What Do You Want? Happiness And The Concept Of An Empty Mind

After reading Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, I’ve been reflecting on the notion of happiness. That feeling of fulfillment, contentment and energy. How can it be defined? How can we find it? How can we keep it?

Without offering a total answer, I believe a good starting point is the link between happiness and figuring out exactly what YOU want. What I’m talking about here is the definite knowledge of what YOU want and a burning desire to possess/achieve it. Interestingly, the prime difficulty may be the clear and precise definition of what it is one wants rather than the faith, organized planning, action and persistence needed to attain it. Ask most people what they want most in life and many will be unsure or will offer vague suggestions such as "to be happy" or "to be rich" etc. When was the last time you knew what you wanted so clearly that you could write it down or tell it to someone in great detail?

Stop and think about that for a moment.

To attain this clarity, and perhaps to maintain it, consider the concept of “an empty mind”. In our “noisy” culture the ability to empty one's mind has immense value. Imagine moments of calm unbound from schedules, emails, messages, meetings, the news and frivolous demands from friends, colleagues and acquaintances pulling your mind in multiple directions.

When our minds are brimming with external stimulus we often lose track of who we really are and what we truly cherish as we drift away from the meaningful and tether to the meaningless. Thoughts become clouded, incomplete and ephemeral as each is quickly superseded by the next. Judgment becomes heavily influenced by external stimulus and most importantly independence and knowledge of self is compromised. Consider the concept of an empty mind in order to connect with what YOU desire most. Cleanse, disconnect, simplify, streamline and reduce. You are your thoughts. All people become who they are because of their dominating thoughts and desires.

“Without a doubt, the most common weakness of all human beings is the habit of leaving their minds open to the negative influence of other people.” –Napoleon Hill

The good news is that you have absolute control over one thing in this world….and that is your thoughts. Reclaim them…as perhaps happiness isn’t a goal but simply an indication that you are living your life in accordance with what YOU as an individual desire most.

Strategies To Tune Out Noise And Focus On Long-Term Goals

One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity. -Bruce Lee

Every now and then I get together with some friends in the finance world and during a recent meeting one of them seemed overly preoccupied with world events and how he perceived them to be having a potentially significant impact on his portfolio. As I sat and listed I couldn't help but thinking back to Benjamin Graham's classic quote that:

The investor's chief problem - and even his worst enemy - is likely to be himself.

My friend (who works in the asset management business) was contemplating going to cash because of:

  1. Worries about the Chinese economy and its stock market run up
  2. Grexit fears
  3. Brexit fears
  4. US first quarter GDP weakness
  5. Anemic wage growth in the United States
  6. A pullback in 10 year Treasury yields
  7. What the Fed is going to do with rates
  8. Severe underperformance in the transportation index vs. the overall market
  9. Crude oil price volatility
  10. Inconsistent growth in Europe
  11. A flat lining Japanese economy
  12. Unrest in the Middle East

I may have forgotten a few, but I admit to having tuned out in the face of an endless barrage of fear and worry. What he wanted to know was my read on these issues. What way did I expect them to move the market in the short to medium term? Well my answer was: who knows? At the end of the day not even the most esteemed and experienced economists in the world were able to predict the Great meltdown we had in 2008-2009 which took stocks down 50% in just a few months.

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This Woman's Story Can Make You A Better Entrepreneur

Pick up a book about Warren Buffett and it will most likely include a chapter or at least a passage on the significance of Rose Gorelick Blumkin. But who was Mrs. B? Was she the 99-year-old woman whom Buffett had to impose a noncompete agreement on when he purchased her business? Or was she the illiterate woman who was inducted into the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame alongside Buffett? Or was she the 4 foot 10 inch immigrant with the business story that Buffet described as “unparalleled”? Mrs. B was certainly all these things, but perhaps more importantly, her story sheds some light on three common qualities possessed by successful entrepreneurs.

1) Discontent

Entrepreneurship is closely related to invention, yet the road to invention is paved with discontent. Innovators and business visionaries experience their surroundings with an acute dissatisfaction with the status quo and a strong desire to improve things. Although not an “inventor” in the way we may understand it today, from a young age, Mrs. B refused complacency and dreamt of a better life.

