My sophomore year at The University of Texas, I had a marketing class in the UTC, an annex to the business school, tucked right next to the Perry Castaneda Library, known on campus as the PCL. I remember walking to class past the huge PCL, with it’s high, modern, stark, angular walls that jut out at straight angles, some say, in the shape of our great state. On those cold, winter mornings, the concrete lines of the huge library would rise up and pierce the gray, overcast sky as if in defiance of the natural order of things.
Our professor was an older gentleman who had taken up teaching after a very successful entrepreneurial career. He was wise, and somehow my young immature self recognized this, so I regularly attended class and listened to what he had to say. One day, he began to draw squiggly lines on the overhead projector and said “This is your life and everything having to do with it: your career, your relationships, your energy level, faith, reputation, health, investment accounts…..all of it, and as you can see, there are no straight lines.”
Fast forward twenty years to my end of year planning and budgeting in 2007. I had just stacked up another stellar year on top of what felt like an unstoppable wave of growth, both in my business and my investment accounts. I had built several spreadsheets to track my growth and success in order to average out and project what the numbers could look like 5, 10, or 20 years into the future. The numbers were astonishing. Clearly, it all was going to go straight up, as my projections based upon real recent historical data demonstrated.
I don’t know what it is about human behavior, but we LOVE straight lines. We try to find straight lines in everything. We build buildings, furniture, and roads in straight lines. We line up, organize, and straighten just about everything in our lives, to create order and predictability.
But the natural world actually has very few straight lines. Take a walk in nature, and you will not see many straight lines; mainly curves, a lot of complexity, and very little predictability. Nature will surprise you, even shock you at times with beauty AND peril.
The two years following my 2007 planning session held a decent amount of surprise. The stock market took a turn for the worst. Over the next two years, I worked twice as hard and made half as much money, and my carefully constructed personal financial statement steadily diminished in value, straight down, it seemed.
But, “There are no straight lines.” I remembered my professor saying. So I kept my head down, and maintained the same discipline that had worked previously, as all I knew about investing and the financial markets indicated it would continue to work.
And it did, just not in the straight, predictable way I would have hoped for.
You read the news today, and it’s full of predictions. A recent downturn in the market will surely continue to plummet, some say.
I’m not going to fall for it. Nothing in life is a straight line. THANK GOODNESS! Just imagine how boring and predictable that would be. What would be the point? Besides, straight lines go both ways, so it’s nice to remind ourselves that things will always get better. We just never know how or when.
Solid, consistent financial habits and discipline, in good times and bad, is what we must practice in order to find success over the long run. There are no shortcuts. If we try to mitigate market risk too much, especially if we attempt it during highly volatile times in a reactionary manner, it just creates more risk, and diminishes our opportunities for recovery and growth.
The seasons always change, just as they did way back when…..
I remember now, as the semester went along my walks to class changed as winter became spring. I look up one day and all of a sudden the sharp protruding point of the PCL is a soft white against a beautiful deep blue spring sky. Cumulus clouds infinitely build above and beyond the angular library; their towering, billowing, ever-changing shapes dominate as if to re-define order and beauty in a way I can only admire and never create or control.