Built for action

We humans are doers. We want to move, to make, to accomplish, to act. We do not take kindly to sitting idly by. We do not enjoy being bored and most of us struggle to sit quietly alone. It is increasinly easy to distract ourselves, to push away the quiet. Unless I’m asleep I am within arm’s reach of my phone about 95% of the day. Why sit quietly when Twitter and Instagram await?!

Last year I read 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in my Head by Dan Harris (at the recommendation of this post by Shane Parrish at Farnam Street). It is a great reflection on the difficulty of our busy lives and our ability to focus and slow down. Harris, after having a panic attack on national television, explores a path towards meditation and trying to relieve his anxiety. In doing so, he finds that meditation is hard. It’s really hard. Sitting and trying to focus on a single thing (typically breathing) without being distracted by thoughts of work, family, hobbies, to-do lists, dentist appointments and everything else.

We are just not very good at doing nothing. This is especially true as investors. And we really don’t like it when are portfolios do nothing. We’re sitting in the doldrums right now. Returns everywhere are nowhere.  Here’s a quick rundown of 12-month returns through 9-15-15:

  • S&P 500: 1.77%
  • Russell 2000: 3.05%
  • Barclay’s Aggregate Bond: 2.32%
  • MSCI EAFE: -6.34%
  • MSCI Emerging Markets: -23.58%
  • US Real Estate: 1.89%

Other than Emerging Markets being pretty painful, those are some pretty unexciting numbers. A weighted average of those for a balanced investor is probably going to put you in the -3%ish range for twelve months. A little painful, but probably not panic-inducing for most.

And yet, it itches. You get your statement and look at the numbers and it just tickles your nerves a little bit. “Should I do something?” it asks. “What’s not working?” it wants to know. “Have I made a mistake?” “What should I do?” “How do I fix it?” They are quiet questions, but there they are, lingering in the back of our minds. We only get one chance at this investing thing, and we’re terrified that we’ll get it wrong. We’ll miss out on opportunities or hire the wrong advisor or buy at the wrong time or have to listen to our brother-in-law at Thanksgiving talk about how he nailed it AGAIN this year.

Hopefully we have the other voice too. The calm, rational one that reminds us that we have a plan. A pretty well thought out plan. A plan that involves boring years and periods where returns don’t meet our expectations. This voice should remind us that we knew about that going in. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier to remember that, but it ought to handcuff us. Even though we simply hate to do nothing, we should. We are not built for it. We are built for action! If it looks broken, fix it! The problem is that what “looks broken” to us is based on our desperate need for immediate gratification and split-second feedback about our decisions. But split-second feedback makes us absolutely terrible investors. In the moment, we can’t take the long view, so we need to listen to our past selves about why we made the plans we did and how we already know what to do in these situations. Generally: nothing.

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