or a nature lover, then by all means be my guest.
I recently celebrated my 48th birthday and 26th anniversary in the investment business. So what is it with time? Why is life, as they say, so much like a roll of toilet paper (you know, the closer you get to the end the faster it goes)? When we were kids a day was an eternity. These days the sun rises then sets in the blink of an eye. My oldest just turned twenty-one, my youngest is heading for the eighth grade. Oh my God!
For virtually my entire adult life, I have had the pleasure of working with truly wonderful individuals and families. And while it’s my hope that our time together has been well-spent for my clients, I can say, without hesitation, that time-well-spent doesn’t even begin to describe the impact my clients have had on me.
Babies who, only yesterday it seems, crawled through my briefcase as their moms and dads shared their hopes and dreams with me across kitchen tables, are now graduating from college. Those once young parents are now well into their middle-ages and planning for retirement, the once middle-agers are now retired senior citizens, and, alas, I have had to bid final farewells to too many of my closest friends, those once senior citizens, now beyond this world, who entrusted me into their lives those many years ago. Yes, I have been truly blessed…
The client/financial advisor relationship is one of unavoidable intimacy. We’re dealing with the future, the educating of children, the planning of vacations, the purchasing of homes, the planning for retirement, and, ultimately, the preparing for death.
Of all the things I believe I know about the workings of the market, how to manage a portfolio and how to counsel a client, the one thing I’m certain of, beyond any doubt, is that investing success cannot be measured by a rate of return, or even (entirely) by the attaining of a goal. My humble knowing is that one succeeds as an investor only to the extent one achieves financial peace of mind. And that’s my hope for every individual reading this blog.
I have discovered that as the world revs up right before our eyes, as information now storms us from every angle, nothing the internet or cable television has to offer will ever bring us to that state of presence where we can walk through life with nary a financial worry. In fact, I’d argue that in today’s, click-of-a-mouse, harried world, financial peace of mind is as difficult to attain as it’s ever been. So then, my task is a most daunting one indeed, yet one I embrace passionately.
Think of the following essay as a brief respite from the market-centric theme of my typical musings. It comes from another project of mine that has, on the surface, little to do with investing, but I’m going to share it herein nonetheless. For I have found that the best metaphors for life (personal and business) are discovered within our own personal experiences. This is the story of my encounter (in the early fall of 2008) with a rare and inspiring individual. A man who possesses the peace of mind I believe each of us ultimately desires (admittedly or not).
Life can be a great adventure when we pay close attention to the moment by moment events and circumstances that mark our paths. Personally, as I simply witness my life unfold and allow myself to flow with its rhythm, I marvel at all the magic I see and experience.
I recently spent three days fishing in and around beautiful Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, accompanied by Matt, a professional fly fishing guide assigned to me by a local outfitter. I expected that this rare adventure would inspire me to write. And indeed it has, but surprisingly, my inspiration today comes not from the sheer majesty of Yellowstone, but rather it comes from my experience with my newest teacher, Matt the fishing guide.
While in the course of our three days together he delivered the obvious fly-casting tip now and again, what this unsuspecting sage ultimately had to offer had less to do with fishing and more to do with living.
It began the very first morning, when we greeted each other with the obligatory handshake and “nice to meet you.” By his warm smile and confident look, I sensed immediately that this sandy grey-bearded fishing guide was a man very comfortable in his own skin. He gained my attention and respect instantly.
To my pleasant surprise there was no, “Where you from, what do you do, have any kids,” etc. In fact there was no sizing me up whatsoever. It was obvious that Matt didn’t give a stone fly’s ass whether I was a fry cook, a financial advisor, or the President of The United States. He was simply there to spend the next three days showing a perfect stranger a good time in the most beautiful country in his world, and get paid to do it. Wow, what a life!
We went right to the business at hand, discussing the weather forecast and where and how we would coax a few Yellowstone cutthroat trout into mouthing a clump of bird feathers tied to a tiny steel hook.
As we climbed into his dusty red sports utility vehicle with two large cracks crisscrossing the windshield, I noticed on the console separating the driver and passenger seats what looked like a perfectly round, dark brown gourd, fashioned into an ornately decorated bowl. Protruding from the bowl was what I took for a thin metal pipe. I thought Oh boy, this guy’s a pot head. I hope he doesn’t get stoned while I’m fishing.
Matt grinned sheepishly as he noticed me noticing his 1960-ish paraphernalia. He then reached behind my seat, grabbed a thermos and asked if I’d like some tea. He poured the thermos’s contents into what I was then relieved to discover was no bong after all.
He chuckled as he told me how most of his clients raise their brows when they notice his mate (mah-tey) with the metal straw called a bombilla (bawm-bee-yah) sticking out of it. He then proceeded to share everything I would ever need to know and then some, about this infusion, a South American tea made from the Yerba Mate plant he discovered on a fly fishing trip to Argentina.
As that first day progressed it became apparent to me that this fishing guide was a very unique gentleman and in fact a connoisseur. He was a connoisseur of South American tea, of fly fishing, of petrified wood, of all the wildlife one could find in Yellowstone, of how to leave nature unblemished, of Native American history, of being a husband, of being a father to two daughters he absolutely adored, and of how to help a perfect stranger feel at home in his world.