Mrs. B. was born in 1893 in a small village near Minsk in czarist Russia. She and her seven brothers and sisters slept on straw in a single room home. From the age of 6 she helped her mother in a small grocery store. She also lived through constant persecution from the Cossacks against the Jews yet learnt from her mother that begging was undignified. Her parents couldn’t afford school and thus she never saw the inside of a classroom. Instead, at 13 she walked into a dry goods store and convinced the owner to hire her. By 16 she was running the store supervising five married men. Nevertheless, she remained unfulfilled and focused on her dream of escaping to America and succeeding in business. She married Isodore Blumkin in 1914 who soon after left to America and she was unable to accompany him. In 1917 when Europe was in crisis she took her chance and boarded the trans-Siberian railroad. At the Chinese frontier a Russian guard stopped her and she convinced him to let her pass by saying that she was buying leather for the army and upon her return she would give him a bottle of vodka. She made it through Manchuria to Japan and six weeks later landed in Seattle aboard a small transpacific boat.

Tip: Don’t get comfortable. Instead of accepting every aspect of your life as a given, question things and be curious as to whether there is another way.

2) Persistence

Although many entrepreneurs have an idea, dream or vision, most won’t have the persistence and toughness to push on in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Mrs. B had the strength of character that made her willing to fail.

In 1919, after having reconnected with her husband they settled in Omaha with her parents and siblings under the same roof. To support their meager existence Mrs. B sold furniture out of their basement and her husband ran a pawnshop on the main floor. In 1937, at the age of 44 Mrs. B managed to save $500 to rent a store front and dubbed it Nebraska Furniture Mart. Her motto was to “sell cheap and tell the truth.” Local brand name manufacturers considered her low prices bad for business and thus refused to supply her. Yet Mrs. B pushed on and traversed the nation buying large retailers’ excess merchandise for a hair above cost and bootlegged it back to Nebraska to sell in her store. Banks refused to extend credit and laughed at her in light of her illiteracy and lack of experience but this only fueled her fire and pushed her to work 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year without a day off. One carpet manufacturer went so far as to bring her to court alleging that her low prices violated fair trade laws. Yet these were simply speed bumps on her journey towards becoming the largest furniture store in the country.

Tip: Once you have your idea, dream or vision be relentless in its pursuit. All successful entrepreneurs have been able to overcome the odds so why can’t you?

3) Focus

Most successful entrepreneurs are able to recognize their strengths and use them to develop a mission. Once they embark on this mission their focus doesn’t waver. In Mrs. B’s case, Buffet described this phenomenon as “native genius” or the ability to stay focused on one’s area of expertise. We can’t be good at everything and those who are able to identify their strengths and focus on them stand the best chance of success.

One question Buffet always asked himself when evaluating a business is how comfortable he would feel having to compete against it, assuming that he had ample capital, personnel, experience in the same industry etc. When it came to Mrs. B’s business he felt that he would rather “wrestle with grizzlies” than compete. She was good at what she did and her business was strong because her formula was irresistibly simple and executed to perfection. She bought in volume, kept expenses at the minimum and passed on the savings, typically selling at only 10 percent above her costs. This strategy worked in the beginning and it stayed constant until the end.

Tip: Take the time to identify your strengths. Focus on them and don’t look back.

10 Non-Finance Books That Can Make You a Better Investor

Over the course of our investing lifetimes we will be bombarded with huge volumes of material, the majority of which won't be useful or even retained. In fact, despite all the sophisticated material available on security analysis, business, economics and finance etc. knowing it is no guarantee of success. Instead, when it comes to being a good investor I believe that the first and most important thing you have to know is yourself. These books may help you do that.

1) Hermann Hesse – Siddhartha

In this classic 1922 novel Hermann Hesse describes a man’s spiritual journey of self-discovery through ancient Nepal. In his quest to find enlightenment or Nirvana Siddhartha learns that a universal understanding of life cannot be achieved through teachers as it can’t be taught. Instead, by letting go of his external search he becomes more able to focus on his inner self and being at one with the universe. Beautifully written, the book suggests that to achieve our own version of fulfillment we should have faith in what we have within us rather than relying on the voices around us.

“Seeking nothing, emulating nothing, breathing gently, he moved in an atmosphere of imperishable calm, imperishable light, inviolable peace.”

2) Robin Sharma – The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari: A Fable About Fulfilling Your Dreams & Reaching Your Destiny

This inspirational book is structured around the stereotypical story of a high powered executive who has a heart attack which prompts him to re-evaluate his life, sell all his possessions and move to India in search of a more meaningful existence. Although this story is an unrealistic model for most of us, the author smartly provides 7 great virtues that the enlightened executive learns on his journey. These virtues include: 1) mastering your mind 2) following your purpose 3) practicing kaizen (continuous improvement) 4) living with discipline 5) respecting your time 6) selflessly serving others 7) embracing the present. Each of these virtues is well explained and with a little or in some cases a lot of effort, can be implemented in our own busy lives.

“Success on the outside means nothing unless you also have success within.”