From the way Matt used his pliers to smash the barbs on the fly hooks to make sure there was no damage to the trout as we disgorged the cold steel from their tender jaws, to the way he showed me how to handle each fish with as little contact as possible as he took the pictures before we released them back into the river, to the way he carefully moved the branches of a bush to reveal an elk skull with antlers attached he had found and hidden several years earlier (which otherwise would have ended up on someone’s garage wall), to the way we stopped to admire every piece of petrified wood along our path (one of which was very large and impressive, requiring that it too be hidden underneath a bush so as not to end up on the porch of someone’s summer cabin) – it was obvious to me that he loved and appreciated his world precisely as it was. God had made him the caretaker of this little slice of our planet and he flawlessly carried out his duties.
I also noticed that while Matt went about his work he never once uttered a single word of discontent or criticism for those who would carelessly handle a trout, or remove a piece of nature from its surroundings. Not only was he careful to preserve the purity of his outer world, he took equal care not to pollute his inner world as well.
As impressed as I was with this man of the earth, something in me refused to believe that he could actually have it that much together. I knew there had to be a character flaw somewhere just waiting to be revealed. So I challenged myself to find it. I started with a question about the average skill level of his typical fly fishing client. He explained that he gets the experienced anglers (like yours truly, I’d like to think) as well as the ones who just wake up one morning and say “Hey I want to go fly fishing on the Madison,” usually between a day of horseback riding and a trip to the Tetons. I thought he’d surely express how utterly frustrating it is to do nothing but untangle lines and pull hooks out of trees— if not himself— all day long. But instead he shared how much he enjoys introducing someone new to the art of fly fishing, especially very young children (who I know are without question the most challenging). Wow, I thought, is this guy for real?
A little later I figured I would trip him up by bringing politics into the mix. So I mentioned how I expected the Denver Airport to be crazy as I made my connecting flight, due to the Democratic National Convention being held there at the same time. Then I followed with a comment on how interesting the upcoming election is shaping up to be (it’s been my experience that any mention of either of the two major parties is almost always enough to ferret out the political bias of anyone I may be talking to). To this he offered absolutely nothing. I know he heard me, but he didn’t utter a word. OK, I thought, this guy is smart. Never talk politics with your clients. At that point I gave up. I figured if Matt isn’t the enlightened being I’m beginning to think he is he’ll reveal his true colors before the end of our three days together.
As we moved down the river he would tell stories about certain stretches where perhaps a big fish was landed or had gotten away. As he shared these experiences he’d refer to the person he was with at the time as his friend. He’d say something like “My good friend Bob didn’t want to use a streamer at first,” or “My friend Jim just sat there frozen and didn’t set the hook while a huge one took his fly.” He never talked about experiences with his clients. At one point I wondered how he makes any money if he’s always taking his friends fishing. It occurred to me sometime later that these friends he was referring to were indeed his clients. In his mind, these people who pay him to take them fishing are much more than business to him, they were indeed people he endeared himself to — they were his friends.
My thoughts then turned to my relationships with the people I counsel. I too think of them as much more than business. Like Matt, I care deeply for my clients and I am committed to doing everything I can to make their experience with me as pleasurable and beneficial as possible. Yes, I thought, they are indeed my friends, and that’s how I will refer to them from this point forward.
As the days unfolded our conversations became more about philosophy and less about fly fishing. We talked about how for guys like us, it’s not just about catching fish. It’s the whole experience, taking in the full beauty of nature. In his opinion there is truly no such thing as a bad day fishing. That the days you have to work harder are the days you appreciate all the more what you catch. Or you appreciate what you learn about how an abrupt change in weather can make a finicky eater out of a rainbow trout. It’s about how with the right attitude, the tough times always make us better (in fishing and in life). We talked about our children and how amazing it is to watch them grow, and how we strive to be better people simply because they have us in their lives.
When it was all said and done I realized that I had met someone who truly embodies the message of this book. Matt the fishing guide, while being a connoisseur of many things, clearly accepts and surrenders to the reality of his world, and without question, appreciates the winters and springs of his life. He understands that everything is in divine order.
As I reached the end of what had become an introspective journey, I felt a profound sense of appreciation. My experience in Yellowstone confirmed everything I have come to know about living a peace-filled life. I thought about how I ended up there, seemingly by accident because of a canceled plane ticket that I had to use before it expired. I thought maybe Vegas for a weekend, but that didn’t grab me, or maybe Costa Rica. I could relax on the beach and perhaps do a little ocean fishing. But again, I didn’t feel it.
Then one morning during a meeting with a couple of well traveled “friends” I mentioned my dilemma. I have known these folks for years and they know I love to fly fish. The husband recommended I fly to Yellowstone and fish the Madison River. This was an option I hadn’t considered, but the moment he mentioned it, I somehow knew that’s precisely how I was meant to spend that ticket. The next day I Googled “Yellowstone Fly Fishing Guides” and found one that I thought stood out above the others. I called the number on the website and left a message with the dates I’d be there and that I’d like a private guide to show me around. A gentleman called back and informed me that they were all booked up for those dates, and referred me to another outfitter who ultimately landed me with Matt. Amazing how things always seem to come together.
Leading up to the trip, visions of Yellowstone filled my head. Visions of beautiful green meadows teaming with elk and bison, of fly fishing the world famous waters I dreamed of as a kid. And yes, it turned out to be everything I imagined it would. But while I was certain that I was headed to Yellowstone to experience God through nature’s beauty, I had no idea that He would also reveal himself through my experience with a true master, a sage, disguised as a humble fishing guide.
While we can easily appreciate the miracles of nature, in a crystal clear river, a snow capped mountain range, in a bald eagle hovering overhead, let’s not forget that perhaps God’s greatest work is done in the beautiful hearts and souls of the people who walk in and out of our lives every single day.