3) Albert Camus – The Stranger

Often cited as an example of Albert Camus’s philosophy of the absurd and of existentialist ideas, this novel describes the before and after story of a French Algerian man who for no apparent reason commits murder. By following society’s attempt to rationalize and explain the killing which was simply an irrational event Camus tempts us to reconsider society’s tendency to think that individual lives, human existence and events always have a rational meaning and order. This is captured by the concept of the “absurd” which relates to humanity’s futile attempt to find rational order where none exists. Instead of depressing us, once we realize that some events simply have no rational meaning, we should instead be able to achieve a certain level of intellectual and spiritual liberation.

“Everything is true, and nothing is true!”

4) Robert Green – 48 Laws of Power

If realists had a book or worship, this would be it. Meticulously researched yet controversial, the book traces the lives of many of the world’s most powerful and influential individuals (with power being defined as “the ability to get people to do what you want them to do”) and suggests that their trajectories have been shaped by the observance of 48 universal laws. For example; Law 3: Conceal your intentions, Law 11: Learn to keep people dependent upon you, Law 35: Master the art of timing etc. Although this book attempts to lay waste to the old adage that good things happen to good people, it is worth reading for anyone interested in improving their strategic intuitions.

“Everyone has a weakness, a gap in the castle wall. That weakness is usually an insecurity, an uncontrollable emotion or need; it can be a small secret pleasure. Either way, once found, it is a thumbscrew you can turn to your advantage.”

5) Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow

In this thought-provoking book, Noble Peace Prize winner Daniel Kahneman takes on the still poorly understood topic of the human mind. He asks us to critically examine the way we think and suggests that our minds regularly contradict themselves, distort reality and mislead us. Essentially, our minds apply two very different systems of thought to any question at hand. The first is a simple and reactive system which reads emotion and handles automatic skills. The second is used when the mind must focus on specific details such as numbers and methodical thinking. Of particular interest is the author’s suggestion that our minds naturally seek causes in random events and push us to distort reality by realigning memories to correspond to new information. With this in mind, the economic theory that human action is guided by reason begins to fall apart yet the upside is that Kahneman offers us insight into how we can teach ourselves to effectively avoid such pitfalls and thus “think better”.

“We are confident when the story we tell ourselves comes easily to mind, with no competing scenario. But ease and coherence do not guarantee that a belief held with confidence is true.”

6) Aristotle - The Basic Works of Aristotle (Edited by Richard McKeon)

Although an exceptionally difficult book to get through as the prose is dense and often quite dry, this book is a must read for those intent on getting a taste of some of the ideas that continue to shape Western thought, religion and science. Aristotle’s ideas about “reversion to the mean” are quite useful as they explain that whenever we observe something abnormal or exceptional there will in time be a return to the norm unless conditions change. In fact, his body of knowledge is so impressive that if this great polymath were still alive today, it would not be preposterous to think that perhaps cancer would be cured, global warming was solved and we all could live in peace.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

7) Sun Tzu – The Art of War

Although written with armed combat in mind, this realist classic offers many lessons that are applicable to confrontations we face in our daily lives whether with superiors, inferiors, friends or enemies. Its teachings are also useful when a team must be effectively built in order to achieve a desired outcome. In addition, its constant emphasis on the theme of deception is quite relevant as keeping an enemy guessing and uneasy can pay large dividends in a wide variety of non-physical situations. The idea here is to win battles without ever actually having to pull your sword out of its sheath.

“All warfare is based on deception.”

8) Carl Von Clausewitz – On War

Unlike the more tactical account of war by Sun Tzu, Von Clausewitz book takes a more philosophical look at the subject and expands on the “strategic” aspects of war. Of note are his discussions on the nature of a “military genius” (involving certain key character traits beyond intelligence such as decisiveness and courage) and “friction” (the difference between the ideal performance of a fighting force and their actual performance in real world scenarios).

“It is even better to act quickly and err than to hesitate until the time of action is past.”

9) Bertrand Russell – Skeptical Essays

British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s life story alone is worth considering as his life has been dedicated to advancing knowledge and defending noble values such as pacifism and freedom of thought. In these essays his crystal clear writing suggests that we should cultivate a form of measured skepticism that implores us to revise even our most confirmed beliefs irrespective of the authority upon which they rest.

“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holders lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.”

10) Richard Feynman – “What do you care what other people think?”

To be a great investor, and maybe even a solid person, four simple but not easy virtues are integral: discipline, skepticism, independence and patience. In this book Nobel Prize Winning physicist Richard Feynman illustrates these virtues by describing his career and the position he often occupied outside the “established” way of thinking.

“It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed.”

Have you read any of these? What are your favourite non-finance books that have made an impact on you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or send me an inbox message.